Monthly Archives: August 2017
This week, India celebrates 70 years of independence. The tricolour flag, perhaps the most tangible and potent symbol of freedom from colonial servitude, is on particularly full display.
Few weeks ago, a rally was organised in Delhi under a 2,200-foot-long tricolour. At Attari, on the border of India and Pakistan, the tallest Indian flag in the country was recently mounted atop a 360-foot-high pole. Last year, Purnia, a town in northern State of Bihar, had a 7.1-kilometre-long tricolour. Size, it turns out, does matter.
Flag-waving also occupies a wide range of terrains, from banal street corners and sports matches to movie screens, in a display of both fervour and pride. The song “Maula Mere Le Le Meri Jaan” from the Hindi movie Chak De India (2007) is one such moment:
“Teeja tera rang thaa main to teeja tere dhang se main to”, it intones, reflecting on the flag’s green shade: “I was your third colour, the one as fashioned by you”.
Such spectacles generally come wrapped in the visual vocabulary of majoritarian politics, wherein the voices and concerns of the largest community dominate. Loyalty to the flag is never sui generis; its citizens must be inculcated to display and demonstrate patriotism in this specific way.
The vivid shades of the Indian tricolour actually have a secret subaltern history, a genealogy that has been largely forgotten. As India celebrates its independence from Britain, it’s a story worth remembering.
A symbol with a forgotten history
We begin this brief history with an official document called Specification for the National Flag of India (Cotton Khadi), in which the Bureau of Indian Standards prescribes that the Indian national flag shall be a tricolour consisting of three rectangular (sub)panels of equal widths.
The specified colours are “India saffron”, “white” and “India green”. At the centre is a design of the Ashoka Chakra, the “wheel of peaceful change” associated with a legendary ancient emperor Ashoka from the third century BCE. The wheel is in navy blue, the document says, before going into great technical detail on other aspects of the national flag.
Two obvious questions arise here. Firstly, why do we call it a three-colour flag? Why has blue been erased from our cognitive frame when we think about the colour scheme of India’s national flag?
And, second, this document does not tell us anything about meanings, social significance and popular perceptions pertaining to these four shades. We must go back in time to understand their origins.
Blue, the colour of revolt and dalit politics
In the popular memory of colonial period, blue is the colour of resistance. Commonly associated with indigo, the shade owes its political imagery from the “Indigo revolt” (Nil vidroha), a peasant uprising against the white Indigo planters in 1859-60 in Bengal.
Later, in 1917, the country witnessed another massive peasant mobilisation of indigo growers, this time in the northern state of Bihar. This event was transformative even for Mahatma Gandhi, who shifted his political attention from urban centres to rural landscapes of suffering and exploitation under the colonial regime.
It would be a fitting tribute to Gandhi and those rebellious peasants that the charka, or wheel, in the centre of the flag is in navy blue. But the wheel is bereft of Mahatma’s spindle.
“India as a nation can live and die only for the spinning wheel”, he often claimed, and this symbol occupied a central position in the model of Swaraj, or self governance, laid out in his book Indian Home Rule.
In 1931, the Indian National Congress adopted it to don India’s pre-Independence flag as an emblem of the anti-colonial movement.
But in July 1947, just before independence, the charkha was replaced with the Ashokan wheel (chakra) in the design of India’s national flag. This irked Gandhi, who said he would “refuse to salute the flag” if it did not contain the charka.
There’s also the eerie silence about navy blue, which compels us to confront the deep political prejudices of Indian politics. That’s because its roots trace back to the dalit, to lower-caste politics. India’s most famous dalit icon, a contemporary of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, is always portrayed wearing a blue coat. Blue is still the colour of dalit politics in modern India, too.
Is it a mere coincidence that the colour of the Ashokan wheel in the Indian national flag, navy blue, remains uncounted when we talk about the “tricolour flag”? Or does this gesture perhaps reveal a deep grudge against dalit politics and subaltern voices?
White for minorities
Another colour that deserves more attention in any story of the flag is white. In the aforementioned official document, while saffron and green are affixed with the word “Indian”, bestowing them a sense of rootedness and specific history, white has been denied similar cultural milieu.
Instead, it is perceived only in the universal vocabulary as representing peace and humanism. Why this erasure of particularities?
White is perhaps the most difficult shade when it comes to telling a tale. From the bridal trousseau of Christian tradition to the Himalayan snow capped Mount Kailasha, where, in poet Kalidasa’s Sanskrit classic Meghadutam, it represents the laugh of Hindu god Shiva, to the ubiquitous caging in the monochromatic uniform of Hindu widowhood, the colour white is a canvas spread wide.
For Gandhi in 1921, while the flag’s red and green symbolised Hindu and Muslim communities, respectively, white was to represent all the minority communities put together. In his scheme, they were to be protected by the other two.
Red and saffron
Soon, however, his own party, the Indian national Congress, officially distanced itself from this direct connection between colour and community. This was particularly important in the aftermath of violence between Muslims and Hindus communities that had gripped the country in the 1920s.
Secular leaders (including the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru) championed saffron as a colour of valour, an ancient colour, and underplayed its popular association with right wing Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and to the 17th-century Maratha warrior king Shivajji.
Yet to this day, the colour remains well associated with Hinduism and with Hindutva, an ideology that promotes an essentialist vision of Hinduism. We have forgotten that saffron also came to India through minority religious traditions, including Buddhism, and via other ascetic religious movements, like ancient Shramanic traditions.
It is rather ironic that in today’s aggressive nationalism, India has completely forgotten the minority histories of these colours.
Bypassing the green
The amnesia acquires a sinister property considering that the outgoing vice president, Hamid Ansari, recently voiced his anxiety pertaining to the vulnerability of minority communities in contemporary India.
In the song from the film Chak De India, this anxiety is palpable. Premised upon the popular equation of green with Islam, the lyrics refer to green as the third colour, using the past tense – “I was your third colour” – lamenting the Muslim’s community’s growing marginalisation in contemporary India.
This erasure from the present, green’s exile into the past, calls for deep introspection.
Sadan Jha is the author of Reverence, Resistance and Politics of Seeing the Indian National Flag (Cambridge University Press, 2016)
We all know the phrase “all roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?
The power of pavement
There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 B.C, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and the most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.
And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.
In 20 B.C., the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.
According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.
The centre of the world
Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the centre of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):
There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.
Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.
The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century B.C., but from the first century A.D., emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.
More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.
Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances (Bronwyn Bishop would not have fared well in the Roman empire).
The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century A.D., he built an arch called the Milion at its centre, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.
Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century A.D., even helpfully includes shortcuts for travellers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.
The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very centre of the known world.
Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:
A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.
The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):
right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.
The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.
In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.
A return to Rome
When the proverb started to become popular in 19th-century newspapers and magazines, however, the spectre of the city returned. Rome as the Eternal City struck a chord with this audience, which was reading and hearing about the exciting excavations taking place in Italy and Europe. Accordingly, the phrase took back a semblance of its original sense – Rome as the imperial metropolis – while retaining its proverbial import.
For example, in July 1871, the Daily News’s Special Correspondent for the Times in India watched Victor Emmanuel II enter Rome in triumph as the King of (United) Italy:
“All roads,” says the old proverb, “lead to Rome,” and the proverb rose up with a strange force to my mind to-day … By what various paths has he at length reached the Quirinal [Hill].
Just as the King took various roads into the city, so his route to monarchy had been arduous and chequered. The Special Correspondent, on seeing the entrance of Emmanuel II, uses Rome as both an imperial city and an end point for achievement – the King both literally enters the city and takes a number of “roads” to achieve monarchical power. The double use of the proverb is perfect and irresistible.
For other commentators, Rome remained the spiritual centre of the western world. Katherine Walker, writing for Harper’s Magazine in 1865, described her journey from Livorno to Rome with a German Roman Catholic priest.
“We are inclined to think of the old proverb true that ‘All roads lead to Rome’,” she wrote. While the priest delighted in the city as the home of Pope Pius IX, Walker herself objected that her priestly guide could only see the Pantheon as the church Santa Maria ad Martyres, and not as Agrippa’s temple to the pagan gods.
While both ancient and modern Italian roads all lead to Rome, to Walker the city itself had drastically mutated from the home of Augustus and Agrippa to that of Catholicism and the Pope. She finds this disappointing.
The idea of Rome
The expression “all roads lead to Rome” is a correct reflection of both the sophisticated Roman road network and its visualisation in Roman monuments and documents.
Later, however, the way in which Romans boasted of the centrality of their metropolis transformed into a proverb that had nothing necessarily to do with real roads or, for a time, the real Rome. In the 19th century, travellers revived the phrase as a way of melding the ancient past with their modern viewing experiences.
Why is this conception of Roman power accurate, when compared with other myths in this series? We assume that Romans were gluttonous or their emperors were crazy because such myths feed into our prejudices, which are then reinforced by popular culture.
Roads are a much more mundane aspect of Roman life compared to Nero’s alleged excesses, which makes them a less obvious way to think about imperial power. But when we hear the phrase “all roads lead to Rome”, we do not think of paving stones, but of the larger Roman road network – with Rome, its characters, and its history at the centre.
Australia’s federal Liberal Party began not with Robert Menzies in 1945, but with Alfred Deakin’s Commonwealth Liberal Party in 1909, and before that with his Liberal Protectionists.
As a leadership party, the Liberals have always needed heroes. But in the 1980s, as Liberals embraced deregulation, they turned against Deakin and the policies he championed.
In his brilliantly succinct description of Australian settlement, Paul Kelly identified the core policies of the early Commonwealth with Deakin, and compulsory arbitration and the basic wage with his Liberal colleague, Henry Bournes Higgins.
Deakin’s support for protection and for state paternalism were his key sins in the eyes of the Liberal Party as it rehabilitated the free-trade legacy of New South Wales Liberal premier George Reid. Reid is not a well-known figure, so this left the Liberals with only Robert Menzies for their hero, although he has now been joined by John Howard.
In jettisoning Deakin, the Liberals made a great mistake and showed the thinness of their historical memory. The party and its traditions did not begin with Menzies, but stretched back to the nation-building of the new Commonwealth, and into the optimism and democratic energies of the 19th-century settlers.
Indeed, Deakin was one of Menzies’ heroes. The Menzies family came from Ballarat, where Deakin was the local member, and his Cornish miner grandfather was a great fan.
Accepting his papers at the Australian National Library just before his retirement, Menzies described Deakin as “a remarkable man” who laid Australia’s foundational policies. It must be remembered that in 1965, Menzies supported all these policies the Liberals were later to discard.
When it came to choosing a name for the new non-labour party being formed from the wreckage of the United Australia Party, it was to the name of Deakin’s party that Menzies turned, so that the party would be identified as “a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary”.
This is a direct invocation of Deakin and his rejection of those he called “the obstructionists”, the conservatives and nay-sayers, who put their energies into blocking progressive policies rather than pursuing positive initiatives of their own.
In June this year, Turnbull quoted these words of Menzies, in his struggle with the conservatives of the party. Clearly Turnbull wants to be a strong leader of a progressive party, rather than the front man for a shambolic do-nothing government. He does have some superficial resemblances to Deakin: he is super-smart, urbane, charming and a smooth talker who looks like a leader. But as we all now know, he lacks substance.
When I first began thinking about this piece I was going to call it “What Malcolm Turnbull could learn from Alfred Deakin”. But I fear it may now too late for him to save his government, and might be more accurately called “What Malcolm Turnbull might have learned from Alfred Deakin”.
First, he could learn the courage of his convictions.
Deakin too was sometimes accused of lacking substance. He was not only a stirring platform orator, but he was quick with words in debate, and could shift positions seamlessly when the need arose. But he had core political commitments from which he never wavered. The need for a tariff to protect Australia’s manufacturers and so provide employment and living wages for Australian workers was one.
One may now disagree with this policy, but there was never any doubt that Deakin would fight for it.
Federation was another. In the early 1890s, after the collapse of the land boom and the bank crashes of the early 1890s, Deakin thought of leaving politics altogether. What kept him there was the cause of federation, and he did everything he could to bring it about.
He addressed hundreds of meetings and persuading Victoria’s majoritarian democrats that all would be wrecked if they did not compromise with the smaller states over the composition of the Senate.
Deakin had a dramatic sense of history. He knew that historical opportunities were fleeting, that the moment could pass and history move on, as it did for Australian republicans when they were outwitted by Howard in 1999.
In March 1898, the prospects for federation were not good. The politicians had finalised the Constitution that was to be put to a referendum of the people later in the year, but the prospects were not good. There was strong opposition in NSW and its premier, George Reid, was ambivalent.
In Victoria, David Syme and The Age were hostile and threatening to campaign for a “No” vote. If the referendum were lost in NSW and Victoria, federation would not be achieved.
Knowing this, Deakin made a passionate appeal to the men of the Australian Natives Association, who were holding their annual conference in Bendigo. Delivered without notes, this was the supreme oratorical feat of Deakin’s life and it turned the tide in Victoria. Although there were still hurdles to cross, Deakin’s speech saved the federation.
The second lesson Turnbull could have learnt is to have put the interests of the nation ahead of the interests of the party and the management of its internal differences.
Deakin always put his conception of the national interest before considerations of party politics or personal advantage. And he fiercely protected his independence.
He too was faced with the challenges of minority government, but it is inconceivable that he would have made a secret deal with a coalition partner to win office. Or that he would have abandoned core beliefs, such as the need for action on climate change, just to hold on to power.
As the Commonwealth’s first attorney-general, and three times prime minister, Deakin had a clear set of goals: from the legislation to establish the machinery of the new government, or the fight to persuade a parsimonious parliament to establish the High Court, to laying the foundations for independent defence, and, within the confines of imperial foreign policy, establishing the outlines of Australia’s international personality.
Party discipline and party identification were looser in the early 20th century than they were to become as Labor’s superior organisation and electoral strength forced itself on its opponents.
But as the contemporary major parties fray at the edges, and their core identities hollow out, Australians are crying out for leaders with Deakin’s clear policy commitments, and his skills in compromise and negotiation.
Had Turnbull had the courage to crash through or crash on the differences within his party on the causes we know he believes in, he too might have become a great leader and an Australian hero.
Judith Brett’s new book The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is published by Text.