Amid the kerfuffle over the rejection of West Bengal’s tableau for the Republic Day parade and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose will be installed in the canopy that Edwin Lutyens designed for George V, not many will remember a factoid: a gigantic statue of Netaji had already graced Rajpath — in 2005. It was part of the tableau of the justice department of the Union government, but that is beside the point!
While it is not known in what avatar West Bengal proposed to celebrate Netaji on their 2022 float, the one that featured in that 2005 Republic Day parade in New Delhi had him in military uniform, arm raised and finger pointing forward, simulating his famous ‘Dilli Chalo!’ clarion call. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has announced that she will salute that Netaji tableau before Kolkata’s Republic Day parade, so the effort has not gone to waste.
It cannot be said that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has been underrepresented in his home state and the city whose municipal corporation was his first political stomping ground. Besides a clutch of educational institutions and stadia major and minor around West Bengal, Kolkata’s international airport bears his name as does a neighbourhood and, confusingly, two major roads in different parts of the city. And countless Netaji busts dot small parks and kerbsides.
But the most iconic statue, without doubt, is the one of a uniformed Netaji astride a rearing horse (with a curiously erect tail), installed in 1969 in the middle of Kolkata’s busiest multi-road crossing at Shyambazar, amid a tangle of overhead wires. And last year, a Bengali autorickshaw driver spent all his savings and even borrowed money to commission, finance and erect a fiberglass statue of his hero — also astride a horse — in his hometown of Basirhat.
His reason for doing so is telling. He is quoted by The Telegraph as saying, “I spent only a few years in school. But I realised Netaji was the real icon of our country. I later heard about him from many learned persons and concluded that without his initiative, Independence would have come late.” That feeling runs so strong in Bengali hearts that the announcement that Netaji is about to get pride of place in New Delhi’s Central Vista will undoubtedly resonate.
For a long time the Bengali community — that formed a prominent component of the pre-Independence population of New Delhi — has felt under-represented in the city of the Nehru-Gandhis. This, even though the capital has a Netaji Nagar (housing mid-level government servants) and a Netaji Subhas Park (renamed, not named) situated on Netaji Subhas Road near Red Fort that also has a bronze statue of the swashbuckling freedom fighter and stormy petrel.
But now, things can’t get bigger (and better) than a statue of Bengal’s valiant son adroitly juxtaposed between a national war memorial and the Central Vista planned by the British — itself being thoroughly reimagined and reconstructed. The commemoration of Bose will also shine a light on the oft-forgotten fact that India did not win freedom by satyagraha and ahimsa alone; and that many sons and daughters of India (including Bengalis) died fighting that good fight.
Interestingly, in 1969 when independent India’s government finally got round to thinking about a replacement for George V under the canopy behind India Gate, three names were considered. The first two names were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The international news agency Associated Press described the third name as a ‘dark horse’ and a ‘militant Bengali nationalist’: Subhas Chandra Bose. Gandhiji was chosen but never made it to the canopy.
An RTI led to the Central Public Works Department revealing there was no move to install Gandhiji’s statue in the canopy but added that in 1994 PV Narasimha Rao’s cabinet decided to develop the area around India Gate as August Kranti Udyan and install a statue there but no specific spot was fixed. In 2009 replying to a question from Congress MP Rajeev Shukla, the Minister of State for Urban Development Saugata Roy said that the decision was taken in 1992.
Roy also said the plan to install Gandhiji’s statue was put on the backburner after a writ petition in 1995 when a Group of Ministers on directions of the Union Cabinet recommended that the statue be installed at the site of the canopy. In a response to that writ petition from heritage activists, the Delhi High Court passed an interim order in July 1995 “restraining the government from altering/ removing/ demolishing the canopy at India Gate complex”.
Though the Court disposed of the matter in March 2005, Roy told Parliament “there is no immediate demand or proposal to install a Gandhi statue at the India Gate”. By then, of course, Gandhiji’s statue made by the legendary sculptor Ram Sutar for the canopy had already been installed post-haste in the grounds of Parliament in 1993 after the then opposition MP George Fernandes accused the Congress government of leaving it “in the middle of the road”.
Curiously, the statue of George V continued to preside over Central Vista during the entire long prime ministerial tenure of the third candidate for placement under that canopy, Jawaharlal Nehru. This may seem an inexplicable incongruity, but it must be remembered that Nehru was also one of those who favoured a dominion status for India (recognising the British Crown) post-Independence, a position that was vehemently opposed by Netaji, who wanted total severance.
There will be attempts to stymie the placement of Netaji’s statue under the canopy too but as there is no proposal to dismantle the Lutyens’ designed structure, heritage activists may find little cause to oppose it. The proposal has the first-mover advantage as even political parties will now be averse to doing anything to deride the idea. Maybe Mamata Banerjee will propose replacing Queen Victoria’s statue at Kolkata’s landmark Victoria Memorial with one of Netaji too.