Recently, the reappearance of the hammer and sickle symbol has been causing a bit of a stir in Indonesia. Earlier this year, none other than Miss Indonesia, Anindya Kusuma Putri, was reported to police by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in Solo after she uploaded a photo of her wearing a T-shirt featuring the symbol, while on a visit to Vietnam. The FPI accused her of spreading communist ideas. An FPI lawyer, Pongky Yoga Wiguna, stated that “One of the [reasons] it violates the law is because communists don’t recognize God.”
Last month, during the celebration of 70 years of Indonesian independence in Pamekasan, East Java, the hammer and sickle symbol also made an appearance along with posters of several Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) figures such as Aidit and Untung. Although these images were all accompanied by theatrical performances meant to demonstrate the cruelty of the PKI against the military in 1965, the symbol according to several mass media outlets still alarmed the public and again was portrayed in an anti-religious light.
In Jember, also in East Java, two university students were arrested in mid-August for drawing the contentious symbol on a campus wall. And more recently a man was detained by Ngawi Police, in the same province, for selling T-shirts showing the hammer and sickle.
What is it about this symbol of the laborer’s and farmer’s tools that apparently are still haunting people in Indonesia?
A world of symbols
It is undeniable that we live in a world of symbols. Since we were children, we have been surrounded by them.
Society gives symbols certain meanings, so that they can be learned and taught. This is often done by the government or other people in power to shape people’s views of society, for instance by promoting positive images of their leadership. As a country faces conflict, the sense of nationalism can be enhanced by using state symbols and the flag. Aggression can presented as an act of patriotism — just look at how the Americans loved to waive their flags during the war on Iraq.
But symbols can also be used to assert certain stereotypes or stigmatize groups. This is what happened with the symbol of the hammer and sickle in Indonesia.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the symbol was widely used in Europe, in several varieties, such as with rakes or a plow, to symbolize the workers, peasants and the proletariat as a whole.
In 1917, Lenin held a competition to create a Soviet emblem. The winning design was a hammer and sickle, with a sword. Lenin decided to get rid of the sword because he wanted to portray the nation as peaceful. Then, the Moscow artist Yevgeny Kamzolkin designed the image of a crossed hammer and sickle for a May Day poster. In 1918, this version was adopted officially by the Soviets.
But who was this Kamzolkin? He was not even a communist, in fact he was a religious man. The hammer and sickle symbol was not meant to signify opposition to religion.
Communism and religion
Later, in Indonesia, the birth of the PKI also was not sparked by opposition to religion, but its goal was to fight against Dutch colonialism, which went hand in hand with capitalism.
Many of the founders of the PKI were also members of the nationalist organization Sarekat Islam. One of them was Haji M. Misbach (1876–1926), who declared that communism and Islam were compatible. Indeed, the PKI adopted the hammer and sickle as its party symbol, but this was to emphasize support for the working class and its opposition to capitalism.
The symbol until today is used to stress the idea that the PKI was a great evil — even though the party was completely annihilated in the years 1965-67, when almost all of its members and even presumed sympathizers were butchered. The PKI no longer exists, yet fear of the movement and its symbols continues to this day.
So what have the Ngawi T-shirt seller or the Jember students really done to warrant their arrest? Have they attacked anyone, or anything? They have not. They only used a symbol that has been carefully constructed by authorities to instill fear of a nonexistent movement supposedly aimed at overthrowing religion.
Those in power in various parts of the country may look the other way when dress codes are imposed on women, when laborers are being underpaid, when religious minorities get evicted from their homes and when farmers are forced to work on toxic plantations. People may shake their head and sigh but ultimately will go on with their lives. Yet when someone makes a drawing of the tools of laborers and farmers, police will jump into action, the media have a field day and society as a whole is dragged into mass hysteria.
Fear of the mere specter of the PKI in this country is indeed bigger than the fear of some very acute problems. Real thuggery and real corruption are happening on a daily basis while those who instigated mass murder decades ago are still allowed to roam free — all while the people are kept busy chasing after ghosts.
(by Soe Tjen Marching. Published by The Jakarta Globe, 4 September 2015).