Meddling with history: Tearing down statues is not really confronting the nightmare of colonialism and racism

It was with the publication of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) that departments of social and political sciences, of history and anthropology began to reckon with the exaggerations and distortions about the East that existed in western histories, especially viewing eastern cultures as exotic, backward, uncivilised and at times treacherous. The objective of the academic world was to confront the colonial world and its impact in all its murky and hegemonic significance.

In the wake of the brutal racist politics across the world, discussions and demonstrations targeting the colonial symbols of atrocities and aggression have set many countries ablaze. A bronze statue of Jefferson Davis, the slave-owning President during the American Civil War, was removed from a prominent position at the University of Texas lately. The statue of the the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down in Bristol and thrown into the city’s harbour last Sunday. And graffiti was scribbled on the figure of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square.

Likewise, we in India are witness to the ongoing debate on doing away with Mughal or British names of cities, roads or other remnants of the Raj. The Central Vista or the Lutyens Zone integral to our history is on the verge of redevelopment, a plan envisaged by the current dispensation to decolonise history by razing a number of heritage buildings.

What was only a friendly or classroom debate for many of us at Oxford many years ago, has now blown into ‘The Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford’ movement. Some of us pursuing research here would often discuss the contentious issue of naming the library after the British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, an alumnus of Oxford illustrious for his munificence in instituting exceptionally exalted scholarships. A research fellow from South Africa drew attention to Rhodes’s bust and the plaque at Oriel College set up in his memory.

The last few days have witnessed a disdainful storm swirling around Rhodes’s patronage of the racist project of British colonialism in Africa, as well as by his provocative remark that the continent remains “inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings”. Thus, a motif with a racist tinge should not embellish any public space. And if need be, it may be discreetly moved to a museum. However, some of us with a commitment to addressing colonial iconography took a relatively moderate stand on not escaping from our tragic past.

It is often observed that people unabashedly take sides on such emotional issues founded on their ideological leanings while the larger question of historical consciousness gets overlooked. When Connaught Place was rechristened Rajiv Gandhi Chowk and Mughalsarai Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Nagar, my first thoughts were that history should not be meddled with. Even if we deplore the history of the Mughal rule and the British Raj in India, we should let it be, perhaps, as a reminder of the past, and largely because you cannot undo history by wiping out its traces with shifting power equations.

We cannot wipe the damage done by the colonisers but we can certainly bring it to the forefront. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin enables visitors to emotionally respond to the savage contempt for the Jews leading to the brazen genocide. The memorial is not merely an ersatz, but a living example of the public memory. Such symbolic objects rekindle the critical response to the past by fearlessly confronting it to set the stage for the future. To wipe out history would be to betray the values a nation needs to bring home to its future generations. The Indian government’s decision to rebuild the Central Vista is vulgarly deceitful and distasteful.  Tearing down history is not the answer to the reality of confronting the nightmare of viciousness, butchery, plunder and mindless thuggery.

The damage these imperialists did to history is as vital to the writing of history as their benefactions. The poetry of Ezra Pound or the work of Heidegger with vast insights into human nature cannot be ignored only because of their extreme anti-Semitic views. The challenge is to learn from history, acknowledge and engage with it to build an intellectual environment that is critical but inclusive and civil.

Moreover, it might benefit historical knowledge to grasp the political designs behind the installation or dismantling of statues or buildings that apparently reflect the political ambitions of the ruling class supported by conformist historians. And it is a historical fact that all history does not have to be corrected. To decide when something hurtful should be wiped out and when one should leave it to the status quo remains a conundrum.


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