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Every time I feel small-minded about my own insignificance in history, I turn to Jonathan Swift’s Battle of Books.
Therein, you may recall, modern writers vent their spleen at the ancients for having “unduly” occupied the heights of Parnassus, leaving them the lowly ridges.
The ancients of course make the simple argument that they have earned their places through deep thinking and hard work, and that it were best for the moderns to do the same; rather than seek parity by cutting Parnassus down to match the height of their own hillock, they had best work harder to rise to deserve the pinnacles where the ancients rest.
I have always thought this just the right talisman for those who are in a hurry to approximate the greatness of others without quite earning it. And, worse, using what clout they have to erase that which rebukes their own craven and insecure hubris.
In our time
How much better it would have been if the hymn that Bapu so adored, as do millions of all faiths across the world adore, had been rather propagated more widely to enjoin respect for all faiths, if not for the Mahatma, rather than evicted from the time-honoured melodies of Beating the Retreat.
After all, it is hardly to be thought that erasing the hymn would ever succeed in either belittling the so exalted and moving prayer or relegating Bapu from public memory.
As Shakespeare understood so well, often that which we seek to erase we perpetuate even more (the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth being one case in point).
Here then was an opportunity lost to acquire a stake in the universal Gandhian legacy, and be counted among the ancients.
Nor may the snuffing out of the Amar Jawan Jyoti succeed in the least to eject from collective memory and as classical legend the scale and significance of the military victory of 1971, or enable a forgetting which might help to foreground the “surgical strike” as a greater event.
So, whom Atal Bihari Vajpayee had christened Durga ought to have been left to occupy that pride of place, rather than be amalgamated into a canny rearrangement with a modern flame dearer to the ruling heart.
The fact is any old honest Casper will continue to sing of that liberating battle, “It was a great victory” – the official forgetting notwithstanding.
If the statues could speak
It is said that Netaji has been made to languish and needed to be rehabilitated. Never mind the hundreds of parks, buildings, institutions, neighbourhoods etc. that bear his honoured name, the politically clouded coordinates notwithstanding. And never mind also that the much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru donned advocates’ garbs after decades to appear in defence of the Indian National Army.
And, it was thought that the best way to centrestage Netaji was to, you guessed it, make of him first a holograph and then a statue, rather than read what he had written, or live the values he had pursued. That would hardly serve the purpose of using his memory merely to spite an ancient.
Now imagine that Netaji could speak. What do you think he might have said to the rulers of the day? Rather the following:
“I would much rather that you had not stood me in the unholy place where stood our enslaver – a place where I learn the Congress had refused to install even the Mahatma.
“But, more to the point, why install me? What have you in common with me? What in me do you admire – that I took up arms against the British with whom your people maintained a friendly equation?
“I christened Gandhi ‘father of the nation’; people of your persuasion finished him off. Indeed, one of them who venerates his assassin sits in parliament as one of your elected party members.
“I adored Nehru, and made him chairperson of my Planning Committee when I was Congress president in 1938; you revile him and his legacy, and you dissolved the Planning Commission that he had established to carry forward the idea of planned, equitable economic growth.
“I admired the Bolshevik Revolution and its ideals and I remained a socialist/leftist all my life, leaving behind my Forward Bloc which continues to align with the communists to this day.
“All that is anathema to you, who believe in palming off the commanding heights of national wealth to crony capitalists. Indeed, a little bird tells me that a recent “mood of the nation” survey has shown that 48% Indians believe you make economic policy only for the rich (India Today).
“I named my army units in the INA as “Gandhi Brigade”, “Nehru Brigade”, “Azad Brigade” etc. and had three Urdu words for its motto; yet you think Gandhi, Nehru, Azad were my antagonists, and that I was a Hindi nationalist at heart.
“When I invoked heroes at parade time, chief among them was Tipu Sultan. Your people in Karnataka can hardly bear to have him mentioned.
“I wrote that all Savarkar seemed interested in was to enlist Indians in the British army so they would acquire military knowhow; I despised sectarian thinking and called for “secular and scientific education”; you seem to want to say to the people that Nehru alone was a secularist who damaged your idea of India.
“My INA recruited volunteers from all communities, and some of my foremost generals were Muslims; you refuse to give even a single ticket to a Muslim to stand for your party in elections. I see that the reviled Owaisi has done better – having already given party tickets to four Hindus in Uttar Pradesh.
“And so on and so on.
“So what do we have in common that you should so exercise your mind on my behalf?
“As the ancients said to the moderns in the Battle of Books, how much better it would have been if you had imbibed and propagated some of my ideas and practices, rather than make a political point with my statue on false premises.
“And, should you answer that in honouring me thus, you demonstrate the catholicity of your democratic vision that seeks to laud even those who were unlike you, then I suggest the person you should first honour is Jawaharlal Nehru, the true yug purush after Gandhi, who gave you so much to boast of as if your own.”
And if the Statue of Unity could speak, what might the great Sardar have said?
Somewhat along these lines:
“May I first suggest that you search your heart, leave aside your slogans, and ask yourself: are you a uniter as you say I was, or are you a divider? Does your refusal to wear a Muslim skull cap unite Indians or divide them? Do your metaphors of shamshan/kabristan unite Indians or divide them? Does your refusal to speak one word of condemnation against those who called for genocide of Muslims in a ‘Dharma Sansad’ at Haridwar, and abused Gandhi in vilest terms in Raipur, unite Indians or divide them?
“You propagate that Nehru somehow always pushed me back in the pecking order, that there was no meeting ground between his and my positions on matters of fatal importance.
“Well, not the case; I was someone who concurred with the Partition plan as much as he did; I was as inclined to part with Jammu and Kashmir as many others at the time, if Liaquat would stop harping on Junagarh and Hyderabad; it was Nehru who was adamant on not letting Kashmir go. Remarkably, whereas the Hindu Maharaja of that province wished to maintain an independent status, it was the Muslim, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who came to Nehru’s understanding in the matter and rejected Jinnah’s theocratic idea.
“I had not the least sympathy for the sectarian politics of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, and I said openly in my letters that Gandhi’s assassination had resulted from and been made possible by the atmosphere then created by workers of the RSS who openly distributed sweets after Bapu’s murder.
“I was the one who banned the RSS, and lifted that ban only after that revanchist organisation committed in writing to honour the tricolour and formulate a constitution to which they would be held accountable – a reconsideration that followed umpteen abject pleas made by the RSS to be given a chance to rectify their mistakes.
“While Nehru was abroad in America, it was I along with Gopalaswamy Iyengar who drafted the text of Article 370; I wrote to Nehru on November 3, 1949 about how I had “prevailed’ in getting assent for ‘special status’ for Jammu and Kashmir state despite strong opposition both in the Congress and in the Constituent Assembly; and yet you rob me of that achievement by propagating that I was opposed to Article 370 which would never have been passed, according to you, if I had been prime minister. Wrong on all counts, and mischievously so.
“You never tire of propagating how I was wise to Chinese shenanigans while Nehru was not; well, maybe. But, look at you now: you only make noises of valour while they keep intruding into our lakes and borders in visible strength.
“Indeed, you seem far more reluctant even to name China than Jawaharlal ever was.
“He admitted his misread of China; you do not tell us why you never mention them while being always strident about Pakistan. Clearly, the colour of the cat matters more to you than the sharpness of its teeth.
“In short, rather than spending that exorbitantly unconscionable sum of money on building my statue, had you not better properly assess my life and role and try to emulate my work? Namely, truly to strive for unity among all Indians, come down hard on communal organisations and politics, understand the circumstances in which Kashmir, the then only Muslim-majority state, made the historically bold and enlightened decision to accede to India, and thus to restore what you have taken away from them – the constitutional promise and written covenant of federated and negotiated democracy?”
If only statues could speak.
For more truth may come from them than is now on offer from the living icons of “new India”.
Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.