Print Edition - 2017-06-25  |  Free the Words

Political symbolism

  • We will have more symbols to understand and live with in the changing times

Jun 25, 2017-

We are inundated with symbols these days because the second phase of the local elections has transformed political sloganeering into symbolic acts. The election times play with the symbols, either by generating new ones or by giving continuity to some established ones. Generation of election symbolism is a special affair, but that too reflects how political organisations and power groups play with their own ambivalence in terms of ideologies and their desire to continue with some of their old symbolism. 

One can easily see the symbolism in the flags bearing a hammer and scythe, a moon and sun, etc jostling with other flags on the celebratory election occasions. In short, the symbolism of flags and images can show many things, including how political parties want to present themselves through mixed, and sometimes confusing, sets of symbols. Here, I want to talk about political symbolism in a slightly broader context. 


Greater meaning

To be interested in the detailed study of political symbolism is quite a specialist task. But my interest here is only to evoke the symbolism seen and experienced by us, the Nepali people of several generations. Political symbolism in this sense changes the meaning. We have seen that the youths, who view that as a system of stereotype, want to break it, which is a unique rebellious dharma today. 

In this context, it is interesting to see the general sense of political symbolism selected by the candidates of the parties of the youths in the elections or otherwise. Symbolism comes when we see greater meaning in an object or person, historical event or language. American anthropologist and structural linguist Edward Sapir would see emotional reality giving rise to tension as symbolism. This aspect would cover the occasions that have generated great events in the past and in recent times. 

In Nepal, our response to symbols in Sapir’s sense can be seen in the emotional investment in symbols. The emotional response and attachment to symbols of Nepali inventions like the communist parties’ response to their own system of symbols of the hammer and scythe, and the photographs of Marx, Lenin, Mao and in some cases Stalin, hung at party plenaries, the religious group’s emotional cultivation of their political-religious symbolism that includes the holy cow, and several other examples constitute the structure of symbolism as far as politics is concerned. 


Narayanhiti palace

That the symbolism of Nepali politics and memories as items in museums is a subject of great interest among the native and foreign researchers in recent times is a very significant matter. Memory as symbolism has two dimensions. One type of memory is either museumised or lies dormant in culturally rich spaces as, for example, in the old towns of Nepal Mandala. 

The other is a symbolism of fairly later origins, which is directly related to power and politics. A great Nepali archaeologist Sukrasagar Shrestha, whose untimely death on May 19, 2017 is a great loss for this country, told me a few years ago about the intricate nature of such symbolism. I understood this subject better, not least the second type of symbolism, when I entered the Narayanhiti Museum for the first time in August 2008. The Narayanhiti palace that had always remained a source of power, though largely opaque to many of us, surprised me by showing no symbolic resonance. There is nothing engrossing in there, save a Sapirian emotional symbolism of the ruins where king Birendra and his family were assassinated on June 1, 2001, to draw the viewer’s attention.

Research students of some universities in the UK and America who come here have inundated me, time and again, with questions about the Narayanhiti museum. To be honest, I did not have ready answers to their queries, but their inquisition opened up a few new areas of learning for discussion. The researchers’ interest in the political symbolism of everything from the overall architectural site to the small items inside the museum, which I had never noticed before, has made me take a fresh look at political symbolism. 


Ambiguity persists

The question that often came up in the discussions about symbolism was: what symbols did the houses of power bequeath, and what relevance do they have today? I realised that the question that the post-revolutionary changes in Nepal were grappling with was: what kind of political symbolism is working with us today? The political parties and ideologues are grappling with a few symbolisms enshrined in the personas in Nepali history. They are, for example, still struggling in a semi-serious mood about placing the imago of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the 18th century founder of the present Nepali state, in an appropriate political symbolic order. One can easily understand why they are carrying the subject of that man today. It is because of the symbolism of the king’s imago in today’s times—when the symbolism of plural nationalities clashes with that of the Nepali nation state. Ambiguity persists.


Returning to the Narayanhiti 

symbolism, the Shah kings’ politically symbolic function was one of mysticism. It remained a source of gossip, conspiracy theories and power symbolism of a unique order. People said, it is mathi, or up there, that takes important decisions. Everything comes from there. Until the last days of the monarchy, people, including political party leaders, said that the palace was trying to drive a wedge between the great political parties, which, considering how much the parties have suffered, is unethical. 

But what was not said was that the parties also found in the palace symbolism a semi-mythical hiding space for themselves. This symbolism used by the parties always amused me. After the entire symbolism was removed, even those people who swallowed the stories of the conspiracies hook, line and sinker found it perplexing when the singular game of passing the buck became a complex process of shifting it among at least three or four political parties. But the interesting question is how they fare with their own political symbolism. 

The political symbolism in Nepal is thus a shaper of ideologies. But the texture of symbolism resonates naturally with living realism and spectres of history. We will have more symbols to understand and live with in the changing times. 

Published: 25-06-2017 08:24

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