Monday, March 16, 2009

The Question of National Flag

I must say a friend started this and he is not even Indian. I know Farhan for many years now, and know that he is a visionary and a patriot. He is Bangladeshi to the core, and believes in Bangladesh. He, and Daniel, a German national who lives in Bangladesh as a Brand and Communications Consultant, launched a movement named Amar Potaka [www.amarpotaka.com]. It is a simple movement - it encourages people to display their national flags everywhere, on cars, office tables and windows. But it is a brave movement, something that is right for the time, this cynical moment when people don't believe in countries anymore. Truly, a national flag is a lovely symbol, it allows us to go beyond ourselves and connect to the greater identity of our nations and community.

The website says Daniel did this in Germany before World Cup 2006 and he got the idea to Farhan. I am sure Farhan sees this symbolism going far beyond football. Germany, and Europe, has a long history of national identities. The societies here are almost post-nationalist, and they have actually experienced the horrors of extreme nationalism. These days, European countries are keen on building a continental identity and keeps their national rivalries safely in the realm of sport [except English football fans, who often take it too far]. However, in a 'new' country like Bangladesh, nationalism can be redeeming, a positive force which can overpower the factionalism and divide inside the society. Particularly so for Bangladesh - a country created based on a linguistic identity, which has been fighting a ghost war between its religious and linguistic [and therefore secular] identities since its inception. The recent mutiny is proof enough that the bloody conflict is still on. This is where the Bangladeshi flag comes with all its redeeming symbolism, right before its independence day of 26th March [when it started with another mutiny, a BDR, then East Pakistan Rifles, Major, Zia-ur-Rahman announcing the independence on radio]. Farhan and Daniel got the message right on time!

This brings me to India, inevitably. India is a new nation, and we are surely in denial of this fact. We take the nationhood in India for granted. We say that we have always been like this, so why do we need a flag or anything else to remind us who we are. If any historian ever suggested [wrongly] that India is a British creation, we have been up in arms. But we always pointed the wrong way - we have never once said that India as a modern nation was created by the men and women of our constituent assembly in 1950 - we have always said that India was like this since the Vedas, since Ashoka connected us, Akbar ruled us and Aurengzeb dominated us. But that is historical mysticism, not realistic nation building strategy that we must pursue.

Yes, we are an old civilization, but a new nation - and we have never admitted or tried to understand the difference. And, this incomprehension, more than any other reason, is behind our stumble to create an unified nation. I do know that we have an unique idealism, a poor country which offered universal suffrage from day one of the republic, a secular country with so many religions and language, a very special model of nationhood, a complete model, among the nations of the world. A country long subdued, exploited and divided, but united by an idea. I find this concept stirring and uplifting. But, we remain in denial of our own dreams and deeds, and continuously invoke the past out of our centuries old insecurities.

And, therefore, we do not have national symbols. I mean, of course, we have them written in Government offices, but how many people know or see them seriously. The dramatic moment of Slumdog Millionaire comes when Jamal did not know 'Satyameb Jayate' and had to fall back on the audience. But then this is our own making. Let's talk about Indian flag then, the concept Farhan ignited in me and I thought why people don't fly, wear, carry Indian flag all the time. Easy answer - there was an executive code prohibiting the flying of Indian flag by common people which the government has only just rescinded. Only just, as recently as 2002, and only when an American educated industrialist, Naveen Jindal [now MP], decided to go to court for his right to fly the Indian flag on his factory premises. He had to, almost unbelievably, fight for his right to fly his country's flag in own country, for six long years! I shall surely recommend everyone to read Naveen Jindal's story elegantly presented by Ramesh Menon on Rediff.

Naveen Jindal has won the case, but the greater question remains. Is the biggest failure of modern India lies in creating a state, with all its attendant symbols, for a small class of people? I think so, and I think this comes from the hangover from the colonial times. Despite all the glories of Britannia, the British rulers only ruled parts of India, its major cities, and left the vast countryside, the real country, to a coalition of landlords. This country, as the tales of the time recount, went on uninhibited, in its own pace, by the lives of the city men. This was that India of the old, which remained unconnected and almost free from colonial dominion.

Gandhi's genius was to discover this India and spread the political message here. Gandhi did not just fight the British with Indian nationalists, he fought the coalition of city Babus with their British rulers with the strength of the common man of this village India. We rode to freedom on the back of this brilliant strategy. Seen in this light, India's idea was all but natural - its secularism, its democracy - it came from this win of the universal against the privileged, of the commoner against the Babus.

But this, I suspect, was too much and therefore, we stole our own freedom. We locked up the new national symbols in government offices and told the masses to go live life as usual. As if nothing happened, we brought those landlords back in and gave them a new franchise, in another name. And, we said, nothing changed - we go back to Ashok's time right now [when there were no Muslims or Christians]. This is why our national symbols, the whole concept of the new Indian nation, is so neglected, so forgotten.

However, I think we are at an inflection point, where this strategy has failed. The democracy is too much to handle, and Ashok, if he was to face a public vote and offered comparable level of public service [both of which are equally unlikely], would have been voted out of office. We are at a point - after Gujrat Riots, Mumbai 26/11, our internal chasm, numerous scandals, mass poverty, recession of 2009 - that we must get back our nationhood. We must redeem ourselves as a modern nation now. And, for that, I think we need to free up our national symbols and identify with them.

How about building an India Society in every community in our country? Those who meet every Sunday and talk about everything Indian. We can do another day if Sunday sounds too Christian. But this will wash away our chasm, of different communities and religions, and allow us to think of our identity as Indians. What about wearing a little flag on our shirts? What about displaying it in our offices? What about a fashion trend of wearing national colours [would that break the law]? What about loving our country for what it is, and dream together what it can be?

Daniel in Germany did this for the pride of football. Farhan in Bangladesh did it for the sake of his fractured nation. Naveen Jindal tried to regain the stolen property back to us. Can we do our bit now - just be a bit proud for our country and start all over again!

1 comment:

Farhan Ali said...

Well written!
I agree with most of what I just read.. May be it's just me but I think India can boast some enviable levels of patriotism and "national" passion that many countries cannot; and it makes it very special given that there is little that connects the whole of India except the idea of unity and diversity. You rightly mentioned that European countries are "nations" as they distinguish themselves along national identities. India on the other hand is a country of "nations" and our patriotism is thus very special because it is based on values and is not naturally thrust upon us. But yes, we are new nation and this value needs to be reiterated.. a values that allowed us to take the path of self-determination.. the values of unity, diversity and freedom! These values have built the nation and should be the source of our national pride!

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