Friday, July 3, 2009

MAYAWATI'S MEMORIALS MARK EPOCHAL CHANGE

"Spread over 130 acres, the compound matches London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Egypt’s Karnak Temple in terms of sheer scale...You might call this the new Rome, except it has all the authenticity and originality of a Bollywood set: Mogul-style pavilions here". This is how Amy Kazmin describes the 130 acre memorial being built by Mayawati on the banks of Gomti in Lucknow in honour of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the original hero of dalits, India's "untouchables".

During the last few days, Mayawati has come in for severe criticism from almost everyone, including bloggers, for building grand memorials for dalit leaders and unveiling her own statues too in the process. Ever since she stormed to power on her own in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, she has spent hundreds of crores of rupees to build such memorials in the state. In Lucknow itself, apart from the Ambedkar memorial which will be protected by an equally impressive Rs 1 crore police post built of pink Mirjapuri stone, two more monuments are coming up. One is a 30 acre memorial for Mayawti's mentor Kanshi Ram with a massive colonnaded sandstone building with a giant dome quite like the US Capitol building. The other is a magnificent Buddha temple.

The other major project whose construction began in total secrecy in January 2008, is a huge dalit memorial in Noida. Initially, a beautiful sandstone wall was built around four parks on the bank of the Yamuna, as if to beautify them. Then, these parks were declared out of bounds for people and construction was started at a frenetic pace. It was only when 30 feet high sandstone columns became visible from the road that people realised that there was a massive structure being constructed there. No official word is out yet but, according to the rumour mill, a dalit memorial "grander than the Akshardham Temple" built a few kilometers away in 2005, is being built at a cost of Rs 300 crore. It will house 11 statues of dalit leaders including Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati herself. Not surprisingly, a lot of people are up in arms and a PIL has also been filed in the Supreme Court against the project.

To give you an idea of what this memorial will be like, if reports are true, then it needs to be mentioned that a temple like the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple in Delhi has possibly not been built in India for over a thousand years. It is stunning beyond words, transports you into a different world and generates an awe that stays with you. No wonder it is already perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in Delhi, with 70% tourists coming to Delhi visiting it, in addition to Delhiites. It is also Delhi's most impressive architectural landmark that took 300 million man hours to build, in only five years; that is the equivalent of constructing 42 Empire State buildings! (Watch You Tube video here) To beat it will take some doing and vision.

The criticism that is being levelled against Mayawati for spending so much of money which could and should have been spent to better the lot of dalits in one of India's most backward states in not entirely misplaced. Nor is the condemnation that is being heaped upon her for erecting her own statues. The most unconvincing criticism, of course, is from her political opponents who ruled the state for long but neither built memorials nor used the money properly for the betterment of the people of the state that has produced five Prime Ministers; they just pushed the state into the sorry state that it is in today.

Is there really no merit in what she is doing at all? Has she actually lost it, as seems to be the general opinion among ordinary upper caste and non-dalit Indians?

Let us, snooty brahmins and others, get one thing that has missed us. This is the first time in the history of India that dalits have come to power in a big part of India on their own and not in a subordinate position to any upper caste politician or party. That is one reason why, till now, no memorials of dalit leaders have been built anywhere. Till Mayawati emerged on the scene, Ambedkar's cheap and garishly painted statues could be found almost wholly in dalit villages and bastis. He and other dalit leaders were never given the status enjoyed even by lesser non-dalit leaders.

After Independence, the Congress started the culture of building memorials of national leaders and the naming of every second road after them too, primarily of those from the Nehru-Gandhi family. As Mayawati said tauntingly a few days back, the real estate value of the three huge "samadhis" built in Delhi for Nehru, Indira and Rajiv far exceeds the amount being spent by her on dalit memorials. What she did not mention was that besides these, Nehru's official residence, Teen Murti House, has been converted to his memorial and 1 Safdarjang Road, Indira Gandhi's residence as PM, is her memorial.These three leaders have been similarly honoured in many other places in India with innumerable roads, buildings, schemes etc. bearing their names. God knows how many thousand crores rupees of prime real estate has been locked up in their memory across the country and how many hundred crores are being spent on maintaining it annually.

As Lord Meghnad Desai asked Barkha Dutt in a TV show sometime back, how is putting up monuments of dalits any worse than that of brahmins (Nehrus)? Let us rewind a bit. The great heritage buildings that have become the pride of all of us were not built when Indians were better off than they are today. The British squandered our money to build opulent buildings and put up grand statues of many Britons only to showcase their colonial superiority even as millions of Indians were dying of starvation and disease. The Taj Mahal and Humayun's Tomb were also not built when Indians were having a rollicking time either. Add as many more examples as you like; there are plenty of them.

Yes, Mayawati could have spent our money in a much better manner. Yes, she should not have put up her own statues a la Saddam Hussein. But, if you consider the distinct possibility that another dalit leader may not emerge on the scene for quite some time after Mayawati, her madness begins to make great sense. No one will perhaps build for her a memorial, just like no one built one for Ambedkar for 62 years. But after she goes, no politician will find it easy to pull down what she has constructed, even though some are saying today that they will. Also, considering the scale of her projects coming up in Lucknow and Noida, and the Akshardham Temple experience, there is a distinct possibility that these will become major tourist attractions and earn enough money to pay for their maintenance costs.

All things considered, Mayawati is justified in creating permanent reminders of as historical a development as the rise to power of those who have been the lowest of the low for thousands of years. That she understands the epochal significance of a dalit rising to rule India's largest state for the first ever time is evident from the fact that the stones being used in the construction of these monuments are expected to last 1000 years.

It may be well nigh impossible for many of us to understand the significance of this huge change that would have looked impossible just 25 years back. Some dalits may also miss the bigger picture and say to TV cameras that they should have individually been taken care of first by Mayawati. But when they, even you and I, walk through these memorials after they are ready, the one message that no one will miss is that it was dalits themselves who successfully overturned the humiliation and oppression of thousands of years. Those statues, including Mayawati's, will speak.

And the loudest message that they will convey to dalits is that they do not need the crutch of any patronising empowerment, political or religious, for that will not get them to the top of the heap. It never has; it never will: they can and must do it on their own.

Picture source:
1. Photobucket
2. The Times of India
3. Wikimedia
4. Picasaweb