Should history be revised through erasure? Defacing of Churchill statue in London's Black Lives Matter protest reignites debate

The arguments over statues, as witnessed most recently in the defacing of the Winston Churchill statue in London's Parliament Square during a #BlackLivesMatter protest, are power struggles of clashing identities — black versus white, Hindu against Muslim, or communist versus capitalist.

Samrat June 10, 2020 12:50:18 IST
Should history be revised through erasure? Defacing of Churchill statue in London's Black Lives Matter protest reignites debate

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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The protests that began in the American city of Minneapolis on 26 May following the murder, caught live on camera, of George Floyd, have now spread around the world. Floyd, a black man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who had come to arrest him after a $20 note he used at a store was flagged by the store clerk as possibly counterfeit.

In London on Monday, a statue of former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill became a target of anger of some of the protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest that was being held in solidarity with similar protests elsewhere following George’s killing. Coming as it did a day after a statue of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston in Bristol was torn down by a crowd and tossed into the sea in another such protest, the defacing of Churchill’s statue has reignited an old debate.

Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel called the Bristol incident “utterly disgraceful” and said “it’s not for mobs to tear down statues”, according to a report in the BBC. On the other hand, Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees, who happens to be black, said Patel’s comments showed “absolute lack of understanding”. The defacing of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square in London has sparked further controversy. The wartime leader, who also won a Nobel Prize for literature, is remembered as a hero by many for rallying Britain against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. On the other hand, he is also remembered by many as a racist who presided over colonial policies that contributed to the deaths by starvation of around three million people in the Bengal famine of 1943.

Should history be revised through erasure Defacing of Churchill statue in Londons Black Lives Matter protest reignites debate

Protesters gather around the Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square during the Black Lives Matter protest rally in London. AP Photo

Mayor Rees described the statue of the slave trader standing in a prominent public space as an affront to him and to people like him. This sense of affront is one that has also found mention in the controversies surrounding statues of confederate leaders in America. It is a feeling that I myself have experienced, albeit in mild form. Walking down Whitehall in London last summer, I found myself in front of a statue of Robert Clive, whose victory at the Battle of Plassey over Nawab Siraj ud Daulah of Bengal had launched the British East India Company’s path to colonial empire in India. A few metres away from this statue is Churchill’s war room from World War II. It so happened that we were a group of South Asian journalists; with me at that moment was another Bengali, Masrour Shakil from Bangladesh. Clive and Churchill are not our heroes. They are our villains.

We took a few photos of ourselves with the statue, glanced at the war room, and moved on. Looking back now, I don’t think I would want to see that statue toppled. My reactions to Clive and Churchill come from my perspective as a brown Bengali man. Others may remember other aspects of those individuals and have a different reading of their lives. I may not agree with those readings, but attempts to rewrite history through erasure have always made me uncomfortable.

In India since Independence we have had a whole lot of erasure of our past. In the beginning, it was only the colonial past that was removed, as central thoroughfares in seemingly every town and city in the country came to be renamed after Mahatma Gandhi, and his statues became part of public spaces from Gujarat to Arunachal. Now with the ascendancy of Hindutva we are witnessing a second wave of erasure, where the period of Muslim rule going back a thousand years is also an affront. They have been at work erasing monuments (starting with the Babri Masjid in 1992), renaming a road named after the Mughal king Aurangzeb in Central Delhi, and the city of Allahabad as Prayagraj.

Different monuments may arouse feelings of affront in different people. A Muslim monument may cause a Hindu fundamentalist to feel genuinely affronted, just as a statue of the Buddha in Afghanistan may cause a Muslim fundamentalist to feel genuinely affronted. At any point of time, why should some people’s feelings be worth more than those of others? By what yardstick are we to judge which feeling of affront is justified, and which one is not?

Cultural and moral relativism would not permit the existence of any such yardstick. That would only be possible if we admit to certain universal human values. So, for example, it can be argued that a statue of the Buddha commemorates a great spiritual leader who is a lasting symbol of peace for all humanity, while one of a Confederate general is a symbol of white supremacy, slavery and war. If peace has moral worth for all humans, while white supremacy, slavery and war do not, then we might be justified in demanding the removal from public spaces of all statues that glorify the latter.

This is not likely to happen at any time in the foreseeable future. The arguments over statues are power struggles of clashing identities — black versus white, Hindu against Muslim, or communist versus capitalist (which is also a thing in places with Lenin statues).

These statue fights won’t end, because there’s no universal humanist dog in the fight.

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