He achieved infamy for his decision to partition Bengal in 1905 and now a 119-year-old structure built in honour of Lord Curzon, who served as the Viceroy of India for six years from 1899, in the city of Bardhaman in West Bengal is at the centre of a political row.
It emerged earlier this week that the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-run Bardhaman municipality had decided to erect a statue of Bardhaman’s Maharaja Bijay Chand Mahatab and his wife Radharani in front of the Curzon Gate (also known as Bijay Toran) that is one of the major landmarks in the city. Mahtab had built the gate in 1903 when Curzon visited the town.
Not only politicians, historians and heritage experts have also questioned the ruling party’s decision. Some have claimed the statues will block the view of the structure. The episode has also put the focus on the TMC’s strategy of erecting statues of Bengali icons to underline its Bengali pride politics and counter the BJP’s Hindutva message that the TMC claims is a Hindi heartland import.
Sources in the Bardhaman Municipality said the statues would be unveiled on Saturday. Municipality chairperson Paresh Sarkar said, “This is a project of local MLA Khokan Das. But we have no objection and are ready to execute the whole plan. We are aware of the controversy surrounding the building of the statues in front of Curzon Gate.”
Speaking of Bijay Chand Mahatab, Sarkar said, “He is the main architect of this gate and also the main architect of the town of Bardhaman. So, why is there a debate about building his statue in front of Curzon Gate?”
MLA Khokan Das said, “Most areas in Bardhaman city belonged to the Maharaja of Bardhaman. So, there is nothing wrong with installing his and his wife’s statue. Both BC Road, where the statue is being erected, and Curzon Gate were built by him.”
The TMC played up the Bengali identity politics in the run-up to the Assembly elections last year in an attempt to paint the BJP as a party of insiders. According to some estimates, TMC-led municipalities have built statues hundreds of statues in urban areas since coming to power in 2011. In Kolkata alone, there are statues of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sister Nivedita, and several Bengali revolutionaries across the city in places such as Beliaghata, Maniktala and Patuli.
TMC MLA Paresh Pal claimed his constituency Beliaghata itself had “100 small, medium and large statues”. He said, “When a mother walks down a road with her child, she can show the statues and tell her child about who these figures were and what their contribution was to India and Bengal. Apart from Netaji and Gandhiji, we have put up statues of personalities linked to the Bengal Renaissance such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Vidyasagar, as well the statues of religious figures such as Shri Chaitanya, Swami Vivekananda, and Ramakrishna. We have a responsibility to educate the next generation about our country and its luminaries.”
BJP leader Rahul Sinha said, “TMC ruined Bengal’s culture. They are now trying to please people by erecting statues of luminaries. People realise that they are being duped by the ruling party through such show-off.”
CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said, “One person trying to ruin the heritage structure is unfortunate.”
The Curzon Gate was designed by architect Naresh Chandra Bose. His great-nephew and heritage activist Debasis Bose said, “The addition or alteration of a heritage monument should be done only after proper consultation with experts. Otherwise, such intervention is tantamount to defacement. Curzon Gate is definitely a heritage monument and any procedure regarding it should be based on the opinion of heritage experts. It is personally painful for me because the gate was planned and designed by the elder brother of my paternal grandfather.”
Historian Kakali Mukherjee, who teaches at Rishi Bankim Chandra College in Naihati, questioned the type of message that the TMC was trying to send across by honouring Mahatab.
“Curzon Gate has heritage value but the question is, why glorify Bijay Chand Mahtab? He not only built Curzon Gate to welcome Lord Curzon but also it was his coronation programme. He and his family took full advantage of the Britishers’ permanent settlement policy. Despite his links to the British, the anti-British movement — both armed and non-armed struggle — flourished in this small city. Why should we build his statue on the 75th anniversary of Independence? I think, instead of the Raja, we should have built the statue of Kazi Nazrul Islam who is the son of the soil of Bardhaman.”