Air-brushing history by toppling statues

Statue of Jang Bahadur Rana in Tundikhel in the 1972. Photo: Daniel W Edwards

For thousands of years, adulatory statues have been installed and, at one time or another, defaced or removed. Even since the early 1900s, statues in Russia, France, Hungary, Greenland, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Mongolia and other countries, have been either toppled by protesters or dismantled by government edict.

We are consumed by statues as they are visibly symbolic reference points. But were we to seriously research the background of those represented in the statues, many of us may be surprised.

The births of many modern nations had been initiated by the arrival of ‘western’ interlopers. Nepal’s founding monarch Prithvi Narayan Shah is said to have quipped that they brought bazaar (trade), bible (religion) and banduk (guns to motivate obedience), leaving an undoubtedly confounding legacy. His statue at Singha Darbar intersection, with an index finger symbolising unity, was nearly toppled in 2006.

It would be difficult to find a name or representation of one from any culture whom we could comfortably absolve of atrocities. Thus, unless one prefers statues of only Mother Theresa, Chief Dan George, Albert Einstein, Greta Thunberg or Gandhi (though even that has been disfigured in London recently) almost any other historical statue will inevitably be of people who have had binary actions and effects (think Genghis Khan, Mao Zedong, Simon Bolivar, Kwame Nkrumah, and even Nobel laureates like Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi).

Many of the memorials erected have been for multipolar, compartmentalised characters with a record of welcome changes for some, but blood on their hands for others. One who helped liberate a country only to then abet massive programs of executions and famine to bring people to accept a ‘utopian reform’ (Lenin and Mongolia).

Another, intimately involved in liberating a continent while simultaneously allowing a famine to overtake millions on another continent (Churchill and Europe, and India). And the righteous ones with contradictory legacies in surreptitiously saving multiple thousands of persecuted citizens while simultaneously supporting the vile regime’s bureaucracy.

Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrations, protest marches and various forms of damaging and destroying statues have spread across the world.

Collectively, we accept many aspects of dissatisfaction, because much of it is too obscure or wickedly complicated to pursue by all, but those dedicated to extensive research and pursuit of solutions.

Focus therefore shifts to visible, physical representations of systemic weaknesses, especially during increased societal tension. Each concrete symbol then demolished energises those wishing to similarly act. Yet, statues are not the only simulacra of histories forgotten or revived.

Around the world, roads, canals and railroads have been built wholly or partially through slave or indentured labour. Yet, we continue to tour on them without a thought. Historical ruins, palaces and temples have been constructed with bonded labourers, thousands of whom have perished in the process. Yet, we travel great distances to behold and marvel at the beauty of such structures, few of which have any signs of contriteness.

Fashionable clothing is fabricated in sweatshops by poor underpaid women and children in hazardous environments. Yet we, whilst browsing on Robsonstrasse, remain oblivious to this. Why do these not elicit the same fervor for change as statues?

I am not judging the correctness of attacking statues. No person who has used offensive language, communicated negatively about or expressed hatred of particular peoples, caused misery, famine, death and destruction deserves a podium.

Then there were those who did unforgivable things from which, in the end, they personally profited. It is reasonable to assume that their decisions were calculated with knowledge of the consequences: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha ... the more infamous of the most egregious tyrants.

Targets for mass killings and enslavement included those who were indigenous, or from a different religious, ethnic, racial, economic or political group. So, for those enmeshed in the purposeful planning, commitment and/or oversight of major atrocities, I have no sympathy. Yet many in between, such as Castro, Kagame and MBS, have been implicated in contradictory liabilities.

Difficulties start when considering people who were basically well-intentioned within incredibly complex contexts, wherein their weighing of best alternatives sometimes resulted in decisions with deleterious impacts. So, were these errors of character, of fact, or of process?

Were people purposely targeted and were people harmed or killed or allowed to die? Did they anticipate that there may be many people injured or killed? Would the then available alternative options have caused even more deaths and destruction?

In every age and culture there have indeed always been upright people opposing maltreatment of others. Yet disenfranchisement, hatred, vindictiveness and exploitation have continued. Viewed in a historical sense, it can be said that we have not sufficiently learned from the past.

If we want to be part of a generation that makes an extraordinary effort to improve lives, we must demonstrate maturity in our ethics, morals and obligations to human rights with people of every race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, language and culture. Protesters should decide: if the statue is an affront to current values, would it be best to deface it, bury it in a harbour or melt it down for scrap.

But if we never see those statues again, many among us may remain oblivious to gross wrongs committed, and those responsible for them. Or, would it serve a higher edifying purpose to leave it in place with an explanatory plaque, or remove it to a museum for posterity’s historicising?

Rather than a statue to one who in the future might become embroiled in controversy, explanatory signs could be a proactive cultural option to memorialise a tragedy or famous event.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently set up a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to recommend which statues in London should be removed. Discrete options already in practice elsewhere include Coronation Park in Delhi, where statues of former officials from the colonial era have been relocated. In Berlin’s Spandau Zitadel special museum visitors can touch most of the objects relegated to a protected indoor display. In Nepal, statues of Ranas in heroic poses on their steeds have been relegated to obscure corners of Tundikhel. Statues of the Shahs were similarly removed in 2006.

As far as names of such flawed benefactors on buildings, cities, and streets, these could indeed be exchanged for contextually more appealing and appropriate names. Alternatively, more societies can shift to a culture withoutmonuments to their heroes.

As Rabindranath Tagore said in 1917: “Because each nation has its own history of thieving and lies and broken faith, therefore there can flourish only international suspicion and jealousy, and international moral shame becomes anaemic to a degree of ludicrousness.”

Altering, dismembering or stomping on statues or other representations, protesters transform their frustrations onto a rehumanised embodiment of their focus. But by doing this, are they not exemplifying a moral reaction obverse to their own desired ethical behaviour by others?

Toxic outrage may force the elimination of symbols of racism or other atrocities, but in the long term it can only be deliberate policy and regulatory improvements in governance, education and civic action that would gradually change the culture of attitudes and behaviours.

I prefer decisions with an understanding of the antecedents of the disliked person, and of the effects of any actions which may elude the preferred education of future generations.

As Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir said in 1975, “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present”.

Rather we must take advantage of history, including unsavoury history, and keep it visible so as to enable enhanced learning from past misdeeds and errors by showing measured, humane, non-violent responses.

Young and old alike must learn that there is not just day and night, but dawn and twilight as well.

Iván G Somlai is Director of EthnoBureaucratica based in Canada, and was a former consultant with Nepal’s Ministries of Health, Industry, and Tourism.

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