A FORMER British-Indian lawmaker has launched an impassioned campaign to defend a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Leicester, after an online petition calling for its removal attracted nearly 5,000 signatures.
Keith Vaz, who was the longest-serving member of Parliament from Leicester until last year, called for the petition to be withdrawn or for its organisers to face a police inquiry for inciting racial hatred as he declared that he would personally defend the sculpture if anyone tried to remove it.
“Gandhi’s statues in Leicester and London are an inspiration for peace, harmony and non-violence. He was one of the greatest peacemakers in history,” said Vaz, who was present when the statue was unveiled in Leicester 11 years ago by then home secretary Alan Johnson.
“This is a dreadful petition that seeks to divide communities in Leicester and in the country… If this is not withdrawn I will certainly refer it to the police to consider whether it incites racial hatred.
“We have come a long way in 33 years on racial equality but clearly there is a long way to go. If there is any attempt to remove it, I will be there to defend it personally.”
On the petition page, Gandhi is described by Pangulier as a “fascist, racist and sexual predator” who has brought “inconsolable suffering against [their] people”.
The petition titled “Remove the Gandhi Statue in Leicester” was initiated by one Kerri Pangulier on June 1, with a target of 5,000 signatures.
“Gandhi, is a fascist, racist and sexual predator,” read the opening line of the petition, which asked people to do “your own research” before signing it.
The bronze statue, which captures Gandhi in his walking stride by Kolkata artist Gautam Pal, had attracted some opposition even at the time of its unveiling in 2006 because many felt Gandhi did not share strong links with Leicester.
However, Leicester City Council had approved the application by Indian charity Samanwaya Pariwar, which had raised the funds for the memorial.
Leicester City Council said the current petition will be considered as part of a wider review of the city’s statues, street and building names, which followed similar initiatives being undertaken by local authorities around the UK in the wake of massive anti-racism protests.
Notably, the steps leading to the Gandhi sculpture at Parliament Square were targeted during a recent demonstration. In the US, too, a Gandhi statue near the India Embassy had recently been vandalised during “Black Lives Matter” protests.
“Although this petition has not yet been submitted to us, these representations will be considered as part of a wider conversation about the context, relevance and appropriateness of street names, statues and monuments in the city,” a city council spokesperson said.
“In such a culturally-diverse city as Leicester, it’s important that we respect the histories of all our communities and understand the context for the historical references that are part of our streetscape and built environment.”
A similar petition against the unveiling of a Gandhi statue in the city of Manchester had also been launched last year, claiming the leader of the Indian independence movement had a “questionable, racist” background.
The campaign was ultimately defeated as the statue in Manchester became the latest addition to the UK’s many Gandhi statues, including two sculptures in London – at Tavistock Square and Parliament Square – as well as one each in Leicester, Birmingham and Cardiff.