Reconfiguring India's Nationalism, One Grand Statue at a Time

The current resurgence of statues and large monuments is closely linked with politics of caste, a post-liberalisation revival of religious patronage and the reconfiguration of the nation as an economic unit by the forces of neoliberal “free trade”.

On October 31, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Statue of Unity, a 597-foot (182-metre) statue of Sardar Patel at Sadhu Bet, a river island near the controversial Sardar Sarovar mega-dam. Twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, this will be the tallest statue in the world – that is, until it is eclipsed in a few years by a proposed 695 feet (212 metre) Shivaji statue off the coast of Mumbai. Currently, the tallest statue is the 420-ft Spring Temple Buddha in Henan, China, completed in 2008. Most of the world’s largest statues are in China, India, Japan and Taiwan.

If Lady Liberty, donated by France as a shared symbol of Enlightenment, soon became a symbol of the US as a centre of global power, these Asian nations can be seen as using the same idiom to claim their moment in the sun. But given that the international response – if any – to such assertions is mostly one of distaste and bemusement, perhaps the Indian monumental statues’ claims to globality are best understood as ultimately addressed inwards, mediating local politics at various scales.

While statues and large monuments are ancient and almost universal forms, their current resurgence in India links up with specific recent developments: the politics of caste, a post-liberalisation revival of religious patronage and the reconfiguration of the nation as an economic unit by the forces of neoliberal “free trade”.

Big Sardar, little sardar

The Statue of Unity is commonly seen as the BJP’s attempt to insert itself into the freedom movement and its legacy by appropriating Patel as a counterpoint to Nehru. However, Modi initiated the project in 2010 not as a national initiative but to celebrate a decade as chief minister of Gujarat (albeit with an eye on the Centre), so its initial impetus was more likely to find an alternative symbol to that other son of Gujarati soil, Gandhi.

Sardar Patel, the lauh purush or Iron Man, known as India’s Bismarck, provided a far more fitting genealogy for Modi’s muscular political style than the frail, skinny, peace-loving Gandhi. Indeed, Gujaratis hailing the project as putting the state on the global map were quick to label Modi “Chhote Sardar”. These competing masculinities accompany radically contrasting models of statecraft, for the project’s early publicity associated Patel with “good governance,” a term propagated by the IMF and the World Bank, vernacularised as suraaj: similar-sounding to Gandhi’s swaraj or self-rule but quite different in its orientation to a globalised economy. Part of the agenda of World Bank-style good governance is decentralisation or fiscal devolution, which accounts for the re-orientation of emphasis to subnational units such as cities and states – hence the increased importance of chief ministers and their initiatives to lure investment to their states.

Also read: Why the BJP Feels It Has to Appropriate Sardar Patel

It was not until 2014 that the project was scaled up to the national level. The BJP’s 2014 election campaign included a ‘Statue of Unity’ movement with a nationwide drive to collect iron farming implements to be melted down for use in the statue, a ‘Run for Unity’ marathon and a ‘Suraaj’ petition for people to offer ideas for “good governance.” These efforts were not as successful as was hoped. Several states barely contributed to the drive for tools, and the iron collected was too low-grade for the statue and was therefore used “elsewhere in the project.” Nevertheless, the campaign – and Modi’s electoral success – resignified the statue as a nationalist initiative that would put India, not just Gujarat, on the global map, and justified its use of central funds.

The Statue of Unity is commonly seen as the BJP’s attempt to insert itself into the freedom movement and its legacy by appropriating Patel as a counterpoint to Nehru. Credit: PTI

As the inauguration approaches, doubtless the critiques that have dogged this project since 2014 will intensify. Rahul Gandhi recently castigated the statue as “made in China,” for the bronze plates cladding the statue were manufactured not in one of India’s 4,600 foundries employing half a million people, but by China’s Jiangxi Tongqing Metal Handicrafts – several hundred Chinese workers are currently on site. The media had already pounced on the contradiction between this and Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign, just as they did on the revelation that Indian public sector oil companies were being directed to channel their mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility funds to the statue.

Ironically, this was justified on the grounds that it would bring development to a “tribal” area – even though the Sardar Sarovar dam had displaced at least 25,000 Adivasi families and issues with their resettlement led the World Bank to pull its funding from that project. Adding insult to injury, a “tribal museum” is to be included in the statue complex, literally cementing actual Adivasi people’s alienation from the land and obviating their continued existence in the present. But the most common complaint against the statue is that its nearly Rs 3,000 crores ($430 million) worth of funding could be used to help those in need more directly.

Also read: Narendra Modi’s ‘Gift’ to the Nation Is Set to Submerge Lakhs of People

Statue wars

Of course, this is not the only monument building project to be criticised on these grounds. The sculptor of the Sardar Patel statue, Ram Sutar, was also responsible for the statues in Mayawati’s massive “Dalit Memorial” programme in her stints as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh between 1995 and 2012. Unlike the Statue of Unity, however, this came under vociferous attack from the Right and Left alike. Despite the notoriety of those projects, indeed, likely because that notoriety contributed to their effectiveness, statues became a major political tool in the 2000s as prominent ministers seized on this form to curry favour with their vote banks.

These “statue wars” intensified in the run-up to the 2014 elections, where the Statue of Unity was by no means the only game in town, even if it was the biggest. UPA cabinet minister Kamal Nath inaugurated a 101 ft. Hanuman in his constituency of Chhindwara (MP); Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party chief minister of UP, laid the foundation stone for a 200 ft. Maitreya in Kushinagar; late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa announced a “mega statue” of Tamil Thai (Mother Tamil); the Maharashtra government revived plans for its (then) 300 ft. Shivaji. Other monumental statues built in the meantime with the direct or indirect patronage of politicians had attracted little media attention beyond their immediate sphere of influence: Karunanidhi’s 133 ft. Thiruvalluvar at Kanyakumari (2000); Gujarat BJP MLA Yogesh Patel’s 111 ft. Shiva in Vadodara (2002); long-serving Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling’s 135 ft. Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche (2004) and a 108 ft. Shiva (2011) on hilltops overlooking his constituency, Namchi; the 108 and 111 ft. Basaveshwara statues (2012 and 2015) inaugurated by B.S. Yeddyurappa in Karnataka.

It is no coincidence that this resurgence of public statues in the vocabulary of politics can be traced in part to Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party with its primarily Dalit constituency, initially emerging not as mega-monuments but as a proliferation of many far smaller Ambedkar and Buddha statues in designated “Ambedkar villages.” These modest statues, quite disproportionate to the often physically violent reactions they still provoke, cast a different light on the critiques of the money wasted on “merely symbolic” projects as opposed to more materially useful types of development.

The resurgence of public statues in the vocabulary of politics can be traced in part to Mayawati and the BSP. Credit: PTI

For what such critiques fail to take into account is the value and importance of social recognition in a society where caste-based discrimination still impedes the translation of economic prosperity into social mobility. Why was it, after all, that the caste Hindu dominated mainstream media across the political spectrum were united in their opposition to Mayawati’s “Dalit monuments” – historically the only ones of their kind – even though the multitude of other monuments and memorials to figures like Gandhi has taken up far greater resources and real estate? For many in Mayawati’s constituency, her monuments have been a valuable legacy of her regime: Ram Kumar of the Dalit Action Group called them “part of the battle to re-establish Dalit history,” going on to write that they “serve to inspire those who have been depressed for centuries. They give birth to self-respect and remind people of their glorious history which has all but been wiped out over the ages.”

Religious roots

Mayawati’s monuments likely emboldened other politicians to adopt this form, albeit with less justification. However, from the early 1990s, monumental icons were already being used to shore up social and economic status through religious patronage, much like building or donating to temples but with the added value of demonstrating novelty and technological prowess in the post-liberalisation economy.

Perhaps the most influential players here have been the Birlas, who in 1994 supplemented their ongoing temple building programme with a 60 ft. standing Shiva in a park across from Delhi’s airport. Made in cement using the same methods of RCC construction as concrete buildings, this deity has spawned at least eight imitations, including one at T-series founder Gulshan Kumar’s studio in Noida (1998); Kumar also built a 65 ft. seated Shiva at Dwarka (2000). Both statues were part of the way his public religiosity aided his rise from a roadside fruit juice vendor to a major player in the Bombay film industry.

Other such icons built by businesspeople include Ravi Melwani’s controversial 65 ft. seated Shiva behind his erstwhile Kemp Fort department store in Bengaluru (1995), widely seen as a land grab. A similar 123 ft. Shiva was built in 2002 by construction baron R.N. Shetty next to a temple he renovated at his tiny hometown of Murudeshwar in Karnataka: again, religious patronage that could be leveraged to consolidate social status and business networks. It was these kinds of patrons who pioneered the resurgence of the monumental statue form, along with neo-spiritual organisations including (to name just a few) the Chinmaya Mission (from a 25 ft. Hanuman at Sidhbari, 1980 to a 75 ft. Ganesh near Kolhapur, 2002), Sathya Sai International (70 ft. Hanuman, Puttaparthi, 1990), the Avadhoota Datta Peetham (Hanumans in Trinidad, 85 ft., 2003 and Mysore, 70 ft., 2012), or the Isha Foundation whose 112 ft. steel bust of Shiva at Coimbatore was inaugurated by Modi in 2017.

Also read: BJP’s Icons Reflect How It Imagines India’s History

Political patronage of both secular and religious statues ties back into this vocabulary of status-building through religious donation, even though politicians often distance themselves from the religious icons by emphasising their potential for tourism, as with Pawan Chamling’s “Char Dham pilgrimage-cum-cultural complex” with its scaled-up Shiva and scaled-down versions of the Char Dham temples. Announcing the Statue of Unity in 2010, in his blog Modi called it a “gift, one more from Gujarat to the nation and world on this joyous occasion.” Here his self-presentation as a gift giver on behalf of Gujarat mimics the way that religious patrons often accrue merit and status by making donations in the names of their children or parents.

Swaraj or suraaj?

In this sense, the Statue of Unity is old wine in a new bottle. But what kind of new bottle is this is? The international multi-firm consortium that won the bid to build the statue (following a full-page ad in the Economist in June 2011 inviting expressions of interest) includes US-based Turner Construction Company, which built the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The project’s architect is the quintessential postmodernist Michael Graves, designer of the 1985 Team Disney Building in Burbank, CA with its famous fascia featuring the Seven Dwarfs; its engineering consultant is the Meinhardt Group, whose projects include the proposed “Aladdin City,” Dubai, with three towers designed to look like magic lamps.

The Disneyfication here is not just metaphoric, as Sardar Patel becomes the subject of a “good governance” theme park, but also quite literal. Here Patel is being appropriated as the icon of a new brand of nationalism – mediated via the global – that he might have never imagined. But such appropriations are never total or set in stone (or concrete): from 2015 the Patidar or Patel community has claimed Sardar Patel as their icon in their agitation for reserved status as an “Other Backward Class.” If Modi seeks to claim Patel as a national figure who also represents his core Gujarati constituency, the Patidar protests have now hijacked him as a representative of their caste.

In all these ways, the Statue of Unity stands as a fitting exemplar of the attempt to reconfigure Indian nationalism, as swaraj is made over by suraaj and its uneasy détente between local populisms and the neoliberal protocols and discourses of globalised “free trade.” Here, as with the jingoism around Brexit, or with Trump, his wall and the chimera of a return to the greatness of industrial America, a populist rhetoric based on national economic pride returns in increasingly hollow, paradoxical and unsustainable yet spectacular forms. For it is the tenuous status of economic sovereignty that necessitates such muscular, monumental declarations of identity and unity at various scales of the state, alongside spectacles of violence against “anti-nationals.”

The Statue of Unity encapsulates these structural tensions at the heart of national-yet-global regimes: in its multi-scalar symbolism, in its production, and in its unpredictable uptake in the political field. No amount of global engineering expertise can compensate for these stresses and torsions in its foundations.

Kajri Jain is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Toronto. Her book on monumental statues in post-liberalisation India, Gods in the Time of Democracy, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.