As the first Republic of India gives way to its second iteration, its symbols must also undergo a change. Since this shift has yet not been officially announced, the changes must enter via the backdoor, through disingenuous means: distortions, mutilation, erasure and interpolation. Yet there is a clear theory to this theft: we are being made to break free of nationalism of the freedom struggle, of values enshrined in the Constitution, and of the historic memories shaped in the 20th century. This vacuum is being filled by grand spectacles, new values, fresh memories. The forthcoming Amrit Mahotsav, the 75th anniversary of our independence, is not so much about remembering our march to freedom but about forgetting it, about marking the distance of “new India” from the tryst with destiny.
Shifting the meaning of symbols
The new Lion Capital installed atop the new Parliament building is a small piece in the new symbolic order. There is, no doubt, a difference — not just in camera angle — between the Sarnath original and its latest “interpretation”. The original Lion Capital of Asoka stood for what has been called the “righteous republic”: power in its calm and majestic form, guided by the dharmachakra, the wheel of righteousness. In his essay ‘Choosing the National Symbols of India’, this is how Professor Bhikhu Parekh interprets the national emblem: “The lions, sitting back to back and facing in four directions, are taken to signify the importance of power, which is supposed to be stable and desirable only when guided by the law of righteousness as symbolized by the wheel.”
The lions in the latest version are clearly more menacing, ferocious, even furious. They are visibly more muscular and large chested. And the new version is really big — 6.5 metres as opposed to 1.6 metres of the original. As Rajya Sabha member and cultural historian Jawhar Sircar tweeted by posting pictures of the two: “Original is on the left, graceful, regally confident. The one on the right is Modi’s version, put above new Parliament building — snarling, unnecessarily aggressive and disproportionate.”
I am not concerned with the technicality of whether the latest version constitutes an insult to the national symbol. What interests me here is the shift in meaning. The lions in Asoka’s Lion Capital stand upon dharmachakra, they draw their power from dharma. The lions in Modi’s Central Vista step on dharmachakra; they are power unto themselves. They are to original lions what the new raudra hanuman image is to the earlier images of hanuman. Or what the rule of bulldozers is to the rule of law.
Changing code for the flag
This shift is accompanied by another less noticed change in our national symbols. Recently, the government changed the Flag Code of India, 2002 to allow for machine-made polyester tiranga. That snaps the last link the national flag had with Mahatma Gandhi. As is well known, Gandhi improvised on the earlier versions of India’s national flag to create the tricolour that we have today. His distinctive contribution to it was the charkha in the middle. The Constituent Assembly replaced the charkha with the chakra, drawn again from dharmachakra. But the Flag Code still retained one last Gandhian element: “The National Flag of India shall be made of hand spun and hand woven wool/silk/khadi bunting.”
The Code was routinely followed in its violation, as most codes are. The country has been flooded with plastic tricolours, mostly made in China, and flags of mill-made cloth, surely from genetically modified Bt Cotton. Still the Code forced the government and other official bodies to use khadi tirangas, all procured from Karnataka Khadi Gramodyoga Samyukta Sangha that was accredited to manufacture and supply the national flag. Besides the symbolic and emotional value, it was a source of livelihood for thousands of families. The India Handmade Collective protested against this shift to allow synthetic flags.
Here again, let us sidestep issues of legality, economics and practicality and focus instead on the symbolic. Over the last few years, the Modi government has encouraged the installation of gigantic national flags at key locations. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi has mimicked this move. It is no secret that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) never approved of the tiranga – just as it did not accept Jana Gana Mana – and did not put up one at its Nagpur headquarters for half a century.
Now that they have embraced the look of the tricolour, the new rulers must tinker with its meaning by changing, literally, its texture. The aesthetics of khadi brought the flag closer to the lives of the people: coarse, uneven and real. It was a reminder of the harsh experience of the struggle against colonialism. At a philosophic plane, it stood for the dignity of labour. The shiny, smooth and large synthetic flags symbolise the new in-your-face nationalism. This flag is to its older cousin what the Bangalore IT jobbers are to their rural cousins.
Crafting symbolism of power
In a review of the latest PM Museum, the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya, ThePrint’s Opinion Editor Rama Lakshmi described its approach as “big-is-best, gizmo-laden, dazzling”. That characterises much of Modi’s carefully crafted symbolism of power. If the National War Memorial is an attempt to shift the memory of struggle from the war for independence to wars after independence, the grand Statue of Unity and the Ambedkar Memorial are attempts at appropriating what the present rulers can possibly steal from the pre-independence period. The Central Vista is yet to be inaugurated, but we can guess that it would be an exercise in grandeur, meant to inspire awe. Perhaps this is what Walter Benjamin meant by ‘aestheticisation of politics’: when masses are provided expression without any real effect, when art serves to create spectacles that entertain and dazzle the people, helping them forget their life conditions.
Modi understands symbolism more than most political leaders do. He knows how to use architecture, sculptures, paintings and lectures to cast masses in the mould of the State. Gigantic scale inspires awe, dwarfing the quotidian pettiness of life. Technical gizmos assure progress, irrespective of the trajectory of my own life. Synthetic appearance smoothens all wrinkles of real life. Aggression builds collective confidence that covers a deep sense of inferiority. The transition from shanta [tranquility] rasa to raudra [fury] rasa, from inner to external, is an invitation to a new political community. They call it ‘New India’.