• Tuesday, July 05, 2022

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Why we need to reflect before destroying old statues

FILE PHOTO: Anti-racism protesters push the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston into the waters near the Bristol harbour. (Keir Gravil via REUTERS)

By: Radhakrishna N S

By Lord Meghnad Desai

DURING the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations around the world after the death in the US of George Floyd, a lot of rage was expressed against racism and in­justice to black people.

Many monuments and statues were de­faced and damaged, among them the statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The one in London’s Parliament Square, which was unveiled in March 2015, suffered only slightly – a slash of white paint and the word ‘racist’ marked on one of the steps.

In Washington DC, there was more serious damage to Gandhi’s statue and it had to be covered up.

Thanks to the BLM movement, statues have come under scrutiny. Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was toppled and thrown into the riv­er, and later retrieved. Local councils across the UK are considering what to do with statues – cover them up, re­move them, relabel their name plaques?

But why statues? Even if all the statues of everyone thought to be suspect by the BLM were removed, how will it improve the life chances of a single per­son – be they black, brown or white?

The death of Floyd is a matter of police be­haviour. Had it hap­pened here, the officers concerned would be in breach of the law.

Those taking part in BLM rallies are young, angry and quite correct to protest against racial injustice. Indeed, Gan­dhi would join them if he was alive now. The injustices that America’s black community has suffered for the past 400 years is shameful. Despite the abolition of slavery in the 1860s and the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, the position of black Americans re­mains one of political and economic deprivation.

Unlike in India, voting rights are not uncondi­tionally universal. Even now, individual states create obstacles to deny black American citizens their voting rights.

The status of black and ethnic minority voters in the UK is not like that of their coun­terparts in the US. Ac­counting for under 10 per cent of the popula­tion, BAME representa­tion in politics has im­proved tremendously over the past 50 years since the Brixton riots. This has been thanks to concerted action by po­litical parties, just as women (another group which could complain) have increased their share in public office. There is always more to be done, but the UK is not the US.

Of course, there is in­come inequality, poor housing and health is­sues which led to higher mortality rates in the Covid-19 pandemic. But targeting statues do not tackle those issues. Their removal is a chal­lenge to rewrite British history exposing racism, the slave trade and im­perialism. That effort has been going on in schools and universities and it must be increa­seed. Also, we must tackle these inequalities whether the person suf­fering is BAME or white British. There was an unfortunate tendency of anti-semitism in the Labour party in recent years. Quite rightly, the new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has prom­ised to clean up the party and take action against that bias.

Churchill, who is la­belled racist, has an outstanding record in leading the fight against Nazism. There were British political leaders such as Lord Halifax (the viceroy Lord Irving as he was in the early 1930s) who would have signed a peace treaty with Hitler, giving him a free hand in Europe . Churchill had been warning about Hitler from the back benches through the years. Had he not been prime min­ister and had Britain not fought Hitler, chances are he would have won the Second World War.

With Churchill absent, US president Franklin Roosevelt may not have come to Europe to fight. Indeed, it was thanks to the Indian Army, led by General William Slim, which inflicted the big­gest defeat in a land war on Japan at Kohima. Imagine the position of Jews and all non-Aryan people had Hitler been ruling over Europe. Hit­ler told India’s Subhash Chandra Bose that Indi­ans were not ready for freedom for the next 125 years.

Or take Gandhi. He is called racist because when he was in South Africa and the Zulu re­bellion broke out, he formed an ambulance corps for the govern­ment to collect injured Zulu soldiers who would have been left to die by the government medical corps.

The charge against Gandhi is that he should have joined the Zulu rebellion. Not only did Indians, indentured workers and merchants not have any military training, but they were Indian subjects of the Empire, not African.

Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and suc­cessfully organised a mass movement which ended British rule. The spark he lit enflamed the rest of the British Empire and within 50 years of his return to In­dia, British imperialism was gone. His example gave a new life to the movement led by Dr Martin Luther King to fight for black American civil rights. As Mandela has acknowledged, it was Gandhi who sowed the seeds of the African National Congress and within the 20th century, apartheid was gone.

It is true that statues make us re-examine history. But we must also know the whole story. It is unfair to label some­one racist because of one episode or one sentence in a speech or article.

The people whose statues these are were creatures of their time, not ours. If we judge the famous people of those days harshly, it is due to the fact that they did many things, some of which changed our world for the better, and that is what allows us to judge them so harshly. History is a many-sided story. No single view has monopoly. Let us hear all the voices of the past, present and future.

Eastern Eye

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