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In the early morning of August 13, 1965, some dozen members of the newly formed ‘Samyukta Socialist Party’, a breakaway group from the ‘Praja Socialist Party’ of India, crept through the deserted avenues of New Delhi carrying hammers, chisels, ladders and buckets of tar, towards the towering white marble statue of King George V under a cupola, 150 metres away on the eastern side of the India Gate.
The Gate was built by the British as a memorial to 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who died abroad in the Great War (WW1) and in the Afghan ‘War of Independence’. The India Gate complex was part of the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission which came into existence in December 1917.
The Socialists scaled the statue of the king, hacked off a part of the nose, ear and crown, and poured tar over the sculpture. They ended their campaign by hanging a portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. In the process, there was a brief scuffle with two policemen on duty. It took three years for the King’s statue to be removed.
This was not the first time that the statue of the King Emperor was vandalised. On the night of January 3, 1943, amidst the Quit India movement, some Indian National Congress leaders scaled the statue, smashed its nose and draped it with a large black cloth inscribed ‘Death to the tyrant’.
Fifty-seven years on, the mission of the Socialists appears to be succeeding. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that a granite statue of Netaji would be placed under the imposing sandstone cupola designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
This is the second time a Netaji statue is being placed in the Capital on a pedestal built for a British ruler.
Earlier, in 1975, a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose was installed at Edward Park (now called Netaji Park) near the Jama Masjid and Red Fort, on an abandoned pedestal where once stood an imposing equestrian statue of King Edward VII. This means Netaji now replaces two British monarchs from their places in the national capital. One wonders why Netaji could not be given a pedestal specifically designed for his statue on a piece of land in New Delhi as a symbol of India’s “indebtedness” to him. Why such misery of space just for him?
Following the action of the Samyukta Socialist Party, the government mooted, in February 1966, the idea of installing a Gandhi statue under the canopy near India Gate in place of the King George V statue. The distinguished sculptor, Ram Sutar, began work on the statue. His design was approved by the government in 1979. But that government collapsed. The project went to the back burner.
On November 23, 1981, the government informed parliament that “Various aspects such as the site, shape and size of the statue have been under consideration of the Government. A final decision on the matter is expected to be reached soon.” But in reality nothing moved. Sutar was still working on the statue. He was given no target date of completion. Controversy erupted every time a location was suggested for installing the Gandhi statue.
Eleven years later, a meeting of the Union cabinet held in July 1992 passed a proposal to install the statue at India Gate, “leaving the exact location to be decided by the Minister of Urban Development in consultation with others”. In 1994, the Cabinet decided to develop the area around India Gate as ‘August Kranti Udyan’ and install the Mahatma Gandhi statue somewhere in it. They also said that there were many alternative proposals for the exact spot of the statue. Finally, in 1995, a Group of Ministers, on directions of the Union cabinet, reconsidered the matter and recommended that the statue be installed under the canopy.
There were protests from historians, town planners and architects that the India Gate precinct is a part of the original layout of Rajpath and should not be tampered with. They felt the canopy should remain empty as a “symbol of the end of the Raj” and that it was not appropriate to install any single leader’s statue. Conversely, a proposal to demolish the canopy did not find favour with the planners either.
In response to a writ petition, the Delhi high court passed an interim order in July 1995 “restraining the government from altering/removing/ demolishing the canopy at India Gate complex”.
An RTI filed before the Central Public Works Department in 2008 led to the CPWD denying that the Mahatma’s statue was to be installed in the empty canopy.
The Ministry of Urban Development, in reply to a question in parliament in 2009, clarified that there was a decade-old plan in the ministry to install a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at India Gate. The plan, however, had been put in cold storage following a writ petition on the matter (though the high court had disposed of the matter in March 2005). The minister added that the matter has not been taken up since 2005 – “there is no immediate demand or proposal to install a Gandhi statue at the India Gate”, he said. The status quo was maintained since then.
Following a controversy over the rejection of a West Bengal tableau on Netaji for the 73rd Republic Day parade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden announcement on installing a Netaji statue at the earlier disputed and presently abandoned canopy near India Gate was seen by many as a politically diversionary tactic.
Many find that the posture of the salute – as seen in images circulated by the government – is not correct and not befitting the supreme commander as seen in photos of Netaji taking a salute in Singapore, Tokyo or even earlier in Germany.
The statue’s location under the canopy also begs the question: from whom is he taking the salute? He is facing India Gate, a war memorial for Indian soldiers killed in World War I, but the Amar Jawan Jyoti has been moved away to a location that will be behind him, at the National War Memorial. Rashtrapati Bhavan, too, is more than 3 km away, so the Netaji statue cannot be connected to it either. To avoid these controversies, many feel any change at this heritage precinct should have been done only after due deliberations and proper public consultations, including with experts.
Speaking personally, Netaji in that posture, saluting, standing on a pedestal under a cupola, draws a strong resemblance with a traffic policeman standing on a covered kiosk at a road intersection. My strong dislike is the roof over Netaji’s head. His stature and height are immense. He should not look caged within four pillars and a roof above.
Netaji is a key personality in the Indian freedom struggle and the location of his statue should have been decided after considering various aspects and with due care. Some have argued that it does not behove giving him the space earlier occupied by a British ruler, that too which was a memorial built after the king’s death. In other words, that such a location is not suitable for a great hero. No wonder Delhites did not allow Gandhi’s statue to come up at that site either. But surprisingly this time, the people are silent. The opinion of the Delhi Urban Art Commission appears to be under control. Perhaps, Vijay Chowk could have been a better location.
Modi is heard talking about transparency in government functioning. Had that been put into practice here, these dissonant concerns could have been avoided.
Sumeru Roy Chaudhury is an architecture graduate from IIT, Kharagpur. He was the chief architect of the CPWD. He has studied the Netaji files and related documents in detail.