A mature democracy ought to rise above earnest tokenism. The periodic fuss over the national flag has become a somewhat ridiculous feature of Indian political sentimentality. The nation has its sacred symbols (the tricolour, the national anthem and the Constitution), and preventing “insult” to these is what makes up the exalted notion of “national honour”. A bill — recently passed by the Lok Sabha and awaiting the Rajya Sabha’s approval — attempts to define more exhaustively the insults or “disrespect” that the national flag could be subjected to. Its language positively froths at the mouth with patriotic fervour. Whoever publicly “burns, mutilates, defaces, defiles, disfigures, destroys, tramples upon or otherwise brings into contempt” any of these symbolic icons will be punished with imprisonment. The bill then goes on to specify, in neurotic detail, all the horrible things that could be done to the flag, and the list is quite endless. What is striking about the tone and contents of this bill is the extent to which the concept of national honour is founded on fetishism and paranoia. The tricolour, anthem and Constitution get transformed into sanctified objects which are then conveniently elevated above the actual defilements of Indian realpolitik. Once the Constitution becomes a sort of Holy Grail, then actual perversions of its founding principles — corruption, sectarian violence and the unabashed abuse of fundamental rights — become perfectly consonant with the concept of national honour.
Similarly, a democracy that has to keep a constant and increasingly anxious vigil over its hallowed symbols betrays a kind of humourless insecurity regarding its self-image which is, in turn, an indication of what it has yet to achieve in stability and maturity. During discussions on this bill, ministers have spent a great deal of passion and time insisting on enforcing the national anthem in schools and universities. It has also been suggested that the song, Vande Mataram, be made part of the bill’s purview. Such mindless ritualism can only create a nation of boys eternal, frozen in salute while almost everything that the Constitution originally upheld is subverted with impunity. Healthy irreverence and a sense of humour also have their political function and value, particularly in a modern democracy which cherishes the individual’s freedom of action and expression. Lack of political scruple and an excess of patriotic zeal make a bizarre combination. Amending the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Bill elevates this dire combination to the status of a national pathology, which sensible Indians will find difficult to take seriously.