Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unveiled a 182-metre statue, the world’s tallest, to honour Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the country’s founding fathers and its first home minister.
The $430m Statue of Unity, built on an island in Narmada river, was inaugurated by Modi on Wednesday in the western Indian state of Gujarat, home to both Patel and Modi.
Patel was deputy to Jawaharlal Nehru, India‘s first prime minister, also the great grandfather of current Congress party president, Rahul Gandhi.
Patel’s legacy has been frequently used by Modi to undermine his chief political rivals, the Gandhi-Nehru family, which gave India three prime ministers.
Speaking at the inauguration, Modi, who had commissioned the statue in 2010 when he was Gujarat state’s chief minister, said, “Events like today are very very important in a country’s history and such events are difficult to erase. It is an historic and inspiring occasion for all Indians.”
“Patriotism is the foundation on which our culture is built,” the Hindu nationalist leader said.
Around 3,500 workers and 250 engineers worked to build the gigantic statue made of concrete, steel and bronze panels, located on the island called ‘Sadhu Bet’, around 200km from Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad.
There will be a viewing gallery some 153 metres up, near the chest of the towering statue, which, critics say, is part of a larger right-wing project of revising India’s history to suit the Hindu nationalist agenda.
The project includes appropriating the legacy of freedom fighters and leaders from the liberal opposition Congress, who do not belong to the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Another controversial statue, that of 17th century Maratha warrior, Shivaji Bhosle, is currently being built in Mumbai.
Both the statues dwarf the Statue of Liberty in height and together cost almost $1bn.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, also known as the “Iron Man of India”, persuaded feuding states to merge and become part of the Indian union after independence from the British rule in 1947.
Patel worked alongside Nehru to build the nation after the Indian subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan, one of the bloodiest events in South Asia that resulted in nearly a million deaths and displaced 15 million people.
Historians like AG Noorani say Nehru and Patel held divergent views on how the young Indian republic is to be shaped, despite being members of the same Congress party, with the latter perceived by some as “more pro-Hindu“.
While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace.
Thousands of Gujarat’s tribals in villages near the site protested against the million-dollar statue [Sam Panthaky/AFP]
Modi and his BJP party are at loggerheads with the secular ethos that largely shaped a post-colonial India governed by Nehru and the Congress for more than half a century. They believe Patel would have made a better leader.
“Every Indian regrets Sardar Patel did not become the first prime minister. Had he been the first prime minister, the country’s fate and face would have been completely different,” Modi has said repeatedly in the past few years.
Facing a series of state elections in the coming months before a national election due by May, the ruling BJP believes there is much to be gained from appropriating Patel’s legacy.
Rakesh Sinha, lawmaker and member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor, says the Hindu supremacist organisation is “the true successor” of Patel’s legacy.
“Patel had a home-grown concept of nationalism. While others like Nehru advocated a European idea of nationalism, Patel valorised the Indian tradition of civilisational nation state. This meant ‘one nation, one people’. Our government is guided by this ideology,” Sinha told Al Jazeera.
‘Battle of ideas’
Analysts say it suits Modi and the BJP to take refuge in Patel’s colossal shade, invoking his efforts in integrating erstwhile princely states into the Indian republic.
“The eulogies being paid to Patel are merely a cover. All they want is to malign India’s left-leaning social democrat founding father Nehru. It is a battle of ideas,” Aditya Mukherjee, professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Al Jazeera.
Others warn the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power and includes shaping of a national identity to match the idea that India is a nation of and for Hindus.
“The Hindu nationalists believe Nehru and [Mahatma] Gandhi didn’t allow India to become a Hindu state. So, a conservative Hindu Patel was the natural choice to counterbalance Gandhi,” Manimugdha Sharma, political analyst in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
Commentators also refer to the irony of Modi supporting Patel, who helped ban the RSS after Nathuram Godse, who historians say was linked to the Hindu supremacist organisation, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
“It’s a different matter that Patel was staunchly against a Hindu nation and had famously said in February 1949: ‘Hindu rule is a mad idea. It will kill the soul of India’,” Sharma said.
Politics over statues
Mumbai’s planned $515m statue of Shivaji reveres a regional ruler who challenged the medieval Mughal empire and today stands as a symbol of Hindu pride.
Critics say a debate over such statues is necessary at a time when ruling BJP is erasing Indian history of its Muslim heritage by renaming roads and railway stations, and rewriting of textbooks.
Earlier this month, the Islamic name of a north Indian city, Allahabad, was changed to Prayagraj, which has Hindu associations.
“It’s a paradox that the Statue of Unity is leading to disunity. The politics behind these statues is obvious: to lionise someone by demonising someone else,” said Sharma.
Historians like Mukherjee say the Hindu nationalists want a “monochromatic, homogenous” India, “which this land never was”.
“They want to wash over the entire medieval period because they are irritated that some Muslim rulers were around. For them there’s ancient India and then suddenly we jump over to post-independence India,” he said.
But the RSS says such statues set a western idea of nationalism right.
“When you write artificial history intended to support a western version of nationalism, it will not be accepted. If there are versions of history that were concocted, we will set it right,” Rakesh Sinha told Al Jazeera.
The costly statue projects have also been criticised as being unnecessary in a nation where one-third of the 1.2 billion people live in abject poverty.
Local organisations claim as many as 75,000 tribal people were displaced from their lands by the Statue of Unity project, which has been financed by government and public donations.
The chiefs of nearly two dozen villages around the Patel statue had warned Modi to stay away from the inauguration.
Posters of Modi with Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani were torn down or had their faces blackened over the weekend, AFP news agency reported.
Activists said about a dozen of their leaders were detained ahead of the opening of the statue.
Anand Mazgaonkar, a community leader in Narmada district, told AFP that police in plain clothes took away 12 people late on Tuesday to the local police headquarters.
Authorities denied the allegations, but admitted that they took no chances.
“More than 5,000 police personnel were deployed at various points in the 10km radius of the statue site,” Narmada police inspector general Abhay Chudasama told AFP.
Analysts say the government should have its priorities cut out.
“A country struggling to create jobs amid a sluggish economy could have surely avoided this wasteful expenditure. India needs gigantic growth, not gigantic statues,” said Sharma.