The rules regarding a nationalistic symbol in a country that has increasingly associated the idea of nationalism with a certain religion and by extension, with a political party and the state’s intervention, have transformed in the recent past.
The recent events at the Red Fort on 26th January, 2021 fired up an already enraging debate on the citizen’s association with the national flag vis-a-vis the national identity.
Another instance preceding this event was the appearance of the Indian flag at the violent US Capitol protests. The idea of protestors identifying themselves with this flag, the circumstances around raising the flag and performing the nation rejuvenated this aspect of nationalism and national honour in many across the nation.
What does the flag mean to its citizens? Does nationalism take precedence over those who constitute the nation i.e. the Indian citizen? Should the state restore the status quo ante of the restricted use of the national flag to drift it away from being disrespected?
These issues rather take us back to the National Anthem case (Bijoe Emmanuel v. Union of India) as well as the National Flag case (Naveen Jindal v. Union of India) which dealt with respect to the nationalist symbols and what causes disrespect to them while delving into the idea of citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression. The court’s attitude in these cases indicated that the respect and honour regarded to these symbols circumscribe this right.
The idea of the national flag is one of pride and generates respect for the imagined community that is this Indian nation.
But under all that weight, it also stands for the struggles which ail India today. It is not the exclusive property of the state or the elite class or anyone else but belongs to all and thus incorporates a billion emotions unified under one national symbol. Yet, amongst the allegations of the farmers’ protests throughout the country, it is those from the land of Punjab who are facing the allegations of plotting and organising a Khalistani movement and a secessionist idea and the raising of Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort added to this belief.
The national flag is a national idea, the bearer of all that starts with the freedom struggle, and travels through the horizons of the independence at midnight, the Indian constitution itself, the ‘temples of modern India’ and the development and social progress associated with it, all the struggles of the citizens of India post-independence.
Thus, in this light, the contrasting scenario that highlights these competing interests begs the question: to whom does the flag belong and who represents the nation?
It is a tale of two ideas of nationalisms: the state’s interpretation of nationalism which is exclusive in nature, with the idea of nationalism being defined by the political elites and their followers versus the farmers’ or the common man’s interpretation of nationalism which is inclusive and which is defined by the citizen denying the monopoly of these elites over the nationalist symbols being used against the farmers, branding them as anti-nationals or Khalistani secessionists.
The events of 26th January is just a part of the larger narrative which while seen in a vacuum seems wrong but when seen in the context of state and its agencies looking at protesting farmers and citizens as secessionists, it represents all the colours of individual identity being displayed via a common medium, be it the flag or the anthem.
What it shows is that the state’s monopoly over defining nationalism means that any act of defiance or show of voice of dissent against the state would be seen as anti-national.
Using the nationalist symbol of the flag to push the political agenda and calling the citizen protestors anything other than patriotic champions of freedom is unjustified and shows the state’s unwillingness to let go off this idea of the state’s monopoly over what the flag represents.
The flag being the representative symbol of that nationalist idea when challenged at the Red Fort gave a boost to that monopolistic idea of nationalism. The state does not own this national idea. The national idea is defined by its people, the flag belongs to them and any interpretation otherwise is motivated by political aspirations.
The right to protest carrying the national flag is associated with nationhood and all that it represents. “National Anthem, National Flag and National Song are secular symbols of nationhood. They represent the supreme collective expression of commitment and loyalty to the nation as well as of patriotism for the country.” Any expression of the state or its subjects trying to deny this idea is inherently wrong.