London-based political theorist, Bhikhu Parekh, well-known for his writings on Gandhi and multi-culturalism, called for a public debate on the statue of Mahatma Gandhi proposed to be installed at the Parliament Square by the British government. One of the panels for the statue is chaired by Meghnad Desai, a fellow parliamentarian from the House of Lords. Both Parekh and Desai are originally from Vadodara and life peers in the House of Lords.
The statue, which is expected to be unveiled on January 30, next year, the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, has faced some opposition in the UK from a section of the Indians and conservative British circles.
Lord Parekh told media persons here on Monday that the public is clueless about the design of the statue and the message that it should convey, due to lack of “real public debate” on it. “Since the money for the statue is being raised by public subscription, it is important that the public be consulted,” said Lord Parekh. He said that recently there were articles criticizing Gandhi and the statue project, both in the UK and in India and the purpose of the press meet was to “clear the air”.
The announcement to build a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was made by British foreign secretary William Hague and Chancellor of Exchequer George Osborne in July, during their two-day visit to India to look for opportunities for UK firms in country’s defence and infrastructure sectors.
“The statue is an excellent idea that is long overdue. It is a great pity that the Labour government never thought of it, and the Conservative government thought of it only in the context of better trade relations with India,” he said.
“For some reason the purpose of the statue was seen as a sop given to Indians to better trade arrangements…on the one hand we sign a treaty for selling arms and on the other we announce a statue of Gandhi,” said Lord Parekh.
According to Lord Parekh, the project is important as it conveys the message of post-imperial reconciliation between Britain and India, and values the contribution of Indian community, which is 1.2 million in Britain. It also conveys the message of truth, non-violence and inter-religious harmony that Gandhi stood for, he added.
The project is being funded by public subscription by a fund raising committee chaired by Lord Meghnad Desai, It is estimated to cost 8-10 lakh pounds.
Lord Parekh said that the opposition to the statue was from two quarters- the Sikh Federation that thought Gandhi did not deserve the statue since he was “racist, sexist and anti-Sikh”. “But I have had discussions with the president of the federation trying to explain how Gandhi had grown out of racism within five years and even fought for the Zulus. And I told them that the Guru Granth Sahib was read in his prayer meetings,” said Lord Parekh.
The other opposition from the British was that there were only two pedestals left in Parliament Square of which one was reserved for former PM Margaret Thatcher. “But this is rubbish, there can never be a reservation for a pedestal,” said Lord Parekh.
Lord Parekh said that this does not hold water. “Gandhiji’s experiments in celibacy were undertaken with full consent of women. What is more, he deeply respected women and brought them into public life on a much bigger scale than any leader of the world,” he said.
In the absence of any public debate, Lord Parekh said, one can only hope that the statue will represent political, and not religious Gandhi, like Gandhi leading the Dandi March. “It is this Gandhi who shaped modern India and best fits into the Parliament Square.”