Orwell memorial not offensive to Gandhi

The controversy in Bihar over setting up memorials for Gandhi and George Orwell is unwarranted and reflects poorly on the sense of propriety and good sense of those involved in it. Both men are associated with Champaran district in the state in different ways.

Gandhi launched his satyagraha movement from the district in 1917 in the cause of the impoverished indigo farmers there, which makes an important chapter in the country’s freedom movement. He came to be called Bapu and the Mahatma there. George Orwell, well-known writer of the last century, was born in Motihari, the headquarters of the district, as the son of a British officer who worked in the Indian civil service. He had his early childhood in Motihari and neighbouring Munger, but later went to England where he established himself as one of the strongest voices against fascism and authoritarianism with his works like Animal Farm and 1984 and numerous essays. 

A proposal to renovate the house where Orwell was born and develop it as a park in his memory has now been stymied by objections of those who want the same area to be converted into a national park in memory of Gandhi. The house is now a protected monument under the Ancient Monuments Act. The work on the satyagraha park has also been stopped because it might encroach into the land meant to be developed as the Orwell memorial. This is a dispute without substance because the government can allot land for the satyagraha park without taking land away from the proposed Orwell memorial. The argument that Orwell was an Englishman and so, does not deserve a memorial is wrong. There is no need to belittle Orwell to show our respect to Gandhi.

India has a composite heritage in which there are Mughal, British and many other elements. The fact that Orwell was an Englishman does not diminish the historical importance of the place where he was born. In fact, his writing underlined the importance of universal human values which Gandhi upheld and practised in his life.

Memory is not a zero sum game in which respect for one historical figure should be at the expense of another. In fact we have a poor record of preserving and maintaining monuments and historical sites. Thousands of them have been lost or vandalised. There is no need to choose between Gandhi and Orwell in collective memory. A memorial park for Orwell is no offence to Gandhi whose place in history is secure. Orwell himself had high regard for Gandhi. He wrote about manipulation and erasure of the past by future, and ironically it is coming true in the controversy over his birth place.

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