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Friday, May 4, 2012

Gandhi statue unveiled in Johannesburg and the trips of Indian President

Remembering historic incidents – we feel happy reading about them but do we really attach the significance they deserve ? – how often we visit the memorials of great Patriots that are closer to our place – yet we expect others to keep the places as monuments !

Miles away in Johannesburg is the  Constitution Hill precinct, the seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.  It has great historic significance and Indian connection as the hill was formerly the site of a fort which was later used as a prison. The Old Fort Prison complex is known as Number Four. The original prison was built to house white male prisoners in 1892. The Old Fort was built around this prison by Paul Kruger from 1896 to 1899 to protect the South African Republic from the threat of British invasion. The Old Fort prison was later extended to include "native" cells, called Section 4 and Section 5, and, in 1907, a women's section was added. An awaiting-trial block was constructed in the 1920s.   It was here  Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned in the last century. Under the apartheid government, only whites were held in the Old Fort itself, except for Nelson Mandela, who was given a bed in the hospital section when he was as an awaiting-trial prisoner in 1962 prior to the Rivonia Trial.

Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa, by population and is  the provincial capital of Gauteng, the wealthiest province in South Africa.    South Africa has a legislative Capital, Administrative capital and Judicial Capital and Johannesburg is not one of  them. It is the seat of the Constitutional Court, which has the final word on interpretation of South Africa's new post-Apartheid constitution. The city is the source of a large-scale gold and diamond trade, due to its location on the mineral-rich Witwatersrand range of hills.

A bust of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled by President Pratibha Patil at the prestigious Constitutional Court Complex of South Africa, where Gandhi had served four prison terms between 1908 and 1913, including his very first sentence in South Africa in the Number Four Cell.  Recalling that many of the prisoners incarcerated in the complex were guilty of non-political crimes while some including Mahatma Gandhi were charged with resisting the unjust race laws, Ms. Patil hoped that the bust would symbolise the values enshrined in the histories of India and South Africa and strengthen the resolve of the two countries to fight injustice and inequality in the world. 

Ms. Patil, also visited an exhibition on the life and times of Gandhi in the complex,  recalled that the former South African President, Nelson Mandela, too had been imprisoned in this old fort for some time.  The Indian President is quoted as saying that South Africa is a country with which India and the people of India have deep rooted links – links that have changed the course of India’s history.  Reports state that the  President's visit to the complex assumed significance as South Africa was the place where the world witnessed for the first time Gandhi's methods of political transformation through non-violence and peaceful dialogue.

Mahatma Gandhi's great-granddaughter, Kirti Menon, who is the chairperson of the Gandhi Centenary Committee said the unveiling of the bust and the inauguration of the exhibition would promote the message of peace and non-violence promoted by Gandhi.  Ms. Menon, who is a Registrar at a Johannesburg university, said the bust represents Gandhi as the world knows him while at Johannesburg Square his bust shows him as a young barrister. She said the events of the day were very significant as the prison complex was where Gandhi was imprisoned for the first time and where his resolve to fight apartheid was strengthened.

The statue, a bronze bust of Gandhi, was donated by the Indian government.    Indian President Ms Pratibha Patil’s term is about to end and there is some criticism about crores of Rupees that have been spent on her official trips and about her family members needlessly, accompanying her on an official trip abroad.  The  Q sought to be raised is does  the President leave behind a controversial legacy?   The President is on a nine-day state visit to the Seychelles and South Africa. Her two grand-children are with her.

President Patil's foreign trips have generated debate recently because a Right to Information application revealed that since she took office in 2007, Rs. 205 crore has been spent on her travel expenses, surpassing the record of all her predecessors.  During her tenure, President Patil has undertaken 12 foreign trips, covering 22 countries across four continents and spending 79 days abroad.  However, the Govt says that her foreign visits are crucial for building ties with Nations and it also sought to defend her by stating that  "It's  normal diplomatic practice that a visiting Dignitary occasionally takes members of his/her family on trips. Hospitality for such visiting dignitaries in such cases is usually provided by the host government. It is not abnormal," said the spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs.  

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.

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