Even commentators sympathetic to the aims of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) have been at pains to point out that the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College is not the most significant element of the campaign’s platform. Amia Srinivasan observes that ‘Neither the Cape Town nor the Oxford campaign has ever been just about statues.’ Amit Chaudhuri laments that ‘it would be…sad if Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford became identified with the statue in Oriel College alone’ because its ambition beyond the removal of the statue, namely that of decolonising education, is more significant. David Olusoga worries that by building their manifestos around calls for the taking down of statues, the more complex and worthy ideas around decolonisation raised by these campaigns have been ‘distorted into a simple right-wrong, yes-no statue debate’. I don’t disagree (much) with these views and indeed, if you want a right-wrong, yes-no answer, this essay will disappoint. But they beg the question of what statues mean and why we keep putting them up if they are so easily relegated to an epiphenomenal register of political discourse.
It’s worth remembering that RMFO itself has never downplayed the significance of the statue in the way that some of those writing in solidarity with it have done. It describes its mission as that of decolonising ‘the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ (emphasis mine) and lists as its first aim the intention to tackle ‘the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history’. In addition, it aims to reform the Eurocentric curricula to which university students continue to be subject and to address the under-representation and lack of welfare provision for black and minority ethnic staff and students at Oxford. One way to think about the place of the statue in this debate is to see it as a means to an end: as Srinivasan rightly notes, ‘complaints of structural racism and calls for curriculum reform don’t draw public attention like the toppling of a statue, and the RMF leaders know this.’ But while clarifying that its campaign is indeed ‘about more than a statue’, RMFO nonetheless insists that
statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission that – as it stands – Oxford does not consider their history to be important. This is incompatible with a community that posits itself as progressive, enlightened and intellectually honest.
Without wanting to suggest that the success of RMFO should be judged by whether the statue falls or endures (it shouldn’t), I want to think with RMFO about what the expressive function of statues entails. Writing in a very different context, Judith Butler has famously worried that the relegation of injustices to the realm of the ‘merely cultural’ effectively downgrades the urgency with which they demand redress. For ‘merely cultural’ read ‘merely symbolic’, and the risk of disappearance of the demand for iconographic decolonisation (exactly what Oriel College might wish for) becomes obvious: if RMFO is about more than ‘just’ a statue and if we all agree that the statue is ‘merely symbolic’, then we might as well get beyond, behind, and beneath the symbol to address its putative ‘real’ while leaving the symbol itself intact. Meanwhile the possibility that the ‘merely symbolic’ has material consequences remains unexplored.
It has been fascinating to watch pillars of the British establishment deride RMFO’s demand for the removal of the Rhodes statue as an impingement on freedom of thought, when in fact the British state and media have, in other contexts, treated the toppling of statues as synonymous with the embrace of freedom. A few days into the 2003 Iraq war, British troops entered Basra, where they destroyed a statue of Saddam Hussein. As Peter Maass writes, in doing so, they hoped that Iraqis, seeing a strike against a symbol of the regime’s power, would rise up against Saddam. The statue was destroyed, but the event was not filmed and drew little attention. What was filmed was a scene on April 9, 2003, that was to become one of the most iconic moments of the war. Reporting as a ‘unilateral’ (as opposed to embedded) journalist, Maass writes of finding himself in Baghdad’s Firdos Square when the Americans first occupied that part of the city. On this day, a thirty-five year old gunnery sergeant named Leon Lambert—mindful that the world’s media were encamped in the square’s Palestine Hotel—took it upon himself to suggest that the troops bring down the statue of Saddam that stood in the square, eventually persuading his reluctant superior officer to authorise the action with the suggestion that locals gathered in the square were clamouring to bring the statue down. Maass reports seeing a relatively small group of Iraqis attempting to dislodge the statue with a sledgehammer and rope, but losing interest when they failed to make much headway. It was only when the Americans pressed an armoured vehicle with a crane into service and scores of journalists gathered around to capture the moment, that the Iraqi locals returned to finish the job.
British and American media seized on the footage of the falling statue as emblematic of the liberation of Iraq in breathlessly celebratory and unceasing coverage. Sky News was among the first television channels to broadcast the moment. One study found that between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. that day, Fox News replayed the toppling every 4.4 minutes and CNN every 7.5 minutes. Maass reports conversations between journalists on the ground, disinclined to give much importance to what they saw as a non-event relative to the armed resistance that Western troops were encountering in other parts of the city, and editors and anchors in head offices who insisted on emphasising a more celebratory angle in the coverage that eventually reached viewers. As Maass explains, ‘primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war.’ Those symbols were not readily available, but had to be fabricated in both senses of that word (to make, to fake): evoking Susan Sontag’s famous claim that ‘to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude’, Maass explains how most photographs of the scene showed few journalists and soldiers, with only the rare long shot revealing the emptiness of the square. The upshot of all of this was a widespread perception that the war had been won almost before it had even begun (in the week after the toppling, war stories from Iraq decreased by 70% on Fox, 66% on ABC, 58% on NBC, 39% on CBS, and 26% on CNN), allowing Donald Rumsfeld to proclaim that ‘the scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.’
At least two things about the nature of statues in the political and media commonsense of contemporary Anglo-America emerge quite clearly from this astonishing episode. First, that statues are never merely symbolic, which is also to say that there is nothing mere about symbolism. And second, that you are not obliged to live with the statues of your oppressor when Power agrees that he is a Bad Man (ergo, Cecil Rhodes isn’t such a bad man). When you think about it, Anglo-American foreign policy in the early twenty-first century might well be described as #saddammustfall.
If tearing down statues offers one form of iconographic decolonisation, the Dalit movement in India has pursued the very different strategy of building statues, principally of the great Dalit leader and architect of the Indian Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar statues can be seen everywhere in India, typically depicting the man wearing a suit, holding a copy of the Constitution, and pointing the way forward with an outstretched hand. Every element of this portraiture means something. The suit brings to mind the Columbia- and LSE-educated Ambedkar’s willingness to embrace Enlightenment ideas that might have been European in their provenance, with none of the hesitation that a more nativist postcolonialism might evince. The Constitution reminds us of the debt that all Indians owe this man who remains the preeminent Dalit icon even as he transcends caste. The outstretched finger is a prophetic gesture leading his people out of caste bondage on a journey that was as political as it was spiritual: Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism towards the end of his life itself powerfully symbolised his view of the inadequacies of both caste Hindu reform efforts and the promise of a purely secular enlightenment.
But crucially, Ambedkar statues are not ‘just’ symbols: their construction also functions as a claim over space in a sociopolitical context in which a central element of Dalit oppression has been their exclusion by caste Hindus from public spaces of the village such as temples and wells. The recent expulsion of Dalit students from the hostel of the University of Hyderabad on charges trumped up by upper-caste rightwing Hindu activists, culminating in the suicide of Dalit student leader Rohith Vemula, offered a cruel reminder—if one were needed—that spatial segregation remains a tool of Dalit humiliation in contemporary urban India. Understood as a defiant reclamation of hitherto denied space, it becomes possible to understand why in 1997 alone, 15,000 statues of Ambedkar were installed in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh coinciding with the rise of the predominantly Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party, whose leader Mayawati also championed the construction of the immense Ambedkar Memorial Park in the heart of the state capital Lucknow. As Anupama Rao has argued:
Ambedkar statues have played a crucial role in the constitution of a Dalit popular. At stake is Ambedkar’s singular individuality, the agentive power of self-determination to remake the Dalit self, and thereby challenge the social invisibility and humiliation to which the community was relegated. Indeed, in the postcolonial period, commemorative political symbology—flags, statues, the politics of naming, and other practices of cultural production—constitutes the memory work facilitating the emergence of a new community identity. These acts of symbolization drew new objects and icons into an existing semiotic field that was organized around Ambedkar, the zero point of Dalit history, and a political figure deified as community icon. This enabled the creation of new institutional spaces and the sedimentation of affective energies and political commitments around objects and practices of Dalit life.
Unsurprisingly, such claims over public space have provoked conflict with caste Hindus who see this as a challenge to their hegemony. Their reactions have ranged from the desecration of statues to the apparently more genteel lament of the savarna intelligentsia who wish that the ‘corrupt’ Mayawati would spend money on the things that ‘matter’ rather than building statues—thereby once again reasserting the putative primacy of the material over the cultural and the symbolic.
Interestingly, one of the first state responses to the recent wave of Dalit and other student activism on university campuses in Hyderabad, New Delhi and Kolkata came in an emphatically symbolic register when Vice-Chancellors of 42 universities agreed, in discussion with the Minister for Human Resource Development, that the best way to counter allegedly anti-national protest on their campuses was to make mandatory the flying of the national flag from 207 foot high masts. Leaving aside the pressing question of how that figure was arrived at, some sense of how much such symbols cost was unwittingly provided by the roughly contemporaneous story of damage sustained due to high wind speeds by the largest national flag flown from the tallest mast (293 feet) within a month of its hoisting on the occasion of Republic Day this year: for the curious, the pole cost Rs. 1.25 crore (£132,635) and the flag Rs. 44 lakh (£46,687). Meanwhile, the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party celebrates the erection of a statue in the state of Gujarat of its favourite nationalist icon, Vallabhbhai Patel, at a cost of Rs. 2,989 crore (£317 million)—roughly the equivalent of the 2013 central government allocation for urban housing. Evidently the maintenance of the phallus requires large budgetary outlays.
In juxtaposing rival Dalit and Hindu projects of statue building, I do not intend to suggest an equivalence between them: quite the contrary. Indeed given a context of centuries of oppression and radically unequal contemporary power relations, it behoves us to ask who needs statues and who does not? Who occupies space to the exclusion of whom? Who dominates the ‘public’ sphere, rendering the Habermasian ideal of communicative ethics a chimera, and necessitating the creation of what Nancy Fraser has called subaltern counterpublics? And how might statues contribute to the forging of such counterpublics from which the bastions of an otherwise unresponsive or hostile ‘mainstream’ can be stormed?
My own feelings towards particular statues seem riddled with inconsistencies, perhaps even hypocrisies. But there might be something to be gained from trying to work through them. I grew up in Bangalore, not far from a statue of Queen Victoria which never bothered me (and still doesn’t). How can Rhodes in Oxford and Cape Town be more offensive than Victoria in Bangalore? After all, Rhodes was a Victorian whose racist military and political adventurism pushed the frontiers of the empire over which Victoria was sovereign. Indeed one could argue that the outsourcing of imperialism to grubby men like Rhodes allowed Victoria and her government in London the pretence of liberalism, positioning themselves as a morally superior restraint on the more supremacist attitudes of white settlers in the empire. Partly the very different affective responses that the two arouse in me has something to do with their spatiotemporal location: Victoria in India feels like a relic of a bygone era, while Rhodes in South Africa (and, by extension, everywhere else) feels temporally more proximate given how recent the end of apartheid was (even a not-particularly-old Indian like me can remember possessing a passport that was stamped ‘valid for travel to all countries except Republic of South Africa’—a symbol of the boycott of apartheid-era South Africa by much of the Third World).
Amit Chaudhuri captures something of my apparently inconsistent attitudes towards historical artifacts when he explores the things that don’t bother him—a sighting of the racist Enoch Powell giving a talk in old age in Oxford in the 1990s, or the commemoration of Thomas Macaulay in Calcutta’s Bengal Club—accounting for his ability to view them with detached irony with the suggestion that they have acquired the status of ‘a museum-piece that does not require to be confronted since it no longer has the power to threaten.’ There is something to this, but also something rather too glib about it. It’s one thing to decide, as a person of colour in multicultural 1990s Britain, that Powell no longer bothers you; quite a different thing to feign benign indifference, as a member of the bhadralok in Calcutta, towards the symbols of the Raj to which you now have access. Which makes me wonder whether I am able to level with Victoria because I am, basically, an ‘English-medium’ Cantonment boy.
Because there are people in Bangalore who have a problem with the statue of Victoria. The Kannada language activist and politician Vatal Nagaraj has been demanding its removal for many years. His Kannada Chaluvali Vatal Paksha and analogous organisations such as the Rajkumar Abhimanigala Sangha (Rajkumar Fans Association, dedicated to the great Kannada actor Rajkumar) are exemplars of what Janaki Nair describes as ‘cultural and political movements that seek to reterritorialise the city, refashioning its symbols, monuments or open spaces to evoke other memories, or histories that reflect the triumphs of the nation-state, the hopes and aspirations of linguistic nationalisms or of social groups who have long lacked either economic or symbolic capital in the burgeoning city of Bangalore.’ In Nair’s account of these groups, their post-independence impulse towards the erasure of colonial memory—manifest in the 1964 demolition of a war memorial commemorating British soldiers—was accompanied by an assertion of regional Kannada pride, which was soon deployed against other linguistic groups in the city, principally the Tamil-speaking minority. Thus the focus of significant sections of the Kannada movement has been on keeping other (Indian) political, linguistic, and cultural heroes out of the public space: Nair describes in passing the fraught battles over the installation of a statue of the Tamil sangam poet Thiruvalluvar in Bangalore (a statue of whom, ironically, sits much more easily outside my office in SOAS, University of London). Indeed, the statues of Victoria and Mark Cubbon in Bangalore’s famous Cubbon Park, far from being universally reviled for their imperial connotations, have more recently become rallying points for protests and commemorations seeking to protect the precious green space of the park in a metropolis that has long lost its claim to being ‘The Garden City’ from the corruption and avarice of politicians and urban developers.
The complex cultural politics of Kannada chauvinism alerts us to the distinction between a decolonising and a recolonising impulse in efforts to reshape public space. Indeed the failure to attend to this distinction results in the absurdity of recent comparisons of RMFO’s demand for the removal of the Rhodes statue to the destruction of Nimrud by Islamic State or the demolition of the Babri Masjid by the Hindu rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Such facile comparisons once again fail to distinguish between subaltern claims to more genuinely shared public space and the efforts of the dominant to ratify their stranglehold over it. That distinction is more easily articulated in theory than in practice, but it should not be lost sight of. Part of the complexity arises from the fact that statue politics can be both things simultaneously, depending on its target and geographical scale of reference. In this sense, regional linguistic ‘chauvinism’ in India cannot easily be dismissed (as it often is by the urban, English-speaking intelligentsia): against the hegemony of global neoliberal English it is a decolonising protest, but against the claims of minorities in its midst it takes on a recolonising hue.
One last thing. I was a Rhodes scholar from 2001-4. Some think that to speak from this position in support of #rhodesmustfall is an exercise in hypocrisy. I am glad that nearly 200 current scholars have publicly rejected this argument. Some have gone on to say that they regard taking the scholarship as an act of reparation. While I recognise the relevance of that claim for some, this is not an argument that is open to me. My ancestors did rather well out of colonialism (cf. that earlier bit about being a Cantonment poshboy). Indeed the over-representation of Indians of my class and caste in a place like Oxford is symptomatic of problems and hierarchies that cannot be attributed solely to the imperial experience.
Nonetheless, like many of my fellow scholars, I thought long and hard about the terms on which taking money of such obviously dubious and bloody provenance might be acceptable. In the essay that I wrote to apply for the scholarship, I expressed as categorical a contempt for Rhodes’s vision and will as I could muster, vowing to be the very antithesis of the young men he sought to cultivate. I went to the scholarship interview armed with all the facts and figures that I thought I might need to substantiate my bluster with evidence. As it turned out, the sentiments I had expressed in my essay raised not one eyebrow on my national selection committee. For a panel of Indians drawn from different walks of life (and presumably subscribing to different political views), this was all utterly uncontroversial stuff. For all I know, generations of applicants have departed from the same assumptions. I mention this, my lack of originality notwithstanding, to underscore the point that I won the scholarship on the promise that I would bite the hand that feeds, so to speak. Not to follow through on that would be hypocritical.
I sometimes wonder why Rhodes scholars of my generation didn’t do more to draw attention to the many unsavoury aspects of Rhodes’s legacy (perhaps some did and I wasn’t attentive enough). My time as a scholar coincided with an interesting historical juncture for the Rhodes Trust—it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003 on the occasion of which it established the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which exists to give scholarships to African students undertaking postgraduate study in South African universities. I imagine there were some (many?) who felt squeamish about the yoking together of the names of apartheid’s principal architect and its greatest opponent. As I’ve been thinking about the politics of statuary in this essay, it seems pertinent to remember the two giant portraits of Mandela and Rhodes that hung on either side of the entrance to Milner Hall in Rhodes House, Oxford, to my mind grotesquely positing a kind of equivalence between them. It felt difficult to criticise any of this at the time: it was historically fitting that the Trust invest in—nay, return money to—South Africa, and above all Mandela himself had lent his authority and approval to the initiative. To remind anyone that Rhodes also benefited from this exercise in re-branding felt churlish. Indeed Mandela’s unique commitment to reconciliation between South Africans of all races obviated, or perhaps more accurately postponed, other sorts of reckonings with the legacies of apartheid—reckonings that are only just beginning to take shape, of which the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Cape Town is but one. I mention this, not as an alibi for our inaction, but to recognise that South Africa has been the epicentre of this movement. Everything else is a reverberation.