PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi has got India’s largest cricket stadium named after himself and this has kicked off needless fuss all around. If he is as bad as his critics say he is, someone will change the name of the stadium in the future, just as some from his ideological stable have changed other names of towns and streets, for example, Aurangzeb Road in Delhi.
The last of the major Mughal rulers was cruel to Hindus, so the Hindutva narrative goes, never mind that extremely powerful Hindu Rajputs were his chieftains. Was Aurangzeb any kinder to his father Shah Jahan or his brother Dara Shikoh or to the Sufi mystic Shah Sarmad who like Dara was decapitated although he posed no threat to the Mughal throne? Had the demand to erase Aurangzeb’s name from a Delhi road come from Sikhs, it would have made sense for what the emperor did to the revered Sikh guru.
Anyway, the point about stadiums being named or statues being erected to please this or that ruler is underscored nicely at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium. I’m sure the late ruler of Libya hadn’t a clue about cricket. But here we are, playing in a cricket stadium named after him. And where is he now, should the point need to be stressed? Could it be possible that since Saudi rulers, US allies and others close to the rulers in Pakistan, despised Gaddafi, perhaps someone in Pakistan is making a point by keeping his name intact with the stadium.
Seeds of megalomania didn’t come to India with Hindutva. Indira Gandhi had a time capsule buried deep into the ground for future generations to extol the virtues of her otherwise disputed tenure. In other words, she didn’t trust future academics to discover the truer facts in one of Delhi’s (hitherto) treasured archives and libraries. Eventually, the time capsule became irrelevant. And the slogan ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’ was interred with her bones.
By bringing down a few pieces of bronze or concrete can we drive away the sinister spectre of racism and other prejudices?
In Pakistan, the remains of Gen Zia, who ruled the country with an iron hand, lie buried near the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. Cabbies and bus drivers know the place as ‘Jabra Chowk’, roughly translated as ‘the place of the jaw’. This follows a widely held belief that the jaw was all that was found of the former dictator in the wreckage of the plane when it crashed. In Shelley’s lament of the fleeting reality of power, the broken and timeworn statue of the imagined king of kings Ozymandias is haunting: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Modi’s quest to build a gigantic new vista in the Indian capital is a different story. Proposed to be completed by 2024 along the Rajpath that connects the British-built Presidential Lodge to the India Gate war memorial, it is considered by many to be an excessive facet of his self-love, more bizarre in the time of a raging pandemic. Unless the Delhi High Court, looking into the case, orders the work on the needlessly costly project to be delayed to cope with the challenges posed by the pandemic, there would be a few new buildings including a large home for the prime minister around the next elections.
What could be noteworthy here is that the Parsi company Shapoorji Pallonji that won the contract had financed the cinematic magnum opus Mughal-i-Azam, not without leaving a few Hindutva ideologues very miffed. Eerily, the project coincides with the proposed centenary celebrations of the founding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925. Again we can ask, what is more important for democracy: to rein in the damaging work of right-wing extremists or stalling the construction of some buildings that may celebrate a shadowy organisation’s birthday?
My friend Prof Chaman Lal takes the cake in his studied aversion of Mr Modi. He has refused to take his Covid vaccinations because the official certificate one gets after the jabs carries the picture of a beaming prime minister. This is tricky. Chaman Lal belongs to the age group of retired professors who face a huge risk from the mutating virus, more so without the jabs. It may be true that there are cases of people falling prey to the virus even after both vaccinations were done. But that is a different story.
So why has Modi put his photo on the vaccination certificate? For one, the reason can’t be much different from the fact that he didn’t mind wearing a jacket with his name woven in fine gold thread at a banquet he hosted for president Obama.
To Prof Lal, I would recall a story about former Indian president Zakir Husain. He was leaving a private mushaira to inaugurate an abstract art exhibition after which he would return to the soirée. Eminent poet Sardar Jafri was escorting Zakir Sahib to the door. “I have never understood abstract art, Zakir sahib. Have you?” To which the departing guest pointed to the rose in the buttonhole of his sherwani: “This is a rose. Have you understood it?” Modi of course is not quite as enigmatic as a rosebud. Still, Prof Ashish Nandy, the political psychologist who described him astutely as a classical fascist in a telling essay after a long conversation with him is in a spot of trouble.
Statues have been attacked in the US and Europe because of their association with a divisive past. However, by bringing down a few pieces of bronze or concrete can we drive away the sinister spectre of racism and other prejudices? The partition of Bengal was reversed in 1905 by mass protests against Lord Curzon’s decision, not by changing the name of Delhi’s Curzon Road into Kasturba Gandhi Road as would happen years later.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2021