It says a lot about India’s divided polity and civil society that in 2018, historical figures from the early and mid-twentieth century can become the focus of such raging debates that political discourse gets vitiated. And this even as hooligans from different sides of ideological and caste divides get a free run vandalising statues of those belonging to various rival camps. Vladimir Lenin, Periyar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, et al are historical figures. That they should become the subject of heated debates at a time when the focus should be on issues of social progress and governance, is proof how skewed priorities can get in the age of partisan politics.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), in fact the left in general, is justifiably angry. It has lost its two-and-a-half-decade-old stronghold of Tripura to the Bharatiya Janata Party, and is striving to stay afloat by clutching on to the lone straw that is Kerala. So it is but natural that leftist emotions will run high when right-wing vandals in Tripura go around demolishing the statues of the former’s ideological master, the font of communism, the Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov “Lenin”. But to compare that demolition with the destruction of the thousands-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban defies the bounds of credulity. Countries that were once a part of the former Soviet bloc have made a regular habit of demolishing Lenin’s statues to vent their anger against communism. Not that such vandalism can be justified, neither in Europe, nor in India. In fact, a lesson should have been drawn from Ukraine, which last year decided to erase all remnants of its Soviet past by removing 1,320 statues, but in a civilised manner. The issue is not about how the Left, in true Leninist tradition—its rivals say—has made violence a part of its political culture and system of governance in every state it has ruled, be it West Bengal, Kerala or Tripura; how it has used fear and intimidation to control people; or how, to the Left’s rivals in Tripura, the Russian Lenin’s statues had come to represent an “oppressive” 25-year-long regime. The issue is about how a smooth transition can be effected from one party’s government to another, a transition that has the potential to turn bloody, especially since both CPM and BJP are cadre-based outfits, whose workers are already engaged in violent confrontations in the Left’s bastion of Kerala, and even in Bengal.
Vandalism is not the answer to vandalism, a lesson that the leftists too, and particularly their ultra-cousins who want India Balkanised, need to learn. Demolishing Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s statue in Kolkata because he founded BJP’s predecessor Jana Sangh, is being ignorant about India’s past. The leftists and the closet-leftists in the media and social media, who are circulating canards about Mookerjee’s “allegiance” to the British, need to brush up on their history lessons. But for Mookerjee’s perseverance, Bengal, which is the crucible of the Left movement in India, would have been a part of a Muslim majority “United Bengal”, ready for Pakistan’s picking. A country where it was highly unlikely that communism would have found even a toehold. It was Mookerjee who gathered support for the partition of Bengal, so that the Hindu-majority part could stay with India. It was because of him that West Bengal exists. To deny this home-grown hero’s immense contribution to nation-building is akin to making a travesty of history.
It was good that the BJP leadership quickly distanced themselves from the acts of vandalism by some of its workers. But along with that there must be greater vigilance, as else miscreants of various shades will take advantage of the melee and create disharmony in society. It is also incumbent on the state governments where statue-related violence is taking place to ensure that law and order is maintained. In the meanwhile, it is time to stop the statue debate and move ahead with a pace that befits the 21st century.