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The Gateway of India, redefined

December 2nd, 2011 marks a hundred years since the day that the Gateway of India commemorated, the first time a British sovereign – King George V – set foot on Indian soil.

While celebrating the centenary of the magnificent arch, now a prime tourist attraction in Mumbai, a comparison with the many revolutions and struggles for freedom in other parts of the world comes to mind. There, it is common for the statues and monuments of the erstwhile rulers to be violently demolished. Yet this has not happened in India. Why not? What does it mean to us today? What does it say about us, as a people, and about the role that India can play in the world today?

In a saga of conquest, rebellion and freedom, the Gateway is a rather neatly tied-up irony. It was built to celebrate a monarch’s triumphant survey of a colony. Thirty-six years later, free Indians watched the last of the departing British troops march ceremonially through the Gateway’s lofty portal.

An Arc of Triumph became the site of an empire’s retreat.

Although the foundation stone of the Gateway was laid within a few months of King George’s visit, it took another 13 years for the structure to be designed and built. It was a project of the Government of India, yet almost half the Rs. 21 lakhs it cost came as a donation from the Sassoons, a globally influential family of Baghdadi Jews. Their founder, David Sassoon, once treasurer of Baghdad, migrated to Bombay in the mid-19th century and became a premier financier.

By the time the Gateway was actually inaugurated on December 4th, 1924, the grandeur and power associated with the Imperial Durbar at Delhi in 1911 was rapidly fraying.

The martyrdom of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh, in 1919, added both pathos and passion to the non-cooperation movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. It also boosted a generation of revolutionaries, like Bhagat Singh, who did not share the Mahatma’s faith in non-violence. Later, the hanging of Singh and his comrades in 1931 became another definitive event that sealed the fate of the empire.

Why then did we embrace the Gateway of India and India Gate in Delhi as our own, after the British left?

The reasons are many. It was not only that Indians, like many other peoples, have cultivated the habit of living amid and building upon the ruins and remains of successive rulers.

Over five millennia of this experience have combined with a multiplicity of spiritual traditions which simultaneously fostered a sophisticated aesthetic and a detachment from material trappings. Gandhi was drawing on a long legacy when he saw all material power as ephemeral and imperial power as particularly fragile – even when its rise and fall is measured in centuries rather than decades.

Above all, the satyagraha movement led by Gandhi enabled India to separate the fact of imperial oppression from those who imposed it or from the structures they built. Indians could burn British cloth as a form of protest – yet not foster hatred towards the British people.

Therefore when the British were finally ousted, it was natural to sanitize and defang symbols of imperial rule – not to tear them down. India Gate was dedicated to an eternal hero – the unknown solider who dies to protect his people. The adjacent chatri was emptied of the King’s statue, which was moved to an obscure park in Delhi along with the statues of other imperial figures.

In Mumbai, a black statue of King George V riding a horse was relocated to a museum – though that area is still known as Kala Ghoda. In 1961, a 16-foot statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha leader, was installed as the centre-piece of a little garden adjoining the Gateway of India.

Perhaps all of this smooth transition was possible because the freedom struggle was forward-looking. And, Gandhi’s focus was on raising the more fundamental challenge of redefining the paradigm of power.

The dominant symbol of India’s freedom struggle was not the destruction of imperial monuments. It was the charkha, a revolt against how colonial rule had destroyed production systems in India. It was an affirmation of what is needed – a decentralised industrialisation that would empower local communities and foster sustained well-being for every last Indian.

Instead of harking back to the past, the charkha inspired us to work for a new paradigm, in which there would be no concentrations of power in future – either by feudal lords, industrial barons or even elected governments.

Those who still have faith in the old model of power might now be tempted to view the Gateway of India as a motif of India’s outward movement to acquire and exert power in the world. Having nuclear weapons capability and a growing number of Indian multi-nationals, might foster a feeling that it’s our turn to rule.

But those who are closely tuned into the mood of the 21st century are more likely to see the Gateway as a reminder of the fragility of concentrated power built on the exploitation of others. This is as true of 20th century colonial empires as large corporations and big government today. From Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street and the many more sites of struggle that go unreported, there is a longing for precisely the kind of social and economic empowerment that Gandhi visualised but free India has not yet fully experienced.

If at all the Gateway is a motif for our times, then it is a metaphorical portal for exploring how India and Indians might help to foster new paradigms of power at home and abroad.

Rajni Bakshi is an author, and Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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