Police stand guard near the 'Statue Of Unity', by the Sardar Sarovar Dam  in India's western Gujarat state prior to the inauguration of the world's biggest statue on Wednesday. Photo: Sam Panthaky / AFP
Police stand guard near the Statue Of Unity by the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India's western Gujarat state. Photo: AFP/Sam Panthaky

False pride recurs as a Tower of Babel curse of humanity, and the Indian government succumbed to this bane of Babel on Wednesday. Ignoring wisdom and protesting locals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the “world’s tallest” statue, ironically of Indian freedom fighter Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.  It’s folly of the kind that costs prime ministers their reputation – and re-election.

Independent India’s first home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel might have fired any misguided genius for spending 29 billion rupees (US$329 million) for a statue. He lived a spartan, self-sacrificing life. And the edifice in his memory features him standing barefoot, in simple attire.

Called the “Statue of Unity,” the 182-meter tribute towers twice the height of New York’s Statue of Liberty. An unimpressed Business Standard noted: “The cost of the statue could have funded two new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses, five Indian Institute of Management (IIM) campuses and six Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) missions to Mars.”

Or, the statue cost could have irrigated more than 40,000 hectares of land. Instead, it displaced farmers and tribals in 72 villages, with some of the affected farmers threatening to drown themselves during the Vallabhbhai statue inauguration. And Vallabhbhai was born in a farmer’s family.

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Indian Air Force helicopters shower rose petals on the ‘Statue Of Unity,’ dedicated to Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The world’s tallest statue, it overlooks the Sardar Sarovar Dam in western India’s Gujarat state.

Great leaders and saints never asked posterity to hoist statues, label roads in their name. But it’s easier to pay lip service of symbolisms, offer flowery rituals in hollow respect, than invest in the harder work of paying true respect by living an honest life, and serving fellow beings as they did.

As an ancient civilization and a young democracy, India in its path to reclaiming its Golden Age runs into weaknesses that poisoned its culture across time. One such lethal poison is blind personality worship, the sickening sycophancy and empty symbolisms to eminent lives.

The Modi government plans more Towers of Babel, with a project to build off the Mumbai coast a similar $300 million statue of the Maratha warrior king Shivaji.

I wonder if India’s prime minister ever visited the Tata Memorial Hospital in central Mumbai, seen cancer-affected, bedridden children bravely smiling through pain, their misery-struck parents, once prosperous families ruined by costs of cancer treatment and now living in the streets outside. Then maybe he would have difficulty wasting $600 million on two statues – when 2% of that money could save thousands of lives.

Personality worship and the curse of sycophancy are part of the same mania: blind idolizing of individuals, be it movie stars, political leaders, great kings of history, saints and the gods who too are subject to the eternal law of impermanence.

Indian or Asian culture is not alone in personality worship. God Save the Queen is England’s national anthem, not “God Save England.” But unlike India’s VIP culture that has “Very Important Pests” disrupting routine life, Queen Elizabeth cannot get away with traffic violations, or flaunt hundred-vehicle motorcades that block citizens rushing to the hospital, to the office, or to catch a train or plane.

India paid a heavy price for personality worship. More than 2,500 years ago, the Fully Enlightened Super-Scientist called the Buddha compassionately shared the practical path to true happiness. He taught Vipassana to clean the mind and reduce the ego that causes self-inflicted suffering. Yet soon after the Buddha’s passing away, personality-worship corrupted his practical teachings to another sect called “Buddhism.” The Buddha was not a “Buddhist.” A weakened India fell to invaders for centuries.

Like a Trojan horse waiting to lure a 21st-century fort of fools, personality worship such as statue mania and empty symbolisms again poison practical values, and the corruption-free hard work that individuals and a country needs for real progress.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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