London’s Parliament Square has been greeted by a new arrival, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Present at the unveiling of the 9 foot bronze sculpture were British Prime Minister David Cameron, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitles, British Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond, Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan and one of Gandhi’s grandsons, Gopalkrishna Gandhi.
Plans to erect a statue to the liberation fighter was hatched some 6 months ago. One of the main reasons for installing the statue is to cement the UK’s “special relationship” with India. Publicly the statute’s unveiling is to commemorate 100 years since Gandhi returned to India to begin his arduous dream of achieving Indian independence. David Cameron said: “[It] is a magnificent tribute to one of the most towering political figures in the history of world politics.”
Arun Jaitles added: “It also marks an important, historic moment celebrating the strong bond between our two nations…India and the UK share the same values and we are a partnership of equals. This lasting friendship is just one of many legacies left by Gandhi.”
Hundreds of people attended the unveiling - and near-by streets displayed fluttering British and Indian flags. Parliament Square is one of London’s most famous tourist attractions. Demonstrators also use the 1868 prestigious square.
The decision to dedicate a statue to Gandhi is unique for two reasons. Firstly, other statues in the square are of figures who all held public office, which Gandhi did not. Also, Gandhi is the first Indian to be honoured in this way. Other historical figures who have been similarly honoured include Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln.
Mahatma - meaning ‘great soul’ - Gandhi first visited London in 1888 where he studied law. He subsequently practiced as a barrister, before returning to India upon the death of his mother. Gandhi’s rise to prominence was not straightforward. In April 1919, he advocated increasing the amount of Indian troops to aid Britain in the First World War. This decision triggered an outcry among India’s rural population. It was not until over a decade later that he redeemed himself in the eyes of many Indians.
Ironically, the statue is situated near Churchill’s. During India’s independence struggle, Churchill and Gandhi’s relationship can be characterized as extremely cold and confrontational, due to both figures seeking to accomplish opposite goals (Churchill rigorously wanting to preserve the British empire while Gandhi sought Indian independence from it).
Winston Churchill expressed an opinion of Gandhi in 1931: “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is organizing and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience…”
Gandhi’s decision to adopt non-violent tactics - most notably hunger strikes and refusal to pay taxes - laid the pathway to Indian independence in 1947. He continues to influence the world. Many world figures, such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama, have continuously praised the former liberation fighter’s legacy.
Some historians have called to question the validity of Gandhi’s ‘non-violence’ stance.
It is noteworthy that Gandhi ultimately achieved his goal of independence due to the one thing he passionately rejected: violence. The UK’s contentious and violent acts, which were fuelled from a sense of paranoia, most notably that of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, influenced the Indian public to reject the status quo and embrace Gandhi’s vision of an independent India.
The period of Gandhi’s rise to prominence witnessed the growth of inter-communal tensions, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. For many years, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus felt their identity was being eroded. So when Gandhi announced his intention for India to transform into a religious pluralist society, many persons, including Muhammad Jinnah, were deeply troubled.
In 1948 a Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Gandhi. Despite the fact that Gandhi practiced Hinduism, he never considered himself to be a Hindu nationalist. In fact Gandhi stated that: “My Hinduism teaches me to respect all religions…”
Controversy spilled over last year when a group of Hindus launched a campaign to officially name a temple in Lucknow (northern India) after Godse.