Dialogue  October-December, 2009 , Volume 11 No. 2


Imagining the Icons of India: Some Reflections


Sudhir Kumar*



Prof. Chaman Lal’s contribution to the “Open Page” (of The Hindu, 1 Feb.2009, page14) entitled-”Why slight martyrs in the name of democracy?” opens up the debate concerning the necessity of “ not-interrogating” and “ not-re-examining” the politically correct positions of the hitherto highly institutionalized  modern  icons of the idea of India, such as (Mahatma)Gandhi, (Gurudev) Tagore, (Sri) Aurobindo, (Swami) Vivekananda , (Netaji) Subhash Bose, (Chacha) Nehru, the Maker of Modern India, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, (the author of Indian Constitution), Subramanium Bharati, (Shaheed) Bhagat Singh and others as well. One may not question their spirit of selfless service to the cause of India’s freedom- political, social, economic and cultural. In  colonial/postcolonial / post- independence contexts, every nation-in –the – making needs its own social, cultural and political icons of proven integrity and commitment who serve as beacons to the millions of  people locked in their daily struggles against forces of injustice, corruption, violence and exploitation. Hence, the (official) construction of the national icons. This process, which generally  does not encourage critical thinking, tends to be perilously close to the so-called “deification” of the national icons. Most of these “national icons” continue to be represented and distributed (by the ruling power) as non pareil nationalists/leaders of unimpeachable character through the printing and publishing of textbooks, advertisements, tributes, biographies etc., and through the recurring remembrance of these icons in the so-many government sponsored events and awards. In short, the national iconography often produces “homogenized” national icons for public worship and consumption- which is justifiable in the context of integrating and welding the fragments into a cultural/political organism called the nation. Any deviation from these politically correct positions is construed as the act of “slighting” the national icons (as Prof. Chaman Lal suggests). And lack or loss of “objectivity” is the fait accompli of any genuine attempt to re-read/reconstruct a national icon. The greatness and infallibility of the national icons, be it Gandhi, Ambedkar or Bhagat Singh are a given- only to be worshipped and used for conversion. Moreover, when these icons are re-processed and disseminated through inflexible ideological grids - left, right or centre, they only promote “deification” of a different kind.

    But these national heroes and heroines are not only the object of worship but also the object of study in the discourses of social sciences and humanities. When different researchers and scholars closely scrutinize these “icons”, they sometimes  discover not only new insights/information affirming their “greatness”, but also the errors committed by these national icons like ordinary mortals at different moments in their  eventful careers. This also results into the re-visioning of history and culture from different positions and at different times- which is a sign of health and growth in a civilized society. Suffice to say, the simultaneous and symbiotic presence of many versions of truth, marked by difference, does not always result into over/under – valuation of a particular national icon at the cost of another and the fixing of a national canon of icons for ever!. Moreover, the critical and democratic health of any society or institution is often judged by the extent to which it promotes deference to difference and dissent against the given truths.

    It is precisely here that the problem begins when one studies the national iconography of either Gandhi or Bhagat Singh or of any other national leader. Incidentally, both Gandhi and Bhagat Singh are a part of popular folklore and memory - thanks to the production and proliferation of their images through the knowledge and culture industries. Moreover, to approve, a la Prof. Chaman Lal, of the hierarchisation of our national icons like Gandhi, Tagore, Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar  and others on the basis of some samples and  surveys conducted by some magazines or TV channels, and to disapprove the dissent against the deification of national icons,  is to be selectively amnesiac and academically naïve. To a discerning critic and academic, it is important to remember that both terms “ the national” and “the icon” are constructions that sometimes foreground self conscious forgetting and erasing of many local histories, languages and myths. To cite a concrete  example, a teacher of Humanities and Social Sciences, situated   in a college/university in north India, is often shocked to find that most of her/his students have no idea of the valuable contributions of  many important , past or present, leaders/ writers/ thinkers belonging to southern, eastern or western  parts of India!  

    The problem , however, arises when those who are engaged as  sincere researchers or thinkers critically examine the national iconography of  mass leaders against the backdrop of their differing “points of view”, end up with the unraveling of different, heterogeneous versions of truth which may not tally with the “homogenized” official images of  the national icons. For example, one may easily notice the presence of many images of Gandhi – the father of the nation, the political leader, the saint, the satyagrahi, the reformer, the faddist, the egotist, the feminist/ the anti-feminist, the environmentalist, the bollywood-poster-boy, and so on and so forth. The beauty and power of a democratic, civilized society lies in its acceptance of this heterogeneity or anekantvada of truth, even if it implies the discovery of the glorious and the vainglorious , the extraordinary and the mundane related to  the life and ideas of our national icons. Thus , the different conflicting versions of either Gandhi or Bhagat Singh, mediated through different perspectives, have their significance in public/academic spaces. Why should there be any irritable reaching after the “true” Gandhi or Bhagat Singh? And even more irritable is the increasing  tendency among the modern  university-based academics and demagogues alike is to prove that only their version of Gandhi or Bhagat Singh is truth. All histories/ national iconographies are, in this way, provisional – if written /read through the co-ordinates of caste, class, gender, race and environment.

    Is it, after all, possible to reach the final truth through the ever-unfinished tools of language and logic? Moreover, in the carnivalesque conversations/ dialogues between academics, critics, and thinkers on the constructions of our national icons, there may be a healthy intertextuality and respect for their different positions - for example, a (Bhagat) Singh’s version of Gandhi or Gandhism should happily co-exist with Gandhi’s or Gandhian Bhagat Singh. Or the Gandhi of Ambedkar/ites need to be in engagement with the Ambedkar of Gandhi-/ites. Truth has infinite loci and no particular version can claim to be the whole truth about a person or event. If these constructive and desirable “differences” are not celebrated or tolerated in a civilized society, it runs the danger of becoming a closed or totalitarian society. In other words, all national icons are , in a sense, open texts, for readings, re-readings and even misreadings.

     Will it do any good if Bhagat Singh, who is alive in the consciousness of people, locally as well as nationally, attains the statuesque status of a dull and  uninspiring, official Gandhi as a national icon- who is  neither read nor understood? Let there be a celebratory “manyness”  about our national icons- let their moments of weakness and fallibility be also accepted and understood in the total context of their significance. The Mumbai-terror attack (26/11) has surely, once again, reminded the Indians that there are thousands of them who are as much worthy of being       “national icons” as those who have already been canonized in official history. The danger is that if we do not encourage a spirit of critical thinking about history and national iconography by way of extending and challenging  the existing frontiers of  knowledge, we will end up in a blind alley of insular scholarship and allow our  people to be the prisoners of the rhetoric of “greatness” so often invoked by our opportunist and corrupt politicians .

     As a student of literature , I am moved by the manner in which our  two novelists, namely,  Raja Rao ( in Kanthapura) and R.K.Narayan ( in Waiting for the Mahatma ) reconstruct Gandhi differently as the national icon of India’s freedom struggle against the British colonial rule. Though almost absent as a character in  Kanthapura, different versions of Gandhi inspire and influence different characters belonging to different sections of society. Murthy, the protagonist, Bhatta, the corrupt Brahmin, Gowda, Ratna, Achakka, and a host of other women appropriate Gandhi differently . At the end of the novel, Murthy and other boys seem to lose their faith in the Gandhian satyagraha and move towards the so-called socialist position in face of terrible violence unleashed by colonial authorities; whereas  women of the  village of Kanthapura  continue to have faith in the non-violent Gandhian mode of cultural and political action/ resistance. Raja Rao represents many versions of Gandhi- the mythical Gandhi, the political Gandhi, the reformer Gandhi and the popular Gandhi in the narrative of Kanthapura. The ending of Kanthapura signifies the shifts and alternatives available to people in the freedom struggle. R.K.Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma  represents how people who were supposed  to be Gandhi’s followers used Gandhian discourse of satya, ahimsa and satyagraha, for their own ends . Moreover, through the portrayal of Sriram’s rite de passage, Narayan also shows that there were alternatives to Gandhian worldview. Thus, the non-violent school of nationalism, epitomized by “Mahatma” Gandhi was not the only choice before the Indians- they also believed and participated in the equally appealing school of violent nationalism symbolized by the revolutionaries like Netaji Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh and others. Thus, Narayan foregrounds the desirability of a constructive dialogue between the two seemingly oppositional positions. And Narayan does not forget to tell the readers that the post-independence India is no longer the India of Gandhi’s dreams, which may be read as the mohabhanga or disillusionment of the people with the ruling elite who often invoke Gandhi while addressing the  idea of India. What I am trying to say is that both Raja Rao and R.K.Narayan ran the risk of “deifying” or “glorifying” Gandhi in their overtly Gandhi-centric narratives of Kanthapura and Waiting for the Mahatma, but they pass muster as good story-tellers as they show how their characters, like the people of India, re-construct their many Gandhis for their inspiration and empowerment, and also how they defy Gandhi and even move away from him.

      One would do well to critically examine  the  trajectories of national iconography which continues to re-produce national icons- from Mahatma Gandhi, Baba Saheb Ambedkar , Sri  Aurobindo, Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh, to Tagore, Nehru  and several others. Otherwise there is little to choose between  Tweedledee and Tweedledum or, say ,between “deifying” and “defying” the national icons!!


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati