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Democracy Set in Stone?

The construction of civic monuments celebrating the supposed virtues of powerful generals and merchants was a popular governing strategy of the British Raj. One of the most noticeable changes to the landscape of postcolonial India however, has been the proliferation of statues of the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956). Dressed in a three-piece suit, his animated right arm indicating his skills as a teacher and orator, and with a copy of the constitution he helped to craft under his arm, Ambedkar statues can now be found at hundreds of street corners, rural crossroads, bus stands, and university campuses.

Some people have argued that the statues are frivolous and only attest to the shallowness of low caste politics. But many others see them as evidence of the extent to which democracy has taken root in minds of ‘common people’ and an  important means through which Dalit activists can symbolically appropriate public space. The iconography of the statues also fortifies the aspirations of a growing number of Dalits, particularly young men, to attain educational qualifications and ‘respectable’ work and, more broadly, reaffirms formal democracy as a route to political emancipation.

Symbolic resources such as statues surely are important in developing a sense of pride, solidarity, and belonging amongst historically marginalized communities. Indeed, the periodic accounts of attacks against Ambedkar statues by non-Dalits seems to support the idea that they have succeeded in making the political struggles of low castes more visible.

Yet, it is important to also consider what the iconography might obscure or exclude. Ambedkar’s role in challenging social prejudice and economic injustice is clearly central to the political identity of many Dalits but he himself was at best ambivalent about civic monuments commenting: “India is par excellence the land of idolatry. There is idolatry in religion, there is idolatry in politics, hero and hero worship is a hard if unfortunate part of public life.” Do Ambedkar statues also tend to collapse the struggles of all oppressed peoples in India into one category – the amorphous ‘subaltern society’? And does his persona as an educated man obscure the less ‘civil’ and more informal actions that have also characterized struggles for political rights?

What experience do you have of the politics of monuments, memory and civil rights?

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