Gandhi statue to be unveiled in London

LONDON (AFP) - A statue of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi is to be unveiled on Saturday at the heart of the British establishment which once loathed him for his campaign against imperial rule.

Gandhi will join figures including Britain's World War II leader Winston Churchill, who described him as a half-naked "fakir", in London's Parliament Square, opposite Big Ben and the House of Commons.

The giant bronze statue will be unveiled by Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister David Cameron, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and Gandhi's grandson, Shri Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

Despite such pomp, Gandhi was historically resented by many in Westminster as the leader of the non-violent campaign for Indian independence from Britain, which was granted in 1947.

"This statue is a magnificent tribute to one of the most towering figures in the history of world politics and by putting Mahatma Gandhi in this famous square, we are giving him an eternal home in our country," Cameron said in a statement released before the event.

"This statue celebrates the incredibly special friendship between the world's oldest democracy and its largest, as well as the universal power of Gandhi's message."

The unveiling marks the latest step in Britain's efforts to recast both its past and present in India, once known as the "jewel in the crown" of the British empire.

In 2013, Cameron became the first British premier to visit the site of a notorious massacre in Amritsar in 1919 where troops under British control gunned down hundreds of unarmed protestors.

He described the killings as "shameful" but stopped short of a public apology.

Cameron has also made boosting economic ties between India and Britain - home to some 1.5 million members of the Indian diaspora - a priority.

When he came to power in 2010, he said he wanted to double trade with India by this year.

Jaitley said the two countries now had a "partnership of equals".

"This lasting friendship is just one of many legacies left by Gandhi, which I am keen that we work hard to strengthen further," he added in a statement released ahead of the ceremony.

- 'Should be trampled by elephant' -

The statue marks 100 years since Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, where he was repeatedly jailed for pressing the rights of Indians, and started his non-violent campaign of civil disobedience.

Other statues in Parliament Square include anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and Jan Smuts, a South African prime minister in the first half of the 20th century who favoured racial segregation.

Churchill, whose likeness is a stone's throw from Gandhi's, took an extremely dim view of the Indian barrister's actions.

"It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer now posing as a fakir (ascetic) of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace," he said in 1931.

Churchill even suggested that Gandhi should be "trampled on by an enormous elephant" because of his campaign against British rule, according to biographers.

The Gandhi Statue Memorial Trust has raised one million pounds (S$2.05 million) of donations in six months for the project, including 100,000 pounds from billionaire Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal.

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