Statues travel. Sometime thousands of miles. With the rise and fall of powers.
On December 8, 1969, John Alec Biggs-Davison, a Conservative member of the UK parliament, asked during a session of the House whether the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs was aware that Lord Curzon’s last statue was being removed from Kolkata and if the government received any request for bringing it to UK and install at a suitable site.
Evan Lurard, the parliamentary undersecretary of the department in the Labour Party government, said that they were aware, and received inquiries but “no direct request for help in arranging for its return.”
Arthur Lewis, labour MP, added to this conversation, saying, “Is my hon. friend aware that, as we would like the government to cut wasteful expenditure, without decrying Lord Curzon, many of us would not like money to be spent on bringing the statue back here?”
Lurard, evidently unwilling to trigger a controversy, declined to comment.
By that time, the UK had already brought back a number of marble and bronze statues of colonial officers from India to save them from possible dishonour in the newly Independent country.
The statue they were discussing was of George Nathaniel Curzon, who served as the Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905 and is a hated name in West Bengal in particular for designing the first partition of Bengal in 1905. It was removed from its site in August, 1969, and ‘dumped’ in Barrackpore, about 25 km north of Kolkata, at the Flagstaff House that served as the residence of the private secretary to the governor-general till 1947 and the Bengal governor’s local retreat thereafter.
In New Zealand, however, there were people ready to pay for the transport and reinstalling of another statue being removed from one of Kolkata’s prime locations, in front of the high court, in the same year. That statue belonged to Lord Auckland and stood there since 1848. The New Zealand Insurance Co. Ltd. agreed to bear the cost for its installation at Aotea Square in Auckland, the town named after him. George Eden, the Earl of Auckland, served as the Governor-General of India between 1836 and 1841. The insurance company said it was their gift to the people of their country.
In 1972, on the empty plinth of Auckland’s statue in Kolkata was erected one of the most iconic statues of the city - that of Khudiram Bose, regarded as among India’s youngest martyrs, who is hailed and loved for braving the gallow with a smile in his face, at the age of 19. The statue captures a posture of the dhoti-clad teenager proudly moving his head towards the gallows.
Statues matter. They symbolise power, authority, defiance, pride, ideals, values. Colonial powers erected statues of their greats in colonised nations, just like India. Fates of such statues depended on the circumstances around the end of direct colonisation, whether the now-free people of that once-colonial land would allow the relics of colonial pride to stay as they were. They did not, in many countries of Asia and Africa. But India paid little attention to the statues of colonial heroes in the first decade of Independence.
In his Ambassador's Report, published in 1954, Chester Bowles, who served as the US Ambassador to India during 1951-53, noted his surprise at how Indonesia was busy removing all statues of Dutch colonial rulers whereas in India streets were still named after British Viceroys. “Even a statue of (John) Nicholson, who led the British against Indians during the ‘mutiny,’ still stands, sword in hand,” he wrote.
That statue, however, was removed by 1956 and Ireland took it to their country, where it was installed in 1960 at the school where Nicholson studied. It was unveiled there by none less than Lord Mountbatten, the last governor-general of India.
A Battle of Symbols
British rulers started erecting statues of their military generals from the beginning of the 19th century. When Lord Cornwallis landed in India in 1805 to serve a second term as the governor-general, India already had two statues of him, erected in recognition of his achievements during his first term (1786 to 1793). One of them was in Chennai, unveiled on the parade ground of Fort St George on May 15, 1800. This was the first statue to have been transported from the UK for erecting in a public place in India. The other was in Kolkata, at the Town Hall, installed in 1803.
Over the next 14 decades, they erected statues of men representing colonial powers, and also of the queen, throughout the country’s prominent cities and towns. In most cases, funds were raised from the native people but the statues were sculpted in Britain and shipped to India. According to Radhey Shyam Chaurasia’s History of Modern India, no subscriptions came from Englishmen for the statue of Lord Ripon in Kolkata in 1915 and the entire cost was borne by the natives. One of the last statues installed was of King George V in Kolkata’s Strand area in 1939.
The protest against such statues, too, started during British rule itself. In 1896, when the notorious plague hit Mumbai, natives angry with mismanagement smeared tar-like substance on the face of a statue of Queen Victoria. In 1927, two men in Chennai tried to bring down a statue of an infamous British military officer, Colonel James Neil, which was erected in 1861. Following a ten-year-old Statue Satyagraha, it was removed from the public place in 1937.
Clearly, the British government was no longer willing to bear the cost of associating themselves with what Neil’s statue symbolised - brutal suppression. The times were changing.
The demand for removal of colonial statues from public places began soon after Independence. A memorial for British women killed during in 1857 came under attack in Uttar Pradesh. In Bombay in November 1947, the municipal council removed marble busts of Queen Victoria and those of three former British mayors from its Corporation Hall. In 1948, Kolkata Municipal Corporation received a proposal for removal of ‘Britishers’ statues from the Maidan area’. The statue of Lord (Henry) Hardinge, who served as governor-general of India in 1844–48, was removed in 1950 from its place near Raj Bhavan after standing there since 1858. In 1950, it travelled its way to Cambridgeshire, his home county, as they were willing to pay.
The place in Kolkata lay empty for 15 years, until Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s statue was installed there in 1965.
Instances of removal of statues were few in the early years but the debate around keeping colonial statues gained momentum from 1955-56 in the wake of the preparations for the celebration of the revolt of 1857, often described as India’s first struggle for Independence.
Socialist leaders and those belonging to the Hindu right, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh mounted pressure on the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru government to get rid of colonial statues. Such a movement gained particular momentum in Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the 1857 rebellion, where many politicians and commonner demanded colonial statues be replaced with statues of ‘our heroes’ of the 1857 revolt - Tantia Tope, Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, for example.
Responding to the debate, Nehru told the Lok Sabha on May 13, 1957, that the government had a three-pronged policy. Statues of historical or artistic importance would be kept in museums, statues neither important historically or aesthetically can be presented to people willing to take them, and statues that may be considered offensive to the national sentiment will be removed, but gradually, “in a manner so as not to create international ill-will and raise up old questions which are dead and gone.”
As historical records show, Nehru was afraid of straining diplomatic and economic relations with the UK by raking up controversies around statues.
But his political opponents thought otherwise. Nehru’s speech came three days after the supporters of Ram Manohar Lohia’s Praja Socialist Party and the Jana Sangh members carried out a series of attacks on colonial statues across Uttar Pradesh. But even his speech espousing a balanced approach was not enough. The Congress-led Uttar Pradesh government had to announce, on June 28, that all colonial statues from the state will be removed at the earliest and so they did, ridding the state of all the colonial statues in a year.
Beyond Uttar Pradesh, though, there was little impact. The Bengal government in an act of tokenism announced in July 1957 that the massive bronze statue of Lieutenant General James Outram on horseback will be removed from its place at Park Street’s junction with Chowringhee road. It was removed on August 7 and a statue of Gandhi on Dandi march was erected at that site the next year. That Gandhi statue, relocated in 1980 to the crossing of Mayo road, now stands as one of the key landmarks of the city, where protests and demonstrations are organised.
Nationally, there was no drastic or radical change in the situation, as is reflected from the comments made by American President Dwight D. Eisenhower on his 1959 visit to India. “When I noticed an impressive statue of King George V standing in a prominent place near the Palace, I could not help wondering whether we in our early days of independence would have tolerated among us a statue of King George III,” he wrote in The White House Years: Waging Peace (1956-1961).
The statue Eisenhower referred to stood outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan and was removed in August 1964, three months after Nehru’s death.
The Iconoclastic ‘60s
The movement of 1957 did not lose its appeal, as is evident from how the removal of King Geoge V’s statue at the Gateway of India was planned in 1959 and how former governor-general John Lawrence's statue was removed from a prominent place in central Kolkata in May 1960.
But 1964 was the year when the movement to remove statues representing colonial oppression and suppression entered its final phase in the country. At the beginning of the year, the Statue of Lord Irwin in Delhi had been defaced and the government had arrested some people accused of involvement in the act.
A report that appeared on page 6 of the New York Times on April 4, 1964, said, “Nehru, an intellectual nationalist, has always insisted that British rule is part of India's history and neither can nor should be effaced. Its monuments, he has insisted, should no more be destroyed than those of the Mogul emperors who ruled before the British came… But the Socialists of India have other views. They began a campaign recently against remnants of imperialism by knocking the nose off the statue of Lord Irwin at the entrance to Parliament.”
During August and September that year, George V, Queen Mary and two former viceroys, Lord Chelmsford and Earl Willingdon, had been moved from different parts of Delhi to the Exhibition Ground.
According to the August 1965 issue of Civic Affairs, a monthly publication of the government of India, eight statues of previous governors and Viceroys, including those of Hardinge, Outram, William Bentinck and Lord Ripon had been removed from the streets of Kolkata by 1965 and were temporarily kept at a godown of the PWD and 13 other statues, including those of King George V, Lord Curzon and Warren Hastings, were to be removed.
The movement gained momentum and, ahead of the Independence Day celebration in 1965, marble figures of Lord Cornwallis and Lord Wellesley had been decapitated in Mumbai, on August 10. The Mumbai civic body also decided to move all colonial statues out of public places and many of them, from areas like Fort and Esplanade, found their new place inside the complex of BDL Museum in Byculla.
On August 13, as the authorities in Mumbai were moving the original Kala Ghoda statue – a black stone statue of King Edward VII on horseback – in Delhi, King Geroge V’s marble statue that stood under a canopy near India Gate was smeared in black. The protesters also left a photo of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on the premises, perhaps in a statement that if the place deserved a statue, it ought to be Bose’s.
The King’s statue was removed from India Gate to Coronation Park at the end of 1968 and now, in 2022, the Narendra Modi government has decided to place a Bose statue under the same canopy that the King once occupied.
From Kolkata’s streets, at least 37 colonial statues were removed, the lion's share of them in a clean sweep in a span of two years – between 1967 and 1969, when the first United Front government ruled the state. The coalition included different leftist forces. Mrinal Sen’s 1971 classic, Interview, captured in quite detail those moments - imposing statues uprooted, hanging, being taken out of public memory.