As the US debates Confederate statues, a powerful lesson from Delhi – let them rot

In 2007, I saw Queen Victoria caked in mud on a field in North Delhi. In 2011, she was gone.

In 2007, I saw Queen Victoria caked in mud on a field in North Delhi. In 2011, she was gone.

On a sunny morning in December 2007, 60 years after India had become independent, my friend and I challenged ourselves to find the least sought-after monument in a city known for its monuments, a statue of King George V. We hailed an autorickshaw to take us to the outer reaches of North Delhi in search of what we struggled to describe in Hindi – a field where white people had become emperors. We guessed there must be statues, and we had a general sense of its location. But we had no landmarks to offer the auto driver. Was this field not landmark enough? The auto-walla’s apathy suggested no, there was no such thing as “Coronation Grounds”.

King George V’s first trip to Delhi was in December 1911, and he must have had an easier time finding the same field where my friend and I stood in 2007, having been ditched by the fairly upset auto driver who had severely miscalculated his day’s itinerary. This empty expanse of land was the once famous Coronation Grounds that, my friend and I quickly discovered, had become a dusty field.

The 1911 Delhi Durbar (court of Delhi) was the third such durbar to be held at that venue but the first to be attended by the sovereign of British India. From December 7 to December 16, the festival took place across the city. On December 12, King George V appeared wearing a crown of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies and a robe that weighed almost two pounds (close to 1 kg). With the royalty of India’s princely states gathered around him, he declared Delhi the capital of British India (it was earlier Calcutta) and himself the emperor of the British Raj.

King George V and Queen Mary during the coronation at the Delhi Durbar in 1911. Credit: United Kingdom Government / Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY IWM Non-Commercial Licence]
King George V and Queen Mary during the coronation at the Delhi Durbar in 1911. Credit: United Kingdom Government / Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY IWM Non-Commercial Licence]

Where kings and queens stood

The Coronation Grounds had been carefully designed with statues and busts of Delhi’s former rulers, though with a significant twist – Queen Victoria stood next to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as well as her predecessor William IV.

In 2007, an obelisk remained where George had become emperor. But Victoria’s bust had fared poorly – we found her face up in mud past what had been a separate garden wall, all of which was left to rot or bake in the Delhi sun. The stone monarch had collected a bit of trash around her. About 100 meters away, teenagers used parts of other busts to mark a makeshift cricket field.

In April 2011, in the 100th anniversary year of the coronation of George V, I took some visiting American students on the same adventure. As I tried once again to describe this field where white people had become emperors, one cycle rickshaw-walla waved his hand as if to say it could be everywhere. But this time I had a smartphone, and found a nearby school that helped put us within walking distance of the grounds.

It was near 45 degrees Celsius as we walked, and a group of sweaty, fatigued and lost-looking white people draws a crowd. The students, who had been fairly accommodating for the first part of the trip, soon realised I was taking them to an empty field and began to complain. I had promised an obelisk – an already unimpressive reward for a vigorous day hike – but once we reached the grounds I discovered it was gone. The makeshift cricket field remained, but instead of a garden there was small plot of gravel and mud. This, I assumed, was the fate of Victoria’s bust.

A hundred years on, apathy had finished the anti-colonial battle. In the 1960s, India took down some of the many Victorias, Edwards and Georges the British had erected to mark their territory. Sometimes they made good museum pieces, sometimes they made good concrete, and sometimes they turned a profit – the city of Toronto was gifted a statue of Edward VII in 1968 in exchange for a large sum of money. (Sometimes they stayed where they were, in good condition.) But many of the statues were pulled down and left to gather mud, trash, graffiti and rust – a fitting tribute to the inhumane apathy with which the British had ruled over famines, education, and communalism in the name of expanding Western civilisation.

Empty plinths without their statues at the Coronation Grounds. (Credit: Nvvchar / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)
Empty plinths without their statues at the Coronation Grounds. (Credit: Nvvchar / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

Down with colonial symbols

Let them rot: this was the proposal Korean cultural critic Yu Hong-Jun made in 1995 when South Korea was trying to figure out what to do with its imperial Japanese monuments. He thought that this should especially be the case with the Japanese Government-General Building built in 1926 in the centre of Seoul: the city should destroy it enough so that the ruins would decay slowly. This would be a fitting response to the horrors of colonial rule, a reminder that its ruins live on, but also an appropriate tribute to the delusional grandeur of the imperial imagination. Seoul demolished its colonial monuments and built over them. Delhi let them rot.

On August 28, the American Historical Association recommended preserving the statues of Confederate leaders – who had fought a war in the 1860s to preserve the slavery of African Americans – and moving them to museums or other safe spaces, citing Coronation Grounds in Delhi as an ideal example of such a practice. It made the statement after plans to bring down a statue of Confederate commander Robert E Lee in Charlottesville led to violent protests by white supremacists. The suggestion also comes in the midst of a debate over colonial symbols across the world. In South Africa, for instance, a protest movement called “Rhodes Must Fall” – directed against a statue commemorating British politician Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town – started in 2015 and has since spread to other countries.

Students of the University of Cape Town cheer as a statue of Cecil John Rhodes is removed in April 2015. (Credit: Samaya Hisham / Reuters)
Students of the University of Cape Town cheer as a statue of Cecil John Rhodes is removed in April 2015. (Credit: Samaya Hisham / Reuters)

In India, South Africa, or the United States, what would be the best fate for aptly hollow memorials that are currently the subject of controversy?

Why not let such monuments remain on the ground where they fell into a heap of unsightly twisted metal? Letting the statues of colonial and Confederate leaders stand is an affront to those who still suffer the aftermath of their rule. But removing their trashed remains suggests that the end of colonialism and slavery was the end of the problem. Instead, we might let them rot – letting the memorial trash heap remain on the lawn is a perpetual reminder of their violence and their fragility. Following Delhi’s approach, we let them rust and rot, a memorial to histories we must refuse to commemorate or forget.

J Daniel Elam is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who specialises in theories of World Literature, with a specific focus on 20th century South Asian literature and political writing.

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