WHAT NATIONAL SYMBOL?

The Modi government’s carelessness towards the new rupee notes insults the idea of India

Quartz india
Quartz india

The sudden introduction of new Rs500 and Rs2,000 currency notes has set off disruptive ripples across India’s socio-political landscape.

It’s been a tumultuous 20 days since the old notes were abruptly pulled out of circulation and it may be a while before normalcy returns. And while a large section of this country of 1.3 billion is yet to get its hands on the new bills, many of those who already have are perturbed by the way they look.

From the “pinkness” of the Rs2,000 notes to the bleeding colours, from allegedly tacky aesthetics to embarrassing typos, from language issues to shadow printing—they are already being called out for their flaws.

The shoddy design of the notes is being ascribed to the authorities’ rush to bring out the new denominations—and that’s not exactly something one would want for a revered national symbol.

Currency and nationhood

Bank notes and coins are more than mere transactional tools. They carry several layers of meaning for the people they represent: cultural, political, philosophical, and of course financial. Modern day currencies are emblematic of nations.  Modern day currencies are emblematic of nations. 

When the euro was adopted in 2002, the UK, Denmark, and Sweden chose not to join the Eurozone. Besides economic reasons, they believed their currencies symbolised their nation and giving them up was tantamount to relinquishing national sovereignty to the European Union.

The Indian rupee, too, is invested with a significant level of nationalism, so much so that over the past few years, the currency’s rise or fall vis-a-vis the dollar has caused irrational political upheavals.

Ever since the first post-Independence rupee note was issued in 1949, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been tweaking it at regular intervals, adding new languages, updating security features, and changing the motifs to better represent India. That’s because the currency note is required to represent a meaningful distillation of all cultures that co-exist within a country as vast and varied as India.

However, the new Rs500 and Rs2,000 notes have raised concerns over exactly which India is being represented, and how.

The battle over language

India has no national language. Hindi, written in the Devanagari script, and English are its official languages, apart from 22 other officially recognised ones that the various state governments may use. There was a reason for this arrangement. Language was one of the biggest hurdles India’s founding fathers faced in their endeavour to forge a nation. So, not having a national language was part of the compromise formula they reached to avoid large-scale linguistic rivalries.

However, under article 343 of the Indian constitution, the numbers to be used for official purposes were the “international form of Indian numerals,” a phrasing that acknowledged the Indian connection to the standard Indo-Arabic numerals commonly used around the world. This was decided upon as the most practical as well as a fair compromise. While a 1960 presidential order allowed the use of Devanagari numerals in Hindi publications if required, there’s been no such update for currency notes and coins.

And so, while Indian currency notes have for long featured various scripts and languages (17 at last count), their numerals were always in the international standard form. Until now, that is.

Many Indians were surprised to find the new Rs2,000 notes carrying Devanagari numerals, potentially re-igniting a toxic debate that was losing relevance with passing years.

Last week, a resident of Madurai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu filed a public interest litigation with the Madras high court, calling for the new notes to be declared invalid as such use of Devanagari numerals violate the Indian constitution. The Indian government responded on Nov. 22, saying the Devanagari numerals were merely a design feature and not an instance of any language receiving preferential treatment.

Meanwhile, some scholars have pointed out that the new Rs2,000 notes feature an error in the Urdu text with the word bazaar (market) used instead of hazaar (thousand). Given the long-held concerns over the decline of Urdu in India, often targeted for its association with the Muslim community and Pakistan, some critics have cited this as another example of government indifference towards the language.

Counterfeiting concerns

Soon after the new notes were released, reports emerged of Indians finding subtle variations in alignment and borders, besides shadows around the Mahatma Gandhi motif in some. It seems the rush to get the new currency out had rendered a number of notes defective.

Considering that demonetisation was also an attempt to target counterfeiters, these defects have raised concerns over the sheer futility of the exercise now. If there are multiple versions of the notes, it’s harder for Indians to keep track of the right version and that makes it easier for fakes to go around.

RBI, however, maintains that only a few notes are defective and even those remain legal tender.

Questioning the aesthetic

The overall look of the new notes hasn’t found fans among Indian designers. Many have critiqued the choice of typography, motifs, and even colours. In a blog post, Abhisek Sarda, founder and creative director of design studio Beard Design, called the new Rs2,000 note an “unsalvageable hodge-podge,” marred by inconsistent aesthetic choices, too many different typefaces, and poor alignment and layout.

Considering that the new note is the highest denomination in India, Sarda argues that it deserved to look more sophisticated and subtle, something that the choice of colour (magenta) doesn’t help with. He said the front of the bill features 11 different typefaces in multiple sizes and weights, while the reverse has six, reflecting a lack of consistency and harmony in its appearance. Even a passing disdain in the way it is treated could prove deleterious. 

A series of images at the base of the note features India’s national bird (the peacock) and the national flower (lotus) but surprisingly not its national animal (the tiger). Instead, it includes elephants.

“Above all, the new Rs2,000 note is completely unimaginative. Instead of using this opportunity to re-imagine the Indian currency design… the design of the new note is unremarkable in every way,” Sarda wrote on Nov. 15.

Every Indian currency note carries a covenant signed by the incumbent governor of the Reserve Bank of India. It reads: “I promise to pay the bearer a sum of…” This symbolises a solemn contract of trust between the state and its citizenry.

A contract document, be it a property sale agreement, marriage certificate, or a will, is one of the most meticulously drafted ones, even if only to avoid future disputes. A nation’s currency note is perhaps the most sacred of such documents. Even a passing disdain in the way it is treated could prove deleterious.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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