The political split between South and North India is widening. This has security-relevant implications for multinational companies operating in the south of the country in particular.
- 5 March: Members of the BJP party celebrate their election win over communists in Tripura by toppling a statue of Lenin.
- 6 March: A statue of a major Tamil political figure is defaced in the south of the country.
- 7 March: Reprisal attacks appear to target Hindus and BJP offices.
M.K. Stalin, who leads the opposition in the state of Tamil Nadu (Chennai), told supporters on 17 March he would support a declaration of independence by India’s southern states. At a press conference in the city of Erode, Stalin was asked if he would support moves towards a new country named ‘Dravida Nadu’, to which he replied:
If it [such a situation] comes, it would be welcome. We hope that such a situation arises.
Stalin’s comments reflected a growing divide between India’s southern and northern politicians. Stalin’s DMK party was founded by a man named Erode Periyar Ramaswamy, known generally as ‘Periyar’, a major figure of 20th century Indian politics. Periyar advocated southern independence from India and was critical of what he saw as northern India’s Hindu religiosity, caste-system and domination of the south. This rendered him a deeply unpopular figure with Hindu nationalist parties such as India’s ruling BJP.
Statues, monuments and memorials
Periyar’s views have practical security implications for the city of Chennai. And the surrounding province of Tamil Nadu. On 6 March, a statue of Periyar was vandalised by a BJP activist in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, three hours west of the city. The attack followed a Facebook post by the general-secretary of the BJP, H. Raja, calling for statues of Periyar to be toppled. On 20 March, another Periyar statue was decapitated with a hacksaw in Pudukkottai district in the south of Tamil Nadu. This prompted a police deployment to the village where the monument stands to forestall wider unrest.
In India, the vandalism of monuments venerated by minority groups has often triggered general violence. In an apparent reprisal for the first statue defacement, eight men attacked a group of Hindu worshippers in the central Triplicane area of Chennai the next day, 7 March, allegedly while chanting pro-Periyar slogans. Meanwhile, a BJP office in the city of Coimbatore, an 8-hour drive from Chennai, was attacked with improvised incendiary devices. Three pro-Periyar activists were subsequently arrested on suspicion of the arson.
This wave of unrest was triggered by the toppling of statues thousands of miles away in the north-eastern state of Tripura. There, in early March, the BJP defeated the incumbent state government led by communists. Party workers celebrated by using a mechanical digger to topple a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the former leader of the Soviet Union, in the Tripura town of Belonia, which had been erected by the communists five years previously, using taxpayers’ funds. The toppling of the Lenin statue inspired Raja to call for similar attacks on Periyar monuments.
The tit-for-tat violence demonstrates the way in which attacks on political or religious monuments can act as an indicator for violence against human targets. The building of such monuments can also attract problems. In Mumbai, for instance, the BJP-led state government intends to build a giant statue of Shivaji, a warrior-king beloved by the Maratha community. Opposition parties, in an attempt to woo Maratha voters away from the BJP and its Hindu nationalist allies, on 7 March staged a walk-out protest in the state assembly claiming the government had reduced the monument’s planned size.
More serious critics are pointing out that spending the equivalent of at least USD380 million on a giant statue is a dubious use of public money given poverty levels in India. Fishing groups also say that construction work will damage their catches. There are already a wide variety of Shivaji statues in Mumbai, generally recognisable as a bearded figure sitting on horseback, including one at Mumbai airport. Eight years ago a statue caused a delay in the construction of the airport’s second terminal, as the chief minister refused to move it for a time for fear of outraging Maratha voters. This is despite the airport having been renamed after Shivaji in 1999, as was Mumbai’s main Victoria Terminus (V.T.) train station in 1996.
As well as being a symbol of Marathas, Shivaji monuments can also be construed as anti-Muslim, given the king’s notability for military victories against the Islamic sultanates that preceded British dominion over India. This month, a statue of the king was removed by authorities in the tourist state of Goa, a year after local Hindu activists had unlawfully erected it in the heavily Muslim town of Volpoi. Shiv Sena, the party that raised the statue, will inevitably use its removal to lure Hindu voters from the BJP, its Hindu nationalist rival, which runs the Goa state government.