Pakistan and India both celebrated their respective Independence days last week. Transcending geographical borders, celebrations spilled over to the streets of London, proving once again that the British Asian presence in the UK is prominent. Celebrating 68 years of Independence, the celebrations reawakened discussions surrounding the construction of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square.
Mahatma Gandhi Statue
Earlier this year, Foreign Secretary William Hague, Chancellor George Osborne and Culture Secretary Sajid Javid announced plans to erect the statue, following a visit to India. The decision to honour Gandhi in Parliament Square will no doubt help Britain’s relations with India, as the move will certainly build stronger commercial and diplomatic ties between the two countries – a particularly beneficial move for Britain, as India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Plans to erect the statue will coincide with the centenary of Gandhi’s return to India to begin his peaceful nationalist struggle for Indian independence from British rule. This statue will also mark the 70th anniversary of Gandhi’s death in 2018 and the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2019.
Indian political theorist Professor Lord Bikhu Parekh, president of the Gandhi Foundation UK, said commended the statue: "The statue is an excellent idea that is long overdue. It is great pity that Labour government in UK never thought of it, and the Conservative party government thought of it only in the context of better trade relations with India.”
Facts About Gandhi
While there has been a largely positive response to the proposed statue, there has also been some vehement opposition. Many women’s groups have contested the decision to revere Gandhi as an honourable role model. Given the emergence of recent claims by Indian origin groups about Gandhi’s private beliefs; particularly his “despicable sexual exploitation of women” and covert approval of the caste system, there has been a rising level of scepticism regarding Gandhi’s high status.
The Indo-British Heritage Trust’s founder, Kusoom Vadgama has vowed to do her “damnedest” to stop the British government going ahead with their plans: “There is something very unpleasant about this statue in Parliament Square. When I learned about what he did to women including his own grand-niece I was disgusted. No man, hero or a villain has the right to put women to this level of debasement. What is unbelievable is that nobody dare point a finger at Gandhi. It has taken me decades to speak openly.”
The world has only recently become aware of Gandhi’s private and personal beliefs, so why have the British government chosen to honour him in such a way? William Hague argues that “Gandhi’s view of communal peace and resistance to division… and his commitment to non-violence left a legacy that is as relevant today as it was during his life.”
It is undisputable that Gandhi’s political legacy was impactful, not just within India but also globally. Gandhi influenced the civil rights movements of Martin Luther King Junior and Nelson Mandela and his non-violent approach to Indian independence was admirable. For his political stance, it isn’t surprising that William Hague regards him as a “towering inspiration and a source of strength”.
Mahatma Gandhi Statue
The unrelenting dichotomy between Gandhi’s political and personal life encourages a raging debate on the relevance of his statue in Parliament Square. Does Gandhi’s questionable and disconcerting views on women and the caste system outweigh his political excellence? Or are personal matters best kept entirely independent of politics?
Considering the other statues in Parliament Square, it is fair to say that the criterion for a tribute monument rests heavily on political influence and achievements rather than moral conduct in its entirety. For example, General Smuts' statue is in Parliament Square and yet he set the ground for modern apartheid in South Africa. Trafalgar Square is home to statues of General Napier and Lord Havelock, both of whom led British troops in India and subdued Indians through violent and bloody means.
As ever, politics is never so clear-cut; there are obviously many leaders who are revered for their accomplishments but equally have disreputable actions in their pasts. Does someone have to be pristine in all aspects of his life to be praised for his work to free an entire nation of people?
A statue honouring Gandhi is not necessarily a justification or acceptance of his immoral actions. It is appreciation for his belief in peaceful politics. The statue is after all a representation of the political Gandhi, not the religious Gandhi. It is a memory of the man who shaped modern India and whose political legacy was greatly influential.