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India’s Modi stakes claim to future – and past – with world’s tallest statue

Why We Wrote This

Political leaders paint a vision of the future for their supporters. But their vision of the past can be just as compelling, though it often involves some rewriting.

Amit Dave/Reuters
The "Statue of Unity," depicting Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the founding fathers of India, was inaugurated Oct. 31 in the western state of Gujarat, India.

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On Oct. 31, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled what’s being billed as the world’s tallest statue: a $410 million homage to Sardar Patel, a key figure in India’s fight for independence. The Statue of Unity is twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, clad in some 1,850 metric tons of bronze. In life, Patel, known as the “Iron Man of India,” was a unifier, the man who convinced some 550 princely states to join the new Indian government after independence – a government that enshrined a multicultural vision of India. But what kind of unity does his statue represent today? Many analysts say Mr. Modi and Hindu nationalist supporters are recrafting Patel’s legacy to claim him as one of their own. Modi’s party “desperately needs to seize upon Patel because it has no other reverential figures” from the freedom movement, says Sumit Ganguly, a professor at Indiana University. Since Modi’s election in 2014, his critics argue Hindu nationalists have used increasingly bold tactics to put Hindu faith and culture at the core of India’s identity – a trend many fear will leave minorities second-class citizens.

On his small organic farm in Gujarat, the western home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lakhanbhai Musafir flings out his arm in disgust in the direction of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Statue of Unity – billed as the tallest statue in the world.

“Modi calls this development,” says Mr. Musafir, an advocate for local tribes. “It’s his obsession to make himself immortal, like Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal.”

Towering over the Narmada River, the $410 million statue depicts Vallabhbhai Patel, known as Sardar Patel, one of the most important figures in India’s fight for independence from Britain, and an icon of national unity. The bald, stoop-shouldered subject presents an image of humility – though at nearly 600 feet tall, and clad in some 1,850 metric tons of bronze, it is commanding all the same.

Twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, the Statue of Unity will be inaugurated on Oct. 31 opposite the Sardar Sarovar Dam, marking the official launch of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 2019 election campaign. As a symbol, however, it may represent a different kind of unity from the multicultural, secular one that has defined India’s identity since the election of its first prime minister in 1947, and the framing of its Constitution two years later.

Modi’s party, which has brought Hindu nationalism to the forefront of Indian politics, is on the hunt for a new hero, historians and political analysts say. And though Patel was not a vocal supporter of “Hindutva,” as that ideology is called here, the BJP is now claiming Patel as one of their own – one of several cases in which the party has been accused of rewriting history with a Hindu nationalist bent.

Patel stands in stark contrast to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, says Tarun Vijay, a former BJP member of parliament.

Patel was not a “half-converted Englishman,” he says. “Patel belonged to the Indian soil…. He had the firmness of Napoleon – unshakeable, rock-like decisiveness.”

Under Nehru’s leadership, India adopted a Constitution that guaranteed the rights of religious minorities and enshrined separate laws on issues like marriage and inheritance for Hindus, Muslims (about 13 percent of the population), and Christians (some 2 percent). For many people, that multicultural vision remains the fundamental ethos of India.

But for Hindu nationalists, that “pseudo-secularism,” as some call it, is an affront. Their core ideology of Hindtuva, or Hinduness, envisions a state in which Hindu faith and culture are front and center – and that many fear will leave minorities second-class citizens. And since Modi’s election in 2014, his critics argue Hindu nationalists have used increasingly bold tactics to make that vision a reality: from rewriting textbooks and stacking academic institutions, to emboldening mobs who have killed two dozen people for allegedly eating or transporting beef.

Iron Man of India

Modi launched the project and lay its foundation stone in 2013, amid the lead-up to the 2014 general election, as he wooed moderates with business-friendly reform. At the time, he had been chief minister of Gujarat for more than a decade, including during 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslim. His administration’s response to the attacks has been hotly debated, with many researchers blaming officials for failing to quell the violence.

Now, as he begins his campaign for re-election in 2019, the statue has become fraught with political meaning, says Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly.

Early Hindu nationalist groups, the BJP’s precursors, did not take a leading role in India’s struggle for independence. And it was a Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, because he felt Gandhi had proved too accommodating to Muslims. By building a mammoth statue of Patel, Modi hopes to gain his own iconic freedom fighter, analysts say.

“The BJP desperately needs to seize upon Patel because it has no other reverential figures” from the freedom movement, Dr. Ganguly says.

For Hindu nationalists, Patel presents a compelling alternative to Nehru – whose great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is the present leader of the Congress Party, the main opposition.

Known as “the Iron Man of India,” Patel helped convince some 550 princely states to cede their power to the new government after independence. He thus suits many nationalists’ craving for muscular leaders, some analysts observe – reflected in how the movement has embraced a warrior-like version of the Hindu deity Rama and the monkey-god Hanuman who fought beside him; and even in Modi’s boasts about having a 56-inch chest.

Right-wingers have also suggested that Patel opposed Nehru’s interpretation of secularism, and would have forged a different country had he been India’s first leader, says Mujibur Rehman, an assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University who recently authored a book on the Hindu right, titled “Rise of Saffron Power.” Patel was a life-long member of the Congress Party, but Hindu nationalists have long argued that he envisioned a more assimilationist secularism devoid of “appeasement” of minorities.

“They see him as an anti-Nehru figure that the Congress [Party] did not explore [as a potential prime minister], and say therefore things have gone wrong in our country,” Dr. Rehman says.

At times, Patel opposed faith-specific policies that Nehru had supported, says Hindol Sengupta, the author of a recent biography of Patel titled “The Man Who Saved India.” For example, during the division of British India into majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan, which displaced millions of people, Nehru pushed to reserve the homes of Muslims who fled to Pakistan for other Muslims. Patel, meanwhile, argued the homes should be offered to anyone.

“Patel was strongly secular. He wanted parity for all faiths,” says Mr. Sengupta. “He argued that the principle of division had already divided the country. Now what remained must be one nation.”

Patel also opposed Nehru’s decision to let the United Nations determine the fate of the Kashmir region, still contested today.

“For decades, one party devoted all their energies to serve one family,” Modi said in a parliamentary speech in February, excoriating the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. “If Sardar Patel had become the prime minister, today a part of our beloved Kashmir would not have been under Pakistani occupation."

Look on my works

The Sardar Sarovar Dam that the statue overlooks has been at the center of protests and court cases for decades, over disputes about displaced villages and environmental impact. The dam has already displaced hundreds of villages; now, the statue will add another 16 to that number, according to Mr. Musafir, the tribal activist.

“We told the government if you spend 10 million rupees ($140 million) to repair the existing canals, the farmland of this entire area can be irrigated, but they said they don’t have the staff or the money,” he says. “Yet to build this one statue they are spending 30 billion rupees ($410 million).”

But by locating the giant statue opposite the massive dam, the BJP also highlights technological progress, which Modi has promoted in plans for “smart cities” and bullet trains. Constructed at enormous cost and projected to attract 15,000 tourists a day, Patel’s statue includes an elevator up its spine that allows visitors to look out over the dam through Patel’s eyes.

Amarsingh Tadvi, whose construction crew may work on related projects, is a fan of the statue – and the man it depicts.

“Nehru thought about his family and his family’s development. But Patel was more selfless,” he says.

As for Modi, “he’s a great man of India. Modi and development are like the two sides of a coin.”

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