The symbols of civilisation


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The symbols of civilisation
The Hindu - Feb 13, 1999

By Kancha Ilaiah

EVER since the debate on the education policy was initiated by the Human
Resource Development Minister, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, which faced a stiff
resistance at the very conference of Education Ministers, the Hindutva forces have
been asking why symbols such as Saraswati should be opposed by Indians
themselves. According to them, Saraswati, Laxmi and Rama represent the cultural
ethos of the nation and opposing these symbols amounts to opposing the nation
itself. This argument emanates from the Hindutva agenda that the education system
right from the school stage should inculcate a respect for these symbols in all
children irrespective of caste, class, religion and gender. Since the days of the
freedom struggle these forces have been projecting the Hindutva symbols as the
only symbols of the Indian civil society and after the BJP came to power in different
States and at the Centre, they began to push these cultural symbols into all kinds of
state institutions.

Such a process will pose a major threat to the productive ethos and to the symbols
of civilisation that got constructed in the process of human evolution. Every nation
produces two modes of essentials of life. One takes its living process in civilisation
and the other in culture. Culture is a by-product of the civilisational systems. The
Indian pot, plough, sickle, hammer, wheel, shoe and so on represent the Indian
civilisation whereas the images of the gods and goddesses represent (one aspect
of) the Indian culture. But even in the pre-Islamic and pre-colonial India, no single
image of god or goddess represented the culture of all Indians.

Leave alone the well-known oppositional cultural symbols of Buddhism and
Hinduism; the cultural images of Pochamma (a popular goddess of the
Dalit-Bahujan masses in the Telugu country) and of Saraswati represent two
different cultures and the interests of two different sections. On the contrary, the
civilisational symbols such as pot, plough, wheel, sickle and hammer represent the
interests of all sections irrespective of caste, race, religion, language and gender.
The pot was/is as useful an instrument of civilisation to Hindus, as it is to Muslims,
Christians and other religious people. It is as useful to the Brahmins as it is to the
Dalits and the Adivasis.

Can any group deny that the pot, shoe, wheel, hammer and sickle have their own
distinctive Indianness and that the Indians, including the Muslims and the Christians,
should feel proud of that Indianness? If there are lessons in our schools and
colleges on ancient Indian symbols of civilisation, can they tell their children not to
learn about them? They cannot and they will not. In fact, they too will be proud to
be part of that heritage.

Every country realised its modern nationhood by deconstructing the feudal relations
and by re-constructing the capitalist economic modernity. The Indian nation, after
50 years of its post-colonial socio-economic life, is in its early stages of capitalist
modernity. To make it an advanced capitalist nation, which would be quite far
away from socialist modernity, it needs to shift the mass consciousness from
mythical to scientific modes. To advance the indigenous science and technology,
even the modern mind needs to constantly interact with its civilisational past.

The capitalist modernity all over the world constructed civilisational symbols as the
key linkages in the historical evolution of their societies. Such symbols
reconstructed a strong sense of modernist dignity of labour within their social
psyche. Constructing such a modernist social psyche around the dignity of labour
was essential for transforming the feudal social values into capitalist productive
social values. For example, when the early social democrats and communists of
Europe chose sickle and hammer as the symbols of their ideology, these were
already popular among the working class and the bourgeoisie. The selection of
sickle and hammer as symbols of the social and educational discourse expressed
the dialectical productive relationship between agriculture and industry. The
communists picked up these two civilisational symbols from host of such symbols
that the European society constructed much before they came on the scene.

The Indian communists, on their part, did not contextualise these symbols and did
not construct a socio-political narrative about these symbols by re-locating them in
the social structures. They explained them merely as symbols of the working class
as it was done in the Western context. They never re-located them in the
caste-bound social productive systems in order to kindle a civilisational self-respect
among the productive castes. Invoking organic symbols in the day-to-day
discourse of the civil and political society empowers the forces that are struggling to
move from an unequal socio-economic position to an equal position.

We must, therefore, tell our children about the people - social actors - who
struggled against all odds of nature as well as fought against the social obstructions
of anti-science (Brahminical) forces. It is important, for example, to teach our
children how a pot-maker selects soil, cleans and powders it; the ratio in which
water and soil are mixed to make the material ready to be put on the wheel and to
carve out the basic form of pot. Further, it is important to let the children know the
stages, instruments and skills involved in preparing a pot and so on. Similarly, it is
important to teach them the skills of the makers of Indian leather goods. Peeling off
the skin, tanning leather in natural methods and designing the instruments for making
the leather goods to serve the needs of society are rooted in the processes of
proto-science and the children of all religions and castes should know about these

Teaching about the pot and shoe-makers brings the caste of pot- makers
(Kummaris in Andhra Pradesh) and shoe-makers (Madigas, Chamars and so on)
into the educational discourse. The condemned professions, communities and their
historical skills coming into an educational discourse in the school and college
structures will affect the consciousness of our children and youth in a form that
invokes a sense of dignity of labour. Not only that, constructing such a positive
thinking about the productive communities will begin to destabilise the caste
hierarchy itself.

Attempts to invoke the symbols of civilisation are not uncommon. The best
example is that of Ashoka. After the Kalinga war, he became a Buddhist and
established the first Indian welfare state. He adopted the wheel (Ashoka chakra) as
the symbol of his ancient welfare state. This symbol of civilisation emerges from the
fact that his welfare state needed to produce more grain and pulses to fulfil the
needs of the masses. To facilitate the movement of the agrarian products, Ashoka
brought about a revolution in the transport system. To achieve that historical
purpose and to enthuse the peasantry and the artisan classes, he adopted the
chakra as his state symbol. The Hindutva forces, however, hardly have any respect
for that symbol of civilisation.

The second example is Gandhi's invocation of the symbol of charka (spinning
instrument). Though, Gandhi projected contradictory symbols, this was his most
imaginative and productive symbol of civilisation. Through the projection of the
charka as a symbol and constructing dignity around the labour of weaving cloth,
Gandhi constructed a civilisational self-respect.

Whereas his subsequent invocation of the politico-cultural epithet (if not symbol) of
Ramarajya generated a suspicion among the Muslims and the consequences of the
invocation of that epithet are too well-known. Interestingly, the Ashok chakra has
gone into our national flag and the charka into the Congress flag. But school and
college text-books, however, never contained lessons on these symbols relating
them to the productive and creative communities.

However, civilisation and culture are only two aspects of history and history is a
combination of several other aspects also. The students should know about history
in its totality. To provide such a space for the producers of symbols of civilisation a
change in the consciousness of the textbook writers, the policy- makers and the
teachers is essential. The consciousness of these forces is structured on their
caste/class interests. Conditioning the consciousness of civil society around the
religious, mythical cultural symbols served the interests of these forces; hence, they
constructed the story narratives that had thrown up such cultural symbols. At this
stage, the entry of civilisational symbols into our educational texts serves a secular
progressive purpose.

The Indian symbols of civilisation provide a far more legitimate alternative because
they originate in the living and production process of the masses. By learning about
them, the young minds will acquire a scientific temper.

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Hindutva Institutions in Education
BJP’s ‘National Agenda’ for Edn:
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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .