From where I sit - Symbolic meaning

November 12, 2009

If history is the hunting ground of politicians, as was suggested in Times Higher Education recently, then what makes one political deployment of history worse than another?

This question is particularly topical in India at present, where we have just witnessed another politically driven attempt to produce pernicious history.

On 26 October, Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, India's southernmost state, unveiled the logo for the forthcoming International Conference on Classical Tamil.

Alongside an image of Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil saint and poet, it features seven icons of the Indus civilisation - a Bronze Age society that spread across north and west India.

The icons of the Indus, says the official communique which accompanied the logo, symbolise a Dravidian civilisation.

Since the language spoken in Tamil Nadu - Tamil - belongs to the Dravidian family, the presumption is that it is linguistically and culturally linked to the Indus civilisation.

Official logos in India have in the past combined historical symbols from different times.

A dramatic example of this is India's national emblem, which was adopted in 1950 when the country became a republic.

The emblem is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Asoka, a pillar erected at Sarnath in northern India by a pious emperor on the spot where the Buddha first proclaimed his faith.

However, the words inscribed below the national symbol are far more ancient than those of Emperor Asoka.

While he used a vernacular language to inscribe his edicts on pillars, the national symbol uses India's classical language, Sanskrit.

It also quotes an extract - "Truth alone Triumphs" - from the Upanishads, an Indian text much older than either the Buddha or Asoka.

But what makes the symbols on the national emblem more acceptable than those adopted by the Tamil Nadu Government?

The national emblem was designed to represent the ambitions of a newly independent India, and to act as a harbinger of peace and goodwill.

While the violence that accompanied the creation of India and Pakistan makes the symbol's aspirations somewhat ironic, there can be no doubt about either its peaceful intent or the meaning of the ancient Sanskrit words.

In the case of the Indus people, however, no one knows what language they used.

In fact, the linguistic identity of the civilisation, which was discovered in 1924, remains tantalisingly 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, it seems, is of little concern to Tamil Nadu's rulers. They appear to be convinced that the script characters are undoubtedly Dravidian, and by implication that the Indus civilisation was a creation of the Tamil people.

While deciphering the Indus script remains a crucial scholarly concern, as in England it seems that academic veracity matters little to Indian politicians.

Nayanjot Lahiri is dean of colleges and a professor in the department of history, University of Delhi. These are her personal views.

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