Last week, Mahatma Gandhi lost his customary place on the cover of a government agency’s diary and calendar. His face also appeared on rubber slippers in a faraway country.
Bapu’s relegation at home was controversial, and there was outrage over the printing of his face on slippers abroad. Days earlier, doormats printed with the Indian flag had been found selling in Canada. The government battled the offender in that case and won. Now that the dust has settled on the scene, let us go over it again.
We don’t show Narad muni playing an electric guitar, nor Krishna blowing on a saxophone, although both would be peerless at those western instruments, I am sure.
By long association or convention, Mahatma Gandhi is depicted spinning the charkha. He did not invent the spinning wheel, nor did he earn his living from it. In his day, there were surely better spinners of cotton yarn. But it was the Mahatma who made spinning a symbol of resistance and self-reliance. He involved India’s villages in the freedom struggle with it. He also used it regularly, not just for photo opportunities. Khadi (homespun) remains relevant in India due to his emphasis on it.
So, perhaps, India’s Khadi and Village Industries Commission should not have replaced the Mahatma’s image on its diaries and calendars with that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
KVIC is right in claiming it has broken no law or rule, but conventions and icons have their own force. The PM can mount a prancing horse with an unsheathed sword but a crowd of proud Marathas might not prefer him to Shivaji. He can pose with a hockey stick, but can he take the place of a Dhyan Chand? More importantly, should he?
I am sure the PM did not order the new design of KVIC covers and it was the work of some sycophantic officer or minister, but such people deserve a snub if the PM wants to keep up his image of a disinterested nation builder.
Swayed by the flag
We Indians discriminate against feet. It is sinful to touch a book or a person with them. Feet have a lowly place and caste association too. So, to hear that our flag is being used as a doormat — to be trod on — hurts. We feel offended. But when this happens in a foreign land, a different culture, how can we be sure that offence is intended?
Did the sellers of those offending doormats and slippers get them designed just to hurt Indians? Perhaps not. They have Obama and Lincoln slippers too, as the picture above shows. They were just using them to make money the way we use Che Guevara photos on mugs and T-shirts.
The flag-on-doormat and Mahatma-on-slippers cases raise another question: who all do our ideas of honour, courtesy and respect cover?
Say, you are travelling with your elderly parents in a crowded bus. Nobody offers their seat and you are offended. Next time, when you are travelling alone, you refuse to vacate your seat for someone in need of it. Is it a case of my parents and my flag holiest?
Do we, as a country, extend to others the courtesy we expect of them? Aren’t doormats printed with foreign flags sold in India? Shouldn’t our government then crack down on those sellers at home first? If flags are sacred in our culture, we need to respect all flags, Pakistan’s included.
Sometimes, we ourselves harm our flag with lofty intentions. Don’t you swell with pride on seeing India’s flag painted on a space rocket or a missile? What do you think happens to the flag when the missile explodes or a detached rocket re-enters the atmosphere and is burnt out with friction?
We also need to consider the outcome of our government’s action in these cases. India arm-twisted an online marketplace into dropping the offensive articles from its catalogue, but could it stop those mats and slippers from being sold elsewhere, in a shop, for instance?
What point did we score beyond telling the world that we arm-twist those who do business with us? But now that we have learnt to twist arms, how about doing something for Union Carbide’s forgotten victims?