Why the campaign to install a Mangal Pandey statue in Lucknow shows more than one can play Hindu card
A gauntlet has been thrown in front of Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh.
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A curious campaign is afoot in Uttar Pradesh these days. A group called the “1857 Rashtravadi Manch” (1857 Nationalist Forum) is pushing for the installation of a statue of Mangal Pandey in Lucknow.
On the surface, there’s nothing curious about such a project. Mangal Pandey is acknowledged as the first martyr of the first war for Indian independence. Born in Uttar Pradesh, he was in the Bengal Army, took up weapons against British officers, and instigated others to follow suit. He was executed as a mutineer.
The group has not filed a petition for a statute, they have simply announced they will put it up. Courtesy: Facebook/Amaresh Misra
However, his finger on the trigger set off the simmering unrest across north India, with people refusing to participate in their own subjugation by the British East India Company. The rulers of many provinces fought to retain power and Lucknow was arguably the heart of this war.
History did not forget Mangal Pandey. He found mention in our textbooks; commemorative stamps have been issued; a big budget Bollywood film was produced; there were statues too, in Meerut and Kolkata and elsewhere.
But there is no prominent statue of the martyr in Lucknow, and the campaign for one has taken a curious shape. For, the 1857 Rashtravadi Manch is positioning Mangal Pandey not just as a nationalist, but as a Hindu icon.
What’s more, the group is not demanding that a statue be sanctioned. It isn’t a petition. They have simply declared that, on June 30, a statue of Mangal Pandey will be installed opposite the state Assembly building. In other words, a gauntlet has been thrown in front of the state government.
The convenor of this group, Amaresh Misra, is the other curiosity. He is a writer – of books such as Lucknow: Fire of Grace: The Story of its Renaissance, Revolution and the Aftermath; Mangal Pandey: The True Story of an Indian Revolutionary; War of Civilizations: India 1857 AD; and of a Hindi movie, Bullett Raja, – who has now thrown himself into full-time politics.
For a while, he was convenor of an “Anti Communal Front” in Uttar Pradesh. Now he is with the little known Kisan Kranti Dal.
History has remembered Mangal Pandey in multiple ways, including through a Bollywood movie.
Every day, for the last few weeks, he has posted updates on his Facebook page, wherein he describes Mangal Pandey as a proud Hindu, a patriot, a “jan nayak” (leader of the people). He also stresses that Pandey was of the Sanatan fold, a Brahmin, who felt he had a duty to lead people into resistance. The call for people to gather in Lucknow on June 30 is thus not just about a statue; it promises a “Sanatani aakhrosh” rally. In other words, it promises angry Hindus.
On the other hand, Misra reminds his audience that it was Nakki Khan who stole Pandey's body after he was hung, had the last rites conducted, according to Hindu rituals, and took the ashes to his ancestral village. He represents Mangal Pandey as a farmer since for he came from a farming family. The images being used have done away with the red coat uniform, and instead depict Pandey as a dhoti-clad, bare chested figure wearing a simple turban – almost a farmer, but for the gun in one hand.
The conflation of Sanatan dharm with secularism is unusual in political conversation. Misra appears to be deploying caste and religious identity against divisive rhetoric. In his Facebook Live sessions, he struggles to pull together ideas that don't necessarily sit at ease together: memories of being colonised; contemporary ‘Company Raj’; religious taboos; trade tariffs; the Kashmir situation; violence under the guise of cow protection; destruction of old temples in the holy city of Kashi, the highjacking of Sanatan dharm by Hindutva.
It is unclear whether Misra’s followers are joining these intellectual dots. On Facebook, some of his supporters add a qualifier to their names such as ‘Brahman’, ‘Go-rakshak (cow protector) and ‘Chhatraneta’ (student leader). Many write “Jai Parshuram” in the comments. The choice of the warrior sage as a call of approval or a rallying cry is revealing, and they are not shy about their ‘janeu’ (caste thread).
It is a tricky political move. So far, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and spokespeople have behaved as if they maintain a monopoly on nationalist fevers and appeals to Hindu pride. It is seen as a party that represents the interests of upper castes, in Uttar Pradesh especially, with two major rivals, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party being seen as Dalit and Yadav champions respectively.
Given these assumptions, the BJP-led state government would be hard put to disrupt the installation of a Mangal Pandey statue. But will Yogi Adityanath allow the installation of a statue right across the seat of his own power by someone who is opposed to his party?
Will Adityanath oppose the statute of a Brahmin leader? Photo: PTI
Amaresh Misra was arrested just ahead of the 2014 general elections. He was working with the Indian National Congress at the time, and Twitter was a political war zone. Misra’s account was flagged for abuse and threats, and after he threatened Narendra Modi, he was picked up by the Uttar Pradesh police; his Twitter account was suspended too.
After seeing his latest Facebook Live session, I put a few questions to Misra. He’s spoken of setting up a Mangal Pandey Sena and warning “lampat” (a hard to translate Hindi word, it could refer to a goon or a badly behaved person) elements with threats of beatings. I brought up his confrontational tone and wondered if he does not worry about being flagged or getting arrested again?
He appeared to shrug off the possibility. I’ve been arrested once, he said.
The stone statue, he informs me, has just arrived. Will it stand in the heart of Lucknow, defiant as the man it represents, or will it reveal itself as a quixotic mission and end up sitting in someone’s garage? We’ll know by the end of next week.
As for the dozens of young men who invoke the sage Parshurama, who could deliver a curse or take up weapons as the occasion demanded, are they going to take on the lampat elements or turn “lampat” themselves? Time will tell, but it may wait and watch a year, or even a lifetime.