Needed: genuine memorials, not just tourist destinations

Once they are built and dedicated to the public, memorials hardly serve the purpose for which they come into being. In most cases, the purpose of building a memorial is squarely missing. However, an international memorial which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis dedicated to the memory of Dr B R Ambedkar — a house at London’s Primrose Hill where the Dalit icon lived in 1921-22 while he was a student at the London School of Economics in 1921 and 1922 — isn’t expected to be a conventional one.

Every year, two Dalit students from India will study in any university based in London or Europe and arrangements would be made for their stay in the memorial building. The Maharashtra government has started a special scholarship programme for this. In a nutshell, the memorial is expected to be a source of inspiration for Ambedkar followers. The Maharashtra government bought a six-bedroom property following a demand from the Dalit community. Seeing a huge political potential in the deal (total expenses of approximately Rs 32 crore), the government expedited the process when the Dalits were equally insistent in having Ambedkar’s memorial at Mumbai’s Indu Mills. Modi came to Mumbai for a stone-laying ceremony at Indu Mills last month.

Even more expensive memorial proposals are on their way in Maharashtra. Since taxpayers will pay for them, we need to raise some serious questions. Will these memorials, built only with an aim of political gains, make any difference to society? Can’t these memorials be turned into centres that don’t remain mere tourist destinations? Can’t the cash-strapped government think of spending taxpayers’ money on bettering existing facilities that are named after departed leaders? There are many such dying facilities that are crying out for upkeep and upgradation.

The Rs 2,000-crore Chha-trapati Shivaji Maharaj memorial, to be built in the Arabian Sea, tops the state’s agenda. Two more memorials — one in the name of the late Bal Thackeray (in Mumbai) and the other for late BJP leader Gopinath Munde (at Aurangabad) will also come up. And there is a possibility that a few more new memorials will get approved in the future.

In Shivaji’s case, the BJP is blindly following the successive Congress-NCP governments’ scheme of appeasing the politically dominant Maratha community, which is upset because of the erstwhile government’s failed attempts to get them a quota in education and jobs. The BJP is hell-bent on meeting the demand.

The mid-sea memorial will have the Maratha king’s statue, the tallest in the world. The 7-acre island near Marine Drive will be made a tourism destination with a slide show on the life of Shivaji, a theme park and food court for visitors. The government claims to have received all the necessary clearances. Once the tender bids are finalised soon, Modi will be invited for laying the stone.

While the state and centre are working together for a grand memorial, what pains Shivaji’s lovers from across communities is that very little is being done to preserve the Chhatrapati’s living legacy. Shivaji’s existing memorials are spread across the state in the form of forts that are in shambles because of the centre’s insensitive approach and dearth of financial assistance. The state government, which does not have any control over these historic monuments, must convince and collaborate with the Modi government on this. Many BJP/RSS workers who are doing their best for to preserve Shivaji’s forts will readily assist in preservation and restoration.

Thackeray’s memorial is expected to come up at the mayor’s Shivaji Park residence. The Thackeray family, which is known for its creativity, should go beyond a conventional memorial. We don’t know yet whether the state government or the city’s municipal corporation will finance this memorial.

The late Munde’s proposed memorial in Aurangabad has already courted controversy. The AIMIM has accused the government of allotting a plot of land, which is reserved for a hospital. The AIMIM wants the government to build a hospital and name it after the late Munde. Some constructive suggestion, indeed.

The writer is Political Editor of mid-day

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