20 Aug 2017 14:18 IST

Time after time

The facts of history are unchangeable no matter how creatively we attempt to rewrite it

I’ve been thinking about the uproar in recent times in the US over various memorials and statues to leaders past who, with hindsight, are now seen to have upheld views or engaged in actions that hurt humanity. These statues are being taken down in various cities that ‘honoured’ controversial figures such as Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and countless others. They were Confederate leaders from the southern states who believed in and perpetuated the practice of slavery.

However, they are an indelible if dishonorable part of history. They are symbols of execrable practices, a reminder of what happened at a particular time and whose consequences the US suffers to this day. We’ve seen films, we’ve read books: how human beings were brought across the ocean in abominable conditions, chained, diseased, starved, brutalised, to be bought and sold as chattel in markets in the US. How they were made to work the fields of filthy rich white landlords and serve in their homes, often separated from their families. Many plantation owners were ‘good’ to their slaves, if the word means anything when an individual’s fundamental freedom to possess one’s own body and soul is denied.

Scars of the recent past

Slavery in the US was officially abolished by Congress passing the 13th amendment on January 31, 1865, and ratifying it on December 6. But even after that, the practice was so entrenched in southern society, it took another about one hundred years for Martin Luther King to come along and help end segregation — the separation of blacks from whites. But prejudices are viscerally ingrained: like the prevalence of caste discrimination in India, racial discrimination is alive and well. Hence the groundswell of anger and guilt over the statues; in fact, the descendants of Lee, Jackson and Davis have openly requested that the statues be removed.

Every society carries a cross, sometimes many crosses. In South Africa, it took the form of apartheid. The white minority somehow managed to gain the upper hand and run an ugly, cruel, demeaning campaign against the original inhabitants of that country where even to exist seemed to be a crime. This institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination continued until the 1990s. That recent! Surprisingly, statues ‘honouring’ practitioners of apartheid, such as Lovis Botha and Jan Smuts (Mahatma Gandhi’s nemesis) still stand in parts of South Africa.

Another controversial name that comes to mind is that of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The country we now call Zimbabwe was, for many years, Rhodesia, after him. He founded the mining company De Beers, and introduced the Glen Grey Act so that land could be grabbed from black people for industrial development. His money funds the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship which enables study in Oxford University. Oriel College (part of Oxford University) finally decided to keep his statue despite a massive Rhodes Must Fall campaign run by students there.

Coping mechanisms


How do you deal with what are clearly aberrations — such as Hitler with the idea of the superiority of the Aryan race, and hatred and persecution of Jews? I once asked a German friend how she and others of her generation engaged with this with their parents. You read about the collective guilt of the nation following that bitter period of Nazism. It’s something we’re still dealing with, she responded. We would ask our parents: How did you do it? How did you stand by and watch while innocent people were targeted, terrorised and murdered? The concentration camps? The cruelty? It’s too much.

She said her mother had no explanation. We were young, she said. We didn’t know. We didn’t know what to do. We were afraid. They closed their eyes and hearts, my German friend said.

In an article entitled ‘Ugly history shouldn’t be beautiful’ in Slate magazine, Fred Kaplan writes about how Germany has been attempting to cope with its history: by honouring the victims, not the perpetrators. About Berlin, he writes: “Take, for instance, the brass-plated stones hammered outside of houses and apartment buildings throughout the city, but especially in the old Jewish quarter. They’re called stolpersteine, or ‘stumbling stones’, because while walking through a neighbourhood, you literally stumble upon them. ...you see, engraved on the brass plate, a person’s name, then his or her date of deportation, the concentration camp where he or she was taken, and the date when he or she died.”

He writes that the project to lay these stones began in the 1990s by a German artist called Gunter Demnig. Initially it was controversial, but gradually people began to accept it. More than 20,000 such stones have been laid in Berlin and other German towns, as well as in the Netherlands, the Czech republic, Italy and elsewhere. As he writes, “They are far more honorable, hush-worthy, and, yes, beautiful than any bombastic statue of Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson.”

Berlin also has the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, a once-controversial pattern made with 2711 concrete slabs or stelae arranged on a sloping field. It is grey and stark and inexorable. As you walk in between the slabs your mind swirls with images of concentration camps, the ears echo the sounds of children’s voices, and your heart grows cold. Designed by Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold, it rises above an underground holding containing the names of about three million holocaust victims.

History of suppression

What happened in erstwhile Soviet Union, to Josef Stalin? He was initially buried next to VI Lenin in the latter’s mausoleum, but was later removed and placed in the company of other small leaders of the Russian revolution. His grave is marked with a small bust. Statues of the dictator Chiang Kai-shek, who ruled Taiwan with an iron hand for years, can now all be found in a park some 60 km from Taiwan.

We found a simple solution in India. Where they did not find their way to museums or colonial-era collections, kings, earls, viceroys and others of the British Raj wound up in Coronation Park in Delhi where they now linger in disrepair for the unwary to trip over and discover. Barring, of course, the odd reminder such as Monro statue on Anna Salai. Thomas Monro remains standing — or rather, sitting bareback on his horse — just a short distance from the statue of Dravidian leader Annadurai at the junction of Wallajah Road and Anna Salai.

This former Governor of Madras was apparently one of the most popular British administrators in India and was associated with systems and practices favourable to Indians, especially farmers. But another gent, Col James George Smith Neil aka Butcher of Allahabad was ejected from his site between Monro and Annadurai for his role in the massacre of Indians during the 1857 war of independence. He has a home, though, in the Government Museum, Chennai.

Pictures of angry Iraqis pulling down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein or triumphant Libyans taking down Gaddafi busts are vivid in our recent memory. But the point is not to forget; it is to remember not to repeat. For that, we need reminders, not shrines. We need debates and discussions, and the courage to face up to history.

And that’s hard, isn’t it? Facing up to who you really are?