Statues and their legacies: What the US can learn from India

History undergraduate, John Boden, has been examining the debate around Confederate statues in America and considering the best way to approach contentious history:

‘In 2017, a decision was made in Charlottesville, Virginia (United States) to remove Confederate statues from public places. What followed was a confrontation between pro-Confederacy and anti-Confederacy protesters, leading to violence and even a death.

The confrontation uncovered serious divisions in the US conscience about how to remember the Confederate States and how to reconcile modern America with this memory. Every society has the desire to define itself and will only permit what it sees as tolerable to be commemorated (the Roman Republic would not erect statues of Roman kings). However, when does an existing memorial stop being an active political symbol and start being historical? Furthermore, how do you deal with its legacy?

In America, the legacy of the Confederacy has been contentious and there are many sides to the argument. There are those who see Confederate statues as pieces of historical evidence which are worth preserving for their value to history. There are those who see it as an active part of their heritage and where they come from, even if the politics are contentious. There are some who still follow the racial ideas of the confederacy. Finally, there are people who don’t agree with what the statues represent and want them removed. So how do you go about dealing with the issue? A prominent example of a nation which finds itself in a not too dissimilar position is post-colonial India. By looking at how India dealt with a contentious past, there may be some lessons to be learned in the United States.

In 1947, after a period of intense and hurried negotiation, India became an independent nation, removing itself as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire. India now wished to be the master of its own destiny, no longer defined by the wishes of others. Note Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech in which he exclaims “India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent”, clearly noting a distinction between the new native India and the old Imperial India. However, India had held a prestigious position in the British Empire while, similarly, the British Empire had held an esteemed place in India. This resulted in a widespread presence of statues and memorials of people who had been symbols of this overseas rule. India now had to decide what position these statues would have in the future of this new independent India. India could not deny the role Britain played in shaping their society. British-influenced social structures and ideas were commonplace in an India that had just gained its independence, hence India found itself in an awkward position of being enthused by sovereignty but conflicted about legacy. In the same speech from above Nehru also stated: “The past clings on to us still”, demonstrating that India was not entirely disassociated with the Imperial past.  Emphasising the fact India didn’t want to eliminate Britain’s role in India’s history, Gandhi once replied to a question about the extent of separation from the Empire: “From the Empire, completely. From the British nation, not at all, I want India to gain and not to grieve.” Although British rule in India is littered with controversial events, the new India didn’t want to be defined by a redressing of its history. India wished to put events behind it and move forward. But what of the physical legacy?

Imperial symbols are present across India, but their locations are significant. No longer do they occupy the foreground, but instead they are side-lined. The case that best exemplifies how India has demoted imperial symbols is the statue of George V that once sat in the very crux of New Delhi, at India Gate. Once the greatest symbol of British Crown authority in India, the decision was made in the 1960s (nearly ten years after rejecting the Monarchy and even longer since independence) that it should instead be moved to Coronation Gardens. It still sits in Coronation Gardens, unkempt, ill maintained and very much out the way. This provides a key example of how India remembers its imperial past: though it no longer sits as pride of place in centre, it’s an accepted piece of history. As India desired to take its own path and forge its own destiny, it decided to reinvent itself into a nation where imperialism is more of a distant memory than an active component. It didn’t want to be a nation that reinvented itself simply “to grieve”. The space of empire (that of India Gate in this case) is widely accepted as a physical part of their national fabric, but what occupies that space is strictly under Indian control, a control they regularly exercise through changing street names from their Anglican names. The King George V statue represented the past and the past had an active legacy, but India believed the best way to reconcile this with the future was toleration, not destruction or celebration. It acknowledged its widespread impact but made sure this impact was not the definition of India, more of an increasingly distant memory as she moves forward. Therefore, we see King George V increasingly dilapidated and forgotten.

The future of the imperial symbols is uncertain. A time may come when the British Raj is no longer viewed as an undesirable burden on the Indian conscience, but is something to be explored and studied without political connotations. If that time comes, their approach of begrudging toleration for the past rather than hatred will prove a wise one.

There are, however, difficulties that prevent America from directly following India’s example that must be noted. Firstly, Empire is no longer a part of Indian politics. It’s not something that is held dearly or with great enthusiasm in India and was an external entity that could be cast off. Whereas in America, the Confederacy is still seen as an active and revered piece of the Southern States heritage. Some even still believe in its politics, either directly or through political ideologies with coinciding views (e.g. Neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan, white nationalist’s beliefs of racism/racialism). This prevents the Confederacy from being consigned to the past and prevents the creation of a will to ‘move on’ from this history. Secondly, India has little internal division over how empire is to be remembered. Apart from a minority which are actively angry with the British Raj and Britain, most simply desire to forget it and put it behind them, they don’t like it but there is little will to be distraught by it.

Confederate statues still ignite heated debate in America as there are some still attached to these statues and see them as positive symbols, whereas there are also Americans who are very much opposed to them and everything they represent. This highlights the fracture in the US memory of the Confederacy, with some seeing it as a lost cause of rebellion and with some seeing it as an evil body which goes against everything America stands for. This is complicated further by the fact that the Confederacy was re-amalgamated into the United States, meaning the ‘losers’ and the ‘winners’ had to live as one. This creates the complication of how to deal with the legacy and how to move forward. If the schism in legacy cannot be reconciled, either sides’ course of action will be deeply unpopular with the other. Because of this, the aggressive approach towards statue destruction/protection remains. Finally, it’s also true that in the two cases, the Confederacy failed and the Indian Independence movement won. This meant India had the ability to shape its own future and its own memory of empire. Whereas the Confederacy was consigned to history forcefully meaning that its ideas didn’t pass into history (as with the British Raj) but were taken away.  Hence, believers in the Confederacy lost the ability to shape its legacy consequently the symbols that do exist are all that Confederacy sympathisers have of its brief existence. This effectively means the Confederacy is stuck in a time warp as its perception has become a fixed point in time.

While each example is deeply rooted in their unique contexts, the importance of statues remains. Although today, the Confederate statues are deeply controversial and their removal is a growing reality, their importance to history should never be forgotten. The ideas and history that these symbols represent may not be desirable today, but they will be vitally useful pieces of evidence in the future and may someday become museum exhibits to be studied and represent past events. Every society has the right to define itself and its symbols, but the destruction of old ones only damages historical understanding. Just as George V sits half-forgotten in a park, waiting to be remembered, hopefully the same fate awaits Robert E Lee. Overall then, the message of this brief article is to consider history, not just what the statue represents now but what it will represent in the future.’

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