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Those symbolic gestures

Who cares about academic veracity when politicians ransack history? Nayanjot Lahiri elaborates.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2009 22:22 IST

If history is the hunting ground of politicians, what makes one political interpretation of history more doubtful than the other? The question retains its topicality in India, where we witnessed another politically driven attempt at manufacturing history last month. On October 26, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi unveiled the logo for the forthcoming International Conference on Classical Tamil, which, apart from the image of the celebrated Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, includes seven icons from Indus Valley civilisation.

This 3rd millennium BCE culture was spread across north and west India — far from either Tamil Nadu’s heartland or borders. Notwithstanding this, the icons of the Indus, as the official communiqué accompanying the logo release says, symbolise a Dravidian civilisation. Since Tamil is a part of the bigger Dravidian language family, it seems the state government has assumed that there exists a link between the language and the civilisation.

Even in past, official logos in India have used historical symbols without thinking about the era they belong to. A striking example of this is the national emblem of India adopted in 1950 when the nation became a republic — an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Asoka, the Mauryan emperor who exhibited his Buddhist piety by erecting a pillar at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. It’s the same spot where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. But unlike the Asokan epigraph-monument, the words inscribed on the national emblem are different and much older than those inscribed on Asoka’s pillar. The emperor had used a vernacular language to inscribe his edicts on the pillars; the national symbol uses India’s classical language par excellence. It quotes a short extract from the Mundaka Upanisad — ‘Satyameva Jayate’ — that’s much older than either Ashoka or the Buddha.

But what makes the symbols on the national emblem more acceptable than what has been done by the Chennai government? The national emblem represented, in a manner of speaking, the ambitions of a newly independent India to act, as a harbinger of peace and goodwill, as had the ancient emperor whose symbol it adopted. While the violence accompanying the creation of India and Pakistan makes the use of such a symbol slightly ironic, neither the non-violent intent of the Ashoka, on whose orders the Sarnath symbol was carved, nor the meaning of the more ancient Sanskrit words can be doubted.

In the case of the Indus civilisation, though, there’s still no clarity on which language its people spoke or wrote in. In fact, the linguistic identity of that civilisation, ever since it was discovered in 1924, remains resistant to being deciphered. The script symbols have been seen as encoding a range of linguistic entities, including the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian language families. But it has yet to yield its secrets.

That, though, is not evidently the concern of the Chennai government, which seems to be convinced that the script characters are undoubtedly Dravidian. If so, by implication, the Indus civilisation can be showcased as the creation of the Dravidas. While deciphering the Indus script to everybody’s satisfaction remains an academic concern, for politicians misusing history, academic veracity hardly seems to be a hurdle.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the Department of History, University of Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal