BY ALI USMAN QASMI
The tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol by protestors acting in solidarity with the trans-Atlantic Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement generated a lively debate about the legitimacy of the act, benefits derived from it, and possible future trajectories of the trend to target historical symbols. While alt-right groups and conservatives are condemning it because they are uncomfortable with the potentialities of symbolic redemption and reclaiming of space by historically oppressed groups, liberal commentators are hiding behind the rationale for preserving the past. Their argument is that the past cannot be undone, so we must live with its burden. Commenting on the issue, William Dalrymple – a popular historian of the British Raj – tweeted comparing the action with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha or justification used by Hindu extremists for the demolition of the sixteenth-century Babri mosque in 1992. If we endorse the BLM’s iconoclastic acts, the argument goes, we will be on a slippery slope paving the way for similar acts of vandalism carried out by extremists on pretexts we do not agree with.
To compare the targeting of statues honoring confederate generals or slave traders with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha is not just a bad analogy; it is a deliberate act of historical amnesia. A more relatable example would have been the tearing down of Saddam Husain’s statues in Iraq in 2003 following the US occupation. It was, back then, universally cheered as an act of liberation. We can learn from this example that just because the state power of a regime enables it to erect its preferred symbols of authority does not mean that these symbols cannot subsequently be eradicated.
An understanding of the peculiarity of historical contexts and political contingencies driving the moments of resistance is of considerable importance. By foregrounding these contexts and politics, I will, firstly, debunk the misplaced analogy drawn between BLM and Hindutva or Taliban. Secondly, I argue that the targeting of public symbols of authority and oppression entail the possibilities of radical politics and retributive justice. For both arguments, my point of reference is colonial history. This serves as a reminder of the possibilities of radical politics embodied in subversive acts that were once widely practiced, appreciated, and considered legitimate in the global South. A reckoning of that politics in the present moment can serve to build a broader coalition of the oppressed against global circuits of power.
Memory of the past
Dalrymple is not a colonial apologist. He is a liberal historian who thinks that the British must apologize for their mischiefs, remove controversial statues, and arrange for a unique garden or museum where such symbols can be displayed for proper historical contextualization. But such are the limits of intellectual poverty bred by contemporary liberal political and economic thought that someone like Dalrymple tends to see the acts of BLM and Hindutva groups as two ends of the same political spectrum with shared methods but different ideologies. Such a simplistic understanding stems from failing to take stock of the nature of historical claims made by rival groups and to factor it in according legitimacy to the politics of one group while invalidating that of the other.
The destruction of Babri mosque was carried out by forces of Hindutva – a political ideology that seeks to acquire state power to transform India from a secular state to a Hindu rashtra (regime). It conflates India with Hindus, Hinduism and the Hindi language. Such a collapsing of Indian identity with the triumvirate of Hindu-centric ideals is aimed at otherizing non-Hindu groups – especially Muslims – who become perpetual outsiders and a source of threat for the Hindu rashtra.
The politics of Hindutva and its hatred towards Muslims is predicated on a ‘historical claim’ to victimhood. As Romila Thapar’s work shows, the idea of ‘Hindu trauma’ because of alleged violence inflicted by Muslim rulers – a theme that is the fulcrum of Hindutva’s political ideology inspired by a decontextualized reading of history – is a product of the communalized version of the past popularized by colonial historians at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Such a notion of history is a delusional portent of mythical past mixed with a positivist history that feeds into a narrative about atrocities of Muslim rule in India. The worst example of such ‘history’ is the claim of Hindutva ideologues – contrary to historical evidence and patchy archaeological findings – that Mughal ruler Babar demolished a huge temple in Ayodhya that marked the birthplace of Ram, and replaced it with a mosque.
This is a classic example of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes as an erroneously conceived understanding of the ‘storage model’ of memory and the claim that individuals and groups retrieve events and facts about the past from such a reservoir. To apply Trouillot’s model in Indian history, no Hindu today was witness to the destruction of a temple – or many temples for that matter – that took place for a variety of reasons during the medieval period. It is only because we are reminded of such events through various means – textbook history is only one such source – that we know of them, and they are constitutive of our individual and collective identities. The same applies to the memory of slavery. While slavery was an equally horrendous act in the Caribbean and parts of South America, it is the way it ended in the US, and the afterlife of slavery (Jim Crow laws, civil rights movement, police brutality, a disproportionate number of the Black population in prisons) that it continues to be a lived traumatic reality, rather than politicization of a fictional memory. On the other hand, the Hindutva ideology is an example of induced trauma that breeds tyrannical majoritarian ethos.
Furthermore, it is fallacious to compare pre-modern empires and collapse them with modern state systems presumptuously built on the ideas of freedom, liberty, and equality. This is to say that while slavery existed in the pre-modern period, it is the institutionalized form of racial hierarchy backed by ‘scientific claims’ of superiority enacted politically through colonialism that resulted in unprecedented levels of violence, destruction, and displacement of physical landscapes and cultural habitats.
Contesting Symbols: the legacy of anti-colonial resistance and its postcolonial afterlives
After suppressing the Indian revolt of 1857 – often remembered as the War of Independence in Indian historiography and described as a “mutiny” in colonial records – the British government carried out a commemorative spree to honor the British soldiers and civilians who had fallen victims to the alleged violence committed by the ‘rebels’. This was especially true for places like Kanpur, Lucknow, and Delhi, where the British had suffered heavy losses and faced stiff resistance. As is the case with other such public symbols, the commemorations through which the state tried to establish its indomitable supremacy also became its weakest point where it was most vulnerable. These symbols were susceptible to attacks by anti-colonial nationalists seeking to exact political mileage out of symbolic acts of salvation.
One of the most notable examples of anti-colonial resistance against a statue comes from Lahore. The British erected a statue of John Lawrence on the Mall in front of the Lahore High Court in 1887. Lawrence was the first chief commissioner of Punjab after the annexation of the region in 1849 and was credited for laying down the administrative structure of imperial rule in Punjab. In this larger than life statue, Lawrence was depicted as arrogantly holding a pen and a sword, provocatively giving ‘the natives’ the question – “Which will you have, pen or sword?” The statue became the focus of nationalist agitation from 1899 onwards. The nationalists demanded the removal of the offensive inscription or replacement of the statue. The British refused to budge. Finally, in 1925, Lawrence’s pen and sword were broken by some ‘unknown assailants.’ The police arrested the beggar who had initially reported the incident. In a poetic rendition of this act, Zafar Ali Khan – the editor of an Urdu daily and a prominent political figure of Punjab – took a jab at the broken sword and pen of Lawrence as a sign of its redundancy in India’s changing political climate. Even if the British still had the bayonet, he wrote, the ascetic power of a fakir’s club was powerful enough to counter it.
The statue remained in a damaged condition till the end of the British Raj. In 1950, the government of Pakistan moved it to the Lahore Fort to protect it from any further damage. In the insurgent mood of leftist and nationalist forces in the immediate aftermath of independence, the British were anxious about the colonial era relics and made frantic efforts to save them from oblivion. But the crescendo of anti-colonial rhetoric was so high that there was little that the British could do. As Queen Victoria’s statue in front of the assembly hall at the Charing Cross was removed, put on a cart and dumped in the basement of the Lahore museum, the British diplomat in his note to the British Commonwealth Relations Office could only helplessly rely on ‘native superstition’ as a source of comfort to write that the statue was “still locally revered and the opinion has been expressed that its removal is a bad omen.”
Before the formal transfer of power, the British finalized the official ceremony’s theatrical details in a manner so that no disrespect to imperial symbols could occur. In his comprehensive survey of the politics of commemoration in post-1947 India, Paul McGarr has noted that the British were keen on keeping the ceremony low profile – especially in the case of Lucknow. The Union Jack at Lucknow residency had never been lowered since the brutal encounter of 1857-8. The Communist groups insisted on a public ceremony to lower the flag. However, the British ensured that the ceremony took place quietly far from the public eye.
Surprisingly, despite his anti-colonial rhetoric, Nehru was not keen on fanning the sentiment against statues on the pretext of following a rather Gandhian approach towards conciliating with the oppressor. According to McGarr, American officials reporting political events in Delhi were surprised to see the number of statues surviving in India and compared the situation with Indonesia. Sukarno’s revolutionary regime had removed Dutch colonial symbols. As late as 1959, the American president Eisenhower was amazed to find the magnificent George V statue near Delhi’s presidential palace.
During the 1950s, McGarr tells us, the ‘de-platforming’ of statues from plinths across India and Pakistan became a primary source of anxiety for the British. The concern was not only about the need to preserve history but also to safeguard British prestige as a world power. When Sudan decided to get rid of Major General Charles Gordon and Field Marshall Lord Kitchener’s statues, the British were concerned that Egypt would use those removals for propaganda purposes and cause further damage to Britain’s faltering image as a global power after the Suez Canal crisis. It was one of the occasions when the British government agreed to pay for the expenses of shipping the statues out of Sudan. In most other cases, the pragmatism of economic costs preceded any other consideration.
In the case of the Lawrence statue, however, British imperial nostalgia demanded that the statue be preserved. The Foyle and Londonderry College’s Old Boys Association – of which Lawrence was an alumnus – got involved and established contact with the Indian Civil Services Association based in London. In 1959, Sir Olaf Caroe – the former governor of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the author of a classical Orientalist history of ‘the Pathans’ – used his influence in the top tier of Pakistani bureaucracy and military to prevail upon General Ayub Khan – Pakistan’s military ruler – to return the statue to the UK. The cost of its handling and delivery was to be paid by the Old Boys Association. The College assured the government of Pakistan that the provocative inscription would not be re-inscribed. The secretary of the former ICS officers’ organization, responsible for corresponding with the Pakistani officials, commented on the Lawrence statue’s condition once it had arrived in the UK. He wrote:
“… it is in remarkably good order. After cleaning the following work will have to be done:
Replacement of two spurs
Replacement of pen
Straightening and repairing sword
Replacement of sword belt.”
Although undoubtedly not as poetic as Zafar Ali Khan’s words, this short description is an apt metaphor for the postcolonial moment of the 1950s that witnessed the decline of British power as it lost the ability to inflict war and violence on large parts of the world. The US had replaced it as the neo-imperial power. The British ‘sword’ was broken and required ‘straightening’ and ‘repairing.’ The pen needed to be replaced. It was not broken. It continues to be functional as we speak and write!
Rallying against symbols of oppression is a political act that is rooted in our collective history of resistance against colonialism. By contextualizing the historical imperative of these ‘subversive acts’, we can arrive at an alternative mode of radical politics that draws upon the revolutionary past of anti-colonial resistance. Contrary to what liberal commentators and conservatives insist, the issue is never about the erasure of history. It is about acknowledging the past to its fullest extent and recognizing it for its painful burden to end its continuities in structures and practices. Forgetting the past is not an option, but not celebrating such a past is undoubtedly an option, especially when – as Faulkner once famously said – “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”.
The moment for reclaiming of the past for an alternative future is now. It is as much of an academic project as an agenda for radical politics.
Ali Usman Qasmi is an Associate Professor (History) at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences. His recent publications include The Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan (London: Anthem Press, 2014) and a co-edited volume, Muslims against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Ideas of Pakistan (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2017). He is currently working on the idea of citizenship in Pakistan.