On 6 March, just days after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in the Tripura state Assembly elections, a mob of saffron party workers bulldozed a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Belonia. The celebratory act was undertaken with much fervor to mark the right-wing party’s decisive victory over the 25 years-long left-wing government in the state, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Within India’s postcolonial polity, the dismantling of the statue in Belonia was a public spectacle unlike any other. Not that statues of political leaders haven’t been vandalised in the past, but such festive destructions in the wake of a sweeping election victory have been rare. Not many mainstream political parties have dared to ride majority public mandates to swiftly vandalise statues.
It is not hard to comprehend the motivation behind Lenin’s Tripura fall: the BJP’s foot soldiers rode the victory wave to do what they’ve probably been wanting to do since the very idea of re-capturing Tripura from the communists took shape in the party’s high command i.e. raze CPM’s legacy to the ground and start afresh. A standard part of this design is to erase public memory of Tripura’s Communist past, and statues are a convenient place to start. What more, Lenin’s controversial (and somewhat disturbing) political legacy makes him the perfect game meat.
In an objective sense, the Belonia destruction represents an all-too-familiar project of political iconoclasm. History is replete with ample instances of legacy destructions across the board: from Bamiyan to Kiev. These were often done in contravention of the law, straddling the broader framework of resistance politics. After all, in a democracy, erecting a certain statue is as legitimate or illegitimate as bringing it down. Toppling statues, kicking police barricades: no big deal in the restive milieu of democratic struggles.
As American journalist and current dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Steve Coll, wrote last year in an article on New Delhi’s attempts to reconcile with colonial stone relics: "One difference between democracies and dictatorships is that the constructing and revising of public spaces is not a propaganda opportunity for the ruler but a realm of democratic discourse, influenced by popular opinion and competitive electoral politics."
But, history cannot be a veneer on political disruptions when it comes to partisan offensives. It is imperative to call out the Belonia act for what it was: violent. It is also important to note what the BJP did and did not do. The BJP did destroy the statue. The BJP did not relocate it out of public view when it had the option of doing so.
Thus, Lenin’s nth fall in a far-flung corner of India had a peculiar tenor to it. The statue was bulldozed not in active resistance—like in the cases of American Confederate statues being brought down to protest against Trump’s racism—but as an aggressive mark of all-encompassing victory. BJP did not need to bring Lenin down - they had already won the popular mandate. In that sense, Belonia 2018 mirrors Baghdad 2003 where US forces brought down Saddam Hussein’s statue simply to mark a wildly successful invasion and usher in a new era. The parallel drawn here isn’t really between Lenin and Saddam (that’s for the jury to decide), but between the aggressor’s warlike pathologies.
The critical difference here, though, is that while Baghdad 2003 happened in the thick of a full-blown military invasion, Belonia 2003 unraveled in the immediate aftermath of a free, fair, and peaceful election. Herein lies the menacing quality of Lenin’s Tripura fall.
By exploiting a decisive public mandate to bulldoze a statue, the BJP has only made a complete mockery of the very ethos of electoral democracy. Its leaders would do well to note that poll victories in a democracy are not free passes to take unilateral action, especially when that action directly impacts a publicly-owned space. Any belief otherwise is taking the electorate for granted.
If the BJP does actually believe that the Tripura victory carries a de facto public tender to destroy statues, then it might want to wash the murk off its eyes. Communism did not come to the state just the other day: it was the political status quo for 25 long years, a large part of which saw socio-economic stability and peace. To tinker with this entrenched legacy, in a particularly dramatic fashion, would be to push the fresh election mandate over the edge.
The BJP should also remember that the quest to erase history is a futile one, and more often than not, an endeavour at self-destruction. A better template for revisionist politics—something that the saffronites seem to be doping on at the moment—is to permit problematic relics to remain as they are and contextualise them within democratic values of debate and dissent.
On this, the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie G. Bunch III, offers a blunt take: “I am loath to erase history. For me it’s less about whether they [statues] come down or not, and more about what the debate is stimulating.”
Fact remains that the BJP’s bulldozing of Lenin’s statue will go down as the party’s reckless attempt to violently insert itself into Tripura’s rich history. Not unlike the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Karsevaks in 1992, the Belonia bulldozing will also go down as a patent marker of right-wing exclusionist politics in this country, which banks upon total homogenisation of political belief systems to ensure its own survival.
The author is researcher and coordinator, South East Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Updated Date: Mar 08, 2018 06:41 AM