London suffered a lot of damage during the Second World War. The Houses of Parliament were bombed, as was Westminster Abbey. After the War, Winston Churchill launched an appeal for the restoration of the Abbey. He asked for one pound each from a million people. A pound was a lot of money in those days, roughly equivalent to 100 pounds today. He succeeded and the million pounds were used to restore the Abbey.
The statue of Churchill himself is in Parliament Square, adjacent to the Abbey. There he is, large and aggressive, striding forth, staring southward from where the attack on England would have come. It is not the biggest statue in the Square but by being at one edge and looking outwards, it is the most prominent. The money for it was raised by public subscription as there was no tradition of spending tax payers’ money on public statues.
There are bigger statues of 19thcentury prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli, George Canning and Lord Palmerston. Abraham Lincoln has perhaps the largest statue, depicting him standing in front of a chair. Apart from him, there are only two foreigners so far in the Square. The first statue is of General Smuts, who was active in South African politics for over 50 years and fought in both the World Wars. The other foreigner with a statue is Nelson Mandela. While all the other statues are high above the ground, the Mandela statue is accessible to people visiting Parliament Square. Tourists pose for pictures alongside Mandela.
Now there is a proposal to build a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Square. It will stand very near Mandela, with Lincoln in the background, along with the Supreme Court. The statue will thus be flanked by Mandela on his right; a little distance away from Smuts. When after 21 years in South Africa, Gandhiji was leaving for India (via London), Smuts said, “The saint has left our shores. I sincerely hope forever.” Smuts had found the saint a tough negotiator and a doughty fighter. Thus we can say that three South African leaders are together in the Square.
Gandhi was also a Londoner. He arrived in London 126 years ago, just a few days before his 19th birthday. By the time he left three years later, he was not just an English barrister — as he proudly called himself in South Africa — but also a grown man. It was in London, while hunting for a vegetarian restaurant, that he met a most interesting group of unconventional locals — socialists, nature cure champions, anarchists — the sort of people few other Indians studying in London or anywhere in Great Britain came across. He taught himself Latin, passed London matriculation, learned about Hinduism from some theosophists and read law books.
He kept coming back to London from South Africa to plead the case of Indians living under unsympathetic and racist politics. In 1915, when he came to London on his way to India, he began recruiting soldiers for the War that was then raging. The apostle of non-violence believed in just causes where fighting was right.
The last time he came to London was in 1931 for the Second Round Table Conference. The Congress had refused to take part in the First Round Table Conference. By the time he came as the sole spokesperson for the Congress, the pass had been sold. The shape of constitutional reform for India had been set and the result was the 1935 Government of India Act. The debate in 1931 was all about the Hindu-Muslim question. It was not solved in 1931, nor till 1947.
The Gandhi statue is modelled after a photo of his standing outside 10 Downing Street in 1931. He is draped in thick shawls on the top half of his body.
There is the short dhoti and bare legs below the knees. When the nine-foot statue is unveiled next year, it will be the first statue with bare legs! It will also be the only statue of a person who never held any high office. And it will be the first of an Indian.
There is now a Gandhi Statue Memorial Trust with a website http://www.gandhistatue.org. Let us hope thousands will give their offerings of small amounts to make up the million pounds required.