Samadhi politics

Those who want a memorial, and those who oppose it, actually agree on one issue. There is political life after death

What's this noise about memorials? It is nil nisi bonum, not surprising. Death has become an integral part of the political culture of independent India. Indeed, it appears to be a very good political investment. It began with the Congress, which exploited almost every death in the first family of the party for political purposes. It is now being followed by others. Funerals are first deliberately orchestrated and turned into public spectacles, and often, official functions. Subsequently, public spaces are appropriated for memorials to immortalise the dead.

The Shiv Sena demand for transforming the site of the funeral of its founder Bal Thackeray into a memorial for the late leader was, therefore, according to script. While Thackeray himself held no public office, the funeral received official recognition and was attended by key dignitaries, personalities from different fields, as well numerous followers and admirers. It has been reported that it was the first funeral at a public space in Mumbai after Bal Gangadhar Tilak's in 1920. The national capital, Delhi, has, of course, seen many, thanks to the Congress.

While states may be the new centre of gravity in Indian politics, it probably still pays to die in Delhi. No city in the country commemorates the death of political leaders as much as Delhi. Today, these various spots are an integral part of the tourist circuit of the capital. The banks of the Yamuna have literally been captured by the dead. The cremation spots of various leaders have been turned into samadhis dedicated to the memory of the dead. The residences of three former prime ministers are museums and memorials. They display besides photos and paper clippings, artefacts and various personal belongings of the deceased. The Indira Gandhi memorial also has on display her blood-stained saree, as well as some pieces of fabric and shoes of Rajiv Gandhi that were worn on their last days. What is on display is clearly designed to selectively remind people of the past and highlight particular aspects that take forward a political agenda.

This is not necessarily an Indian phenomenon. Throughout history, memorials to the dead have served as valuable political resources. Many countries across the globe have a tomb dedicated to the unknown soldier. These tombs are often national monuments that receive special attention on commemorative days. It is the physical presence of memorials that is valuable and more powerful than countless oral narratives. Memorials refresh collective memory and transport the past to the present.

Since memorials are political, it is not surprising that the Sena demand has met with mixed and confused responses. The Congress officially did not comment and was probably waiting for a formal demand. However, subsequently, the Congress accused the Sena of attempting to grab public land while protecting the more "appropriate" privately owned land of its own leaders. The minister of state for urban development, a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) representative, said the demand would be considered "sensitively".

Different voices emerged from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). To score a political point, one MNS corporator suggested that the memorial be built on an alternate piece of land, where a memorial for Ambedkar is being planned. The official spokesman for the MNS, however, said great leaders should be commemorated through public welfare projects in the name of the departed. Residents' associations, it was reported, were hardly enthused by the suggestion and sought the protection of the judiciary to prevent the appropriation of one of the few open spaces available in the city.

Those who want a memorial, and those who oppose it, actually agree on one issue. They realise the "significance" of the man it seeks to commemorate. For the Shiv Sena, the death of the founder could be crippling, given that it has already been wounded by the formation of the MNS. The Sena is no longer what it was. Even while the leader was alive, the breakaway MNS had appropriated a part of the Sena legacy. Its longstanding ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had also been flexing its muscles for some time now. It is essentially a battle for survival, and the Sena is fighting hard not to be pushed to the margins.

The Sena memorial has less to do with mourning. It is intended to be a political tool. History has numerous examples where the dead have been used to legitimise political transitions. Shivaji Park has been closely associated with the Shiv Sena since its foundation at the same location in 1966. It has been the site of its numerous rallies and the annual Dussehra address by its founder at this venue was an important event in the political calendar of the party, as well as the city. A memorial in Shivaji Park serves as political capital for the Sena. It is a calculated investment in death, which not only gives the dead man a new political life but also prevents others from appropriating his legacy. The unsolicited suggestions of the MNS regarding the memorial were clearly intended to play down the importance of the founding leader.

In hindsight, it appears that the Sena made calculated moves to build a "posthumous career" for its leader. The public funeral was allowed following a Sena request. This was step one of the plan. It was ostensibly permitted under exceptional circumstances of "maintaining public order", as it was felt that the alternative location would be unable to meet the rush of people. Post-funeral, the Sena turns around and demands a memorial in the park. It then ups the ante and complicates matters by comparing Shivaji Park to the legendary birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. For the Shiv Sena, a memorial could be a new lease of life. For the government, it is either the devil or the deep sea.

The writer is with the department of political science, Panjab University, Chandigarh

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