The moment we step out of our homes we virtually face the visual bombardment of signs and symbols though they are not new to social life. They have been there since the beginning of organised social life. They perform a useful and perhaps necessary function of communicating what needs to be communicated to all in order to keep the society regulated in a manner deemed appropriate by the Czars of religion, politics and culture. The ones of a religious nature are perhaps the oldest, refusing to change or fade out simply because they are as stable and stubborn as the religions or faiths they signify.
Signs and symbols have a dual function; they reveal as well as conceal. Saint-poet Baba Farid, way back in the 12th century, exposed how religious and spiritual symbols hide reality despite their public signalling to the contrary: “Prayer mat on their shoulders, clad in a coarse robe of piety, they have a tongue as sweet as sugar but their heart is as sharp as a dagger —”. So signs and symbols may hide as much as they communicate.
The signs and symbols of social and cultural significance undergo changes keeping pace with the changes in socio-cultural life. In advanced and stable societies that have certain defined patterns of social conduct and public behaviour: They mostly have commercial and functional purposes, as advertisements and road signs suggest. But in a society like ours which has hitherto been unable to evolve norms compatible with the complex needs of contemporary life, what defines social conduct and public behaviour is a sense of raw power, providing a protective ring against any kind of legal and public intrusion.
We are too familiar with the ubiquitous presence of symbols of the state. Who can forget the general who settled the dispute between our president and prime minister with his stick in 1990s? He, waving his stick, sent both the gentlemen packing. So the stick as a symbol, signifies much more than what it actually is; a piece of wood.
Thorstein Veblen, an American economist gifted with unusual insight and famous for his ‘The theory of the Leisure Class’, describes a stick in public life as “an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in usual effort”. He sees it as a weapon: “The handling of so tangible and primitive a means of offense is very comforting to anyone who is gifted with even a moderate share of ferocity.”
All officials tagged with the symbols of state in our part of the world, are invariably gifted with an abundant share of ferocity as representatives of a ferocious state. What is displayed at the level of the state also has bearings on social life.
A traditional Punjabi poet, one of the ‘Ustads’ (masters) some decades back in a radio interview was asked a question as to who was the most appreciated poet in the poetic recitals in his youth. He answered without the slightest hesitation: “The one whose fans carried more sticks.”
We are quite familiar with the official number-plates of vehicles. They too need to be looked at with care! We daily witness on our roads the drivers or the family members of state officials in vehicles with official number-plates violating the traffic rules with impunity. The official number-plates have an almost metaphysical aura that mysteriously mesmerises the riders into believing that human rules do not apply to the ones in possession of the magic of signs and symbols created by the supra-human state. They are their shield with invisible spikes that emit threatening sparks, keeping the lowly traffic warden at bay and forcing the other to give way.
Higher officials, not content with the official number-plates, get the vehicles fixed with hooters/sirens, flash-lights and aerials that with their egregious sound and flash announce to all and sundry to clear the way if they want to be out of harm’s way. Anyone who fails to realise that the whole spectacle is nothing less than the contemporary version of royal processions of yesteryears, does so at a great personal risk. So mind the sound, mind the light if you want to save yourself from being crushed under the royal wheels powered by the metaphysical force of the state that do not stop at earthly traffic signals.
You can afford to act otherwise if you have the courage of a saint like Madho Lal Hussain, the great saint-poet of Lahore who, Prince Dara Shikoh writes in his book ‘Hasnat-ul-Arifin’, remained indifferent and continued singing and dancing in the middle of the street when grand cleric Mullah Abdullah Sultan Puri during the reign of Akbar, the great, entered the bazaar of the city like a royal with his fully decked out formidable escort, ringing the warning bells.
On being summoned the saint confronted the grand Sheikh who wanted to issue a religious decree against him for his so-called un-Islamic practices. In a public dialogue the saint exposed the rich cleric who despite having all the resources had not paid ‘Zakat’ (religious tax) and not gone on pilgrimage to Mecca. The cleric’s religious symbolism i.e., official procession, robe, turban and beard, betrayed his hypocrisy rather than his piety it apparently hinted at. The saint had his own symbols; a red robe and a music instrument, signifying a world of counter-culture of mystics.
In a society that is tradition bound and authority driven due to myriad historical factors, power wielders and state officials tend to appear larger than life riding the waves of signs and symbols with a resultant misty ambiance that induces the people to take them as inaccessible aliens with a mission from another planet, deciding the destiny of ‘children of a lesser God’ who, devoid of freedom that is otherwise their natural right, are condemned to suffer their submissive existence on this earth.