Patriotism hides many sins, and insistence on ritual respect to the flag deflects attention from the real problems in the country
The state never sleeps. It is ever vigilant to ensure that its symbols are never insulted or demeaned. The most important and visible symbol of the Indian state is the flag. The government of India, following the orders of the Supreme Court, has now issued guidelines about the proper use of the tricolour. The norms are wide-ranging, from how to display the flag on stage in the open to when to wave the flag, how to dispose of it and so on. The laying down of the strict guidelines can be interpreted in two possible ways. It is possible to argue that with the extension of democracy a large number of people ignorant of the traditions and the ethos of democracy have become active participants in the political system. Their social background has not given them the advantage of knowing that the national flag should be respected and that there are proper ways of showing this respect. For them, the guidelines are necessary; it is one way of educating the people in the traditions of democracy. The other way of reading the norms is as a sign of the fragility of the state. The state is so nervous about disrespect being shown to one of its principal symbols that it is trying to guarantee the respect by legal fiat. It is significant that no explanations have been given about the need for announcing the norms. If disrespect to the flag is on the rise then that should be seen as a symptom of a deeper malaise.
If disrespect to the flag and therefore to the nation and the republic is what is at issue then the government and the apex court should consider other forms of indignity to which the republic and its symbols are subject. Large sections of the political and the governing class — this includes the executive, the bureaucracy, the legislature and the judiciary — often show scant regard for the values which the republic is supposed to embody. The latest example is the growing communalization of politics and life in general. The republic stands for secularism and the flag with its three colours upholds the spirit of religious unity and tolerance. Political mobilization along religious lines violates these values and there is the glaring absence of concern within the political class over this ominous phenomenon in Indian society and politics. Similarly, the rampant corruption that is prevalent among the political class which should act as exemplars for the rest of society is an act of disrespect to the republic. It is redundant to say that these unseemly aspects of society cannot be reformed by orders from either the government or the court.
Respect to the flag cannot be ensured by fiat or law. The respect should come spontaneously and from pride in being Indian. This pride is wearing thin as the republic flounders on the rock of poverty, illiteracy and violence. The symbol of the nation does not flutter but it droops. The custodians of the state know it and hence the rush to ensure respect to the flag. No other country needs to be so prickly about its flag. Patriotism camouflages many sins and preoccupation with how the flag should be treated deflects attention from the real problems troubling the republic.