Indian statue honoring Shivaji Maharaj faces backlash

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to start work on a $530 million memorial honoring a warrior king has faced great backlash.

The 630-foot statue, more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, will be built in Mumbai to honor Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the New York Times reported last week.

Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera

Shivaji Maharaj founded the Maratha Empire in India. During his reign, he established a progressive civil rule, where he divided his territory into provinces. Under his rule, a revenue system was created, and the arts and culture prospered. Above all, he brought the Maratha people together.

Today, Shivaji Maharaj is a national hero, especially in the state of Maharashtra. Much of the Maratha identity and upbringing is influenced by stories of his life. The Mumbai airport and railway station have been named after him, and he has been portrayed in the literature and propaganda of various political parties. He has been represented in films, literature, poetry and music, theater, and television. There are various statues and monuments of him in almost every town and city in Maharashtra, as well as in other places across the country.

The memorial, officially called the Shiv Smarak, will consist of an art museum, amphitheater, marine aquarium, galleries, a helipad, guest rooms, as well as facilities such as a cafeteria and medical facilities, according to an article published in the IB Times. However, the construction of the statue has been cause for concern due to its unexpectedly high budget. Many feel the money allotted for the statue would be better served in tackling social issues like illiteracy and corruption in the state.

Many have said the cost of the statue is higher than the set budget for schools and health facilities in Mumbai, according to a Washington Post article.

As Canadian politician Ujjal Dosanjh wrote in an open letter published in the Indian Express newspaper, "Dear Prime Minister: You are once again thrusting India into the dangerous politics of statuses; the politics of pandering to regional and other identities; the politics of turning real heroes into the lifeless steel and stone kind — for any pigeons to freely relieve themselves on; the heinous politics of clever, but criminal distraction from the life and death issues of poverty, corruption, injustice and inequality in India.”

Besides its budget, the Shivaji Maharaj Memorial has been criticized for its environmental impact, particularly due to boats carrying visitors to and from the memorial, according to the IB Times. The fishing community has also expressed disapproval of the project.

The debate over the memorial comes after the difficult weeks following Modi's move to demonetize the Indian 500 and 1000 rupee notes, a move which prompted severe cash shortages, bank limits with long lines for withdrawals, and more economic chaos.

A petition created on Change.org asking the government to spend the statue money on local development, shortly after Modi's announcement, has garnered nearly 40,000 signatures.

However, the sculptor of the statue, Ram Sutar, offered another look at the construction of the memorial.

"If people had worried about how much the Taj Mahal would cost, it would never have been built," Sutar said.

According to an article published in Swarajya magazine, the statue of Shivaji Maharaj will be beneficial both culturally and economically. Culturally, Shivaji Maharaj, despite being an important figure in Indian history, has been studied less and less by each successive generations. A 2013 DNA India report discusses how the National Council of Education Research and Training cut short the chapters on the ruler in textbooks, even choosing to remove pictures of Shivaji Maharaj in textbooks. A memorial specifically devoted to honoring Shivaji Maharaj's legacy will help to reinforce a national sense of pride and unity.

Economically, the memorial will include a variety of different features besides just the statue. After its completion in 2019, if a thousand people visited the memorial a day on a Rs 100 entry fee (approximately $1.5), the memorial would yield Rs 5.5 crore annually. With the other facilities, annual revenue could be even greater.

As the article goes on to argue, although many have argued the money would be better spent on improving the state and fostering social development, it is important for the government to invest in other projects too, that will benefit the community in the long term. Social progress cannot just come from educational and health investment -- it also has to come from the minds of the Indian people themselves.