Don’t we go too far in protecting national symbols?
I can’t make up my mind about the Mahatma Gandhi pen marketed by Mont Blanc. On Monday, 3 May, the Supreme Court was assured that Mont Blanc had agreed to withdraw the pen. The solicitor-general told the court that the Centre had refused Mont Blanc permission to use Gandhiji’s name or likeness on the grounds that it violated the National Emblem’s Act.
I don’t want to turn this column into a debate over legislation designed to protect national emblems but most journalists are familiar with the problems. The legislation is strict and some would say, regressive. It defines all kinds of buildings as symbols of India, including state legislatures and the national flag. So, if a cartoonist uses Parliament House in one of his drawings, he risks breaching the Act. Similar restrictions apply to the use of the national flag. This is in marked contrast to the situation which prevails in the US and the UK, where the national flags and such symbols of the State as the White House and the Crown are freely rendered in creative media.
Take one example: if a model wears a dress that includes a representation of the Stars and Stripes in the US, nobody would take a second look. Wear the Indian flag on your salwar in our country and you could get arrested.
Or take another example: One of the most famous shots in the Hollywood blockbuster, Independence Day, shows the White House being destroyed by aliens. Include a similar scene, perhaps featuring Parliament rather than the White House, in an Indian movie and the police will ring your doorbell.
It is not my case that we should not respect the symbols of our democracy. My point is more limited: we go too far in protecting those symbols by law. I do not think that the US is less of a democracy than India. And yet, it gets by quite easily without enforcing similar laws.
Which brings us to Mahatma Gandhi. Can the likeness of a human being be an emblem? Does it make sense to use the Act to control visual representations of an individual? Besides, if Gandhiji is an emblem then who else deserves this honour? Jawaharlal Nehru? Sardar Patel? Veer Savarkar? Probably not. But then, I know lakhs of BJP sympathisers who would disagree. So, why needlessly complicate a piece of legislation by introducing individuals into its ambit?
My own position on the Mont Blanc pen is straight-forward enough. I thought it was a stupid idea. It was also hideously inappropriate. Gandhiji stood for simplicity in all things. What could be more incongruous than dedicating an over-priced designer pen to his memory? Besides, I am still a little uncertain about the ethics of asking some descendent of Gandhiji to sign off on the deal, let alone allowing him to decide how the royalties should be distributed.
But because I disapprove of something, it does not follow that I have the right to demand that the state intervenes on my behalf. If I don’t like the pen, I should not buy it. But I have no business asking for a ban or pleading with the courts to get involved. My disdain is not an issue of national importance. And the government really should find better things to do.
The reason I believe that the uproar over the Mont Blanc pen matters is because it demonstrates the extent to which we take governmental intervention for granted. In this case the government has intervened on what I consider to be the right side. But once we concede the principle that the state can intervene every time we are offended, then we strengthen a very dangerous precedent.
The next time the state intervenes using the same piece of legislation, it may be to enforce a decision that you and I regard as shockingly illiberal. For instance, the act allows the state to restrict an individual’s power of creative expression. I believe that this could be dangerous.
We are easy about tolerating intervention in the Mont Blanc case because it involves a commercial product of very little intrinsic value which most of us disapprove of anyway. But supposing this precedent was used to legitimise future interventions in other areas?
Which is why I began by saying that I cannot make up my mind about the pen. Of course it is a stupid idea. Of course I find it vaguely offensive. But I think I may find the idea of state intervention even more offensive.