Workers give the finishing touches to the world's tallest statue dedicated to Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam near Vadodara in western India's Gujarat state on October 18, 2018. Photo: AFP /  Sam Panthaky
The world's tallest statue, dedicated to Indian independence leader Sardar Patel, in Gujarat state. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP

A year ago, I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which bears testimony to the horrors of the Vietnam War. The museum is carefully curated and carries powerful documentation of trauma and loss, of suffering and the limits of human action.

The museum also archives the solidarity that poured in from around the world. From Japanese mathematicians to Jane Rose Kasmir holding a flower in her hand facing a row of soldiers pointing guns at her outside the Pentagon, peace-loving people from around the world came out in protest of Americans’ occupation and their war crimes. The museum serves as a public memory of the evils we are capable of and the importance of remembering and commemoration.

Similarly, monuments, public art and statues also play a significant role in our everyday lives. They can become avenues for remembering and commemoration. In them, we find a shape of public imagination of history that walks us through our past. At the same time, they also evoke the interest of the public by affecting their emotion and morality.

One such emotion that made its mark is the toppling of statues in the northeastern Indian state of Tripura.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Tripura by defeating the Left Front government, statues of Vladimir Lenin were demolished and defaced in March this year. More than the physical act of violence, it carried a symbolic achievement of regime change. It also carried with it a sense of purification from foreign ideologies and ideologues. More so, it showed the dialectical conflict of ideologies – of the left and the right.

The perennial conflict between the saffron and red was also extended to the color blue, which represents B R Ambedkar’s struggle to achieve a casteless society. Statues of Ambedkar and Periyar were also vandalized in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu after the Tripura events. Those actions extend beyond the right-wing and left-wing conflicts and extend to the domain of caste oppression and violence. It’s also part of a political synergy that advocates a narrow and homogenous vision of history and the nation.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s statue in Gujarat, called the “Statue of Unity,” stands as a marker of valor and Hindu nationalism, albeit not of unity.  On the other hand, Rohith Vemula’s statue is a reminder of the Indian caste system, and particularly the academic endogamy that was born because of the oppressive caste system. The statue of Rohith, a Dalit (lowest caste in Hindu social structure) scholar who committed suicide, is a powerful artifact of the social world that we Indians live in. Both statues combined inform our popular publics and counter-publics.

In a world of post-truths, such monuments, statues and museums can become powerful avenues of storytelling and critical conversations. Museums and railways have also played a significant role in most colonial countries. In India too, these two entities had a remarkable effect. Renowned social thinker Ashis Nandy notes that museums and railways signaled a triumph over time and space.

The museum, in particular, created an ordered vision of history and culture. It ironed out our complicated life and cultures in the frames and imageries that made sense to the colonial master or the distant traveler. It made you walk into and out of other cultures, and at times, of one’s own. Nandy notes that the museum as a metaphor left a cultural-psychological impact. It shaped our public imagination of history.

Other than that, monuments, statues and museums also express a need to accept, archive and catalogue our dark pasts, so that we don’t tread the same path again. Accepting guilt and repentance allows for sharing pain, both individually and socially. When such emotions are tied with these structures bearing marks of history, it gives us time for healing. It also offers us space for public reflexivity. Such public reflexivity can be a meaningful journey into our self and culture.

Renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum points out that there is a sheer lack of public monuments and absence of public commemoration of heinous events such as the anti-Muslim Godhra riots in 2002. Similarly, in Assam, we share a shocking amnesia for events such a Nellie massacre that took place onFebruary 18, 1983, in which more than 2,000 people were slaughtered in a span of hours.

The perpetrators in both cases were similar to the German Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, and their acts reflected the “banality of evil.” If right-wing extremists were complicit in the riots and were instigators of communal hate that led to the Godhra incident, the agents and agendas of the Assam Movement cultivated xenophobia and made an event such as Nellie possible; that makes both parties equally culpable.

Each year, the day and month in which Nellie happened pass by and regional TV channels and newspapers draw a blank. There is no attempt to remember or accept guilt. Nellie is almost erased from our public memory and social history.

However, there is no dearth of commemoration of Lachit Borphukan –  a historic army general of Assam in the pre-British era – and the martyrs of the Assam Movement, which was built against illegal immigrants in the state.

Such selective amnesia makes the presence of statues, monuments, museums and public commemoration, which depict pain and suffering, doubly important. Spaces and efforts of commemoration carry the potential of healing and sharing the pain, and to accept guilt.

Between the War Remnants Museum and Rohith’s statue, one finds a space where there is love along with a strong psychological defense against social evils. In order to achieve a healthy society, we ought not to turn our eye from the victim, or the perpetrator. Recognizing the victim and empowering the minority will give impetus to democratic principles. We need to begin humbly, by accepting guilt and remembering their joys and pains.

Suraj Gogoi

Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the National University of Singapore.