Issue 18

Morphing a Monument

On 21st January 2022, the Amar Jawan Jyoti, the flame that had been burning at the India Gate for the past fifty years, was ‘merged’ with the flame at the National War Memorial. The Jyoti had been established in 1972 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to commemorate the soldiers who had lost their lives in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The decision was met with mixed reactions from the public. 

Among those who lauded the Central Government, there seemed to be a broad consensus about the legitimacy of such an action — that the government had carried out a long overdue ritual. After the government’s announcement, a barrage of social-media users felt the need to incessantly emphasise the semantic difference between “merging” the flame and “extinguishing” it. If the flames had indeed been ‘merged’, then there would have been two flames burning in the capital right now. However, the government asserts that this is not feasible as “maintenance of two flames would have been difficult.” One might argue that a new parliament building worth Rs 13,000 crore might require much more maintenance than a single additional flame. But logic seems incongruous with the current political environment.

Another popular justification for this action seems to stem from the fact that the India Gate is a colonial monument. “It may have been intended as a tribute to hundreds of India’s bravest who fought for the British, but it is also a monument to British immorality,” noted prime time television journalist, Rahul Shivshankar in an article for The Times Of India. The ghost of colonial injustices, looming over the India Gate, has suddenly become so overpowering that a monument dedicated to those who bore the brunt of those very injustices has lost its significance. This discomfort with our colonial past is not just flawed, but also selective; colonial DNA flows through the veins of every single government institution of present-day India, the most glaring example of all being the Indian Military. The Beating Retreat is definitely not an ‘inherently Indian’ concept, yet it is a tradition we have grown to associate with the Indian Republic.

However, the “merger” of the flames was also criticised in equal measure. A wide section of critics, including army veterans and opposition party members, lamented the loss of an iconic symbol. Some also noted that the eternal flame is no longer eternal, suggesting that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is putting the immortality of age-old conventions at stake here. The problem with such a discourse lies with how heavily rooted in nostalgia it is, thereby implying that change is the crime of which the BJP is guilty. It also gives way to other misplaced criticisms. An example of this would be a tweet by Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Kumar Jha, who voiced a sentiment echoed by multiple other critics. “It is understandable that the present regime may not have a sense of attachment or belonging with the ‘glories of the past’…” he tweeted. This is not quite the case. In fact, the BJP is deeply invested in the past. It is for this reason that their ideological machinery paints an elaborate picture of important historical events, which increases the significance of Hindutva icons, like Vir Savarkar. Further, the newly established hologram of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose at Rajpath shows how the BJP can effortlessly weave someone like Bose into the fabric of Hindutva. Renowned historian Rama Chandra Guha, during a conversation with The Indian Express, observed, “ [Bose] detested the Hindu Mahasabha and would have detested the RSS.”  While this prediction may or may not be true, what is truly petrifying is that it doesn’t really matter. The BJP’s powers of hypnosis are so strong that its supporters blindly buy its lies, without feeling the need to question its foundations. On top of this, rooting the criticism of the government’s recent ideologically-driven exercise in nostalgia only trivialises the magnitude of the BJP’s shrewd political machinations. 

The displacement of the Amar Jawan Jyoti and the inauguration of Netaji’s Hologram, among other events of “Aazadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav,” don’t merely affect our memory of the past, but also colour our idea of the present with saffron hues. It makes us believe that under the current regime, India is transitioning into a new epoch. Moreover, by carrying out such “historic events,” the BJP claims that it is doing what the Congress couldn’t do in over seventy years: settling the scores of history by reviving past heroes. But in turn, they successfully project Narendra Modi and his deputies as the ‘real’ heroes. 

Ujjwala Shankar is a first-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She likes to write about Politics, Economics, and Literature. In her free time, she loves watching films and hopes to become a film critic someday.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 7

The Violence We Inherit

This year, the morning of 26th January held two instead of just one Republic Day parade. At Rajpath, celebrations for the 72nd year of the adoption of the Indian Constitution took place, whereas, in another part of Delhi, the farmers were exercising their right promised by this prestigious document, to highlight their demand to revoke the three controversial farm bills through a tractor rally. While at one end, the sound of the 21-Gun salute echoed in the air, in another part, chants of ‘kisaan kanoon wapas lo’ and clashes between the police and farmers were observed. 

Soon, videos surfaced on social media platforms of farmers driving tractors recklessly, bringing down barricades as policemen scrambled out of their way. Instances of police indulging in lathi-charge and tear-gas at protestors were also recorded. Events escalated to a level where certain protestors derailed from their march to hang the Nishaan Sahib, a saffron flag of great relevance to Sikh religion, at the Red Fort. The aftermath resulted in over 80 police personnel injured. 

In the past, having been known as the land of satyagraha, we have developed a certain identity rooted in non-violence. Does this notion influence the different ways we view violence in a protest today? While violence has been excused in certain contexts, it has been condemned in others. Moreover, there is a culture of blaming the violence on a ‘foreigner’ as a means to separate oneself from the narrative as it hinders the ‘non-violent’ reputation of India.  

With regards to R-Day, various conflicting views have surfaced regarding who holds the baton of responsibility for instigating the derailment of events. While Delhi Police Commissioner, SN Srivastava claims that the farmers were responsible for inciting violence and should be held accountable for their condemnable actions, various farmer leaders have explicitly separated themselves from those who chose to deviate. In an interview with the Hindu, Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union claimed that “it was a historic parade by lakhs of farmers with over 2 lakh tractors and 99.9% of the farmers stayed peaceful”. Along with this, certain farmer union leaders, as well as the opposition, have been propagating the view that the farmers were not responsible for the mayhem, and violence was instead enforced by individuals who were ‘foreign’ to the community and aimed at wanting to defame the peaceful farmer protests.

As simply consumers of news content, judgement about ‘who is responsible’ cannot be passed without proper investigation. However, it is interesting to note the emergence of different narratives surrounding the violence witnessed on R-Day. Certain sections that support the farmers argue that the violence showcased was ‘minimal’ and justified, considering that the government was choosing to ignore their citizens’ demands. Some even claim that it was anyone but the farmer responsible for the upheaval. However, those who do not believe in the farmers’ cause broadly argue that engaging in violence is condemnable and therefore warrants severe repercussions.

This manner of justifying violence in certain instances, and condemning it in others is not new to Indian culture. Ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata have justified use of violence, where dharma (duty) to the caste system supersedes the value of kinship bonds. Romila Thapar, in her paper ‘War in Mahabharata’, highlights the moral-ethical dilemma that surrounded the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, where the latter encouraged the former to kill his maternal uncle as he was an ally of the Kauravas. So, social obligations towards one’s caste became a valid explanation for killing a kinsman. Despite the description of “arrows tearing apart chests of warriors and free flow of blood creating a pandemonium”, the epic is still passed on in the form of tales to future generations, with gruesome violence deemed acceptable in the name of acquiring a kingdom and protecting its people. While the aim may be universal peace, it is reached through violent means.

Furthermore, ancient India has often been deemed as ‘peaceful’ and the reign of terror and violence has often been blamed on the ‘foreigner’ or ‘intruder’, like the Mughals and the British. This association of non-violence with ancient India exists  because we predominantly identify ancient India with Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty who chose the path of non-violence and Buddhism after witnessing the repercussions of the Kalinga war. However, historian and author of ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’, Upinder Singh, in an interview with theWire, highlights how even “Jain and Buddhism texts use the vocabulary and imagery of war. Mahavira is a jina (victor); the Buddha fights a battle against the god Mara before attaining enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.” Historian DN Jha, in his book ‘Against the Grain’ also challenges this rhetoric of ancient India being devoid of any religious violence. Jha traces the Buddhist Sanskrit work, Divyavadana that describes Pushyamitra Shunga, a Hindu ruler and founder of the Shunga dynasty in 185 BCE, as the “great persecutor of Buddhists”. Jha claims that the ruler was responsible for the vandalising of the Sanchi Stupa and burning of the Ghositaram monastery in Kaushami that killed Buddhist monks. 

While these are just a few of the various instances of violence in India’s past, they have either not been emphasised enough or have been consciously ignored. The question to raise then is, when is violence excused and when is it not? 

The glorification of non-violence can be credited to satyagraha for freedom from British colonialism in modern Indian history. As Indians, we identify as the land of ahimsa and, therefore, choose to ignore the other side of the story. In fact, school history textbooks, sidelined those who engaged in violence for the freedom struggle and labelled them as ‘radicals’. However, movements like the 1857 revolt, showcased extreme violence that shook the stability of the East India Company within the country. The violence, while aimed towards a ‘foreigner’ was instigated and chosen by us as a path to rebel. If it weren’t for the widespread killing and burning of bungalows as well as chants of “maro firangi ko” (kill the white man) that filled the streets, would the British have left when they did?

Coming back to the opinions concerning the farmers’ protests—it can be observed that both the views justifying the violence and the ones condemning it and blaming it on an ‘intruder’, are views that are not new to Indian history. These biases can be observed in the ways we judge violence in current times.

Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).