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A pride of lions meets national pride

The woke have woken up. Four lions are causing a lot of disturbance in India’s secular savannahs and political prairies. They dominate the skyline of the new Parliament building with a silent commination: ‘don’t mess with the message.’ The quartet of gigantic snarling beasts, fangs bared and roaring silently, is portrayed as the defenders of India’s new democratic ethos. Gone are the historic memes that the Congress party and its coadjutors used to define India. The BJP’s architectural worldview is––the end justifies the mien.

But who ever knew that expressions could cause such a shindig? The Congress is agitated that the demeanour of the new lions do not reflect India’s peaceful ethos. History is a safari of power and the hunter of public opinion hides in their machan and fires the weapon of rhetoric to bring down the kings of the political forest. There is a new Lion King in town and he has been stalking his prey for some time. His metaphor is the Gir lion that roams Gujarat’s wildlife parks. In the dog-eat-dog world of rajneeti, a lion is always to be feared.

The old lions represent a dying order while the new beasts are custodians of nationalist imagination. For nearly a century, Indians fought to be free of their British masters. Freedom is exhausting and even Achilles needed his rest. Peace was the weather the victors craved; balmy mornings of national recovery with a decent cocktail hour with Jinnah on the piano. Therefore, the powers that be wanted an emblem that fit the mood.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned the great Bengali artist Nandalal Bose—who led a team to illustrate the manuscript of the Indian Constitution—to visualise the national symbol. He chose the four Ashoka lions atop the Ashoka Stambh at Sarnath. They didn’t look particularly alarming, because Emperor Ashoka’s memo perhaps said lions can be peaceful too. His lions are rather pleasing personalities, with almost Oriental looks, and sporting smiles rather than snarls.

The Sarnath lion is Ashoka’s deception on history, for Ashoka was not a peaceful man. He was bloodthirsty and cruel. In his capital Pataliputra, he created the Palace of Hell—the city’s most beautiful building where the royal torturer Chandagirika chopped up his victims, roasted them alive and invented cruelties that delighted his master who used to drop in quite often to gloat. A legacy like that is not easily discarded. Emperor Ashoka adopted Buddhist peace as his weapon to create and unite his empire. But his cruelty did not abate even after his conversion to Buddhism.

In Magadha lived a sect called Ajivikas who did not believe in free will; they had been influential in Ashoka’s father’s time. Their philosophy went against the Buddha’s teachings. Ashoka was using Buddhists to counter the Brahmin influence in court politics. According to the second century text Ashokavadana, the emperor persecuted the Ajivikas; he massacred all 18,000 of them who had taken refuge in the eastern kingdom of Pundravardhana. Just like the Romans wiped out the Etruscans, and the Christians killed the Cathars. So much for the peace of emperors.

The aggressive majesty of the Parliament lions signify a new India as imagined by its present Hindu emperor -- bold, uncompromising and awe-inspiring. There is no stopping its predatory power. The old zookeepers are cowering in their cages, trapped by frustration and aborted ambitions. Nobody is buying tickets to the sad spectacle. Lionising the past does no one any favours.


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