A day after the Mahatma Gandhi statue at the Australian Indian Community Centre in the Melbourne suburb of Rowville was unveiled, someone attempted to behead it with a power tool sometime between 5:30pm on Friday, November 12 and 5:30pm on Saturday, November 13. For a full report, read SBS or ABC News.
In my extensive research on public sculpture and art crimes, I have looked at almost every report of statues in Australia being stolen or vandalised. So I am aware of the patterns of actions and evidence pointing to motivations.
Each year many bronze sculptures are stolen by scrap metal thieves, but this was not the work of scrap metal thieves. They would have ripped off as much of the statue than the head because they want the weight of scrap metal. Nor was this done by drunken vandals who act impulsively and don’t come equipped with the right tools for the job.
The symbolic action of decapitation is rare and indicates a political or religious aspect to the vandalism. Political vandals are well aware of their own side’s efforts and less aware of the actions of other political views. This can be demonstrated by the right-wing’s confusion in England in 2020 over what statues would be targeted by BLM protesters, leading to right-wingers protecting statues of abolitionists. Political attacks on statues are rare in Australia, and decapitation has only occurred a few times and always by right-wing vandals. (See my blog post about the majority of those incidents.)
Symbolic vandalism of statues in Australia by people with a left-wing anti-colonial political agenda, such as those against Captain Cook, used paint or, in the case of Stephen Langford’s ‘damage’ to Governor Macquarie statue with paper and water-soluble craft glue. These symbolic vandalism is preceded by public campaigns for the statue’s removal; petitioning to remove statues to people who have committed genocide and massacred Indigenous people. When, in other countries, the left-wing has torn down statues, it has been done in public view by a crowd and media as the point is to remove a symbol.
Some people have suggested Khalistan supporters (over the Indian Farmers Protest andSikh separatism), as identical statues in Davis, California and one in Washington DC were also damaged. See reports by the Hindu America Foundation. There have been recent demonstrations supporting Khalistani in Melbourne. However, as no Khalistani flags were displayed at the Gandhi statue, as was done in Washington, and there has been no other propaganda from the vandals. So if it were done by Khalistan supporters, they were incompetent.
I rather suspect right-wing Australian vandals because of the symbolic decapitation, the ambiguity of the message and the choice of target. The vandals are likely to be the same right-wingers who engage a farcical version of their perception of the left, like the anti-vaxxers using the pro-abortion “my body my choice” slogan. Ambiguity and incoherence are current right-wing strategies because it disrupts the discourse and their masks objectives. So I conclude that the attempted beheading of Gandhi is most likely an Australian right-wing response to a symbol of anti-colonialism, peace and non-violence.