Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Mohandas Gandhi Statue - Union Square Park

Only a few months after the Stock Market Crash, labor organizations, mostly Communist-led, set March 6, 1930 as International Unemployment Day.  Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in major cities around the world to protest unemployment.  In New York City thousands massed in Union Square park with violent results.

The New York Times reported on the "hundreds of policemen and detectives" who charged into the crowd with "nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists."  The newspaper said "From all parts of the scene of battle came the screams of women and cries of men with bloody heads and faces."

This was just the latest in a long tradition of public assemblies in Union Square park that dated back to 1861--the day of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.  The park had became New York's unofficial spot for citizens' flexing their American rights to free expression.

Six days later and more than 7,800 miles away in India, Mohandras Karamchand Gandhi began leading peasants in a 24-day march known as the Salt March, or the Dandi March.  An act of nonviolent civil disobedience, it was a protest against the British Government's new "salt laws"--a system first of taxes, and then of outlawing the Indian people's producing salt from seawater.

The London-trained lawyer had been advocating nonviolent civil disobedience for years.   A brilliant community organizer, he took to wearing traditional Indian peasant clothing--sandals and a homespun cotton dhoti.   It was a symbolic and dramatic refusal to accept British rule.

The Salt March was instrumental in bringing about the British Government's negotiations with Gandhi, culminating in the March 1931 Gandhi-Irwin Pact.  The agreement traded the release of all political prisoners for the suspension of the civil disobedience movement.  Gandhi was invited to London to attend the Round Table Conference as the sole representative of India nationalists.

The conservative British opinion of Gandhi was exemplified by Winston Churchill who said in part "It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor."  In another speech Churchill called Gandhi a "Hindu Mussolini" and a dictator.

Gandhi, called "Mahatma," or "holy person," by his followers, was nevertheless a force which the British Government could not ignore.  A humble, genius thorn in its side, he continued to negotiate for Indian independence, and against the British proposed partitioning of the subcontinent.  Like Churchill, Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy and Governor-General of British India who worked directly with Gandhi, accused him of wanting to "overthrow British rule" in order to establish himself as a raj; and deemed him a "malignant, malevolent, exceedingly shrewd" politician.

Indian independence was finally reached on August 15, 1947.  It had tragic repercussions, however, with conflicting religious sects erupting into violence.  Gandhi countered with fasting and vocal protests against the barbarity.  His actions are credited by some with stopping the religious riots.

Four months later, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi prepared to address a prayer meeting.  He was in garden of the former Birla House with his grandnieces at 5:17 p.m. when Nathuram Godse rushed in, firing three bullets into his chest.  Carried into a bedroom, Gandhi died there within half an hour.

More than two million mourners participated in the five-mile, five-hour long funeral procession.  His body was carried on a military vehicle.  The engine was never turned on; instead it was hauled along by teams of 50 men pulling four heavy ropes.

Mohandras Gandhi's legacy went beyond Indian independence.  His nonviolent civil disobedience influence the civil rights and freedom movements world-wide.  The principles and strategies of leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King were heavily impacted by Gandhi's.

On July 15, 1986 The New York Times reported "On the second of October in 1869, Mohandas K. Gandhi was born.  On the second of October in 1986, an eight-foot bronze likeness of the Mahatma is scheduled to be unveiled in Union Square."

The choice of Union Square as the statue's site was by no means casual.  Several other locations had been proposed, but the Gandhi Memorial International Foundation had rejected them all as inappropriate.  Gandhi's great-grandnephew, Yogesh K. Gandhi, was director of the foundation and he explained "Union Square has a history of free speech.  For me, union is identified with unity.  And also, thousands of people are passing by every day.  By seeing the statue, people get the inspiration of the philosophy of nonviolence.  And that is the idea."

Not everyone was as pleased with the choice.  The Union Square Park Community Coalition complained that it had not been consulted, and argued that all Union Square statues portrayed American heroes.  (The group apparently had forgotten about the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette on the eastern hem of the park.)

Henry J. Stern, Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, poo-pooed their reasoning.  "What would have happened if the Statue of Liberty were submitted to a community board?  They would have said it was too big, in too remote a place, and that it was foreign, to boot."

The project went ahead.  The main speaker at the unveiling ceremony was, appropriately, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. 

The work of sculptor Kantilal Patel, the statue was co-sponsored by Mohan B. Murjani, chairman of the Murjani International apparel firm, who donated $100,000.   The Gandhi memorial depicts the leader in his traditional attire.  The naturalistic pose captures him mid-step, walking with a rustic staff.  A separate plaque reads in part "My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop non-violence...In a gentle way you can shake the world."

In 2001 the statue was briefly removed when a water main was installed below the site.  The Parks Commission took advantage of the removal to conserve the work.  When it was reinstalled a year later, the fenced-in setting had been landscaped into a charming, natural setting known as the Gandhi Gardens.

Despite Gandhi's near religious standing in life, his statue suffered repeated humiliation.  When someone noticed that his eyeglasses had been stolen in August 2011, a Parks Department spokesperson said they disappeared every "once in a while."  Vandals cut away the spectacles from their earpieces, which remained in place.  The glasses were refashioned and replaced, once again.

The Gandhi memorial became one of the first of New York's "Talking Statues" when it received its interactive technology in August 2017.  By scanning the bar code on the blue sign on the fence into a cell phone, the visitor hears a narrative of of the statue and of Gandhi.

photographs by the author

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