Look at your fingers. You know exactly what I meant by the word “fingers” even though I did not personally go to you and gesticulate at the area near your palm. This is because you and I have mutually agreed upon a certain code which we shall follow to communicate with each other. This code is called language, but you see- it is nothing but a consensus on using symbols.
Now let me tell you about another symbol. Think about a white rectangular piece of cloth. You can use it to wipe sweat off your face, dry utensils or to save your hands from the heat of the container while taking a dish out of your oven. What if I took this piece of cloth, painted green and saffron borders through two respective lengths and drew a blue wheel with twenty-four spokes in the white area? This will never let you do anything but revere that same piece of cloth. That’s how immense the load of the symbols I have imparted to the piece of cloth is.
It’s the same with religion, isn’t it? You regard an object as sacred- so much so that it eventually becomes a totem. You treat it with respect; admonish yourself even at the thought of bringing it down to the profane sphere of existence. Think of a rosary to a Christian, or the Holy Quran to a Muslim. If nationalism was a religion, the national flag would likewise be its most revered totem. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that this flag is sacred. Similarly, I do not remember why it is so.
This brings us to some relevant questions: Is the nation then a religious group? If so, who are its prophets- our political leaders? These questions demand logical answers, but let us keep them for another day because right now we are at a political juncture that claims the solution to a more pertinent dilemma. Who gets to decide which gesture to our flag is disrespectful? We have assigned meanings to symbols and none but we can change them. I do not know how tucking the flag to one’s rear pocket, as Chris Martin did last night at the first ever Coldplay concert in India, is disrespectful, but I’d like to know if by the same rule, draping six yards painted with the tricolor around one’s entire body is not equally disrespectful.
This is not the first time that Coldplay has been accused of slighting the heritage of India. When Hymn for the Weekend was released in January this year, the band was charged with cultural appropriation, implying that it has narrowed India down to yogis, poor children and the colours of Holi among others. A careful look at previous works of Coldplay will suggest how they have always cast their songs in a different setting which goes well with the theme. Their settings have always transcended reality, be it in the elephant reuniting with its band in Paradise or Chris returning to the idyllic past in The Scientist or the chimpanzees partying in the middle of a forest in Adventure of a Lifetime. So is it with Hymn for the Weekend which is a fusion of alternative rock, pop and R&B about having an angelic person in one’s life. It is not a Britpop centred around Holi. It merely seeks to recreate an ambience of psychedelia reminiscent of the hippie culture of the 60’s. This necessitates yogis and a colourful screen. There could be no place better than India to find this setting. That’s all. As a student of sociology, I do not find anything objectionable in the video, barring the cameo by Sonam Kapoor, but that’s my personal bias. Like come on, stop overthinking about issues that do not need attention and spare some of it over the ones that need it.
Ten months ago, Coldplay was blamed of cultural appropriation by the very Indians who went gaga when Chris Martin hummed a popular Bollywood number Channa Mereya at the Global Citizen Festival India last night (because hey, Europeans trying Hindi is so cute OMG but Pranab Mukherjee speaking English in a Bengali accent is hilarious). The Indians who are now blaming Martin of “disrespecting” the flag are not supposed to be amused at homogeneizing a culture, if one is to go by the recent political happenings here. It is almost the rule of the day here to marginalize every identity other than that of the majoritarian Hindu. Why else would a Muslim Najeeb meet such apathy from the bureaucracy? Hence, it sounds hilarious when Indians accuse foreigners of insulting their culture.
The double standards of the Indian audience has been exposed too much through how Coldplay has met with controversies in almost every recent association with the country. It took us many years to give back something to the West after globalization- we are successfully leading the world on the path of anti-globalization and I know not where the journey that has begun with shaking hands with a right-wing bigot will end. The ripples India is sending across the globe reek of jingoism; what scares me is that these ripples are not far from becoming formidable waves.