The United States has often had someone called a Drug Czar to lead their war on drugs. It's really the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy but the name that's stuck is drug czar.
India, it seems, is looking for a Pride Czar. Our pride czar will lead the troops in the great and never-ending war for Indian pride. Our pride czar will be ever alert for any sign of disrespect to our symbols of national pride. And at the first sign of such disrespect, the pride czar will lead the charge of the tweet brigade.
Shaktikanta Das, one of the most senior economic bureaucrats took time off from the demonetisation travails to flash his sabres at Amazon, chiding it as if it was an errant schoolboy.
"Amazon, better behave," tweeted Das. "Desist from being flippant about Indian symbols & icons. Indifference will be at your own peril."
Amazon,better behave. Desist from being flippant about Indian symbols & icons. Indifference will be at your own peril.— Shaktikanta Das (@DasShaktikanta) January 15, 2017
Aka, don't mess with us. There's a new sheriff in town and he's not going to turn the other cheek.
It's not as if Amazon has been releasing cheeky ads poking fun at Indian sacred cows. Their sin is Amazon Canada being found to carry a third party vendor's products of doormats with national flags on them. One of those flags was Indian.
And then there were the Mahatma Gandhi flip flops and dog chains. Pride never ends.
Sushma Swaraj had of course beaten Das to the punch with her initial Twitter threat to Amazon. And there was much jubilation that Amazon quickly apologised and removed the offending products. Tarun Vijay of the BJP anointed her as a "warrior" and warned "Amazon will hv to regret. No other way for these firangs."
Except, it's not just the firangs. Our Pride Czar would have their hands full with all manner of disrespect right here at home — cakes in the colour of the national flag, the national flag folded and stuck in someone's back pocket, someone sitting during the national anthem at a film theatre. The possibilities for disrespect are endless at home and abroad.
But of course, it's always easier to blame the firangs. That's one of the perks of having been colonised. We always see ourselves reflected in the foreign eye. When Narendra Modi came to power and immediately embarked on his marathon globetrotting mission, opposition politicians smirked and said the PM needed a visa to come to parliament.
According to an RTI request, the government spent ₹41.1 crore on Modi's foreign trips between June 2014-June 2015. There has been much chatter about what India really gained out of them, how many agreements were signed as a result of them. But it was always sold as being about something bigger than trade deals. It was about bolstering India's image abroad, it was about showing India as a player. It was about gaining respect. Modi's biggest promise was to take Gujarati asmita (pride) and make it national. His foreign tours were part of that mission — a Swabhimaan Tour. And nothing revs up a billion Indians, and those living abroad, as a booster dose of chest-thumping Vitamin Desi Pride.
This is not to say that Indians should take it lying down when their national symbols are treated flippantly. Or that just because doormats with the German flag do not raise eyebrows there, India should allow their flags on doormats too. But it's not about Amazon selling tricolor doormats. It's really about proving that India is nobody's doormat.
Café Press, one of the offenders on Amazon, is an old offender when it comes to Indian and Hindu sensibilities. Ganesha with his elephant head is a favourite target, because in the eyes of many, he is more Disney than God and thus fair game for commodification. Café Press put Ganesh on thongs and yoga mats. Sittin' Pretty put him on toilet seats. Gandhi too has been relentlessly commodified, turned into a brand. Apple used him to tell us to Think Different. The British investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort used him, as did Telecom Italia. They did not make fun of him but they used him nonetheless to sell themselves. From banks to flip-flops is not that difficult a journey because once a brand, you can sell anything.
But as a Pride Czar, it feels petty to go after the small fry like Café Press. Going after a multinational like Amazon feels much better. And once we are done scrubbing the Internet of everyone trying to cash in on Indian exotica to sell their coffee mugs and beers and doormats, we can go after all those other enemies of Indian pride. For example, the Pride Czar, can take on the job of going after the likes of Greenpeace for sullying India's image abroad with in-person testimony of local activists on sensitive subjects like "religious freedom, tribal people, indigenous people, violence against women, human trafficking and dalit rights".
Our Pride Czar would have their hands full with all manner of disrespect right here at home
Instead of so many government agencies from the Culture Minister to the Economic Affairs Secretary to the External Affairs Minister being involved in these wars, we could have one czar to rule them. It would just be so much more efficient.
Given the zeal with which we are uncovering the next Gandhi or tricolor doormat in some dusty corner of the Internet, our Pride Czar would have a full-time job. Of course, some would say that if we put as much effort in building toilets, or cleaning our rivers, or combating child labour, it would do much more for Indian pride than getting an Amazon to apologise for a third party's sins. They would say we'd be much better off as a country if our national outrage would reach the same fever pitch over child malnutrition rates or child marriage. But Amazon vs asmita is so much more social-media fireworks-friendly than building toilets or not littering.
On the other hand what would the Pride Czar do when a minister in the ruling party himself mocks Gandhi as bringing about the devaluation of whatever bears his image, whether currency notes or khadi? Would he be warned that indifference to a national symbol like Gandhi was at his own peril? Or would the czar meekly say that's not the official viewpoint of the party and look for the next multinational or international NGO to battle? But pride, like charity, should also begin at home.
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