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A Statue of Unity in a Nation Increasingly Disunited

By Sidharth Bhatia

On October 31, when Narendra Modi inaugurated the massive ‘Statue of Unity’, he was fulfilling at least one promise of his government. On many other fronts, this government has floundered and failed – neither has black money come back into the country (or in anyone’s account) nor have jobs increased. Crony capitalism, poor governance, and a rank failure to bring fugitive businessmen to justice have marked the Modi government’s tenure. Add to that an inability or unwillingness to control Hindutva mobs that is going berserk and the picture is complete.

 

But he did say he would build this monumental statue of SardarVallabhbhai Patel and he has. The finances involved are controversial, local farmers are said to be unhappy and the Make in India slogan sounds hollow given the external panels of the statue were made in China and the CAG has raised questions about CSR money being used for the purpose, but here we are, with a structure that is the ‘tallest statue in the world’; there is nothing that we Indians love more than making it to the Guinness Book of Records and this one certainly will.

By one of those coincidences that work well for this dispensation, Patel’s birth anniversary falls on October 31, also the date on which Indira Gandhi was assassinated and which can now be totally ignored. From now onwards, all official focus on this day every year will be on Patel rather than Indira Gandhi, just like December 25 was converted into Good Governance Day and Modi had suggested that Gandhi Jayanti be celebrated as ‘Swacch October 2’; already there are demands to shift children’s day from November 14. This way, all the reviled Nehru-Gandhis and the barely tolerated Mahatma Gandhi can be sidelined.

Patel has been appropriated by Modi and his parivar, not the least because he can be portrayed as the anti-Nehru, despite all the historical evidence against that assumption. The ‘he should have been prime minister’ narrative is an old one and has got a boost in recent years. That he had banned the RSS doesn’t get a mention. Patel has his uses and by promoting the ‘Iron Man’ assiduously, Modi hopes that some of the stardust will settle on him.

But what will the same Sardar who worked hard to knit the Indian union during those critical years and brought in more than 500 rulers, some of them reluctant, under one administrative unit, see when he surveys today’s India from his perch up there? How will he perceive the country 70 years after Independence, when the nation, despite all its problems, had looked with hope towards the future as a unified entity, where people of all faiths, communities, ethnic backgrounds, would live together in peace and harmony? Will he think that those dreams have been realised? Or will he see a land increasingly fractured?

In Kerala, he will see an aggressive attempt to defy a Supreme Court verdict that allows women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple and a warning by the boss of the ruling party that it would ‘uproot’ the Kerala government if it arrests those protesting against the Court’s order.

In Kashmir, he will see the Indian security forces shooting pellets into the crowd, blinding young children. Maharashtra, which, along with Gujarat, was part of the old Bombay state, was where Dalits were beaten up for attending a commemoration of a big event in their history. In neighbouring Rajasthan, and many other places, the Sardar will see families in mourning after a member was lynched.

And of course, he will definitely notice the rising communal temperature as once again, the Sanghparivar and its affiliates rake up the issue of the Ayodhya temple, long dormant but pulled out on strategic occasions to consolidate the Hindus against the ‘enemy’, the Muslim citizens of India. This formula may or may not work this time round and the electorate may not respond in the same way as in the 1990s, but it has the potential to create great havoc.

Across India, there is ferment, caused by forces who want to impose their agenda of creating a nation of one people, one religion, one language and one thought. Others are welcome to join if they agree to submit themselves to the majority, to agree that to being second class citizens. This is not the India Sardar Patel, along with Gandhi and Nehru and so many others, fought for and went to jail for. Modi and friends have tried to hitch their wagon to Patel but no one is fooled; the RSS was nowhere in the freedom struggle and the attempt to distort history will not work.

What is the message of this statue, apart from the sheer vanity of erecting a tall edifice and boasting about its height? The symbolism is obvious – it allows Modi to assert in this election year, that India needs a strongman at the Centre to ensure the country does not slide into chaos. This is going to be a theme in the run up to the elections-the need for a decisive leader who should be given not just five but many more years to steady the nation’s ship and steer it towards its manifest destiny. Already those in the government have begun to say that. But it is Patel’s image they want, not his message – of coming down on communal forces and lawless elements who provoke violence in the name of religion, or his ability to work with other tall leaders despite his differences with them, or indeed how the Sardar banned the RSS. Modi will not hail the great diversity of India, which is at the foundation of our unity. That is certainly not the unity he had in mind when he commissioned this statue.