Bharat Mata - Mother India. CREDIT: <a href="">Vivekananda Kendra</a> (<a href="">CC</a>)
Bharat Mata - Mother India. CREDIT: Vivekananda Kendra (CC)

Rekindling Nationalism through Symbolism: Asset or Hindrance to Globalism?

Feb 24, 2017

Soumya Mahalakshmi, age 21, is an undergraduate student of Computer Science at R. V. College of Engineering, in Bengaluru, India. Creativity has always been her sanctuary which nurtures her ideas and adds new dimensions to her vision. A voracious reader, and an ardent promoter of women in technology, she has lived in Bengaluru for the last 21 years.

ESSAY TOPIC: Is nationalism an asset or hindrance in today's globalized world?

The Supreme Court of India, the highest seat of judicial authority, recently ordered that the national anthem has to be played before every movie screening. It mandates that the audience need to rise in respect, as the anthem is being played. The judges maintained that this would instil committed patriotism and nationalism. In the Indian context, cultural symbolism and personification as aids to propagate the nationalist agenda are not new. The legacy finds its roots from the times of the independence struggle, and the subsequent rise of the Indian nation from the Indian subcontinent. In recent times, increasing brain drain and the seemingly obvious diffidence toward one's own identity has created a murmur of panic, anticipating the growing disappearance of nationalism in the Indian masses. The current ruling from the Supreme Court of India seems to borrow a page from history to reiterate the sense of collective belonging in the Indian Diaspora, during these times of faltering faith. However, the credibility of propagating nationalism amidst a dynamic shift toward globalization, remains questionable.

In the past, the Indian subcontinent was a vast lithographic expanse of cultural diversity ranging from the Hindu Kush Mountains in present day Afghanistan to the islands across the Indian Ocean including Sri Lanka and Indonesia. They were governed by autonomous dynasties that lorded over smaller pieces of territory, each with their own indicators of cultural identity. When the subcontinent had to unite against a common foreign invader such as the British, it was important to establish India as a single entity. It required gleaning cultural distinguishers and instituting national unifiers. Symbols and popular prints, fiction and folklore, history and songs, were vital in the making of nationalism. The spread of nationalism in India began when these nationalist symbols captured the popular imagination of the common man and when he could relate to some unity that bound him to the rest of the nation.

World history, from the times of the French Revolution has imparted the crucial lesson of symbolising a nation into a figure or image. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay is credited with the creation of the image of Bharat Mata (Mother India) as a visual descriptor of India. Inspired by the nationalist movement that had taken a turn for the creative, Abanindranath Tagore painted his own interpretation of Bharat Mata portrayed as the epitome calmness, composure, divinity and spirituality, dispensing learning, food and clothing. Often, artists like Ravi Verma incorporated painting techniques that could be seen as truly Indian. As a consequence, Bharat Mata acquired various forms and perceptions, sometimes even with a trident assuming symbols of power and authority. Further, some prints portray nationalist leaders offering their heads to Bharat Mata as sacrifice, which frequently evoked strong emotional patriotism.

Indian folklore was quoted as being the most trustworthy manifestation of people's real thoughts and characteristics, by Natesa Shastri, who published an exhaustive four-volume collection of Tamil folk tales. The British had established their authority over the Indian masses by transfusing an element of inferiority, inculcating the belief that Indians were undeveloped, substratal and inept at statesmanship. To counter this diffident inadequacy that shattered the morale of the masses, nationalist leaders began to dig the past for India's greatest achievements in governance, literature, science, religion, philosophy and trade. The idea was to construct a different perspective of Indian histories that urged the readers to take pride in India’s glorious achievements and fight to change the deplorable conditions of British rule. Nationalists also began documenting folk tales, songs and legends that symbolised folk tradition, which was fundamental to discover one's national identity and resurrect a sense of pride in one's past that was forgotten and abandoned due to invasions.

When the nationalist movement hit its peak, leaders such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Veer Savarkar, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak became increasingly aware of iconography that instilled collective belonging. The celebration of one Indian festival such as Ganesh chaturti as one large community with lengthy processions, especially in regions of Maharashtra began to be seen as unification of India's cultural identity and solidarity toward freedom from British rule.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote 'Vande Mataram' (A Salute to my Motherland) as a hymn to the motherland, moved by the Swadeshi Movement. Singing Vande Mataram and hoisting the national flag was widely symbolic of the revolts, protests, campaigns and defiance against British rule during the freedom struggle. The newly designed national Swaraj (Freedom) flag was a tricolour (red, green and white) and had a spinning wheel in the centre, representing the Gandhian ideal of self-help.

In retrospect, the Indian nationalist movement imbibed the notion that sacrifice and devotion to the Bharat Mata is a testament of one's nationalism. The idea of folk revival has found its way into popular culture, with an upsurge of historical and mythological shows on Indian television over the last couple of years. Ganesh Chaturthi is still the most important festival celebrated in the Maharashtra region with celestial grandeur. There have been several modern renditions of 'Vande Mataram,' the most popular one being the version by Academy Award winner A.R.Rahman, whose brilliant score gives goosebumps even today. This frequent symbolic characterization of the Indian identity has proved to be healthy in the Indian context. It boosts the collective morale of a developing nation to push harder and be instrumental in the service of the nation.

Over the last two decades, increasing brain drain in the country has been a cause for major concern. India has been losing out on some of its best skilled workforce that moves abroad aspiring for better opportunities and earning an income in a currency of higher worth. The fire is fuelled by the country's reservation policies and cut-throat competition, which prompt a majority of the students to go abroad for further study, and settle in a foreign country if feasible. The problem that was restricted to the skilled workforce has now extended its wings and taken flight in the labour classes as well, who prefer to move Gulf countries, which pay better for labour. Real patriotism justifies identification and belief in the strength of the country and confidence in its sovereignty. The persisting issue is that real patriotism is lacking amongst a sizeable population of youth in India. Progressively more number of people leave every year and migrate to greener pastures.

In hindsight, the zenith of degradation of patriotism is to deny service to one's nation when it most requires it. Therefore, the Indian Supreme Court's ruling comes as a final plea to revisit history and use a device characteristic of devoted nationalism, to rekindle forgotten patriotism and latent respect for the country. The Government has resorted to imposing nationalism, by trying to repeat history, and capture popular imagination through symbolic unifiers that have an emotional connect. However, the youth are quick to point out that patriotism is imbibed, not imposed. Respect for symbols such as the national flag is inculcated, not forced. And a true evidence of one's nationalism is his willingness to serve, and not merely stand during the national anthem.

However, this ruling has unquestionably initiated conversation about real patriotism and service to the country, and has put nationalism on the national agenda. It is elementary to note that the idea of nationalism is not a contradiction to globalization. The archaic Indian concept of 'Vasudhaiva kutumbhakam' (The universe is our family) is an evidential response to the question of nationalism and globalization being mutually exclusive of one another in the Indian context. Globalization is a forum, a union of the world's nations to collaborate as a family and partake in the ups and downs of its members. However, it is imperative for all of its members to be on a level playing field for all the voices to be heard at the table. Developing nations like India require its masses to serve the country and work toward reaching that pedestal of having an equal say. Hence, a cultural unification to rekindle the sense of belonging and confidence in the Indian context is indispensable and is very likely to work in the country's favour to inspire patriotism in the popular imagination of young minds, just as it did several years ago.

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