Updated: May 7, 2021 6:30:57 pm
The desecration of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Armenia is a result of a lack of understanding of Indian history and Gandhi’s socio-political contributions to India’s struggle for independence, said Karen Mkrtchyan, a member of Bright Armenia, a political party founded in 2015.
On April 29, the statue of Gandhi, installed last year on his 150th birth anniversary, was set on fire and desecrated in a park in the Armenian capital Yerevan. A 61-year old Armenian national pleaded guilty, local news reports said.
An organisation that calls itself the ‘Yerevan Alternative Municipality’ posted photos of the desecrated monument on social media, calling for the statue to be demolished, but did not claim responsibility for the vandalism.
Two days before the statue was burned and a plaque with Gandhi’s name demounted and broken, a group of protesters had also thrown eggs at the monument, with images of the broken plaque and egg shells widespread on social media platforms. Following the vandalism, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the desecration and called it a “provocation against the centuries-old Armenian-Indian friendship, dynamically developing since the independence.”
The Indian Embassy told indianexpress.com on May 5, that the statue had been jointly installed by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and local authorities in Yerevan, with India assuming responsibility for the creation and transportation of the monument to Armenia.
In a Facebook post, the ‘Yerevan Alternative Municipality’ called the Indian freedom fighter “anti-Armenian” and said “it will fight to remove the statue of the anti-Armenian figure from our capital. We ask our compatriots to show patience, to endure the presence of the statue of this anti-Armenian figure until we remove it.” Pointing to the sensitivity of matter and strong diplomatic relations between India and Armenia, the Embassy of India declined to add further comments regarding the incident.
The objections to the statue specifically have to do with Gandhi’s support for the Ottoman Empire that was disintegrating in 1920 due to the empire having been forced to concede large parts of its territory to the Allied Powers during the First World War under the clauses of the Treaty of Sèvres.
At that time, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, received moral support from Gandhi for the cause of the Turkish independence movement. The brutality of the Armenian Genocide under the Ottoman Empire that lasted between 1915 to 1917, were fresh wounds when British newspapers began highlighting Gandhi’s support for Atatürk and the Khilafat movement, a pan-Islamist political protest campaign led by Muslims of British India to restore the caliph of the Ottoman Caliphate, who was considered the leader and political authority of the Muslims, and to protest against sanctions placed on the caliph and the Ottoman Empire after the First World War by the Treaty of Sèvres.
“The major shock came by with the publication of the Treaty of Sevres on May 14, 1920, in India. This treaty announced the terms of dismembering Turkey and this particular event crossed the limits of Gandhi’s humiliation and he completely lost his confidence and faith in the British sense of justice,” writes Benazir Banu, a scholar at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, in her research paper ‘Mahatma Gandhi and Turkish War of Independence’.
“Obviously the lack of understanding of Indian history comes into play here, because Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat movement and the Ottoman Empire was sorely intra-Indian, to bring Hindu-Muslim unity and to oppose the British rule,” Mkrtchyan said. Mkrtchyan lived and studied in India for close to a decade before returning to Armenia in 2016 and studied Indian history during his time in the country.
“Gandhi saw something sinister in every reason of the British and he had his own reasons for it. So someone with very little understanding of Indian history and the context at that time can easily misinterpret it. And of course the Genocide is a soft issue for every Armenian. So once you see that Gandhi supported the Turks, Atatürk and the Ottoman Empire, it brings about a lot of emotions in people who do not understand the context and people get very angry,” Mkrtchyan adds.
This isn’t the first time that discussions surrounding Gandhi have come up in Armenia, albeit among small groups. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has consistently claimed to advocate non-violence and has said that he draws inspiration from two of the most iconic international proponents of this philosophy—Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela; it was also what in part, helped him rise to power.
In 2018, Pashniyan attempted to replicate Gandhi’s Dandi March, also known as the Salt March, a deliberate attempt at tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in pre-Independence India. Only in Pashniyan’s case, he was protesting former Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to hold onto power by having the Armenian Parliament elect him prime minister, despite promising not to seek that office.
That year, Pashinyan decided to walk some 193 kilometers across the country from Gyumri, the second-largest city, to the capital Yerevan. Back then, his opponents mocked Pashniyan’s imitation of Gandhi’s march and because he had worn a camouflage-pattern T-shirt during the walk despite not having served in the compulsory military conscription in the country. But his supporters said that these served as examples of his humility. To coincide with the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, in May 2019, Armenia had also issued stamps in commemoration.
Following the vandalism of the statue in Yerevan last week, Mkrtchyan said that Pashniyan’s critics had added fuel to the fire. “They are blaming him for associating with Gandhi and that it was his initiative to install Gandhi’s statue in Armenia, because he equals himself with Gandhi. Whereas this is not true,” said Mkrtchyan. But Indian citizens in Armenia who spoke on the condition of anonymity and the Embassy of India in Yerevan told indianexpress.com that the vandalism has been widely condemned in local news reports as well as by other Armenians on social media, with “fringe elements” having been blamed for creating nuisance and needless provocation between two friendly nations.
“Being an Armenian, the (Armenian) Genocide is a big thing for me. But I will understand if someone who is leading the struggle for his own country is going to do something I may or may not like,” said Mkrtchyan. “Nobody puts up Gandhi’s statue because he was Gandhi. Political parties may come and go but Gandhi remains an important part of India’s foreign policy and soft power. He represents India.”
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