• Wednesday, Oct 21, 2020
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OP-ED: The politics of iconoclasm

  • Published at 07:19 pm June 11th, 2020
Winston Churchill statue in Minneapolis, London, Britain

Public figures and their monuments must be subject to re-interrogation

Christopher Columbus lost his head this week. The 15th century Genoese explorer’s statue in Boston was beheaded on Wednesday and will be moved into storage. Meanwhile, two other statues of the colonizer who (misattributedly) “discovered America” were toppled in Minnesota and Virginia.

Columbus was casualty of the stunning worldwide reaction after the murder of George Floyd by police officers on a Minneapolis street corner a fortnight ago. Huge demonstrations have prompted unprecedented public conversations about racism, inequality, reparations, and civil rights. 

There’s an obvious -- but unexplored -- connection to the coronavirus pandemic. Now that the critical mass of humanity is galvanized by the identical emergency, we are witnessing the emergence of collective consciousness about direct action to compel overdue changes to our communities, societies, and nations. 

Way back in 1973, the great Bob Marley pointed out with terrific clarity: “You teach the youth about Christopher Columbus / And you said he was a very great man.” But “All these so-called great men were doing / Robbing, raping, kidnapping” so “You can’t blame the youth / You can’t fool the youth.”

It’s an acute point from the Caribbean, where Columbus landed up looking for India, then triggered genocide (on the island of Hispaniola alone, the population declined from roughly one million to 500 in five decades, with pandemic an ancillary killer to slavery). 

Imagine being an indigenous person -- the grotesquely misrepresented “Red Indians” we grew up learning about -- being forced to live with your country celebrating your own worst enemy. Significant constituencies in the US have petitioned for change, but it was never “the right time.” 

Until now. Like oppressive dominoes, the statues of Columbus are falling, along with lingering reminders of the Confederacy, the secessionist states whose “cornerstone principle” was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” 

Even being defeated in the American Civil War (1861-65), the most prominent symbols of that hateful coalition survived into our 21st century. #BlackLivesMatter is bringing them down. Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested 11 statues be removed from the US Capitol in Washington DC and, perhaps even more significantly, the NASCAR racing circuit banned the (previously ubiquitous) confederate flag.

It should be noted this outburst of iconoclasm was initiated in the UK, when protestors pulled down the statue of notorious slave merchant and city father Edward Colston in Bristol. In an explicit link to #BlackLivesMatter, knees were symbolically pressed on its neck for eight minutes, and then it was dragged to the harbour and dumped into the water (it was later dredged out). 

For years, activists petitioned against statues celebrating merchant-philanthropists who made fortunes trafficking in slaves. Most recently, Oxford University fought doggedly against #RhodesMustFall protests spilling from South Africa (where the odious racist’s statues have been widely removed) to its own campus (where they are unlikely to survive another year).

But what’s the substantive difference between Colston and Robert Clive, who pillaged India ruthlessly, reducing Bengal to abject poverty and famine? 10 million Bengalis died as a direct result of his policies, yet his statue stands in Whitehall. 

Or consider Churchill, one of the most malign historical figures of the 20th century, the venomously racist warmonger who directly engineered the pre-independence Bengal Famine (3 million died), for which he blamed the victims themselves for “breeding like rabbits.” This “icon of the West” was much more damaging to South Asians than any Nazi. 

The point is that public figures and the monuments in their name must necessarily stand the test of re-interrogation. What is understood to be entirely honourable in one era can become repulsive in another. For instance, here’s a distinct possibility future generations will denounce us -- perhaps for not stopping climate change, and creating myriad excuses for inaction -- just as surely we condemn Colston and Clive.

In all this, there’s reason for South Asians to be especially cautious. This is a part of the world where the sixth century Bamiyan Buddhas, and the 16th century Babri Masjid, were both destroyed by religious extremists. There are countless competing claims on other objects and locations. Zealotry isn’t reappraisal, though perhaps there exists a slippery slope between them. 

In the spectrum of legitimate opinions that can be held in this matter, my own is on the side of reinvention, and in some cases relocation. Nothing should be destroyed, though they can certainly be moved or repositioned into settings to highlight our most complete understanding of the historical context. 

Thus, like Dr Martin Luther King, I too have a dream. Mine is that one day little children of every colour and ethnicity, will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers, and together climb all over the statue of Winston Churchill, noxious racist converted into playground accessory. 


Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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