From Tripura to Tamil Nadu, statues are in danger of being smashed down by self-appointed custodians of culture, citizenship and nationalism.
“At this place on 29.07.1944,
slippers and snakes were hurled at Periyar.
Today, a statue has been installed with love and respect,
at this very place.”
(Sign beneath a statue of Periyar installed by Tamil Nadu’s then DMK government on 18 July 1972)
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now become such an expert in manufacturing governments out of thin air, thereby extending its tally to 21 states, that it has forgotten how to govern.
It is trite that good governance requires policies and statutes; not the “politics of statues”.
In the last 24 hours, we have witnessed jubilant karyakartas and their affiliates razing a statue of Lenin in Tripura, and the BJP’s national secretary, H Raja, ill-advisedly claiming in a Facebook post that statues of Periyar face the same fate. Raja has since deleted the post, but not before he gave us a glimpse of the kind of politics to come.
The BJP is now a well-oiled public relations machinery, which is why such incidents betray a palpable nervousness about the 2019 elections.
In recent times, we have seen Ayodhya come back to the front and centre of our courtrooms and newsrooms. We may see more dog-whistle politics, communally charged debates, and a general setting-in of fear psychosis as we move closer to the poll season.
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The jubilant statue-demolition in Tripura was portrayed by the BJP as our very own ‘Firdos Square moment’ – a repeat of the iconic day in Baghdad when American soldiers toppled the Saddam Hussein statue in 2003. We have been told that the two moments – Baghdad and Belonia – signify the ends of brutal and oppressive regimes. Of course, the Americans used an ‘M88’ armoured combat vehicle, whereas we are expected to believe that an impromptu group of happy-go-lucky Tripura voters happened to take a victory lap along with an industrial-quality backhoe loader.
From Tripura to Tamil Nadu, statues are in danger of being smashed by self-appointed custodians of culture, citizenship and nationalism. It would be remiss to miss the pattern here. BJP member Subramanian Swamy has justified the vandalism by saying that Lenin was a foreign leader.
Similar arguments have been advanced with regard to the Babri Masjid and other structures constructed by Mughal rulers, or institutions set up by Christian missionaries. Nor are these tactics unique. History is replete with instances of hegemonic forces destroying symbols of culture and vandalising civilisations to further a broader agenda of cultural oppression.
It is indisputable that Periyar is revered by almost all the political outfits in Tamil Nadu. During the 1996-2001 DMK tenure, the government set up 146 ‘Periyar samathuvapurams (egalitarian communities)’, where government-built houses were given to beneficiaries from different castes and religions to live together in harmony. During 2006-2011, another 95 samathuvapurams were constructed by the DMK government. Each samathuvapuram has a statue of Periyar at its gateway.
There have been reports that vandals damaged a Periyar statue in Vellore district late Tuesday evening. They were able to chip off the paint and crack some of the cement. But the idea of Periyar has not been dented one bit. The legacy of Periyarist thinking in the fields of anti-casteism, feminism, religious reform, rationalism and self-respect have been imbibed by at least five generations of Tamils. Leaders of the BJP may believe naively that once idols are razed, ideologies will be erased from people’s minds. But then, they would not have read what Periyar himself had to say about the purpose of his statues:
If you ask a person “whose statue this is”,
He may reply “This is the statue of Periyar”.
If you ask him, “Who is Periyar?”
He may reply “Don’t you know Periyar?
He is the one who proclaimed that there is no god.
Our ideologies will spread in this fashion.
This statue is an opportunity for that.
Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is an advocate & spokesperson for the DMK.
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