This is the first part of the series on the debate on bringing down statues of human rights violators.
On August 12, 2017, 20- year old James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car into a group of protestors and activists who had gathered to bring down the statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the university town of Charlottesville. Robert E. Lee’s biography has always had been a contention of historians, and representing him as solely as an ‘American Civil War hero’ is obviously misleading. Records show that he was a slave owner who dealt with them in brutal and inhuman manners. Today, he stands as the symbol of racism in America, a reason cited by the activists for bringing down his statue.
In Bristol, England, the ‘Countering Colston’ movement is gaining great momentum, a movement which seeks to bring down the memorialisation of the 18th Century transatlantic slave owner Edward Colston. Movements as such have taken over university space as well, most famously the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which questioned the memorialisation of Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist and coloniser, whose vision runs thus in his will:
“the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan …”
There lies a common contention amongst these activists and it is not to dishonour the legacy of such men in history, but to not honour them in public as heroes. They engaged in actions which were serious violations of human rights. Rhodes has been categorically held responsible for unending devastation, violence and oppression of blacks in South Africa, an “architect” of the South African apartheid. But the world continues to honour them.
The counter-argument to this is that why hasn’t there been an equal call for bringing down statues of the founding fathers in America, Winston Churchill in England or Stalin, Lenin in Russia or Mao in China? They were equally horrible violators of human rights, a few of them being worse than even Adolf Hitler. And this is a completely valid argument. Towering leaders like Churchill played a pivotal role in shaping the world but they too played roles in orchestrating human rights disasters such as the Bengal Famine of 1943. Why should we forgive Churchill and not forgive Rhodes or Colston or General Lee? A reason why this point is missed is because of their overshadowing political careers and the sides they ended up in history. Churchill, who believed that history would be kind to him as he would be the one writing it is not equally held responsible for orchestrating a famine in which 2.1 million people perished while Hitler’s genocide of Jews will be the symbol of himself and his regime.
The statistics of modern slavery are still shocking, with 45.8 million enslaved people in 167 countries in 2016. And racism, more specifically ‘institutional racism’ is the root cause of this. Classical racist ideas developed as Europeans tried to justify keeping Africans as slaves. These racist ideas have had long-term effects in our culture, and many people today continue to accept ideas of racial hierarchy. For example in India, even today casteism happens to be the root cause of slavery, a reason why 18 million (39%) of the 46 million slaves happen to be in India (In my previous article, I have argued on why and how casteism is the root cause for slavery in India). It is logically wrong to claim that people should get over the past and have pride in themselves, while also continuing to celebrate figures who played an important role in the enslavement of others. Addressing these aspects of every country’s past directly, with major memorials and education, is part of overcoming historical legacies of racism and dehumanisation.
A country cannot claim to offer equal rights or proclaim freedom equally for all while honouring such figures. That sends out a rather intimidating note to the victims of slavery and racism. And to deal with gross human rights violations such as slavery today, we must tackle the racism that has seeped from the past into the present. Surely, we cannot be guilty of doctoring history but we can certainly decide, as conscious free citizens, whose life must be honoured and whose mustn’t.