In his 9th address to the nation on the 76 Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an innovative as well as evocative speech. His innovation consisted mainly of the five determinations; the citizens should make for nation-building which he called Panchpran. The evocative tone was evident when he referred to ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ campaign. Modi said, “The nation’s enthusiasm for Tiranga seen in the last three days could not have been imagined by many experts and it symbolises the nation’s reawakening.”
The sight of national flags fluttering across the streets, on the roof of vehicles, on rickshaws pulled by hawkers, and children running around with them, is pointing to a surge of nationalist feeling across the nation, and to the importance of symbols. Also, a discussion perhaps is in order on the recent controversy about the national emblem on the new Parliament building.
For every country, the national emblems and symbols are significant. They represent people’s culture, civilisation and aspirations in addition to the collective past and pride. People are motivated by invoking their proud history and rich heritage which inspire their successive generations. The emblems and icons also constitute nationalism which in turn, consists of collective capacity, sentiments, and a shared culture.
Nationalism, however articulated is necessary for nation building. It need not be expressed in antagonistic terms as it is often perceived. Political scholars and commentators prefer patriotism to nationalism. However, both are interchangeable and synonymous with minor distinction in perception. Patriotism is supposed to be inclusive and accommodative whereas nationalism excludes and repels certain entities as ‘the other’. Without going into the semantics, we are referring to nationalism as nation-builder.
A left-liberal thinker Prof. Lord Bhiku Parekh argued that India needed a heavy dose of nationalism which will stimulate an internal churning as it transits to a single, big and powerful country. He was perhaps inadvertently reflecting the opinion by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who advocated an enlightened dictatorship for a limited period as India after Independence was shaping up as a country. The idea was discarded but the spirit underlying the suggestion should be acknowledged. He was referring to discipline, unity and commitment.
As said, the major component of nationalism is culture, which is represented by emblems, symbols, heritages and icons. Let it be noted that a national culture predates religions, languages, regions etc. Look at Muslim majority country like Indonesia that retains the Hindu culture and its symbolism despite having a new religion. Their national airline is called Garuda which is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. The epic drama like Ramlila is quiet popular in that country.
A Buddhist country like Thailand has the portrait of Lord Krishna, at its main airport charioting Arjuna in the epic battle of Mahabharata. Bangladesh, another Muslim country still uses Hindu names and follows Hindu customs like wearing sarees and bindis; their language also is Bengali not Urdu.
A word about the culture and its critics, India has multiple and unique ways of perceiving life and the Universe. The pluralism of such perspectives is called Indian culture. The national emblems, icons and symbols signify that culture. These have, however, sadly come under criticism and attack at times on various grounds. One could infer that such resistance and rebellion are arising out of confusion or misconception about the emblems and icons, and their connotations.
In the light of the established interface between nationalism and culture, emblems and their significance, let us scan the sad controversy about the national emblem just installed in the Parliament. There are two objections – technical and architectural – to the Lion Capital perched on the Ashoka Pillar at the top of the Central Foyer of the new Parliament building.
The objections raised are really to the presentation of the emblem. Quite a bit of these has come on the public domain. However, to read the controversy in correct perspective, let us recapitulate some of the main points. Before that, let me throw a small caveat. In a democracy, it is natural to expect criticism and counter-points on any issue or many issues. That is how democracy survives and thrives vibrantly. Yet, one would expect that the national symbols and emblems are kept out of party-political differences.
What are the objections? The Opposition parties found the lions in the emblem angry and aggressive without the grace and glory of the original. This is a distortion or deviation from the original. The history of the national emblem and the process of its adoption in the Constituent Assembly are well-known. The emblem was constructed in 250 BC to commemorate the first lesson of Gautama Buddha containing Four Noble Truths of Life. The emblem was mounted on a base constituted by smaller sculptors including a horse, a lion, a bull, an elephant moving in a clockwise direction.
The four animals are supposed to guard four directions – north, south, east and west. They are separated by the wheel called Dharmachakra of Buddhism. The chakra has been adopted as the part of the national flag. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka used this emblem to spread Buddhism across and beyond India with its emphasis on non-violence and compassion.
The Constituent Assembly decided on the Sarnath Pillar as the national emblem. The members of the Assembly felt that the pillar symbolised power, courage and confidence of a free and new nation. The emblem also depicts a two-dimensional sculpture with Satyameva Jayate (Truth alone triumphs) inscribed on it in Devnagri script. On 26 January, 1950, the Lion Capital of Ashoka of Sarnath became the national emblem of India.
History has it that the emblem was sculpted by the renowned artist Nandalal Bose and his five students. One of them Dinanath Bhargava was advised by Bose to visit the Kolkata zoo to observe the movement and mannerisms of the majestic animal, the lion. Bhargava travelled hundreds of kilometres to visit the zoo many times. He has designed the initial 30 pages of the Constitution.
What do the critics say? The AICC spokesperson Jairam Ramesh said, “The new emblem is nothing but a brazen insult to a national symbol”. The RJD tweeted, “the original emblem has mild expression, but the new one shows a man-eaters’ tendency to consume everything in the country”. Jawahar Sircar of TMC questioned the whole process including the cost etc.
The official reply to each of these questions has been provided, the main points being, the new emblem is huge, has to be appreciated from a distance. The original structure was 1.6 meter tall, whereas the new one is 6.5 meters. Also the original was at the ground level and the new one is at the height of 33 meters from the ground. Therefore, it is a matter of perspective deserving deep appreciation of the differences between the old and the new.
To conclude, let us strive for consensus on certain issues and identities which are national and above party-politics. Politics in a democracy is and should be driven by competitive electoral contests. But while democracy allows dissent, nation building demands unity and loyalty.