This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.
After he was killed by an assassin’s bullets almost 73 years ago on a cold January day in Delhi, the locals found a decapitated statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Davis, California’s Central Park. The 6’3” tall, 950-pound bronze statue that once stood in the same park was mutilated and disfigured on January 27, 2021. The statute of Gandhiji “appeared to have been sawed off at the ankles, and half its face was severed and missing,” reports said. The statue was installed in 2016, a gift from the Indian Council of Cultural Relations.
It wasn’t the first time a statue of one of the greatest proponents of ahimsā (Sanskrit, non-violence) in modern times was desecrated and disfigured in the Land of the Free. Barely a month ago, in December 2010, in Washington, DC, another Mahatma Gandhi statue was vandalized. Khalistani groups defaced Gandhiji’s statue that stands in front of the Indian Embassy. BLM Protestors also defaced Gandhiji’s statue in London’s Parliament Square. in June 2020, and wrote “racist” on it.
Iconoclasm is an expression of fanaticism and intolerance, and images are often destroyed for religious and political purposes. The destruction is a crude reminder of a weaponized intolerant ideology currently sweeping through the American landscape and elsewhere. However, the ideology of such brutality has its antecedents in history, which is replete with examples of iconoclastic destructions. Catherine Nixey’s ‘The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World’ describes in eye-popping graphic details the destruction and gore of the ancient temples of Serapeum in Alexandria and the Parthenon in Athens.
Chairman Mao Zedong of China ordered the destruction of countless historical monuments and works of art during what is known as the Cultural Revolution. In 2001, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, ordered the Bamiyan Buddha’s blowing up in Afghanistan. Initially sculpted in 507 CE, this ancient sandstone carving was once the world’s tallest Buddha. Taliban fighters fired at the Buddha with tanks and artillery shells. When that failed, they ordered the planting of explosives to destroy it. Taliban fighters drilled holes into the statue to plant the dynamite. The process of drilling holes blowing up the Buddha image took 25 days to complete. The Islamic State did the same to the temples of Palmyra.
For Indians, Hindus specifically, the massive destruction of temples and the desecration and dismemberment of their deities throughout the past millennia have been an acute source of transgenerational trauma. Among thousands of silent yet an in-your-face reminder of that trauma is the ruins of 26 Jain-Hindu temples in Mehrauli, near Delhi. The Muslim ruler destroyed the temple complex to erect a victory tower and the Dome of Islam Mosque. Meenakshi Jain’s book ‘Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples – Episodes from Indian History’ details Hindu deities’ desecration, destruction, and preservation at significant risks by the faithful.
Iconoclasm is, primarily, an instrument of power. Its gore intends to instill an element of fear among the masses. Those who desecrated the Gandhi statues had every intention to terrorize the members of the Indian diaspora (and beyond) and exert political pressure. They did just that. Some of these terrorism techniques manifest themselves into blatant Hinduphobia.
Members of the diaspora across North America and Europe have also received physical and sexual violence threats from the groups behind the desecrations. A Hindu doctor in California received threats for her strong opposition to the Khalistanis.
“I am increasingly alarmed by the bloodcurdling sectarianism against India. Particularly against Hindus, for whom empirically the VAST majority support pluralism, progress, and peace,” tweeted Shuvaloy Majumdar, a Senior Fellow with MacDonald-Laurier Institute, the Ottawa, Canada-based think tank.
Suhag Shukla, the Executive Director and Co-founder of the Hindu advocacy group Hindu American Foundation (HAF), also tweeted that HAF “had to shut down offices in DC in 2019 after multiple threats when Sikhs for Justice rallied there. “Leave this country or we’ll take care of you,” they said.” Another member of the diaspora was reported in a newspaper saying: “Hinduphobics now have political shelter. Our safety is in jeopardy.”
Beyond some half-hearted press releases and Twitter statements, some very late, most Western leaders, including many high-profile US politicians, including those from the Indian-American community, have remained mute spectators to this barbaric onslaught on Western values of democracy.
Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.