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Of political icons and vandalism: A view from history




The weeks leading up to BhimRaoAmbedkar’s birth anniversary on April 14 this year ironically saw idols of the Dalit icon and architect of the Indian Constitution being destroyed, made, and re-made in a series of sculptural life-cycles.

It all began with Lenin though. In early March, less than two days after the BharatiyaJanta Party’s electoral triumph in Tripura, an emboldened group desecrated two of Lenin’s icons in the state. The ‘face’ of communism in Tripura had been demolished in violent revenge. Had we been living in less-frenzied times, this irrational act of vengeance may have been contained through suitable penitence or legitimate punishment. But communal insecurities, misplaced allegiances, and virulent identity politics seem to have sucked the very breath of rationality and tolerance from our lives.

Lenin’s symbolic fall in Tripura unfortunately triggered a nation-wide retaliatory iconoclastic epidemic, cutting across ideological boundaries. In Kolkata, the face of Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s statue, founder of the Right-wing Bharatiya Jan Sangh, was blackened. Statues of social reformer Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, himself a non-believer in the exaltation of icons, paradoxically was hammered in Tirupattur, Tamil Nadu.


Ambedkar was only next on the hit list. Black in the case of S.P.Mukherjee changed to red as paint was poured over his statue in Chennai. As political leaders of divergent views and affiliations continued to meet a similar fate in an irrational tide of iconoclasm, Mahatma Gandhi’s spectacles were dislodged at Kannur in Kerala, metaphorically sparing him a clearer view of the madness that had enveloped the nation.

With the date of his centenary celebrations drawing closer, more Ambedkar icons continued to be demolished. Ambedkar’s centenary preparations saw the inauguration of a grand memorial alongside hasty and often aesthetically impoverished reinstallations of new Ambedkar idols at various places. The picture, as it unfolded, was bizarre, to say the least: In a symbolic act of appropriation of Dalit interests and constitutional values, Ambedkar’s coat was painted saffron and, next, hastily repainted to blue. Decapitation, damage, desecration and ‘saffronisation’ went together with memorials and eulogies to the leader who has for long symbolised constitutional values and empowerment of the underprivileged.

Such is the power of images that portraits of national leaders have assumed lives of their own in the present—to idealise, idolise, hammer, decapitate, replace, recolour and resurrect with changing socio-political proclivities, ideologies, and interests. Kings, emperors and pharaohs of ancient and medieval times have been replaced by modern-day political leaders, freedom fighters and nationalists of various hues. But history is witness that the inherent capacity of art to reimagine, reimage and conjure life-like personae capable of fostering an image-cult remains as true today as it was in the past.

The civilisational remains of ancient Egypt offer perhaps the earliest and most well-documented examples of mummified pharaohs and their larger-than-life idealised images. But the practice of evoking a cult of kings through grand imaginations and imageries was well-established from other cultures too. In 1974, the world was stunned by the discovery in Xi’an of the 3rd-century-BCE tomb-complex of the ‘first emperor’ of China, Qin Shi Huang Di, replete with an impressive terracotta army of thousands of soldiers. Given the extraordinary aesthetics of grandeur and power that the Xián army of soldiers convey, one can scarcely begin to imagine what the main tomb chamber interred with the emperor’s bodily remains would have been like!

The grand memorials to royalty in ancient Egypt and China were more concerned, however, with an image-cult of the dead king focused on ensuring a royal memorial and comfortable after-life for deceased kings—one that was in direct proportion to their perceived earthly stature and the extreme social hierarchies that made possible control over vast reserves of artists and labour force required to create them.

In the early centuries of the first millennium, the Romans are known to have created awe-inspiring, larger-than-life portraits of emperors, giving them real presence. The iconography of the near-14-feet tall 2nd-century CE metal icon of Marcus Aurelius astride a horse, now housed in the Capitolini Museum, or that of Emperor Augustus at the Vatican Museum in Rome, are only two among the many Roman royal icons that at once convey political power and authority inspiring a cult of kings.

Interestingly, unlike Rome, early India does not offer any surviving examples of kings idolised in the shape of their portraits, barring one exceptional and short-lived period. This singular aberration in a consistent record of the absence of life-sized portraits of Indian kings belongs to the time of Kushan rule, that is, the first two centuries of the first millennium, in a part of North India. Discovered in a ‘dynastic shrine’ at Mat near Mathura, the practice of making life-sized or over-life-sized portraits of ‘king(s) of kings’ who were also ‘son(s) of god’ came to India from across Central Asia and through the north-western corridor. Displayed in the Government Museum, Mathura, these stone sculptures of Kushan kings had all been decapitated at some unknown time in history.

The practice of idolising kings by making their life-sized portraits, however, did not settle well in pre-modern India and the Kushan period emerges as a sort of parenthesis in this respect. No free-standing big portrait of Ashoka, the Maurya emperor, was ever made in his lifetime (or after, until the modern times) even though he had a well-thought-out distribution of tall stone columns and rocks carrying his voice across his vast empire in the form of edicts.

Small, generic portraits of the Magadha king Ajatashatru, Maurya king Ashoka, and some Satavahana and Ikshavaku kings are indeed found as part of the iconographic programme of Buddhist stupa complexes. These are to be seen in the sculptural remains from Bharhut and Sanchi in Central India, and Kanaganahalli in Karnataka, for example, and belong to the early centuries before and after the Common Era.

The important point here is that these rather small sculptural representations are not portraits of political power. Nor are they ‘portraits’ in the sense that specific portraits of kings were produced in Rome. Rather, royalty is postured in all of these early Indian instances as being in service of the Buddha and the Sangha, conveying the voice of the Buddhist community who patronised the making the of stupa complexes. The Buddha himself, who was born as Siddhartha, the Shakya prince, was idolised and deified many centuries after his death as the enlightened being and as a chakravarti (universal ruler) but only in the sense of a religious head and not as a king.

After the Kushans, the Gupta kings who ruled over a large empire did not carry forward the Kushan practice of idolising kings through the commissioning of large portraits, even though Gupta coins carried different typological images of their kings. The aesthetics of political power in the courts of these kings and of their successors in various parts of India was exercised by an assertion of kingly power through divine intervention: as gods in heaven, so the kings on earth who were sanctioned divine authority to rule.

Consequently, generic (and not specific) portraits of kings were almost always found as a relatively insignificant part of, and in the larger context of, religious monuments. This is true of the seventh-century portraits of Pallava kings Mahendravarman-I and Narasimhavarman-I at Mamallapuram and the 11th-century painted portrait of RajarajaChola-I in the interior of the Great temple of Brihadishvara at Tanjore in Tamil Nadu; the 12th-century image of King Vishnuvardhana at the Chennakeshava temple in Belur, Karnataka; and the 13th-century portrait sculptures of the Ganga King Narasimhadeva from the Sun temple in Konark, Orissa.

The small-size bronze representations of the Vijayanagar king, Krishnadevaraya with his queens again seem to have served a similar ritualistic purpose. In all these visual simulation —Ashoka onward—the iconography of the king portrays him as a devotee or a follower of a particular faith. And the size and context of the image clearly indicates that these could not have been received as cult icons. In other words, the posturing of the king in all these cases is clearly not meant as an icon of power.

Portraiture was not the medium for conveying the king’s power in pre-modern India. Authority was expressed through other means—say, the inscribed or written word—so that a cult or following for the king was consciously cultivated but the anthropomorphic visual icon was not at the centre of kingly propaganda. In such a scenario, vandalism by a victorious enemy king often meant the desecration and/or loot of the cult icon of the royal temple of the vanquished king.

The Mughals, too, perhaps in line with the tenets of Islam, never commissioned large portraits of themselves or their ancestors. Their portraits—as allegories of power or otherwise—are often encountered in small scale as part of miniature paintings which certainly were not intended as propaganda images of emperors. Of course, Mughal emperor Akbar began the practice of jharokha-i-darshan in which he appeared on an east-facing balconied and canopied window of his fort to offer darshan to his followers. This certainly was an altered form of idol worship where the king himself appeared in person, framed by the window and the canopy. The practice continued until the time of Aurangzeb who considered the idea of darshan as being non-Islamic.

The idolising of political leaders or rulers through the making of their portraits appears to have entered the Indian psyche in its true sense only with the arrival of British colonial power. In a strong statement of imperial power, the British colonial government reinvented the Mughal practice of jharokha-i-darshan. This is obvious in the way King George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony of the Red Fort during the grand spectacle of the Delhi Durbar of 1911.

But beyond the appropriation of a Mughal tradition in which Akbar had incorporated the Hindu idea of darshan, the coronation durbars of Delhi and the ritual of paying homage to the British crown also saw the making of large portraits of Queen Victoria (Durbar of 1877) and King George V (Durbar of 1911). The grand spectacle of the third Delhi Durbar saw King George V and Queen Mary seated on thrones and the announcement of the shift of the capital of British India to Delhi. Initially located under a canopy in the India Gate complex, King George V’s portrait as an icon of British imperial power in India has been relocated in Delhi’s coronation park.

The freedom struggle, ensuing nationalist zeal and political ideologies of varied hues saw an unprecedented rise in the celebration of national leaders through a cult of portraits. Some among these are indeed works of art. The magnificent artistic composition of the Dandi March by the well-known sculptor DeviprasadRoychowdhury at Raisina Hills in Delhi comes to mind instantly, but there are indeed several other remarkable portraits of Indian leaders. But unlike these masterpieces of modern sculpture, when the idolisation of leaders through the art of portraiture assumes irrational proportions, the contemplative practice of art and aesthetics can scarcely cope up!

With demands of mass production of icons to keep up with the rising needs for political propaganda and the hasty replacement of vandalised icons, what we have instead are sad caricatures of our leaders, painted and repainted in different hues of political ideologies, as was Ambedkar’s fate in the recent past. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the caricaturising of another leader—SardarVallabhbhai Patel—through the megalomaniac size of his ‘Statue of Unity’ being envisaged in Gujarat. It is time we stopped this madness of idolisation through mindless manufacture of political icons and their subsequent vandalism. Certainly, there are more thoughtful, aesthetic, and befitting ways to memorialise our political icons.



Why EVMs must go

The Kashmir Monitor



By G. Sampath

The recent Assembly elections — the last major polling exercise before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — were not devoid of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) malfunctions.

Though the discourse at present makes no distinction between a ‘malfunction’ (which suggests a technical defect) and ‘tampering’ (manipulation aimed at fraud), there were several reports of misbehaving EVMs. Alarmingly, in Madhya Pradesh alone, the number of votes polled did not match the number of votes counted in 204 out of the 230 constituencies. The Election Commission’s (EC) explanation is that the votes counted is the actual number of votes polled — a circular logic that precludes cross-verification.


A discrepancy of even one vote between votes polled and votes counted is unacceptable. This is not an unreasonably high standard but one followed by democracies worldwide. It might therefore be helpful to briefly look beyond the question that has hijacked the EVM debate — of how easy or tough it is to hack these machines — and consider the first principles of a free and fair election.

The reason a nation chooses to be a democracy is that it gives moral legitimacy to the government. The fount of this legitimacy is the people’s will. The people’s will is expressed through the vote, anonymously (the principle of secret ballot). Not only must this vote be recorded correctly and counted correctly, it must also be seen to be recorded correctly and counted correctly. The recording and counting process must be accessible to, and verifiable by, the public. So transparency, verifiability, and secrecy are the three pillars of a free and fair election.

Regardless of whether one is for or against EVMs, there is no getting away from the fact that any polling method must pass these three tests to claim legitimacy. Paper ballots obviously do. The voter can visually confirm that her selection has been registered, the voting happens in secret, and the counting happens in front of her representative’s eyes.

EVMs, however, fail on all three, as established by a definitive judgment of the German constitutional court in 2009. The court’s ruling forced the country to scrap EVMs and return to paper ballot. Other technologically advanced nations such as the Netherlands and Ireland have also abandoned EVMs.

If we take the first two criteria, EVMs are neither transparent nor verifiable. Neither can the voter see her vote being recorded, nor can it be verified later whether the vote was recorded correctly. What is verifiable is the total number of votes cast, not the choice expressed in each vote. An electronic display of the voter’s selection may not be the same as the vote stored electronically in the machine’s memory. This gap was why the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was introduced.

But VVPATs solve only one-half of the EVMs’ transparency/verifiability problem: the voting part. The counting part remains an opaque operation. If anyone suspects a counting error, there is no recourse, for an electronic recount is, by definition, absurd. Some believe the VVPATs can solve this problem too, through statistics.

At present, the EC’s VVPAT auditing is restricted to one randomly chosen polling booth per constituency. In a recent essay, K. Ashok Vardhan Shetty, a former IAS officer, demonstrates that this sample size will fail to detect faulty EVMs 98-99% of the time. He also shows that VVPATs can be an effective deterrent to fraud only on the condition that the detection of even one faulty EVM in a constituency must entail the VVPAT hand-counting of all the EVMs in that constituency. Without this proviso, VVPATs would merely provide the sheen of integrity without its substance.

The third criterion is secrecy. Here too, EVMs disappoint. With the paper ballot, the EC could mix ballot papers from different booths before counting, so that voting preferences could not be connected to a given locality. But with EVMs, we are back to booth-wise counting, which allows one to discern voting patterns and renders marginalised communities vulnerable to pressure. Totaliser machines can remedy this, but the EC has shown no intent to adopt them.

So, on all three counts — transparency, verifiability and secrecy — EVMs are flawed. VVPATs are not the answer either, given the sheer magnitude of the logistical challenges. The recent track record of EVMs indicates that the number of malfunctions in a national election will be high. For that very reason, the EC is unlikely to adopt a policy of hand-counting all EVMs in constituencies where faulty machines are reported, as this might entail hand-counting on a scale that defeats the very purpose of EVMs. And yet, this is a principle without which the use of VVPATs is meaningless.

Despite these issues, EVMs continue to enjoy the confidence of the EC, which insists that Indian EVMs, unlike the Western ones, are tamper-proof. But this is a matter of trust. Even if the software has been burnt into the microchip, neither the EC nor the voter knows for sure what software is running in a particular EVM. One has to simply trust the manufacturer and the EC. But as the German court observed, the precondition of this trust is the verifiability of election events, whereas in the case of EVMs, “the calculation of the election result is based on a calculation act which cannot be examined from outside”.

While it is true that the results come quicker and the process is cheaper with EVMs as compared to paper ballot, both these considerations are undeniably secondary to the integrity of the election. Another argument made in favour of the EVM is that it eliminates malpractices such as booth-capturing and ballot-box stuffing. In the age of the smartphone, however, the opportunity costs of ballot-box-stuffing and the risk of exposure are prohibitively high. In contrast, tampering with code could accomplish rigging on a scale unimaginable for booth-capturers. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to detect EVM-tampering. As a result, suspicions of tampering in the tallying of votes — as opposed to malfunction in registering the votes, which alone is detectable — are destined to remain in the realm of speculation. The absence of proven fraud might save the EVM for now, but its survival comes at a dangerous cost — the corrosion of people’s faith in the electoral process.

Yet there doesn’t have to be incontrovertible evidence of EVM-tampering for a nation to return to paper ballot. Suspicion is enough, and there is enough of it already. As the German court put it, “The democratic legitimacy of the election demands that the election events be controllable so that… unjustified suspicion can be refuted.” The phrase “unjustified suspicion” is pertinent. The EC has always maintained that suspicions against EVMs are unjustified. Clearly, the solution is not to dismiss EVM-sceptics as ignorant technophobes. Rather, the EC is obliged to provide the people of India a polling process capable of refuting unjustified suspicion, as this is a basic requirement for democratic legitimacy, not an optional accessory.

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Doctor to serve the Humanity but ……….

The Kashmir Monitor



By Sheikh Umar Ahmad

Doctors profession is regarded as a noble profession world over and is given due dignity and honor in global community for their selfless service to humankind.Every educated person aims to become a doctor in order to serve humanity in best and better of their capacities, but as it is, everybody can’t become a doctor and there are other professions as well to serve the humanity in general. Among all other professions, the medicine is regarded as one of the coveted both in terms of requirement of its service as well in terms of monetary benefits. This profession is only among existing ones that cater to global community involvement as well as service dissemination. Every person has expectations from doctors to deliver in close coordination anytime, rather 24*7 when the need arises without any internal or external excuses, including personal ones. There is a deeper dissatisfaction & grudges when any person from medicine community refuses any other person of consultation when it is time for them to serve. If they are unable to deliver to society with utmost satisfaction, then their purpose of serving the society through this profession only does not hold any merit. A similar kind of episode some days before than happened at state’s premier maternity hospital, so called as Lal Ded has shaken the whole Kashmiriyat that is otherwise known world over for their hospitality and generous behavior but some doctors who in literal sense are there to grab the greater public shearing and for their mere monetary benefits, have deceived and decimated the expectations of one of economically, socially and educationally backward section of our society who yet hold equal weightage at the measures table when it comes to Kashmir diversity and harmonious ethnicity.

Their refusal to admit a women in labor pain and then her parturition at a roadside, has shackled the immediate conscience of whole educated lot of Kashmir who now think that there should be a humanity course for every doctor before only he is allowed to practice medicine. A doctor in true essence should be ready to work in any society, with any person, and to serve any other person in need irrespective of his caste, creed, colour, religion, sect and above all ethnicity. If a doctor is unable to work in any multi-cultural society, he loses his position in the eyes of society to be called as a doctor. This person dashes the hopes of weaker section of society as they think that such persons can never pay attention towards them being economically and culturally senile. The death of a newborn on the roadside at Srinagar area speak volumes about those gross irregularities that still exist in best of our essential & emergency services. This should not have been the case and nothing such things happen in world over but are common in Kashmir only and there is a greater need to overhaul the whole system so to debug these bogus and nefarious elements in society that tarnish the whole image.


There should have been a commission in place to look at those gross malicious activities thatdiscord the whole organisational setup. Now as we know, the enquiry will be put in place and at the end what will be seen, nothing but the ball will be put in the court of victim by falsifying & negating the whole episode. The little one has gone now and no one on earth can bring him back. This episode brings this message forth, that doctor being the representative guardian of life our earth, protect lives every day in every part of world and there is a greater sense of satisfaction and this dealing makes the person feel happy internally & eternally for this greatest benefit to mankind. But for us, it is high time now, that we repent of our past sins and relook at our duties to disseminate it properly at every time it is required. Every person will be suitably rewarded for his good deeds and kind gestures that he has done on humanity and doctors are none as exception.

They are the best representatives of selfless service and moral attitude, and kind reflection of ultimate hope. State administration in Kashmir at the helm of affairs need to reaffirm their responsibilities and duties, so that utmost discipline is maintained in hospitals both from public & doctors end. If public outrages over anything that may be the reflection and agony of intermix of pain and grief. It is the responsibility of doctors on duty to deal with those situations quite humbly and morally, so that the professionals deliver their duties in its true essence and totally error free. There should be limited biasness in dealing with culturally and economically down-centric groups of society. We need to be first ambassadors of humanity before guardians of life through practising medicine to protect the lives of people. We need to safeguard the hopes and expectations of our ethnic groups before we deliver our best to save the lives.

These episodes nevertheless should be repeated in the times to come, else this profession will loseits dignity and honor world over for not withstanding with the requirements of and fulfilling the criteria of being a doctor humanely. There are doctors who treat animals even, this never mean that we need to make an animal human first to be treated by a human doctor as animals are animals, rather we need to be real doctors to understand the physiology of animals before only we can treat them. This is the only message I can conclude with… ! Hence a change is imperative.

(The author is Doctoral Research Scholar, currently working as DST INSPIRE Fellow at CSIR Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine Jammu)

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The angry Pakistani

The Kashmir Monitor



By Arifa Noor

IT takes an outsider to point out the anger within us. Last week, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, spoke at an event, arguing that our anger prevents us from telling the good story about Pakistan to the world.

It reminded me of an interaction that took place nearly 20 years ago. Back in 2000, a soft-spoken Indian professor from Delhi had asked why the Pakistani people were always so pessimistic about their country — present and future — despite the fact that till the 1990s, Pakistan had always enjoyed better social and economic indicators (including a higher growth rate) than India. It was a question I had no answer to. The hostile questions about Kargil and military rule were easier to answer during that trip to India than this gentle insight and a sense of bewilderment about our state of being.


But since that morning in New Delhi, there have been so many moments when the professor’s question has come back to mind. Countless memories that came spilling out echoed what former ambassador Munter said. Some as clear as the question asked by the Indian professor; some a little less sharp. But each one testifies to our despair, anger or lack of confidence in what is known as Pakistan.

We have been living in an age of anger, decades before Pankaj Mishra wrote about it.

Fast forward from 2000 to the last months of 2007 or the beginning of 2008: a faded memory, I am unsure of the exact month, but it was during the days of that heady yet difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy. Musharraf was fighting for his survival. Benazir Bhutto and the Sharifs were clawing their way back to relevance (followed by the devastating assassination of the former). A lawyers’ movement had caught Pakistan’s imagination. And there were terrorist attacks galore.

In the midst of these trying yet hopeful times, an op-ed had discussed Pakistan as a possible failed state. I was told that the writer had gotten a call from an amused friend in Afghanistan who said that despite all that had happened in and to Afghanistan, no Afghan would ever call his country a ‘failed state’.

We, of course, have used this term so often for the country that many of us believe it is a failed state — despite the term’s problematic origins as one used by Washington to describe countries it ‘disapproved’ of rather than an empirically established concept.

Then there are jumbled up memories of various track II dialogues. Each such seminar or conference is coupled with at least one discussion (on the sidelines) of how the Indians (and more recently the Afghans) present a united stand unlike Pakistanis. There is always a sense of frustration at how we end up helping ‘their’ cause rather than supporting our interest.

Why do we do this, as the professor asked?

Perhaps it stems from our long bouts of dictatorships. Denied their due and rightful say in policymaking has made entire swathes of the populace angry, hostile and critical of the state. They are angry at being left out: it’s an anger that is accompanied by a sense of helplessness at the direction that the country and society have taken. And in recent times, too, there is a sense of outrage because course correction (if there is any in their opinion) has not included their input. Hence, many refuse to believe that there has been any course correction, or criticise it for moving too slowly.

This is why perhaps the anger is most palpable when it comes to foreign policy, especially relations with India, and the radicalism that has engulfed state and society.

Being denied a voice, there is little left to do but express rage at the state, what it has come to stand for and to also conclude that there can be little hope for the future. (Pakistan has not just been at the crossroads ever since I can remember, it has also forever been in danger of being torn apart).

The rage has gotten worse post-2008, for the hope that accompanied the transition then has turned bitter. We thought that the worst was over, that ‘true’ democracy had returned to Pakistan and politicians would now rule — fixing all that had gone wrong. The 10 years of exile and powerlessness had also given the politicos a sheen of competence and maturity. But it was yet another shab gazida sahar (night-bitten dawn).

Ten years later, the anger has grown for it seems that decision making was never transferred. But because the hope this time was greater, so has the rage been too. And perhaps because the urban middle class fought for this transition in greater numbers than before, the disappointment is greater. They are angry for they cannot see the change they had fought for or protested against.

The judiciary turned out to have feet of clay. The military didn’t really share as much as they had promised. And the politicians didn’t deliver the reform or show any inclination for democratic norms once in power. And we continue to rail, against all of them or the one we had placed most hope in, or the one we hated most.

In addition, the rage has turned into hatred of the institution that has disappointed us the most. Indeed, the anger is expressed with malicious glee at times: the Sahiwal incident is a case in point, as was the controversial statement by a former high court judge, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, or any terrorist attack which reveals chinks in the armour of the security forces. And, of course, the various JITs revealing the shenanigans of our political ruling class.

It is as if we have no option but to express our rage, so all energy is poured into it.

But expressing outrage, however cathartic it may be, is not a strategy, which is what Cameron Munter was trying to say.

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