Sculpting the legacy of India's 'Dalit Queen'

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The Independent Online

Towering statues of the heroes of India's "untouchable" caste, shrouded in blue tarpaulin, provide a surreal sight for drivers speeding along a highway near the national capital. The statues are part of a grandiose memorial complex -- the pet project of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, and one of several in the state that are being built on a scale to rival the monuments of ancient Rome.

(AFP) -

Towering statues of the heroes of India's "untouchable" caste, shrouded in blue tarpaulin, provide a surreal sight for drivers speeding along a highway near the national capital. The statues are part of a grandiose memorial complex - the pet project of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, and one of several in the state that are being built on a scale to rival the monuments of ancient Rome.

Once the site of frenzied construction, the half-finished memorial park in the New Delhi satellite city of Noida is now silent and deserted.

Guards brandishing bamboo sticks shoo curious visitors away from the high gates guarding the entrance to the park, dominated by outsized statues mounted on huge plinths, sandstone walkways, pillars and a massive rotunda.

"You can't come in - these are Madam's orders," says guard Jagdish Kashyap, referring to Mayawati, known as the "Dalit Queen" after building her political base championing those at the bottom of Hinduism's age-old caste pyramid.

The Supreme Court of India has forced Mayawati to suspend work while it examines the constitutionality of spending hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to build the monuments.

The 53-year-old Mayawati, who likes to drape herself in diamonds and shiny silk saris on her birthdays in what she calls displays of "self-respect," says the memorials are intended as an inspirational "lighthouse" for the Dalits.

India's 160 million Dalits were once known as "untouchables" and given the most menial jobs. Many still face discrimination, forbidden to use communal wells and excluded from social events, despite anti-discrimination laws.

But the estimated 20 billion rupees (420 million dollars) she has spent on marble, granite and sandstone memorials to the Dalit icons, according to a Supreme Court suit, has appalled critics.

The money could have been far better spent, they say, to improve life in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, which is desperately backward and lacking proper medical facilities and schools.

"The chief minister's aim is to get popularity and immortality not by doing work for the millions of poor and downtrodden in the state but by building statues," says the suit, which notes 12 projects on top of dozens already built.

Mayawati has put up a slew of statues of her mentor, Kanshi Ram, who brought her into politics and founded the Bahujan Samaj Party which she now leads, and of B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit who framed India's constitution.

The former schoolteacher, who has declared her ambition to be India's first Dalit prime minister, has also immortalized herself - commissioning one statue that was 50 feet (15 metres) high.

Opponents accuse Mayawati, whose own statues show her toting her trademark square handbag, of megalomania. She had one edifice of herself torn down and replaced last year because it was three feet shorter than an adjacent statue.

S.R. Darapuri, a police officer turned social activist and a Dalit himself, accuses the chief minister of wallowing in "self-glorification."

"It's a shame the chief of a downtrodden party is squandering public money putting up party icons," he said.

Mayawati says she is the victim of discrimination and hypocrisy, pointing to monuments the ruling Congress party built to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has governed India for most of the time since independence in 1947.

But none of the Congress monuments have been on such a vast scale. Around 6,000 trees were felled for the Noida memorial which sprawls over 82 acres (33 hectares).

"This was all beautiful green space with trees. We went there for walks in the morning - now it's all paved," lamented Noida resident Priyanka Sharma. "What has been done is unforgiveable."

A senior civil servant in the Uttar Pradesh government said Mayawati called in bureaucrats after her re-election in 2007 and told them she was building the memorials as "something that will last for generations."

Mayawati said she wanted something "no succeeding government can break down - that is why she has built them with two perimeter walls," he said on cover of anonymity.

Mayawati's arch-rival, Uttar Pradesh opposition chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, has already vowed that, if he returns to power, he will "raze to the ground" the memorials which he likens to those built during the Roman Empire.

Ajoy Bose, who wrote a biography of Mayawati and her rise from daughter of a lowly government clerk to the country's most prominent low-caste politician, said critics of her statue building spree were missing the point.

"We may look at them in terms of aesthetics and cost" but for many Dalits and other marginalised Indians the statues are "symbols of empowerment", Bose told AFP.

"The Dalits were denied entry by upper caste Hindus into temples - they lacked an iconography. Mayawati has tried to fill this pantheon with figures like Ambedkar and she is the latest figure in this pantheon," said Bose.

But for security guard Kashyap, the statues are a waste of money.

"These statues will not give work to anyone," Kashyap said, gesturing toward the lifeless, concealed forms.

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