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In a country where the definition of a bestseller is 10,000 copies, you know that Indians don’t read. You could be sanguine about this and say we are an oral culture. Or you could blame an education system that encourages rote learning and mass production of engineers and MBAs.

The result is that we don’t know what our icons stand for. We only know them through popular culture. Not just our icons, but any icon. Foreigners are alarmed to see copies of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf sold on India’s streets. Many draw a link between that and the growing support for authoritarianism and hate crimes. I don’t worry about people buying Mein Kampf. I am confident that 9 out of 10 people who buy it don’t read it. The book is for the shelves.

What we see here is iconophilia — a fascination with iconography. Much more popular than Mein Kampf is Che Guevara. When businessman Arindam Chaudhuri and Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami name their children Che, they’re certainly not advocating for revolution in India. More likely, they are just taken in by the cult of Che, the Che T-Shirts people used to wear. Cool guy. Nice hair. Fancy cap.


Also read: Wear Che Guevara, Johnny Walker and Gandhi on your T-shirts, but it says nothing about you


What do our icons stand for?

Visual representations of Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose are familiar to every Indian. From Ladakh to Leh, Indians are made familiar with them in school. Most of us don’t even know what Tagore stood for, or whether Subhas Chandra Bose was a secularist. Do we realise what would have happened had Bose succeeded in his plans, given who he was allying with? Do we understand that Tagore placed humanism over nationalism, and was in fact so troubled by the negative potential of nationalism that he had differences with Gandhi about it?

Yes, you can hear Rabindrasangeet across Bengal. We are an oral culture. The progressive worldview of Tagore, however, is for the libraries and universities. What is important about Tagore in popular culture is that he was the first Indian to have won a Nobel prize, not what he won the Nobel prize for. How many people do you know who can tell what his collection of poems Gitanjali is about, let alone having read it?


Also read: 10 Ambedkar quotes that show why the BJP can’t co-opt him


In any other country, you’d expect the literary works of a Nobel-winning author to be part of popular culture. Not in India. That’s why Narendra Modi can transform into Tagore. If Indians, other than a few bhadraloks in Kolkata, actually knew what Tagore stood for, Modi would not be able to appropriate him. It would have been as impossible as, say, Modi appropriating Nehru — because, in Nehru’s case, at least his commitment to secularism is part of popular discourse.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s appropriation of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar is, similarly, an act of dealing with iconography over ideas. The Dalit movement does have a culture of actually reading Ambedkar, though the thick volumes of his collected writings are mostly for the shelves. The Ambedkarite movement focuses more on reading about Ambedkar’s life than his message. If the Dalit masses who install Ambedkar’s photos on their walls actually read him, we would have a lot more Buddhists in India!

Nevertheless, thanks to Ambedkar’s emphasis on education, and the revival of his political import since the ‘90s, a lot more people read Ambedkar than, say, Gandhi. Or Maulana Azad. It is a wonder that the BJP hasn’t yet appropriated Azad, given what we know by now of his criticism of the Congress. It’s just that the BJP today doesn’t even need ‘good’ Muslims.


Also read: To save the republic, India must read these books


Need to engage with texts

The Congress and others can also appropriate icons just as easily. Since people only relate to the photo, the clothes, the visage — anyone can appropriate any icon. This is why politicians can subvert the Constitution and still swear by it. Is there a culture of reading, discussing or understanding the Constitution and its import?

Symbols can be hollowed out of meaning, and then imbued with new meaning. In its post-Indira stupor, the Congress party gave up on the joint venture Nehru had forged between nationalism and secularism. This meant the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) no longer needed to avoid the Indian flag, or see it as antithetical to the Hindu nationalist project. When the RSS began to salute the Indian national flag, it began the process of imbuing it with its own agenda. Today, Modi has combined nationalism with Hindutva. The reclaiming of the Indian flag in the anti-CAA movement is, thus, of great significance.

What we need is a culture of reading and engaging with texts. A healthy society would have reading clubs where the ideas of great icons would be discussed and understood, in agreement or disagreement.

The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. Well Mudi is Tagore in reverse and he would write Gitanjali in the following way.

    Where mind is with full of fear. and head is always cowering !
    Where knowledge is whatsapp and IT cell.
    Where the world has been broken up into fragments by narrow religious wall with sharp polarisation.
    Where words come out from the falsehood and propaganda;
    Where crony capitalism stretches its arms towards perfection;
    Where the clear stream of andhbhakti (blind devotion) has lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
    Where the mind is led forward by RSS into ever-widening persecution of minorities and imposition of hindutva
    Into that heaven of Hindutva Rashtra, my Father, let my country awake.

  2. Seems like Vij has unleashed his IT cell on the comments section. At least some of the responses (“original thinkers…)”) and counter responses reflect that. Vij, you too touchy mate??

  3. Tagore has nothing to do with DANGA DIDI AND AKBARUDDIN.

    THE fight is for “SECULAR VOTES” and they are certainly not interested in INDIAN education or poetry .

    HENCE MODIJI is ensuring that INDIAN icons and education is not lost in the race for ONE GOD and ONE RELIGION wherein everyone else is infidel.

  4. It is almost impossible expecting people to read & then form an informed opinion. But why is it that no one amongst those who read or claim to read, especially in the mainstream media, call out Modi or anyone else for such chicanery. Why don’t you ask if he is a PM or some huckster, a “madari”, a clown as if he’s come to a costume party. Why don’t you ask him to focus on governance?

  5. What a moronic article from an agenda driven coolie! There is nothing wrong in imbibing the best from every iconic leader, doesn’t mean his every views have to followed to a ‘T’, unless you are in awe of every aspect of him.

    The problem with these mentally anglicised/abrahamicised coolies is that they are alienated from the soil of India which is imbibed with ‘Sanatan Dharma’ aka modern Hinduism from eternity. Even Budhism, Jainism and many other such sects are just branches of the same, simultaneously endorsed by ancient rulers.

    Just because some Turks and Europeans have been able to rule this land for last 5-6 centuries mainly due to our lack of unity and abundance of traitors (like we see today), and they having spread more poison in society (eg. Macaulay minutes), these coolies want our country ‘Bharath’ to be wiped off its very soul, ‘Sanatanism’. This is where the conflict begins.

    • Can you even understand the utter nonsense you have written here, not that’s it matters. And clearly it’s no use trying to educate you on what the article is actually about, since you are just doing your job as a IT cell member. Pathetic.

  6. Appropriating icons? Wow! The media, experts, sources and columnists never cease to amaze.

    What “icons ” stand for should not be read from texts. They should be felt. Texts and historians generally portray biased views…not by design but by default….all writers can write only what they know. That need not necessarily be true always.

    Tail piece: I do not become a communist if I read Karl Max nor a dictator by reading Mein Kampf

    • Good you are retired, colonel. Your own jaundiced political views are a bane and its wonderful that the apolitical army is rid of your services.

      • Wit all respects!

        Pray what is political about my comment.

        One more thing: Personal attacks show the shallowness and ignorance of you views. So you are pardoned.
        No hard feelings.
        Regards

  7. The culture of reading in any socio-political system is confined to a certain section. Rest of the population just take the easy route to make sense out of stimulus. Don’t expect too much and don’t read too much into it. Every politician cannot talk and write like Obama.

  8. The author should be careful in what he wishes for. Imagine if everyone follows his advice and becomes well read and informed. Where will he and his ilk peddling fake news, one sided opinions and outright disinformation go? Better not to kick at what brings in the paycheque and more then two meals a day.

    • Yet you are here like a poodle ready to lap up his opinion articles again and again. Know your place in the comment section and keep envying people who have a column here. You will be forced to read his next column too because though you dont agree your own political views are not accepted by everybody. Face it.

  9. Excellent!
    For a large nation we have exceptionally high numbers of blind believers and unthinking folks. There is hardly anybody who can make a rational argument in the comments section. And this is amongst those who have a higher than usual degree of formal education. The situation among the not so educated can only be worse. So when a pied piper comes along, the entire town dances to his tunes like so many mice.
    My compliments to Shivam Vij on this write up.

  10. After RSS was banned by HM Patel , it was forced to accept Indian national flag and authority of Constitution as condition for ban lifting.

    The idea of Hindu nation (basically Brahmin rule & supremacy and implementation of Caste system) was between 10 Brahmins when they founded RSS in 1925. After 100 yrs in 2025, BJP will formally declare “Hindu Republic of India”.
    2024 will be the last election in India!!

    To reach the goal, these ideas of 10 people needed to be spread in every nook and corner. Just like a Pollen is spread by various means, Idea of Hindutva is spread through saluting Tagore, Ambedkar, …… but Once goal is achieved in 2025, New Rules of RSS replaces Secular Constitution ….. Brahmins will come and destroy Ambedkar statue in Parliament complex.

    I was surprised to see Valmiki of Hathras voted for BJP since 2014 in all elections!! Now they are having a Good time.

  11. Narendra Modi thinks that just by growing a long beard he can look like Tagore and an ancient Hindu sage.

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