Winston Churchill was a terrible man. He authorised use of chemical weapons against Afghans and Kurds, called China “a barbaric nation”, spoke of the “great hordes of Islam” and wrote of Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. When informed of mass deaths in the 1943 Bengal famine, he simply asked: “So is Gandhi dead yet?” Those nostalgic for the Raj love him, as do white supremacists. Zionists adore him for what he told the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937:

“I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”  

Unsurprisingly, Churchill’s statue is iconic for leftists and progressives around the world. Galvanised by the killing of George Floyd, they want not just this statue gone but all historical monuments associated with oppression, slavery, and bigotry to be eliminated from public view. Thoroughly decent people are roaring: pull them down!

But stop! This is terribly dangerous. Step back and reflect upon the consequences.

I’ve dwelt on Churchill here because he is a metaphor for countless racist, supremacist leaders who led wars of conquest and plundered treasures. From Alexander the Great to Chandragupta Maurya, and Mohammed bin Qasim to Napoleon Bonaparte, ambitious conquerors subjugated weaker peoples on various pretexts. So shouldn’t we eliminate hurtful memories?

Where do we draw the line?

Let’s begin by bulldozing the pyramids of ancient Egypt. They are symbols of extreme oppression and the word “pharaoh” is synonymous with cruelty. Thousands of slaves toiling in the scorching desert sun built tombs for the pharaoh king. When he died his retainers were obliged to collectively commit suicide and be buried in the same pyramid, ready to serve when he awakes in the after-life. Morally, the pyramids ought to be levelled.

And what to make of Babri mosque? For Hindu zealots it was the symbol of cultural oppression by Muslim invaders. In 1992 with bare hands and pick-axes a maddened crowd tore apart a five-centuries-old structure built by Emperor Babar, allegedly on the very site where Lord Ram was born. India has never recovered from that.

More Muslim heritage lies in the cross hairs. “Babar ki auladain” – sons of Babur – is the pejorative name given to about two dozen or so Indian cities. In time Ahmedabad, Karimnagar, Jamalpur, Faridpur, Hajipur, Moradabad, and Secunderabad might disappear from the map of India and emerge reincarnated with Hindu names.

Where will the madness stop? Should the Taj Mahal also be torn down because it marks the extraordinary success of invaders? Of course, the Taj is a horrific example of the abuse of man by man much as the magnificent cathedrals of Europe are. Resources to build monuments were forcibly extracted from toiling peasants. The Taj is just the whim of a ruthless monarch mourning his favourite wife.

But look at the Taj in the moonlight and you see something even more enchanting than an architectural jewel. One can almost feel the soft emanations from the side-by-side graves of two star-crossed lovers. Life is surely complex, filled with nuances. My vote: preserve and protect the Taj.

Pakistan’s cultural vandalism exceeds India’s. Hindu heritage sites in Pakistan have all but vanished, and Buddhist statues and artifacts wilfully plundered and destroyed. Hardly a tear was shed in Pakistan when the Taliban blew up the 2,000-year old Buddhas in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province.

Deemed as corrupting Hindu influences, the celebration of cultural events such as Baisakhi and Basant, as well as kite flying, have been gradually forbidden or abandoned in recent decades. Even “Hindu trees” like banyan, neem, and pipal have been punished – far fewer can be seen today in comparison to earlier times. I cannot forget the smouldering remains of a 200-year-old graceful banyan in the posh E-7 area of Islamabad, destroyed by students from a nearby madressah as a Hindu symbol.

Lessons for the West

I urge my iconoclastic liberal/left friends in the West to learn from Pakistan-India. In seeking purification by removing distasteful symbols of the past they risk cultural and aesthetic desertification. Pictures of pre-Partition Karachi and Lahore tell us how visually rich and architecturally beautiful they once were – and how cultural purification reduced them to boring blandness.

Eliminating symbols does nothing of substance. There was mass euphoria when crowds of Iraqis, helped by US marines with a 50-ton armoured vehicle, toppled a massive Saddam Hussein statue located exactly where the ousted tyrant had destroyed an older monument. But this was no new dawn for the people of Iraq. On the contrary, a decade of bitter Shia-Sunni sectarian warfare ensued.

Those who seek to efface history’s markers are merely self-righteous. Those seeking a pure, authentic past untainted by sin are chasing a phantom – it doesn’t exist. In my last Dawn op-ed Dangerous delusions I wrote of the psychedelic substance being dished out to Pakistan’s masses every evening in the form of Ertugrul Ghazi and of the dangerous hallucinations it is inducing.

Spaceship Earth hurtles towards an uncertain future with a crew that’s terribly sick, more mentally and psychologically than physically. The doctors on board must record the history of various quarrelling groups professionally and clinically, all without emotion or embellishment. The naïve notion of heroes and villains must be dumped: history has actors only.

Let Churchill stay. That fat, cigar-smoking, racist Englishman cannot hurt anyone now that worms have eaten away his flesh. Instead, let’s get serious. The starting point must be the realisation that widow burning, slavery, and genocide are as much part of the human condition as are great acts of generosity and compassion. Every civilisation is the legacy of wars, conquests, and brutality. Even the cleverest surgery cannot cut out these bitter legacies without killing the patient.

This article first appeared on Dawn.