In India, Once-Marginalized Now Memorialized | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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In India, Once-Marginalized Now Memorialized

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In India, a land of ancient monuments, people are talking about a newly built monument for the nation's most marginalized people.

It's a memorial to India's Dalits, the people once called "untouchables," and it was built by the country's most powerful Dalit politician.

The Indian monument best known to Westerners is the Taj Mahal, but the country is bejeweled with magnificent temples and palaces, built by whoever happened to be ruling India at any given time.

This latest monument continues that tradition: It's a colossal domed building carved from pink sandstone.

It sits in a park across the river from the Indian capital, New Delhi, and is flanked by 24 life-sized statues of elephants, with their trunks raised in a gesture of welcome.

The elephant is the symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and this memorial is very much a project of the BSP and its leader, the Dalit politician known simply as Mayawati.

"[The monument] almost takes you back to antiquity and the old, medieval days and ancient days where the emperors used to build these things," says journalist Ajoy Bose, the author of a biography of Mayawati.

Bose says the memorial is calculated to do for her just what the monuments of old did for the emperors: to simultaneously flaunt and preserve her power.

Criticism For The Lavish Memorial

On the day of its dedication earlier this month, the plaza was thronged with BSP members, chanting slogans as they waited for the woman who is known to some as "the Dalit queen."

Mayawati is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, one of India's largest and poorest states, so the monument's price tag of more than $150 million has raised significant criticism — not least for the fact that the pink dome houses three giant statues of BSP leaders, including one of Mayawati herself.

She is portrayed in bronze, at least three times life size, toting her trademark handbag.

There are other statues of her in the park, and many more scattered around Uttar Pradesh, especially in the state capital, Lucknow.

In her dedication speech, Mayawati flung a defiant answer to those who say this is extravagance, and that it's spending public money on partisan symbols.

Previous governments, she says, did nothing to honor the leaders who fought for Dalit rights, so it was up to the BSP to do it.

Giving The Dalits Heroes They Never Had

Bose says the statues that Mayawati is so proud of have a special resonance for Dalits, the people once regarded as untouchable.

"They were not allowed to go into temples, so they never had their own icons, their own totems, their own gods and goddesses," he says.

Bose says Mayawati's buildings and statues help supply the Dalits with the imagery of themselves and their heroes that they never had, shrewdly including herself in the pantheon.

"That is going to be a lasting legacy that has been created for the Dalits, so it's a matter of great pride for the Dalits," Bose says.

That pride, he says, is more important to the lowest people on the caste ladder than any other social benefits that Mayawati's government could provide for them, including health and education.

Mayawati's main political rival in Uttar Pradesh has vowed to pull down her statues if he's elected, but Bose says that threat may just galvanize her supporters.

"She is almost challenging anybody to come and, you know, to break her statues if she ever goes out of power," Bose says. "For their community, it's so important that she stays in power, so that these statues are protected."

Mayawati makes no secret of the fact that she would like to cross the Yamuna River, which separates her fiefdom from the national capital in New Delhi, to be elected the first Dalit prime minister.

In her speech at the memorial, she taunted the opposition, saying Dalits and other members of lower castes would never vote for anyone else.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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