New avatar of national emblem symbolises ruling party's ethos, not our history as a peace-loving nation

BJP would do well to change its ways, even now, and seek consensus, which may yet save us, as a nation, from committing blunders that future generations would come to rue and eternally blame us for

The new avatar of national emblem unveiled by PM Narendra Modi on July 13, 2022
The new avatar of national emblem unveiled by PM Narendra Modi on July 13, 2022

Rahul Gul

The Modi government has got away with yet another brazen bid to execute the right-wing’s vision for the nation and twist the historical narrative just the way it desires by effecting what is nothing short of a deliberate distortion of the national emblem in the form of an oversized replica erected on the rooftop of the under-construction new Parliament building.

From its point of view, the move was met with minimal fuss – it clearly couldn’t care less about the furor on social media in the form of protests by Opposition leaders and civil society members. The mainstream media has, of course, long relegated itself to play the role of toadies of the ruling dispensation, and if anything, fawns over such developments by terming them as ‘master strokes’ by its top political leadership.

The chances of the Supreme Court ordering a review or reversal at this stage, when the deed’s been all but done and dusted, and with tricky arguments like artistic interpretation of an ancient sculpture at play, besides the court’s general disinclination to strike down the decisions of the current regime in power, are dim.

Meanwhile, the Opposition’s attention stands diverted by fresh attempts by the ruling regime to muzzle its voice even in Parliament, through release of a new list of so-called ‘unparliamentary words’ and a bar on protests within the Parliament’s precincts. Members of Parliament can now no longer even stage silent demonstrations next to Mahatma Gandhi’s statue, a time-honoured tradition.

Our National Emblem was adapted from the Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath on January 26, 1950, the day India became a Republic. Much has already been written about the significance of various aspects of the sculpture as well as the alleged distortion of the lions’ countenance in the new avatar as compared to the original one, dating back to 250 BC and excavated in 1904-5 by a British engineer.

What’s clear as daylight is the fact that notwithstanding the protestations by its designers and the usual suspects like Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri, the lions depicted in the new national emblem are nothing like those in the original. From being depicted as graceful and regally peaceful, the new design has them snarling, baring their fangs at the world. Some historians have pointed out that while the original emblem sent out a message of peace and non-violence, the new design was just the opposite.

This couldn’t have happened by accident. Neither does the designers’ contention that they had simply magnified the original structure and that the fangs were visible just because the images were shot from a low angle hold any water. It was clearly done by design and purpose, on unambiguous and specific instructions from the very top.

PM Narendra Modi has never made any bones about his intentions to do away with just about every official symbol or tradition that evokes memories of the post-Independence era dominated by the country’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru. The new Parliament building itself is a manifestation of his desire to do away with the existing structure and the regal, red sandstone buildings serving as the seat of governance in New Delhi since Independence as part of what is referred to as the Central Vista project.

The ruling party is also clearly buoyed by the fact that its machinations yielded the desired results in the key state of Maharashtra even as it gears up to contest Assembly elections due later this year and next year in bellwether states.

Now, per se, there is arguably nothing that prevents a duly elected government from going in for a review of the national emblem, even if it’s to depict a more muscular version of it, as long as it’s done in good faith, for legitimate reasons and with political and public consensus. But this has not, of course, been the case.

Bellicose or domineering symbols find a place in the flags or emblems of more than a few modern nation States. The US Great Seal features the fiercely majestic bald eagle; the Mexican flag has the golden eagle standing on a cactus holding a rattlesnake in its beak; Egypt’s flag too has a golden eagle; the Albanian flag has a terrifying double-headed shadow eagle; Montenegro’s flag has a double-headed golden eagle; while the national flag of neighbouring Sri Lanka depicts a macho lion carrying a sword.

Ferocious figures of the lion also feature in the flags of Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Montenegro and Spain.

Many national flags actually feature weapons. AK-47, the iconic assault rifle, finds a place in the national flags of several nations: Mozambique, Zimbabwe, East Timor and Burkina Faso.

Meanwhile, the national flag of Angola features a machete; that of Guatemala two swords and two guns; Saudi Arabia an Arabian sword; the flag of Kenya depicts two warrior spears.

Interestingly, many such flags also feature broad swathes of red signifying loss of lives in violence during their struggle for independence, like that of Kenya, Mozambique and Angola.

There are other symbolic messages, overt or covert: The sword depicted in the Saudi Arabian flag represents strict application of justice in the country where thieves have their hands cut off, adulterers are stoned to death and others are beheaded.

The Indian freedom struggle was, of course, predominantly non-violent. Subsequently, we have never initiated a confrontation, save when necessary as in the case of the 1971 war, or indulged in sabre-rattling.

The national flag of India was adapted from the Indian National Congress flag proposed by Mahatma Gandhi in 1921. The three colours signify courage and sacrifice; peace and truth; and faith and chivalry, respectively. The symbol of the charkha was replaced with the Ashoka Chakra which represents the eternal wheel of law.

As for the national emblem, the original lions of Sarnath were used by Ashoka, who had famously renounced war and converted to Buddhism after having caused devastation in Kalinga. The iconography of the lion itself is attached to the Buddha.

The Lion Capital was chosen as India’s national emblem precisely because it represented India’s commitment to world peace and goodwill.

Besides serving official purposes, symbols and emblems depict the shared history, values and goals of a nation’s people. They act as a constant reminder to them of what binds them together despite socio-cultural and other differences.

The new iteration of the national emblem, however, strikes at the very heart of the emotion it’s meant to inspire — it has got Indians divided, rather than uniting them. As grand as the mammoth statue may be, is it worth further diluting the country’s fragile unity over?

This government thinks nothing of bulldozing away even the most sacred symbols carefully chosen and adopted by the founding fathers of the nation just to undo their contributions, without even pretending to invite suggestions from other political parties and members of the society, as is the norm even when important Bills are introduced in Parliament. 'Due process’ is just another phrase for it and has simply been given a go-by.

It is disturbingly autocratic for an individual to pick up a symbol of national consciousness and unilaterally change its meaning. The new look is undeniably aggressive and represents the ethos of the ruling party rather than our history as a nation. Whereas a government is meant to be temporary, administrative, and accountable to the electorate, the latter holds much greater significance in terms of how people form their own identities.

The credit for finessing the art of symbolism and propaganda in the modern era often goes to the Nazis. Adolf Hitler created the Nazi German flag himself, borrowing the colors of the German Empire that fell at the end of World War I, harkening back to authoritarian rule by implicitly rejecting democracy. The colors and design appeared in Nazi flags, posters, armbands and other insignia, falsely conveying continuity between the nation's “glorious” imperial past and the Nazi regime.

Incidentally, the swastika has an extensive history and enduring power, predominantly as a symbol of hate, and was used at least 5,000 years before Adolf Hitler appropriated it for the Nazi flag. The Nazi Eagle, on its part, was a symbol developed originally by the Nazis in the 1920s, based on traditional German coats of arms.

Following the crushing defeat of Germany in the Second World War and the dramatic fall of the so-called Third Reich, its people today have a visceral hate for anything that reminds them of that period.

Flags and emblem have served as symbols of national pride for centuries. People also use them to show allegiance to a specific cause or movement. The new avatar of the Indian national emblem is now set to be reproduced for official purposes everywhere by all three pillars of our democracy – the executive, legislature and judiciary – till the time it is reverted to the original form, if and when that happens. It will also figure in school textbooks, with children unaware of how the emblem originally looked.

A section of citizenry is now mortified, not unjustifiably, at the prospect of other sacred symbols of our nation such as our national flag and national anthem also coming on the radar of the ruling part for ‘MODIfication’.

The BJP ought to remember that it does not represent the entire country and all its people. Its vote-share in the last polls, the 2019 general election, stood at 37.36 per cent, nowhere close to even half the adult population.

It would do well to adopt, even at this late stage, a consensus-based form of governance, which may save us, as a nation, from committing further blunders that future generations would come to rue and blame us for.

As an anonymous adage goes, “Democracy is a slow process of stumbling to the right decision instead of going straight forward to the wrong one.”

(Views are personal)

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    Published: 16 Jul 2022, 9:17 PM