Why are people divided on Patel’s 'Statue of Unity'?

Labourers work at the under construction site of the "Statue of Unity" portraying Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the founding fathers of India, during a media tour in Kavadia, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, India, October 18, 2018. REUTERS

Not everyone knows that some influential Parisians publicly opposed the construction of the Eiffel Tower. One of them was the famous French writer Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant. 

Maupassant was so against the “useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower” that he would often eat lunch in the restaurant at its base, not because he particularly enjoyed the food, but because that was the only place he could avoid seeing the tower. 

Like Maupassant, there are many Indians who may want to do the same after the gargantuan statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the biggest in the world, is inaugurated two days from now on his 143rd birth anniversary. 

But unlike Maupassant, their voices will be drowned out under the cacophony of praise being heaped upon — the Statue of Unity — the architectural and engineering marvel of our times. 

Hollowed, ephemeral glory?

Standing at a height of 182 metres or 597 feet (twice the size of the Statue of Liberty), the mammoth statue of India’s Bismarck aka ‘Iron Man’, located in Kevadia, near the Narmada riverbed in Gujarat has now become the world’s biggest statue after stripping the title from the Spring Temple Buddha, a 128-metre statue (excluding the pedestal) located in Henan, China, which was completed in 2008. 


Labourers work at the under construction site of the "Statue of Unity" portraying Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the founding fathers of India,
during a media tour in Kavadia, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, India, October 18, 2018. REUTERS

But not for long

Soon, it will be eclipsed by another supermassive project underway in Maharashtra. The statue of the 17th-century Hindu warrior king Shivaji off the coast of Mumbai is estimated to be about 212 metres or 695 feet, beating the Gujarat statue by a mere 8 metres.



Both the majestic statues, naturally come at astronomical costs. While Patel’s statue was built using over Rs 2,300 crore (nearly half a billion dollars), the last estimated cost for the Shivaji statue has pegged its value to be Rs 3,600 crore.  

via GIPHY

News reports have already questioned what the opportunity cost of these projects can do for the people of these states.

So why are they being built? 

The sculptor of the statues, Ram Sutar, who has similarly helped build statues for Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati in her home state of UP, had this to say about the counterarguments against the cost of the project: 

“If people had worried about how much the Taj Mahal would cost, it would never have been built.”

But ignoring his historical conjecture for a minute, the statues are most certainly being built with expected political dividends to reap come election year.  

At the centre of it is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) quest to appropriate the historical and political legacy of the two Hindu icons, Sardar Patel and Shivaji, whose statues they are constructing. 

The former, ironically, belonged to their rivals — Congress — and was responsible for banning the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for the first time in February 1948 to July 1949, after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder. Although Patel removed the ban (they would face two more bans), he introduced a rule that forbade the RSS’s participation in politics. 

In a letter on July 18, 1948, Patel wrote to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee (founder of the Jan Sangh):
“… as [a] result of the activities of these two bodies [the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha], particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State.”

The rule would be circumvented time and again and although the RSS has always insisted that it is a cultural organisation and not a political body, many widely believe that the RSS is the BJP’s puppet master and holds sway over the party in terms of appointment of senior leadership and ideological guidance. 

But the BJP sensed an opportunity in appropriating the legacy of the Sardar as historians have hinted at the deputy’s differences with his senior, India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. And the BJP,  traditionally being anti-Nehru, filled the vacuum after realising that Patel’s contributions were largely repudiated by the Congress.

Further, commentators have also observed that the optics may curry favour with an influential community, the Patels, whose agitation during the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections cost the BJP.  

Similarly, pragmatic consideration prevails in Maharashtra as well, as it is believed that the construction of the massive Shivaji monument would be an attempt to win over the support of the state’s dominant Marathi-speaking community.   

Who is opposed to the project and why?

It is now being reported that as many as 75,000 tribals who have been adversely affected by the project plan to demonstrate against it on the day of its inauguration. 

Today, it was also reported that after witnessing tribals deface, tear, blacken and vandalise the posters depicting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's 'Statue of Unity', the government has replaced the posters with the image of a revered tribal leader — Birsa Munda — but found that posters were found defaced nonetheless, except for Birsa’s image, which was left intact.

Nearly two dozen village leaders from areas around the statue have also written an open letter to Modi, asking him to skip the ceremony, saying that he won’t be welcomed. 

“When we are still struggling to avail basic infrastructural facilities for schools, hospitals and drinking water, you decide to spend crores of rupees for the construction of a statue and now again for the inaugural event. With a heavy heart, all of us villagers are telling you that we won’t welcome you on our land in our district,” the letter to PM Modi read.

As the inauguration nears,  Rahul Gandhi also took a jibe at Modi, saying that the statue was made in China, after news reports revealed that part of the building process was outsourced to China. 

But this is not new. Opposition against the statue has been coming from various quarters for some time. 

A 27-year-old non-tribal farmer and a resident of Sakawa named Vishven Soneji who was affected by the statue told Frontline, helplessly in 2013: 

“We are all farmers here. If they declare our land 'Non Agricultural' then what option do we have but to sell? It would be pointless to hold on to the land—what can we do with it if we are barred from tilling it. We will be forced to sell. And here, as you have noticed, most of the houses are located in the fields themselves. Obviously, we will have to sell our houses, too, and move out.” 

Rohit Prajapati, an environmental activist, lamented at the government’s attempt at bypassing environmental clearances and said in 2015: "The construction of the Statue of Unity Project is bound to result in damage to the river, riverbed, its biodiversity, people living downstream and their livelihoods." 

Another activist, Trupti Shah, who passed away in May 2016, had mounted a legal challenge against the project. 

Similarly, an online petition against the statue says: “This is not what Shivaji would have wanted and I am sure we can find other ways to honour him.”

In an open letter published in the Indian Express newspaper in Dec 2016, Ujjal Dosanjh, a Canadian politician of Indian origin, wrote:

“Dear Prime Minister: You are once again thrusting India into the dangerous politics of statues; the politics of pandering to regional and other identities; the politics of turning real heroes into the lifeless steel and stone kind — for any pigeons to freely relieve themselves on; the heinous politics of clever, but criminal distraction from the life and death issues of poverty, corruption, injustice and inequality in India.”

 

At this point, little short of adapting Maupassant’s strategy, there isn’t much recourse against the statues.

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Why are people divided on Patel’s 'Statue of Unity'?

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