The illusion of images
Mayawati’s latest obsession with statues may cost the exchequer a lot, but her idolatory does not threaten the social fabric, feels
Photo: Subir Roy
Unveiling idols: Celebrating Ambedkar.
The statues Mayawati erects and the massive birthday cakes she cuts do not usually bother me. The same media that heaps scorn on Mayawati habitually and predictably, enthusiastically celebrates and participates in Rahul Gandhi’s paternalistic a
nd offensive gesture of getting the Congress cadre to feed Dalits on his birthday, and gleefully reports the gestural politics of his occasionally spending a night in Dalit homes. I am, in many ways, unrepentantly proud of Mayawati. Here’s a Dalit woman who bears no patriarchal initial or surname; a woman who perhaps shall leave no progeny behind. A self-made icon who is not Maa in a mother-goddess fixated nation, but Behen (sister). A voice of the disinherited who has turned the legacy of inherited brutalities into an instrument of political power.
Mayawati is not adequately appreciated for scrapping an order by Uttar Pradesh’s university and college principals to ban young women on campuses from sporting jeans—smacking of gender bias and moral policing. But in the news, again, is her obsession with statues of Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, and now, of herself. Mayawati’s statues may cost the exchequer a lot, but unlike the secret installation of Ram Lalla in Ayodhya, her idolatry does not threaten the social fabric. The erection of statues is not, anyway, Mayawati’s unique idea. Statues,and the symbolism inherent in them, have for long been a way of claiming and reclaiming public space.
The spread of Buddhism ensured that life-size and giant images of the Buddha sprouted across South Asia and the Far East. The first temples (stupas) in the subcontinents were for the Buddha, Tara and other Buddhist deities. Emperor Asoka’s edicts and pillars of the third century BCE, at a time when there was little Brahmi literacy in India, have survived to tell us the tale of the spread of dhamma. After Buddhism was brutally stamped out of the country of its origin, what we recognize today as ‘Hindu temples’ began to spring from the eighth century onwards, their spread spurred by the bhakti movement and the worship of beloved deities.
In modern times, the British erected statues of civil servants and soldiers and named roads and buildings after them;post-independence the Congress pantheon’s imprimatur was stamped on roads, buildings, housing colonies and parks. Government schemes have been launched in the name of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Once regional parties became powerful, local icons came to be celebrated. These were hardly ever subjected to the kind of scrutiny and criticism reserved for Mayawati.
Symbols and memorials play a crucial role in deepening and broadening the scope of democracy. Despite his admonition, Ambedkar’s birthday was celebrated and his statues were erected in his own lifetime. The Ambedkar birth centenary in 1990 saw his statues crop up in almost every Dalit inhabitation in India. Poor Dalits pooling hard-earned money erected these; in rural and urban ghettoes the statue became a site of Dalits claiming hitherto-denied civic space, resulting sometimes in social strife.
But an inflated and overused symbol ceases to have meaning. Symbolism can only take the Bahujan Samaj Party and Mayawati thus far; she will have to deliver on material questions. As Nicolas Jaoul, a French scholar who has done a micro-history of Ambedkar statues in Uttar Pradesh says, “Ambedkarite symbolic politics have reached a saturation point… While symbolic politics have played a significant part in democratisation, today this seems a convenient motive for the Dalit middle class leadership to sweep issues of class under the carpet and to talk exclusively of issues of dignity.”
Mayawati could turn to Ambedkar and introspect.
Ambedkar’s 1916 letter
On 28 March 1916, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, then a M.A. student at Columbia University, published his first public letter in the Bombay Chronicle. Following the death, in 1915, of Pherozeshah Merwanjee Mehta, one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, and of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, another Congress leader and founder of Servants of India Society,Ambedkarnotes: “The memorial for Mr Gokhale is to take the form of establishing branches of Servants of India Society at various places, while that of Sir P.M. Mehta is to stand in the form of a statue before the Bombay Municipal Office.”
While appreciating the memorial for Gokhale, Ambedkar records his dismay over a statue for Mehta being “very trivial and unbecoming.” He is “at pains to understand why this memorial cannot be in a form” that will be “of permanent use to posterity”. He suggests that the memorial should be a public library named after Mehta. Drawing from his experience at “one the biggest universities in the U.S.,”Ambedkar laments how we have not yet “realized the value of the library as an institution in the growth and advancement of society.”
Later, Ambedkar acted on these principles when he had the opportunities. Driven by the belief that education was the greatest weapon Dalits could have, he founded People’s Education Society in 1944;three branches of Siddharth College beginning 1946; and Milind Mahavidyalayain 1950. Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhist names for the educational institutes he founded came from his understanding that universities in ancient India — Takkasila, Nalanda, Vikramasila, Somapura, Odantapuri, Jagaddala, Vallabi — were all Buddhist.Hinduism never set up universities, only ashramsand gurukuls where only a few Brahmin and Kshatriya men were imparted training.
But Mayawati should not offer excuses today for the literacy rate among Dalit women in UP being 30.5 per cent. The total number of Dalit graduates in UP is a pathetic 3 per cent. Ambedkar would shudder at this. The UGC says India needs 1,500 more universities. Mayawati could focus on the education of Dalits, create universities of excellence and name them after Ambedkar, Phule and other forgotten subaltern icons. Statues for herself — “very trivial and unbecoming” — only feed her obscene delusions of grandeur and betray a fear of mortality.
In his concluding speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25 1949, Ambedkar noted: “In India, ‘Bhakti’ or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other part of the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
Mayawati could yet heed Ambedkar.
Anand is the publisher of Navayana. He recently completed a documentary film, “Bhagwan Das: In Pursuit of Ambedkar”.
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