The False Piety of Ambika Soni

Secular movements feel a desperate need for the sacred. They need rituals which mimic those of religion and yet create a parallel sense of solidarity. Communist regimes in particular have sought to create a sense of magic, of taboo around movements, texts, dates which create a sense of legacy and solidarity.

Nationalism also seeks to create a symbolic power, a semiotic vibrancy around the flag or the constitution. A flag billowing in the wind to the music of an anthem summons emotion to the driest eye. Indians fighting for independence often felt deprived without a flag. Both flag and constitution grant a sense of legitimacy, territoriality, solidarity, a sense of arrival. The discussions on the flag contain some of the most eloquent passages in the constituent assembly debates.

So how does one respond when a little known cartoonist, with less subtlety and a modicum of skill, draws a cartoon picturing Kasab urinating on the constitution or describing parliament aptly and ineptly as a toilet bowl? Does one defend the sacredness of our symbols? Or does one celebrate the act itself as a symbol of our freedom?

When Trivedi was arrested, Ambika Soni, the Minster for Information maintained that the constitution and the flag as symbols must be untouched.  Here is a woman who treats the Gandhi family with the same awe that other people reserve for the flag. One senses a text book parrot echoing shibboleths, using flag and constitution instrumentally. No one will deny that flags and constitutions should be respected. However few will extend the respect to parliament and politicians. Trivedi’s cartoons fade before the manipulative genius of her act.

Aseem Trivedi, the arrested cartoonist is a quixotic figure. The 25-year-old cartoonist from Kanpur is a campaigner for the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement. Trivedi wears his emoticons on his sleeve. His ideals like his cartoons are blatant. A senior cartoonist from The Hindu, Keshav, dubbed Trivedi, a campaign cartoonist. It was a subtle way of saying that Trivedi lacked subtlety, that his art was mediocre even if his politics were idealistic.

But Trivedi’s cartoons, despite their second rate talent, still speak the language of freedom. To dub it as sedition is to insult our national icons. The cartoons are by Trivedi, but the caricature, the subversion is by our Congress politicians. What the cartoon could not expose fully, Soni reveals through a blatant act of illiteracy. For sycophants like her, who played second fiddle during the Emergency, any act of dissent or critique is seditious. Sycophants and fanatics join together in suppressing freedom.

Even a cursory look at the cartoon reveals two things. The first is their bad taste and the second is the power of symbols. Trivedi understands the semiotic power of flag and constitution. He uses their iconicity to make his point, however badly.

Where Trivedi invokes the freedom of speech, Soni summons the censor. Trivedi, in an act of irreverence, taps into a substrata of respect for the very national symbols he employs. Soni, in her piety, merely summons the dictator who thinks flag and constitution are the preserve of official authority. The Supreme Court has recognised the right of every citizen to fly the flag. When the flag is no longer the preserve of public officials, why should the constitution not be open to interpretation, laughter, a multiplicity of interpretations? The danger in India is we confuse the official with the sacred such that the officious becomes a form of piety. It is not Trivedi’s cartoons which are seditious, but the Congress sentiment.

A flag or a constitution is an icon. It stands for solidarity, freedom and sacrifice. It demands rituals of respect and commemoration. Its reverence does not stem from idolatry. Icons instead demand interpretation and, in that sense, Trivedi’s cartoons, however philistine, uphold the iconicity of the constitution. He invokes the constitution as a mnemonic of freedom. He insists every citizen creatively interprets the flag. Such acts cannot be seditious. They are not a call to violence; they are a summons to freedom.

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