Cultural Politics of the National Flag
by Vinay Lal
[Different versions published as "[The] National Flag: Status and Symbol", Hindustan Times (October 1995) and as "Idolatry of the national tricolour", Indian Express (17 January 1996).]
There are certain moments in the cultural and political life of a nation when the national flag comes into prominence. Every Indian is aware that the Prime Minister unfurls the national tricolor from the ramparts of the Red Fort every Independence Day on August 15, and indeed the observance of January 26th as Republic Day goes back to 31 December 1929, when Jawaharlal Nehru hoisted the flag of the Indian National Congress, gave a call for purna swaraj, and asked people to observe January 26 as independence day. Most recently, the cremation of Beant Singh reminded us that the honored dead are honored with the flag, and that if the national flag is attendant upon the birth of a nation, it equally accompanies in death those whose lives are construed as being symbolic of the nation.
Along with the national anthem, the national flag is supremely and specially iconic of the nation-state. It is understood that the honor and integrity of the nation are captured by the flag, and as the history of every country shows, the national flag is uniquely capable of enlisting the aid of citizens, giving rise to sentiments of nationalism, and evoking the supreme sacrifice of death: in every respect, the national flag commands, not merely our respect, but our allegiance. Thus it is that last year, when the then Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen, was taken on a triumphant parade through the streets of Delhi, the manner in which her carriage displayed the national flag was found to be offensive. Attached to the back of her carriage, in direct defiance of the regulations stipulated in the Flag Code-India, the national flag appeared to have been compromised and demeaned; indeed, it appeared as though Sushmita Sen had rendered it into an item of consumption. Though Sen could, under the laws of the land, have faced fines and imprisonment, her own iconic significance, as the reigning beauty queen of the world, and as a supposed paean to the glory of modern Indian womanhood, was scarcely to be underestimated, and was shown at that moment to be hardly less than the iconic significance attached to the flag.
The flag has once again come into the news. In a highly significant ruling on September 21st, the Delhi High Court directed that the Flag Code-India, which governs the use and display of the National Flag, could not be so interpreted as to prevent an ordinary citizen of India from flying in a respectful manner the National Flag from the premises of his or her business or residence. In any case, the Flag Code, ruled the Court, was not to be construed as law, and its contravention could not be enforced unless, of course, such contravention came within the purview of either the Emblem Act or the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act.
Most Indians can scarcely have been aware that they were forbidden, apparently under pain of punishment, to fly the national flag from the premises of their residential or office buildings, and it is just as unlikely that the proverbial 'man on the street' will view the judgment of the Delhi High Court as of any consequence to him. But this is no small victory for the Indian citizen, when we consider that a very significant chapter of the history of the independence movement was woven around the hard-won struggle of Indians to fly the flag of their choice. The present flag is, to a considerable degree and certainly in essence, the flag to whose design none other than Mahatma Gandhi lent his hand, and which the Congress was to adopt in 1921. Writing for Young India on 13 April 1921, two years after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, Gandhi observed that the red in the flag represented Hindus, the green stood for Muslims, and that the white represented all other faiths; the spinning wheel in the middle of the flag pointed to the oppressed condition of every Indian, just as it evoked the possibility of rejuvenating every Indian household. Gandhi did not think that the matter of the national flag trifling; as he was to put it, "A flag is a necessity for all nations. Millions have died for it. It is no doubt a kind of idolatry which it would be a sin to destroy." If the Union Jack could evoke immeasurably strong sentiments in English breasts, was it not necessary that all Indians "recognize a common flag to live and to die for"?
Gandhi's flag, as it was known to English officials, was with some modifications formally adopted by the Congress in 1931 as the National Flag, and this flag in turn became the basis, with the substitution of the wheel on the capital of Asoka's Sarnath Pillar for the charkha, for the National Flag chosen by the Constituent Assembly in July 1947. In the meantime, between 1921 and 1947, a war of attrition developed between Indian nationalists and government officials over the right to fly the Gandhi or Congress flag. Indian nationalists found that hoisting the flag invariably attracted the wrath, and often the vengeance, of British officials, and usually the flag was ordered to be brought down. Only once, at Bhagalpur in 1923, did the district official assent to a rare compromise, when he consented to have the Congress flag flown alongside the Union Jack, albeit at a lower height! This invited the reprimand of the Government of India and the British Cabinet, who wished to make it clear "that in no circumstances should the Swaraj or Gandhi Flag be flown in conjunction with even below the Union Jack." The more usual response was to have men and boys who defiantly carried the Congress Flag whipped, and during the civil disobedience movement of 1930-33, boys as young as 8 years old were given 10-30 stripes each for this purported offense. A six-month long "Flag Satyagraha" in Nagpur in 1923, in which a good part of the national leadership participated, led to the withdrawal of prohibitory orders on the use of the Congress Flag.
Thus, when we consider the arduous effort with which Indians established their right to fly their flag, it is all the more extraordinary, disturbing, and deplorable that, in independent India, the state should have arrogated this right to itself and turned it into a privilege. It is fitting that the judiciary should now have restored this fundamental right to Indian citizens. However, as in all matters, the ruling of the Delhi High Court cannot be construed simply as a cause for celebration. All too often, the national flag in most countries has been the pivot around which sentiments not merely of nationalism but of jingoism, hatred, and racial exclusivism have been fostered, a most telling example of which was the war against Iraq in 1991, when Americans, most of whom (the 'educated' not excepted) were unable to locate Iraq on a map, foolishly huddled around their flag. In some other countries, again most notably the United States, an offensive and extravagant patriotic sensibility leads the public to an indiscriminate and excessive display of the flag even during times of peace. One can only hope that Indians will prevail upon themselves to display a more judicious and restrained attitude towards the flag. There may also well be a time, in the very near future, when the Indian parliament and judiciary will have to deliberate in an altogether different manner on the status of the flag. Is the burning of the National Flag protected under the Constitution as an expression of free speech, or must such an act invariably be constituted as an offense punishable under law? In the cultural and political semiotics of nationhood, the National Flag is bound to occupy an increasingly important place.
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