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Why we cannot and should not remove Cecil Rhodes' statue

4th January 2016

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We cannot remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College at Oxford University because he represents a shameful and regretful part of our history. We should not remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College at Oxford University, because the shameful and regretful part of our history that he represents must be remembered and learned from.

The entrance to the Red Fort, flying the flag of Independent India

It is Christmas Eve and I wander the streets of Delhi looking for somewhere to go, something to do. I had heard a lot of good things about the Red Fort, residence of the Mughal emperor of India until 1857. What really caught my eye however, was the Freedom Struggle Museum hidden away in an old army barracks inside the Fort.

Entering the first room I look around me to find paintings of battles from the 1800s. I scoff as I recount the two years I spent studying British India and the Indian Independence movement. “This should just be a recap, huh?” The first painting I come to depicts the Bundela Uprising of 1842. I tried to pick through the papers I wrote aged 17. No, I could not remember the Bundela Uprising of 1842.

I moved along to the Gadkari Rebellion of 1844. No, I did not remember that one, either. Neither did I remember the Santhal Rebellion of 1844, or the Chaur Uprising of 1799, or the Revolt of Devan Veluthombi, or the Jat Uprising of 1669, or the Bhil Uprising of 1817, or the Uprising of Kittur, or the public hangings of Sikhs in Amritsar after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or the Indigo Revolts between 1859 and 1862. The list goes on.

A prima facie sense of stupidity began to wash over me as I lambasted myself for forgetting these events. Yet what initial stupidity I felt was soon followed by waves of embarrassment as I realised that I had not forgotten anything: I just had not been taught about them. The embarrassment finally subsided as the sadness for the loss of these innocent men and regret for my ancestors' actions enveloped me.

I studied these paintings, looking as deep into the eyes of the British infantrymen as I could. I wondered (I mean I tried to decipher) the reasons why a British soldier would follow orders to repress rebelling Indian men, women and children. Did they not question what they were doing? Why they were in a foreign land, repressing local men and women with swords and bullets?

Of course, they were a product of their time. Following the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar, Colonel Dyer, the colonel who had ordered the shooting and consequent killing of over 1,000 unarmed and innocent Indians, was celebrated as a hero in England. The Morning Post, a conservative newspaper, even raised and presented Dyer with £26,000 on his return. That is equivalent to around £1,000,000 today.

The fact that these people were a product of their time does not excuse their actions, but it does help one to understand them. It allowed me to look at the paintings of British infantrymen firing on Indians wielding swords and feel not only anger, but a sense of sorrow. They were blind to the consequences of their actions, and those in charge were motivated by greed, where they mistook survival for expansion and oppression.

We cannot and should not remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oxford University because he represents a shameful and regrettable period in British history. We should not remove his statue, but instead install a plaque by his feet that reads: “Cecil Rhodes, a racist, colonial oppressor that bought this statue through the money he bequeathed to this university on his death”.

Likewise, we should refer to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 as India’s First War of Independence. What we should not do is twist or delete its happening from history. People like Rhodes and events such as India’s First War of Independence must be remembered and consistently critiqued.

Those that wish to see Rhodes’ statue removed from Oxford University source their expression of distaste from the well of righteousness. Their downfall is that they are too extreme. In their demands they are creating something even worse than that they lament: they are creating a society that forgets. We should never forget the ills of our ancestors.

We can transform Rhodes’ statues into a vehicle for good. He can be a reminder and a lesson for generations to come.

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