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Rebranding a nation: The emblem design controversy

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Koustubh Bhattacharya
Koustubh Bhattacharya
Electrical Engineer turned PR professional. Author of a bestselling book on digital marketing. Works in the areas of Brand Development, IP commercialisation and MSME skill development. Proud Indian.

When companies introduce a new version of their brand logo to keep up with the world, it is often accepted as a much-needed change, a need to update as the use of typefaces change, colour palettes change and so do the public perceptions, design trends and company’s products, and services over the time. Some of the most drastic rebranding exercises which must be noted here are Apple, Mcdonald’s, Pepsi, and Starbucks there are countless examples of successful rebranding. Most importantly, rebranding also sometimes implies a shift in the values of the company. Organisations go to great lengths in conveying such changes to both the internal and the external stakeholders very carefully.

Seldom does such a change is a matter of intense debate and controversy as it was recently in the case of the Indian national emblem which is the adapted version (remember it’s a version only) of the ancient artefact which is known as the Ashoka Stambh (staff) or the Lion Capital found in the excavations at Sarnath (the place where Gautama Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon). This artefact is at present kept in the Sarnath museum.

For those who are not aware of the matter, here’s a summary of it. On 11th July 2022 the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India Shri Narendra Modi unveiled a massive 33 Meter high, 9500 Kilogram sculpture of the Indian National Emblem which is to be mounted on the new Parliament Building of India. This sculpture cast in bronze by master sculptors Laxman Vyas and Sunil Deore and had visible differences from the original Ashok Stambh located in the museum mentioned previously. Almost immediately opposition leaders and some so-called historians and critics started questioning the design of this new sculpture. Objections were especially targeted at the face of the lions which had visibly larger fangs and the expression seemed “aggressive” and “angry”. These “changes” were stated by some in the media as a mutilation of the original emblem and thus were deemed offensive. Comparisons with the Sarnath artefact were made and the “new” design was criticized by some who believed that it was a departure from the “calm” and “gentle” lions in the original design. The Indian Government issued statements defending the design and stating that the changes were felt due to the scale of the sculpture and the angle from which it was viewed.

The controversy in its depth raised concerns about India’s newfound stature in global politics and the evolving diplomatic stand surrounding the border disputes with neighbouring countries like China and Pakistan. The matter is not simple as it seems. If the visible differences are deliberate and are meant to reflect the changing predisposition of India towards the factors which threaten its democracy then there is a lot to be read between the lines. However, whether such changes are at all permissible is an entirely different question.

Let’s first understand how drastic the changes are…

On preliminary observation of the pictures being circulated in the media, we can see the obvious changes. Without going into any insinuation as to what those visual differences mean, we can safely say that the new representation of the lion faces in the sculpture has more refined features which are closer to a real adult male lion. Now there is a clear difference in style from the original artefact but that is only adding to the realism of the lions in the emblem. You must take into account the different scales of the sculptures and different materials being used which would result in the changes.

One has to remember that the artists who created the respective sculptures are 2500 years apart and have very different design techniques and technologies available to them. The Mauryan school of art which reached its epitome during the period of Emperor Ashoka’s rule was noted for its very accurate, highly skillful yet simplistic expression. This goes to further say that the lions on the Sarnath pillar are close to the real but are artistically simplified. The bronze version of the Lion capital looks like a sincere effort to replicate the defining features of the original with a bit of improvement and keeping in mind that people will be viewing it from afar. The sculptor himself has come in defense of his art and has stated that no tampering has been done with the specifications.

Let’s see if the so-called differences are legally permissible…

Every organisation has a brand book that defines the allowed usage of its logo or trademark. The Indian Government has The State Emblem of India (Prohibition Of Improper Use) Act, 2005 which is the standard document governing the usage of the emblem. The description of the emblem in the Act mentions – “The profile of the Lion Capital showing three lions mounted on the abacus with a Dharma Chakra in the centre, a bull on the right and a galloping horse on the left, and outlines of Dharma Chakras on the extreme right and left has been adopted as the State Emblem of India. The bell-shaped lotus has been omitted.”

This nowhere specifies any particular facial expression of the Lions in question as long as the representation resembles a Lion. There is always scope for improvement.

In that same Act, two design versions of the emblem are specified in Annexure 1 and Annexure 2. The design in Annexure 1 is “in simplified form and meant for reproduction in small sizes, such as for use in stationery, seals, and die-printing” while the design in Annexure 2 is “more detailed and meant for reproduction in bigger sizes”. There are some interesting differences between the two simply because of the design details. The teeth are present in the prescribed designs too. There are no toothless lions in actuality unless a lion may have lost its teeth in an accident or because of bad oral hygiene. Just kidding.

Any logo comAny logo comes under Trademark registration. Any design which may carry an element of the logo can be protected by a Design Registration. However, any Government emblem, insignia or coat-of-arms, etc. are on the prohibited list and cannot be registered either as a trademark or as a design. Furthermore, archeological artefacts are public domain. Things like Tutenkhamun’s mask or Rosetta Stone cannot be copyrighted or registered as design. So, the design of Sarnath Lion Capital cannot be subjected to copyrights or design registrations.

Hence, the State Emblem of India cannot be subjected to trademark regime and the Central Government has every right to make any changes to the design or specifications of the State Emblem as per the Section 6(2)(f) of the State Emblem of India (Prohibition Of Improper Use) Act, 2005.

Let’s look at this controversy from the perspective of rebranding.  

The notion that the Lions in the original Lion Capital look “calm” or “peaceful” is just a psychological superimposition of the interpreter. One has to note that the period of Ashoka’s rule was one filled with violence towards the dissidents whether it was at home or the borders. Ashoka being a Buddhist himself was an expansionist in effect and waged many wars with neighbouring nations. The war with the Hindu rulers of Kalinga is the most famous. The peace and prosperity of the era were achieved on basis of authoritarian attitude and military superiority. It is a habit of historians to misattribute the artistic qualities of ancient artefacts to perceived notions.

The “peaceful” missions of Ashoka’s son Mahendra and daughter Sanghmitra to foreign lands like Sri Lanka point towards a neo-colonial effort through proselytization. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the edicts and the pillars of Ashoka were also part of the state propaganda machinery of that time. One might argue that being Buddhists on the ascetic path of peace, the choice of imagery with a wild violent carnivorous animal like a Lion is a contradiction in itself. On that basis, it makes very little difference if the lions look “angry” or “calm”. By that logic propounded by certain liberal factions, some people would probably prefer a Cow (probably too controversial), a Deer or a Kitty Cat perhaps as the state emblem which better suites to their sensibilities.   

It is alleged that the deliberate “distortions” in the design of the bronze Ashoka Stambh by the Government reflects the radical shift in India’s outlook on geopolitics. Now, it is important to ask who is so concerned with it? Maybe those Indians who do not pride themselves to be part of this ‘resurgence’ of India on the global stage. Foreigners are frankly not concerned about it. The “aggression” is a perceived value.

If India is arguably getting more aggressive, then it is the need of the hour. Weak nations are constantly being bullied, overpowered, and exploited by powerful nations and that’s the reality. Resisting such things as invasions, ruthless and barbaric oppression, ethnic cleansing, forced conversions, and intellectual belittlement for over 700 years does that damage to the psyche. There has never been a proper reconciliation of the crimes committed by occupiers and colonialists on Indians like in the case of the Jews after World War II.

Hence, a “rebranding” is much needed for India in the sense that not only the nation is rising but is also ready to take on any challenge. In that spirit, if the new emblem tends to represent even roaring lions, it would be fine.

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Koustubh Bhattacharya
Koustubh Bhattacharya
Electrical Engineer turned PR professional. Author of a bestselling book on digital marketing. Works in the areas of Brand Development, IP commercialisation and MSME skill development. Proud Indian.
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