What Does New Gandhi Statue Mean?

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Existing Gandhi statue in Tavistock Square. Photo by Duncan Harris from Londonist Flickr pool.

A new statue of Gandhi is to be erected in Parliament Square, beside figures such as Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell it was announced yesterday.

The idea has come out of a trade mission to India, led by chancellor George Osborne and foreign secretary William Hague. The new statue was welcomed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but dismissed by Gandhi’s great grandson as “false worship.”

There is, of course, already a statue of Gandhi in London – the Indian civil rights leader sits cross-legged in permanent peaceful protest in the centre of Tavistock Square. The memorial is a stone’s throw from UCL, where Gandhi studied law as a young man before going on to lead India to independence from Britain in 1947.

So what does it mean for this divisive figure to be promoted to the forecourt of Britain’s government? Some might say it’s a cynical attempt to get the most out of the current trade talks with India – a sweetener to help quickly ink in a set of deals that includes arms, missiles and fighter jets (ironically enough). It is surprising to see a Conservative government giving recognition to a man who defied Britain and forced the end of colonial occupation. William Hague said in a statement:

“Gandhi’s view of communal peace and resistance to division, his desire to drive India forward and his commitment to non-violence left a legacy that is as relevant today as it was during his life. He remains a towering inspiration and a source of strength.”

Whether you think that’s genuine or not, it’s certainly no half-measure to put a memorial of a man at odds with Britain for so long right beside Churchill — who personally hated the man, describing him as “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east”.

Gandhi is not the first such figure to be honoured this way. In 2007, a statue of Nelson Mandela by sculptor Ian Walters was erected. So with the latest anti-colonial addition to Parliament Square, we’re wondering who might be next. We might suggest Brian Haw, the protester who lived for almost ten years in the square in his own peace camp. Other suggestions welcome.

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