Anjaly Jacob writes about the contentious trend of statue toppling and explains how it has integrated itself into the protest cultures across the world. She makes a strong case for a socio-political deconstruction and reimagination of the past we tend to glorify.
In December 2018, the students of the University of Ghana protested against the erection of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in their university. The protest culminated in the statue being removed with an acceptance from the university officials that Gandhi has had a dicey history with the black community and there is evidence of him harbouring and propagating racist sentiments in his early writings.
Similar instances took place in the USA and the world over following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Several confederate symbols and statues were defaced, slathered with protest slogans, and toppled, as a mark of acknowledgment. Acknowledgment that these people who wrote history may have written a very biased, and racist history, and have no place in our present.
In recent years, India has been striving to erect one statue after the other - each bigger, grander, and costlier than the last. It begs the question, what about statues lend them such a place of importance? And what is it about smashing statues or defaming the dead that gives us a feeling of change?
Statues are more than just about sculpting a famous leader for all to see. Statues make a statement. They tell us that this person and their work has been truly remarkable and deserves to be immortalised in stone. It puts the person, quite literally, on a pedestal and sends out a message for all to see - that this person is not ordinary, and deserves to be glorified by all. A seemingly simple and heartfelt idea has a much more complicated context to be considered.
An overused phrase we have all heard is "History is written by the winners". When we take a person and set them in stone we are trying to pause a piece of history. A statue acts as a reminder of all this person has done and makes them an aspirational figure. Having such a reminder is in a way its own propaganda - a reminder of this person and the power they held, but also, who didn't have power. They can be a reminder of an alternative history that the "winners" attempted to conveniently forget. This very real history often tells the tale of those who "lost".
A closer look sometimes reveals that these people who "lost" may have been people who did not agree with the winner's viewpoint. Or they could have been marginalised communities, forgotten in the “winner’s” campaign, and forced to fit into the "winners" idea of the world.
As time passes, and the once voiceless are finally able to use their voice, we realise that these heroes we have embellished in stone may not have been heroic to everyone - just to those who served their purpose. Statues attempt to constantly reinforce that these people were good and gloss over any bad they have done. However, when their message no longer has a place in the present-day world, the people hurt by the message the statue sends demand that it be torn down. They protest against what it stands for. Bringing down a statue is a form of protest that demands us to reconsider the person immortalised and draws focus to the experience of the protestors.
With the protest of the Gandhi statue in Ghana, it sparked a resurgence in the debate of the true intentions of the father of our nation and whether he really did stand for equality of all as he used to proclaim. It helped people look back on a man who preached equality, fought against racism, but did use very derogatory speech towards the black community. It brought to light other questionable aspects of this leader. Thus protesting against such a great figure and bringing the statue down empowered this community a bit more.
I support the idea of questioning our leaders and historical figures. Toppling a statue is an acceptable form of protest as it fits the definition of a protest - stand up for what you think is right, call out injustice and strive to have justice met. By toppling a statue, we may not be able to hold them personally accountable, but we can send out a message that this person was never wholly good and does not deserve to be a representative of us. It says that our past may have been biased, but our present and our future are moving to equality. By challenging their legitimacy as heroes we challenge their legacy. We are narrowing the scope of immortalising inequality.
Thus, I do believe the removal of a statue is radical in its own way. It starts a conversation of a once glorified person's past. It makes us rethink the history we are told and urges us to seek the history we are not told. It reminds us that history is probably grey, not black and white as we are led to believe. In a democracy, questioning these statues is an enactment of democratic principles. It reminds us that the people must be at the centre of all decision-making. If a past leader would have stood against the existence of current communities or groups then we can accept their place in history, but need not retain them in our present or the future we are trying to build.
It is a small act, but democracy is about voicing concerns. If successful, stripping a statue of the power it holds brings more power to the people.