Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Sister Nivedita, and lesser-known Bengali revolutionaries. With civic polls in Kolkata four months away, ruling Trinamool Congress leaders are in the midst of a statue-building spree.
From across two 35-ft statues of Bose and Gandhi near Phoolbagan in East Kolkata, inaugurated in September, stand those of Tagore and Sister Nivedita. Over 20 new statues have come up in North Kolkata alone, while more are planned for the southern part of the city.
The civic polls will indicate which way the fierce political fight in West Bengal is going, and the statues are meant to send a message after the vandalisation of a bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in May this year. The Trinamool and BJP had blamed each other for the incident. The twin statues of Gandhi and Bose cost around Rs 20 lakh. There are also statues along the Ganga ghats. Many have provision for lighting for late-evening hours.
Trinamool leaders said the statues were meant to underline Bengali culture and communal harmony — most personalities picked by it belong to the Bengal Renaissance period from 19th century to early 20th century, a time of great cultural and social changes in the state — to counter the BJP’s Hindutva message via Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations. The Trinamool has been highlighting its Bengaliness for a while now, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s rallies in the Lok Sabha polls featuring women blowing conch shells and ululating.
The Trinamool believes the BJP’s messaging will get even more strident with the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament.
The plaques of the new statues bear the name of Trinamool councillors and MLAs.
Trinamool MLA Paresh Patel said his constituency Beliaghata has “100 small, medium and large statues”. “When a mother walks down a road with her child, she can show the statues and say who they are and what their contribution was to India and Bengal. Apart from Netaji and Gandhiji, we have put up statues of personalities linked to Bengal Renaissance like Ram Mohan Roy and Vidyasagar, as well as those of Sri Chaitanya, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna… We have a responsibility to let the next generation know about our country… My next target is to install statues of legendary sports personalities.”
At Kankurgachi crossing, the pavement of a shopping mall now holds 12 statues wrapped in polythene and awaiting inauguration. Final touches are being given to a statue of Vidyasagar. Swami Vivekananda features at many places, in tall, golden form near the Gouribari bus stop, and driving a chariot in another.
Just a couple of metres away stands a huge clock tower called ‘Gitanjali Ghori’, with the statue of Tagore. Says Amal Chakraborty, a Trinamool councillor in KMC’s Ward No. 14, “This clock is now a landmark… We are not focused on just installing statues but also their protection.”
The BJP, which expects to do well given its 18 seats in the Lok Sabha elections, accused the Trinamool of using the statues to hide its failures and its “illegal” construction activities.
“The CPM too had installed statues of Lenin and Stalin, but that could not save it from the people’s mandate. Instead of tackling the current dengue menace, TMC MLAs and councillors are spending money on statues. Those who really respect such personalities don’t need to erect statues,” state BJP general secretary Raju Banerjee said.
Sibaji Pratim Basu, Head, Department of Political Science, Vidyasagar University, said, “The BJP is using the narrative of a strong Hindu nation. To combat this, the Trinamool Congress is highlighting a narrative of Bengaliness and secularism. The call ‘Joy Bangla’ is heard at almost every public meeting of the party and Mamata Banerjee also ends her speeches with it. What better way than to bring in 19th-century Bengali luminaries?”