Gandhi statue unveiled in British city amid tight security

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS,

Leicester : A large statue of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled in this southeastern English city Friday by the British home minister amid tight security after internet protesters warned it could be defaced.

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Around 1,000 people, including a large number ethnic Indians, turned up to watch the unveiling by Home Minister Alan Johnson and Hindu spiritual leader Swami Satyamitrananda of Hardwar. The bronze statue stands seven and a half feet tall, and is placed on five-and-a-half-foot plinth.

Sculpted by Gautam Pal and shipped from Kolkata, it has been placed on Belgrave Road, a thriving Indian business and shopping area in the heart of Leicester, a city known as Little India for its population of 280,000 ethnic Indians – the second largest Indian settlement in Britain after London.

The unveiling of the 20,000-pound statue by Johnson was attended by local MP Keith Vaz – one of the main drivers of the project – Indian Consul General Jordana Pavel, Leicester Lord Mayor Roger Blackmoore, the city’s second MP Peter Salisbury, several noted businessmen and councilors and members of the charity Samanvaya Parivar.

Women broke into spontaneous singing of “Raghupati Raghav” and “Vaishnava Jana to” – two of Gandhi’s favourite Hindi hymns – as the statue was unveiled before milling crowds.

Police made tight security arrangements for the ceremony after a Facebook page on the internet warned of protests by “English nationalists” who want a local Leicester hero – rather than Gandhi – to be honoured.

The man who has led the protest urged protesters on the Facebook page to be peaceful but said the statue, which is enclosed by spiked iron fencing, risked being damaged.

But with uniformed and plainclothes police present in substantial numbers, the unveiling and lamplighting ceremony went off peacefully.

Johnson said the Gandhi statue would offer “comfort, reassurance and serenity to people in Leicester and around the world.”

“This is the day Leicester will never forget,” added Vaz, who has described the statue has a symbol of modern, multicultural Britain.

“One city, many cultures; one city many religions, one city many races – this is the Leicester experience,” he said.

“Inclusiveness and diversity were the cornerstones of Gandhi’s beliefs long before these words became fashionable,” said Vaz, the senior most ethnic Indian MP in Britain.

According to official population projections, Leicester in 2015 will become the first British city where whites will be in a minority.

The statue was paid for by the charity Samanvaya Parivar, whose spokesman Jitendra Acharya said: “I am ecstatic we have got to this point on what has been a long road.”

People living and working in the area of Belgrave said they hoped the statue would draw visitors, who would stay to shop.

The statue, sculpted in the famous Dandi salt march pose, was opposed by some locals who said authorities should honour Leicester football hero Gary Lineker instead of Gandhi.

But the former England captain declared he supported Gandhi for reasons of diversity.

The only other Gandhi statue in Britain – in a seated, meditative pose – is in Tavistock Square, a leafy park in London.

“I was there at the inauguration of that statue in the early 1960s,” said C.B. Patel, publisher of Britain’s largest ethnic newspaper Asian Voice. “Only a madman would want to harm a statue of Gandhi, who was a man of peace.”