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Two days before Independence Day, a tragic incident occurred in the Jalore district of Rajasthan. An eight-year-old Dalit boy was mercilessly assaulted by his class teacher on July 20, who was allegedly offended because the boy had touched his water pot, succumbed to the injuries and died on August 13.
It is shocking to witness how the inhuman caste psyche not only generates a discriminatory attitude but even forces a person to murder an innocent child. The incident only shows that even after 75 years of independence, the nation is deeply contaminated by criminal social ideologies that move society away from basic civility.
The extreme brutality of the incident should have jolted the conscience of the public. However, very few voices emerged to protest this terrible incident. Though some Dalit groups demonstrated their anger on the streets on August 15, Independence Day, and posted the facts of the incident on social media, the reality of the nation’s social tragedy was buried in the face of the grand euphoria of national flag hoisting.
Acts of displacement
Countering the celebration of Independence Day with the atrocious murder of the Dalit boy will help us understand that national symbols are overtly abstract values that blind us from seeing the tragedies of our own brethren. Such hyper celebrations are often divorced from the vital concerns and claims of the nation’s socially deprived communities.
Pop culture overwhelmingly dominates the public mind. The media presents everyday events and facts in such a methodological manner that it becomes our only source of gauging what is meaningful today. In the backs of our minds, we know that the media, under the directives of the powerful elite junta, selectively manufactures realities to benefit the ruling classes and hide large actualities about social hierarchies and exploitative class divisions. However, we do not have the power to uncover and transform this demonic system.
The current euphoria over hoisting the national flag at every home is the latest example of the mass hysteria created by the political elites with the help of their pet media institutions. This hyper-performative exercise diverts the attention of the public from important national issues such as caste atrocities, the exploitation of the Adivasis, the growing rate of unemployment and the rapidly depleting conditions of the lower middle classes.
An emblem subverted
The national flag metaphorically represents the foundational moral principles that were defined during the building of the modern nation-state. It presents India as a nation with republican values, represents the country’s socio-cultural diversities and stands for a secular ethos. The tiranga (tricolour) is surely an important metaphor of the nation’s political philosophy.
However, the current regime has utilised our flag to craft a hyper-nationalist fervour instead. Today, our national symbols represent popular emotional values (Hindu nationalism) or the national sport (cricket nationalism). They bind the diverse citizens of India with a certain iconic persona, a superlative patriotic act or a mega event with a sentimental connect. The general public has been habituated to perceive such artificially created sensational emotions as acts of patriotism and adore them.
The idea of the nation is now fixed through symbolic acts. When the people dress in white clothes to collectively hoist the tiranga, sing the national anthem and chant emphatic slogans hailing the motherland, the foundational characteristics of Indian nationalism are re-objectified. This obliges us to participate in these performances for, without such acts, our nationalist credentials will be doubted.
The post-modern social theorist Jean Baudrillard understood the power of hyper-symbols in his very impressive work, Simulation, published in 1983. In this fascinating work, he reveals how the national symbol defines pomp and power. The general audience is bewitched by such a grand phenomenon and accepts it as the truthful representation of their concerns and interests. However, Baudrillard shows that there also could be an evil motive behind turning a national symbol into an emblem of pomp: the desire to displace basic realities. Such hyper images only mask or occult the actualities of the nation, forcing us to firmly believe in a ‘simulacrum’ – the crafted reality of the elites.
Banner of truth
We could possibly create an alternative symbolism for the nation based upon the concerns and claims of the actual people. Here we could acknowledge that people are not living in a uniform, homogeneous manner, but are segregated by regional boundaries, linguistic distinctions, caste, class and religion. This idea would force us to examine the divisions that generate exploitative inequalities and social hierarchies in order to make crucial arrangements for the welfare and empowerment of people suffering under terrible conditions.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s understanding of the nation supplements such an idea. It imagines the modern republic dedicated to the values of social justice, guaranteeing the welfare of the poor and downtrodden and proposing the end of caste-based social divisions.
However, a people-centric conception of the nation is not favoured by our political elites. Instead, a populist hyper-symbolism like the Har Ghar Tiranga campaign is used to re-craft the image of the nation. Such objects of hyper-nationalism offer alternative new truths while hiding or erasing vital realities like the murder of the Dalit boy in Rajasthan from the public mind.
In the hyper-representation of the nation through an emotive object like the flag, the political elites have disappeared ‘the people’ from the discussion. The politics of nationalism hardly talk about the diverse population, knowing well that the majority amongst it is surviving in precarious and wretched conditions. Behind the construction of the grand national image is the displacement of the people, especially the socially marginalised communities, from the imagination of the nation.
Hyper-national symbols transform citizens into unconscious subjects that survive for the sake of the symbol. However, the symbol has little power to serve the interests of its own people, especially the downtrodden and poor. It is necessary for the symbols of nationalism to bring the public closer to the basic realities of life, demonstrating the actual socio-economic conditions that exist, including brutal realities like caste atrocities. Such symbols would serve the nation better as they would uphold the syncretic and secular values of the country and bind citizens together.
Instead, our national symbols, including our flag, divorce the nation from its people, mask brutal realities and force us to become part of mere performative acts. If our national symbols reflected the actual condition of the citizens, then alongside the fanfare of national celebrations that often hide and displace the issues of poverty, atrocities and exploitation, a popular national discourse could be opened to deal with the parallel realities of the nation-state.
Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Center for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.