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Tradition And Modernity: Shifting Gears in the Indian Discourse

Liberals in the Indian space are afraid that Narendra Modi is bringing in a brand of Hindu nationalism that will undermine democracy. What the prime minister understands, which his opponents do not, is that in a nation like India, ancient tradition must be cherished and brought into harmony with modernity, not discarded. In doing so, India is not so different from Europe, which likewise defends democracy while revering the history and symbols of its monarchical past.
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PM-Modi

Prime Minister Modi installs the scepter Sengol in the new parliament building. © Government of India | Press Information Bureau

July 14, 2023 02:09 EDT
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Last month, I took my parents to visit the Hamburger Rathaus, the seat of government for the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, one of Germany’s 16 states. The stunning architecture of the structure astounded us, and the statues of 20 German monarchs fascinated me. 

The site reminded me of my visits to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The gate was built during Germany’s imperial era. At the time, the iconic Quadriga, a bronze sculpture of Victory riding in her chariot at the top of the gate, symbolized triumph. The Brandenburg Gate was destroyed and renovated several times throughout the course of time, most recently in 2002. Today, the Quadriga represents German unity and peace. Many global leaders have given addresses at the Brandenburg Gate, hailing it as a symbol of democracy.

We admired the German approach of infusing national traditions with democratic ideas. It is relatable to us, as Indians, since it is very much similar to the Indian way of immersing our way of life in traditions. In many cases, the Western world has amalgamated monarchical traditions with liberal democratic legacies. These emblems consecrate the conviction that the march to the future must not be at the expense of the country’s culture and heritage.

India inaugurated a new parliament building this year. This calls us to ponder the relationship between the new and the old in our country, which as a state is very young, yet harbors a millennia-old civilization. What do we value? Where are we going?

It is relevant to discuss these issues as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits France. France has invited Modi as the guest of honor at the Bastille Day Parade. Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, is celebrated on July 14. It represents the victory of the people against the rule of King Louis XVI.

A section of the French strategic community has suggested that it is a miscalculation to invite Modi for the Bastille Day celebration. They have emphasized a missing link of common values between the French and Indian administrations. They stress that the Modi administration is keen to turn India into a Hindu nation.

France is a revolutionary nation. Its national day celebrates the overthrow of the old order and the creation of something untested and new. Even the Fifth Republic of France has been facing the heat in the last few weeks. Indians, on the other hand, seek a more organic relationship between their democracy and their history. For a keen observer, the episode provides an insight into the workings of Indian political and social life.

Symbiotic bond of traditions with modern times

There is a dynamic character to Indian civilization. This dynamism has been manifested in Indian culture’s peculiar lifestyle decisions and philosophical perspectives on human existence and its problems.

The finest instances of these are to be found in the history of the drafting of India’s Constitution. On July 22, 1947, the first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru moved to adopt the Ashoka Chakra symbol on India’s national flag. The symbol represents the wheel of Dharma, the principle of order and law. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who would later serve as India’s second president, endorsed the adoption. In his beautiful speech, he synthesized the notion of progress with loyalty to India’s spiritual tradition:

We cannot attain purity, we cannot gain our goal of truth, unless we walk in the path of virtue. The Asoka’s wheel represents to us the wheel of the Law, the wheel of Dharma. Truth can be gained only by the pursuit of the path of Dharma, by the practice of virtue. Truth—Satya, Dharma—Virtue, these ought to be the controlling principles of all those who work under this Flag. It also tells us that the Dharma is something which is perpetually moving. If this country has suffered in the recent past, it is due to our resistance to change. There are ever so many challenges hurled at us and if we have not got the courage and the strength to move along with the times, we will be left behind.

The deliberations in the Constituent Assembly created a space for the harmonization of the country’s deep-rooted cultural traditions and symbols with modern-day, progressive advances. It hailed the possibilities of combining ancient wisdom with modern advancement.

The new parliament building has a larger seating capacity than the older building, and the voting process now uses a graphical interface and biometrics. As a “Platinum-rated Green Building,” the new edifice demonstrates India’s commitment to environmental sustainability. The Constitutional Hall’s gallery area houses another remarkable installation called “Foucault’s Pendulum,” adding to the distinctive features of the new Parliament.

The design for the chamber of the Lok Sabha, or lower house, was inspired by the peacock, the country’s symbol. In the Mahabharata, one of India’s national epics, Bhishma Pitamah argues that a king should adopt forms like the plumes of peacocks in a variety of colors. For the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, the theme is India’s floral emblem, the lotus. The original document of the Indian constitution’s preamble also has motifs of lotus and peacock. The installation of the Sengol scepter, a powerful religious symbol, in the new parliament building unquestionably signaled the amalgamation of Dharma with democratic norms. 

What to make of Sengol?

As a Maharashtrian, I am familiar with scepters. In front of the Speaker or Chairperson’s seat in the legislative assembly and council of Maharashtra, there is a designated spot for the rajdand, a scepter. Union Home Minister Amit Shah revealed Sengol and reintroduced it into the national discourse. Sengol was put in place by the Modi government close to the Lok Sabha Speaker’s chair. The act suggests that sovereignty rests with the people of India.

The new Sengol is not a symbol of royal authority or insignia of military victory. Instead, it serves as a metaphor for the rule of law, i.e., Dharma. The installation of Sengol in Parliament is a sign that the government is not unquestionable, that real power rests with the people in a democracy. It implies that a person or organization in possession of the Sengol is only a servant guided by the highest law, Dharma. Sengol alludes to a peaceful transfer of power.

The transfer of power is comparable, metaphorically speaking, to the change from day to night. Indeed, a seamless and effective democracy is marked by a smooth handover of power. Sengol encourages the beholder to follow the path of righteousness by being devoted to it throughout the journey, just like the Sun does. Sengol reflects a subtle shift, and re-introducing native ideals that support democracy. This is part of the creation of a democratic vocabulary for Atmanirbhar Bharat, “Self-reliant India.”

Is India becoming a Hindu state?

The reintroduction of Sengol has drawn criticism from certain quarters who saw the move as anti-democratic. They held the view that new symbolism is akin to monarchy and that India under the Modi regime is abandoning the modern principles it espoused during the Nehru era. Supporters of the move, on the other hand, dispute these claims. Both parties have strong reasons on their sides. Real life, of course, can be somewhere in the middle.

Nehruvian intellectuals have faith in Western modernity and the secular world. Their story predominated for most of the period following independence. They look at tradition with contempt. For them, the installation of Sengol and the process of decoloniality are comparable to the creation of Hindu Rashtra, a theocratic state. They believe Modi is changing the national narrative to emphasize regressive views rather than progressive ones.

In Germany, the monarchical icon of Brandenburg Gate is celebrated today as a democratic achievement. Similarly, Sengol, a scepter of righteousness, may aid in honoring the past and upholding the values of the rising India.  Nehru recognized the importance of Indian traditions. At the same time, he was an interlocutor of the European notion of modernity. He was mindful of maintaining a balance between Indian traditions and European modernity. His followers may have failed to understand these intricacies, blindly following what they see as Nehru’s ideals.

Modi appears to be questioning the universality of Western modernity and making Indian wisdom and knowledge relevant to the rest of the globe—consequently, making India a decolonial state. Modi is suggesting that the ideals of modernity and socialism succeeded in Europe because they were shaped by local circumstances. Modi wishes to construct Indian modernity within the context of the country’s history.  The Sengol installation underlines the narrative that Modi is regaining the self-identity of India in Amrit Kaal, the upcoming quarter-century golden age foreseen by Modi. along with modern advancements. Thus, modernity and traditions are not diametrically opposed; they coexist together.

Modi seems to be challenging the binary of choices. The Indian populace had two options during the last three-quarters of a century post-independence: the temple of development, which was focused on contemporary concepts, or the temple of tradition, which dabbled in rituals and caused barriers to advancement. Modi indicates that he is holding Sengol in one hand and progress, development and technology in the other hand. Modi is not a utopian that repudiates the West. Modi does not dream of an ideal Hindu state as like you might hear about from a right-wing foot soldier on social media. He wants India to interact and cooperate with the West and other stakeholders as a self-assured and confident nation.

Thus, it is better for anyone, including the French and other Western strategic communities, to understand Indian politics and social life before arriving at any conclusion regarding values. Two narratives are having a dialogue with each other and playing for space in the public imagination. The dialogue is like the noise produced when a train is changing tracks; it is perfectly in accord with the noisy and messy democracy of India. The outcome of the Indian General Elections in 2024 will help us to answer which narrative may win.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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