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Identity parade: The politics of state flags

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-07-2017 Ashwaq Masoodi

New Delhi: On 7 June 1952, while moving the resolution in the Constituent Assembly for adoption of a national flag for Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, then prime minister of the state said: “As a rule, every nation of the world has its aspirations, ambitions, desires, aims and objects.....The symbol of all the desires and aspirations of a country is its flag. When the old system, which has trampled upon the hopes of this country, is dying and the resplendent sun of freedom is rising in the horizon, it is necessary that a symbol for the country should be adopted which should represent the hopes and desires of people”.

J&K has its own Constitution and emblem, and is the only state in India today with its own state flag. The red flag, with three equidistant white vertical strips and a white plough in the middle, is hoisted alongside the national flag of India.

While the state, under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, has a “special status”, there are other states in India which have also been seeking a separate state flag, with Karnataka being the case in point today. The Congress-led government in Karnataka has constituted a nine-member committee to design a state flag and submit a report on its legal sanctity.

Leaders of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) such as member of Parliament (MP) Shobha Karandlaje have alleged that the state’s Congress government was “going against the nation” by doing so. Chief minister Siddaramaiah was quoted in The Indian Express on Wednesday: “...Based on the recommendations of the committee, we will take a decision. Karnataka already has an official state song and there is a feeling that there is nothing wrong in having a state flag.”

How people feel about the national flag is unquantifiable, but a flag is definitely more than just a piece of fabric. It symbolizes a country’s past, its struggles, the achievements and helps crystallize a nation’s identity. It also defines a country’s character. So why a state or region demands a separate flag, experts say, is either a reflection of a disconnect, or that they believe that they identify with their individual, regional identities more than the homogenised national identity.

While some experts believe state flags have “meaningless symbolism” attached to it, others think letting a state have its own flag is a way of showing unity in diversity.

“All American states have separate state flags, even though there aren’t as many American identities as there are Indian identities. India has had a long, historical strand of sub-regional identities. But regional identities aren’t dependent on flags; but things like language, sometimes religion. There is no historical evidence to show that state flags contribute to anything meaningful. It is a mistaken sense that it contributes to building identities,” says Sanjay Srivastava, professor Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

To be sure, Karnataka has already had an unofficial state flag since the mid-1960s, created by Kannada writer and activist Ma Ramamurthy for a pro-Kannada political party called the Kannada Paksha. This move by the government now is just to give the flag a legal sanctity.

Having a state flag, or hoisting one is not wrong either, but does go against the BJP’s ideology as reflected by the slogan coined by Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, in 1952: ek vidhan, ek pradhan, ek nishan (one constitution, one prime minister, one flag). This is when the Sangh had started demanding full integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India, and abolition of the Article 370.

But this sense of disillusionment with a common flag is not limited to Karnataka. In fact, a separate flag for Nagas is one of 33 demands made by the NSCN(IM), which has been engaged in talks with the central government since a truce was finalised in 1997. In August, 2015, the Naga insurgent group and the Centre signed a ‘framework agreement’ in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a final settlement. Though the exact meaning of shared sovereignty hasn’t been divulged, according to a May, 2017 Times of India report, people aware of the matter have hinted at the possibility of Nagas getting a separate constitution, flag, parliament and judiciary.

To be sure, the Constitution does not prohibit a state from having a separate state flag. In S.R. Bommai v/s Union of India (Supreme Court 1994) case, the Supreme Court declared that there is no prohibition in the Constitution for the state to have its own flag. However, the manner in which the state flag is hoisted should not dishonour the national flag. It has to be always below the national flag.

Stressing that the question of Kashmir is very different and comparing the case with that of other states demanding state flags is misplaced, Kashmir-based political analyst Gul Muhammad Wani says, “Be it Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Nagaland—all these states have their own sub-nationalism and regional identities that don’t necessarily synchronise with the homogenised national identity. If states have their own flags, it is the recognition of the diversity of India. And by recognizing the regional identity, you are also making the national identity stronger.”

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