A few days ago, the headlines were not about cricket, a game that Indians are said to be obsessed with, but the stadium where it is played.
The issue was the well-known Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, being renamed the Narendra Modi Stadium. This stadium was built in the early eighties by a Congress-led state government, which had allotted 100 acres of land to extend the existing Gujarat Stadium.
The stadium has been renamed in an unbelievable, rather surreptitious way. There was no public consultation or sharing of information about plans to rename it. News agencies such as PTI and ANI were also ostensibly kept in the dark about its new name.
Then there was a grandiose reopening—the stadium was closed for international cricket in 2015 to complete its renovation—and the new name was revealed. President Ramnath Kovind, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and a 50,000-strong crowd of spectators supposedly rejoiced over the occasion. Then there was an opening day test match between India and England.
As expected, the rechristening was met with criticism and condemnation, not only from Opposition leaders but a section of media as well. Peddling and strengthening the personality cult around the sitting Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the main thrust of the critiques. How Narendra Modi renamed a stadium after himself became the talk of the town. The reson is that there are few parallels in democratic countries for events of this nature, though there are several like it in authoritarian regimes.
Even more problematic is that the formerly colonised nations have a tradition to memorialise, mostly through sculptures and public buildings, their nationalist heroes. But in the Gujarat Stadium venture, these heroes of the past were forgotten and ignored. Instead of ilustrious freedom fighters and towering leaders of the masses, those who hold the reins of power, and who played no role in the independence struggle, are being memorialised in their own lifetime.
The powers-that-be tried to justify the decision with the argument that the renovated stadium is just a part of the larger Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Sports Enclave. Yet it is clear that those who had prior information that this stadium would be renamed were least bothered about its political implications. The narratives that it lends itself to did not bother them, such is the confidence or bluster that underpins the move.
During a recent debate in Parliament, former Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi targeted the ruling dispensation for its alleged proximity with certain corporate houses. He had used an old slogan, popularised by the Family Planning Programme, to relate to this new context, saying this government runs on the “Hum Do-Hamare Do [We two, our two]” principle. Ironically, it turned out that the renovated Narendra Modi Stadium has a “Reliance End” and “Adani End”.
Even the pro-government lot were not unilaterally pleased with a stadium named after the Prime Minister. The BJP Member of Parliament Subramaniam Swamy, who is in the party’s national executive, advised Modi to demand changing the name. A few enthusiastic followers of the Prime Minister tried to “expose” previous Congress-led governments for naming buildings or public works after sitting prime ministers, but their search turned out to be futile.
So, the argument was trotted out that this was not a decision taken by Modi or the government, but by the Gujarat Cricket Association. This is a rather weak contention, for the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, had refused a similar offer from the then honorary secretary of the Cricket Control Board, Anthony De Mello.
It is said that when the first Asiad Games were to be held in 1951, and new stadiums were being built, De Mello had proposed that these upcoming stadiums should be known as Nehru Stadium, Patel stadium, etc. Nehru considered this suggestion and responded that stadiums in Delhi and Mumbai should not be named “Nehru Stadium and Park” or “Vallabhbhai Patel Olympic Stadium”.
Nehru said he favours encouraging sports and athletics in a newly-independent country but opposes a commemorating individuals through these stadia. He called doing this a bad habit and said the stadium can be given “National Stadium” or other such names.
Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati had also engaged in a building spree, installing statues of BR Ambedkar, Kanshiram, and other Dalit icons. She included her statue as well in this list of luminaries.
Mayawati was severely criticised for having her own statue erected, not only by Opposition parties but leaders of the RSS-BJP as well. It was seen as narcissism and megalomania. Cases were lodged in courts asking that the money spent on these statues be recovered from her. This issue is still being considered by the highest judiciary.
In an affidavit filed in court, Mayawati justified her statues (which were built with public money) by saying they represent the “will of the people”. Her affidavit said whether the money should have been spent on education or healthcare is “debatable” and cannot be decided by a court.
If the debate around renaming the stadium heats up, supporters of the Prime Minister can look up the arguments in Mayawati’s affidavit. They can claim this renaming represents the will of the people too, as people have voted for Modi’s party twice.
One thing is undeniable: The ease with which a towering leader of the independence struggle was substituted with a career politician reflects the distance of the supporters of the present regime from the legacy of the freedom struggle.
The tradition of public memorialisation through sculptures and public buildings began in India with the British, who installed bronze and marble statues of the imperial family and high-ranking civil servants. With the British rulers gone and the reins of power transferred to Indians, many colonial-era statues were removed and replaced with nationalist icons.
Very recently, the famous Dr. BC Roy hospital, named after the notable freedom fighter, first chief minister of West Bengal, and builder of modern Bengal, was sought to be renamed after the first president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Syama Prasad Mukerjee. This plan has been shelved for now.
Forget the independence struggle, Mukerjee had opposed the Quit India Movement and as a Hindu Mahasabha leader continued to share power with the Muslim League when Congress-led governments in various provinces had resigned to protest the British government’s unilateral decision to involve Indians in the Second World War.
The point is not whether public money is used to make these buildings or not. The point is that now we are perhaps in a phase when leaders of anti-colonial or emancipatory struggles would be slowly invisibilised and replaced by new icons who represent a different kind of India.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.