In the year 1949, Harekrishna Mahtub, a man of letters and the Premier of the state of Orissa in the newly formed Indian Union, finished writing a book called The Beginning of the End. The inspiration of writing the book had come to him in September of the previous year when the state of Hyderabad had finally fallen to the Indian Union. The book was a short history of the accession of the princely states to the Government of India, which as he described, “began when (the state of) Nilgiri was taken over by force and the culmination was reached when Hyderabad was also taken over by force. Mahtub wrote to Sardar Vallabbhai Patel – the first Deputy Prime Minister of India and the man in charge of the accession – asking him to write a foreword to the book.
In response, Patel’s office sent a letter, dated 11 November, 1949, asking Mahtub to make certain changes in the manuscript. “You have referred in your manuscript to taking over Nilgiri state by force,” the letter read:
You remember that in our Press Note as well as in dealing with the criticism on this subject, we always gave out that we went to Nilgiri at the invitation of and with the consent of the ruler.
You have also referred at two places that since Mayurbhanj was a tribal state Sardar Patel did not put any pressure on it, but left it to time. This might be construed to mean that Sardar Patel put pressure on other states also and was not using those tactics. Our case has thoroughly been that all those mergers have been voluntary, I think you might avoid using language which would give the contrary impression.
The letter went on to further advise Mahtub against reproducing certain Government correspondences which “may not be appropriate to publish” because “we are still too near those times.” Despite these objections, Patel did write the foreword to the book. Mahtub is “a true patriot,” he wrote – “in that he loves Orissa, but loves India more.”
For all his patriotism, Patel well knew that the Indian union that he helped build, was a very fragile thing. The caution and calculation that he put into the accession of the princely states, were exempted from any kind of triumphalism. “Those times” in which India had been finally free of imperialism had also concluded in the tragedies of partition and rioting. We may never be at a safe distance from history to indulge in triumphalism. Not the least in 2014, when the Indian Government had begun work to install an 800 feet statue of Patel in a place called Sadhu Bet in the Narmada district of Gujarat, commemorating Patel’s role in the Indian Freedom Movement and decidedly named the Statue of Unity.
Once completed, the statue would become the world’s tallest statue or achieve, according to its project website, the global distinction of being, “double the height of the Statue of Liberty” and “five times the height of the statue of Christ the Redeemer.” All the parts of the statue are being manufactured separately in China, and after a period of three years, they will be transported to Sadhu Bet where the statue is set to be assembled and erected. The demonstration of triumph endorsed by a structure of such heaven-seeking heights seem only to be compatible to an equally dramatic rise of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India in a majority mandate two years ago, a mandate that has since been hailed by his fellow ideologues of the Rashtra Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as the coming of the second republic of India. The statue, his masterpiece, seeks the same edification with his countrymen that the Colosseum of Rome has perhaps found with Romans for several centuries.
Modi, among many others believe that Sardar Vallabbhai Patel was a man who has been greatly ignored. First by Gandhi when he leaned more towards Abul Kalam Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru, the son of Patel’s contemporary Motilal Nehru, as his two choices for his succession; and then, by post- colonial historiography which came to be dominated by Nehru-Gandhi dynasticism. Such shortcomings of historiography seem to have worked as a front to the political differences between Nehru and Patel, the knowledge of which, has been appropriated in the making of the statue. Writing in a private letter when Patel was the deputy to Prime Minister Nehru, Patel told him, “There appear to be differences of vital character between us.”
Born in 1875 in Gujarat, Patel was a successful practicing barrister in the town of Ahmedabad before joining the Indian independence movement. He was influenced in this decision by Gandhi, after Champaran, where he organized its aggrieved indigo sharecroppers to rally in disobedience of British laws. “Vallabbhai was always watching him,” Patel’s biographer Rajmohan Gandhi wrote about him. His ascent in the ranks of Congress workers was a consequence of his closeness to Gandhi. He lived and travelled across the length of Gujarat with Gandhi, to mobilise peasants to come together during the satyagraha in Kheda and Bardoli. Later he helped Gandhi’s war efforts in recruiting Indian soldiers for the Empire. Towards the end of British India, when more than five hundred Indian princely kingdoms were declared as free sovereigns, Patel was appointed the Minister of States and was tasked with the accession and integration of these states into the Indian Union.
By August 1947, four states -- Junagadh, Travancore, Hyderabad, and Kashmir – hadn’t agreed to accede to the Indian Union. While Junagadh acceded to Pakistan, the other three states asked to remain independent. Patel’s accomplishment as a strategist was in the fact that he was able to bring Travancore and Junagadh to join the Indian union without military action. But he had also unhesitantly sent Indian troops into Hyderabad in September 1948, to beat the Nizam and his muslim support in the razzakar community, in a four day battle, to join the Indian union. Just as they were sent, a year ago, more popularly and permanently to occupy Kashmir.
As India was about to declare itself independent of 200 years of British rule on 15 August 1947, the far-flung state of Nagaland under the leadership of Angami Zapu Phizo declared theirs, but one day earlier on the 14th. Until then, the Naga tribes had fought British troops independently in the battles of Kohima and Khonoma. The Nagas were subjected to devastating defeats in both instances, but they remained unconquered by British India. Phizo, as the head of the Naga National Council, demanded an equal right to independence as Pakistan and India, and non-intervention in the affairs of the Naga people. But his claims were dismissed and he was arrested by the Indian Army the following year. Since 1956, Nagaland has been ruled as a “disturbed area” and governed with the deployment of the Indian army under a draconian law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
In between the divestment of British India and the commencement of the Indian Union, there was a stronger inclination towards independence kept by certain states. In unification and formation of “India”, those sentiments have been, at the same time, doused and denied an afterlife. Any thought of independence that was able to survive, did with resorting to an armed struggle at some time, like in Nagaland when Phizo’s Naga National Council was succeeded by National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) which in its manifesto ruled out “the illusion of saving Nagaland through peaceful means,” and was hurriedly declared anti-India, dangerous not just to the idea of “India” anymore, but also to the Indian constitution formed in 1950 and the people it newly protected. In effect, India assumed the primitive role of imperialism in reminding us that like the British crown, only the idea of a unified India could keep us together and prevent us from killing each other; an “India” for the sake of India.
Patel perceived the new India as a consensus and an assertion of autochthonous opinion. A consensual India was indeed his legacy. He once rejected Winston Churchill’s criticism of India’s invasion of Kashmir and Hyderabad at a Conservative Party rally, and sought to remind him that Hyderabad had a four-fifth hindu majority who would have wanted to join the Indian Union rather than being an independent kingdom. In unification and integration of India, the concept of majority has been cited as often to an extent that its usage might as well be a substitute to the word “consensus.” But semantically, consensus is understood to be a concept inclusive of all parties involved. It is understood to be a happy mean between a majority agreement and full unanimity.
A similar kind of consensus is also sought by Narendra Modi in his regime. To be in agreement of his vision for India is a necessity. Rejecting a multi-party coalition as intermittent to ‘development’, Modi, in his electoral campaigns had asked for a majority Government to be put in power. Once in power, in his Independence Day speech in 2014, a speech longer than Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech, Modi said “I want to rule with consensus, and not with majority.”
In resonance to RSS’s proclamation of a second republic in India, the vocabulary in the current political discourse has become rabid with triumphalist references to "good governance", “progress” and “golden age”, a practice, incipient since the time when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat and had promoted his state nationally and internationally as a model of development; and simultaneously his eligibility for the Prime Minister’s post. His Government now celebrates 25th December, Christmas day as Good Governance day.
This practice has graduated into repetitive appeals to the Vedic age and its apparent advances in science (Invention of plastic surgery since Ganesha wore a surgically fitted head of an elephant) and technology (Invention of aeroplanes or flying planes capable of inter-planetary flying). If not in attitudes of greatness, these references are remindful, in concepts of knowledge such as dependency, expansion and authority, kept by the imperial British and French empires in the 19th century. In the same way that references to unity are remindful of references to freedom made by the American Empire towards the end of the Cold war, around the beginning of the Gulf war in 1991, and most recently, during their invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. All facilitated under a halo that the Statue Of Liberty, a symbol of freedom, patently provided.
It is this very idea which is at the centre of the building of the statue. An unification which is based on police action and secured by the armed forces; and a certain keenness in declaring modern India a success or even a completed project. Which in fact, is not quite true. The Naga Accord, where the Nagas supposedly accept the sovereignty of India hasn’t been signed yet, only a framework has been agreed upon last August. For several years Nagaland, along with states like Mizoram and Manipur, have argued in favour of ethno-nationalism or the emancipation of states in the northeast on the basis of ethnicity. Separatists of Jammu and Kashmir still call for boycott of all elections held by India. It observes state mourning on 27th October every year - the anniversary on which Indian troops first landed in in Kashmir and its subsequent accession to India.
Patel’s politics and patriotism, if conceived in this dramatic manner, seeks to establish a false public consensus. At present, there are other symbols in India of political and cultural significance. Popular among them are Mahatma Gandhi, the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. What the construction of the Patel statue ensures is a creation of another of those symbols for our national consciousness which, as Edward Said puts it in Culture and Imperialism, “we have tended to sanitize as a realm of unchanging intellectual movements, free from worldly affiliations.”
In sanctifying Patel and his ideals of patriotism and nation-building into popular tourism, the state becomes an educational institution. While laying the foundation stone for the project in 2013, Modi had expressed his desire to develop the site as a prerna teerth or as a shrine of inspiration. Eric Hobsbawm in his essay Art & Power writes that, apart from an assertion of the triumph of power, monumental public statuary could teach, inform and inculcate the state’s value system. It is for this reason that after the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin suggested resurrecting statues in Moscow of personalities like Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Garibaldi for a population which has, until then, lived and known only imperialism. And the arts in 19th century France came under the Ministry of Public Instruction. In function then, inspiration is as good as propaganda.
At a height of about 400 feet, there are plans to build an observation deck on the statue, from where visitors can have a panoramic view of the Satpura range and the Sardar Sarovar dam (also named after Patel) which is located at a distance of three kilometers from the statue. This sight of hydraulic opulence would however not include the expenses incurred in the construction of the dam, the number of villages it has submerged, and the histories it has annihilated. Big dams and Patel’s politics have both been significant in a nationalistic manner, and larger than tribal resistance movements, the Narmada Bachao Andolan in this case, which have been deemed as anti-nationalist. Interestingly, tribal welfare has been listed as one of the several project objectives of the Patel statue. The tourism and white collar jobs the project would generate might help the tribals in earning their meager revenue. The statue, like the dam, for them is another event of development. The same Sardar Sarovar Dam has the worst record in independent India when it comes to the welfare of tribal communities. A race of tribals that, a generation ago, were dependent on the perenniality of the river Narmada to sustain themselves are now dependent on the state to send tourists their way.
Kevadia, near the dam, once used to be a tribal-dominant village. Over the years, along with five adjacent villages, it has been turned into a colony of Government workers who now look after the operations of the dam. The Sardar Sarovar Dam is one of thirty big dams under construction or already built on the river Narmada. Till date the dam alone has displaced atleast 200,000 people or 85,000 families, sixty per cent of whom are estimated to be tribals.
Making an exhibition of a colonized Narmada as spoils of a war is reminder that the state had won inspite of people’s resistance, that the dam remained and continued to grow in height from ninety metres in 2000 to 138.72 metres in 2014, while the farmers, villages and towns like Harsud had to be removed, turning them into as Arundhati Roy described in 1999 “refugees of an unacknowledged war.” In memory, Patel’s unification tactics or the larger idea of “India” much like the permanence of his bronze monument in Gujarat remains unquestionable while dismissing the three decade long people’s resistance movement against the building of the dams.
The histories of the displaced are the lesser histories and hence disregardable. “And we like the citizens of White America, French Canada and Hitler’s Germany are condoning it by looking away. Why?” Roy said, “Because we’re told that it’s being done for the sake of the Greater Common Good.”
The construction of the Patel statue also suggests an eagerness to join an international affiliation that has entrust itself with impressing freedom and democracy upon the rest of the world. Such dramatic displays of larger freedoms are not unique to it or The Statue of Liberty in New York. For, as of date, the tallest public statuary is the Spring Temple Buddha statue located in the Henan province of China which was built in 2008 to compete against the statue of Daibutsu Buddha located in Ushiku, Japan, which held the title until then. There is also “The Motherland Calls” statue in Volgograd, Russia built in remembrance of the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad. These countries seem to have been contesting in building their own colosseums – spectacular monuments in celebration of their democracy and as a declaration of their impending world domination.
The same countries of China, Japan, and Russia and India have the imperial experience in common. They had all once been in colonies or kingdoms and have participated in the illegal trade to upkeep empires but in the twentieth century have acquired territories of their own. Unlike the classical empires of the previous century, the British and the French empires; they have scarcely shown interest in territories overseas but have moved onto annex territories lying adjacent to them. India in 1947 had annexed Kashmir. While People’s Republic of China has annexed Tibet, Akshai Chin, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As part of the Soviet Union and later Russia has controlled, or is still in control of territories taken by force. The post-meiji Japanese empire, in different periods of time, constituted of Manchuria, Taiwan, Thailand, Caroline Islands, Andamans Islands, Cambodia and Korea.
Imperialism continues to be the policy of strong, dominating countries towards poorer ones which fall easily into their grip. And interventions continue to be the oldest pretext in riling up a war-like atmosphere: in the Indian subcontinent these wars have always been about land and the imagined sentiments attached to it. For more than two months in the past year, the Indian Government had imposed an economic blockade on Nepal, a landlocked country which depends mainly on India for trade and also for the control of the highways leading up to its borders. Nepal in September had promulgated its constitution and had become a secular country from previously being the distinction of the world’s only Hindu kingdom. The Constitution, officially welcomed by India, fell short on the expectations of the Indian-origin Madhesis of Nepal.
There are a total of seven border highways connecting India to Nepal. According to the Nepali Prime Minister, only one of them had been blocked by the Indian-origin madhesis in protest while trade on the other six highways had been unceremoniously blocked by India. Having never acknowledged the blockade, India sought to henpeck Nepal’s sovereignty into submission until the Himalayan country reportedly ran out of “hospital supplies.” Interventions such as this consolidate the pontification of India as the ‘big brother’ in the region with the moral responsibility to defend madhesis to the constitution of a country inferior and vulnerable to it. Edward Said also wrote that “we must take stock of the nostalgia for Empire” by the former colonies. The former colonies are “cultures that nurture the sentiment, rationale and above all the imagination of the Empire.” It is possible that the alternative to imperialism could also be imperialism.
Ankita Chakraborty is a freelance journalist living in New Delhi.
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