Who Really Insulted the Tricolour?

Narendra Modi’s comments on the tricolour and “insults to it” should be seen in the background of the nature of the current protests and the RSS's ritual opposition to the same tricolour until recently.

“India was saddened by the insult to the tricolour on Republic Day” stated Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a few days ago.

He was referring, obviously, to the mayhem that broke out when farmers, their friends and enemies, streamed into Delhi on January 26.

‘India’, on behalf of whom Modi now speaks with unusual authority, is surely entitled to feel more than hurt if the flag was desecrated. This charge, however, camouflages more than it reveals. During the protest, the national flag atop Red Fort was not only untouched, but the Nishan Sahib that was hoisted on the fort’s ramparts was certainly not the flag of ‘Khalistan’ – as was let loose into the breeze, quite mischievously.

It was at a considerable distance from the tricolour and its pole was nowhere near in height. What intrigues me the most is why the person who led the move to plant the flag is moving around so sure of himself and posting video messages on social media.

Since the entire world knows that he was (and may still be) associated with the ruling party, it is surely time for the nurser of hurts to come out and declare his ‘official’ position on him. After all, the man purported to have been behind the flag hoisting has flaunted his photograph next to the prime minister, and since this cannot be dismissed as ‘crowd scene’ snap, “the nation needs to know” who or what prompted him to cause the hurt. 

Narendra Modi and Sunny Deol with Deep Sidhu. Photo: Twitter/@HaddHaiYaar

The narrative that is being sought to be peddled is, however, fraught with danger.

By highlighting that someone from the Sikh community defiled the national flag, an entire people is sought to be dragged in. The community has always produced excellent farmers and has historically provided the finest of soldiers – many more than people whose belligerent talk is certainly not matched by their numbers joining the army.

A patriotic community cannot be vilified just because it took the lead in opposing suspiciously rushed-through pieces of legislation.

What the dispensation’s cheerleaders have not understood, among countless other things, is that the long and peaceful agitation of farmers at Delhi’s borders is fast becoming a metaphor for righteous resistance – and may soon join the ranks of Chipko, Champaran or Bardoli.

Public imagination is in the process of inscribing the name of the tormentor who launched unprovoked depredations on agitating agriculturalists quite permanently into popular lore. Once that happens, woe betide the villain of such balladic tales, for his name shall be spat upon for ever. 

Also read: In 2014, the Sikh Flag Flew at the Red Fort – And the Hindu Rightwing Had No Complaints

Even dropping innuendos about Sikhs fomenting trouble and proclaiming them or a section as ‘anti-national separatists’ without first providing solid evidence is outrageous. Some Khalistani supporters may have penetrated the huge ocean of protesting farmers, but can anyone swear that there is no foreign agent ensconced within the upper echelons of this regime – or any other?

Punjab has suffered more than its share of political outrage, stoked often by religious fanatics and their opponents. It is only prudent not to stomp with jackboots on sensitive issues that may ignite other problems. To fling conspiracy theories around would also whip up outrage. It is imperative for the regime to desist from short-term outwitting games and, instead, attend to the disaffection caused by these Acts.

Two simple public statements may defuse the situation immediately – one, that the time-tested MSP (minimum support price) system would remain, and the other that all the talk of Ambani-Adani grabbing farm produce is not true. 

Barricades being set up by the police near the site of farmers ongoing protest against farm reform laws, at Singhu Border in New Delhi, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. Photo: PTI/Kamal Singh

A ruler would then not have to dig deep trenches, build concrete walls and drive killer spikes to barricade himself from his own people. Besides, if we are to give some credence to organisations of agitating farmers, that have held together millions in absolute peace for over two months, there is certainly much more that what met the eye and the television cameras on India’s most boisterous Republic Day.

The identity of those agent provocateurs and others who broke into Delhi with so relative ease, much before the appointed hour of the peaceful ‘tractor rally’, and then fought pitched battles with the police needs just time and sincerity to be established. There is abundant camera footage available. It was the unruly exertions of these groups that incensed captive television audiences. The latter was larger than usual, as it was a holiday, and everything appeared to be working on cues. Anchors competed with each other to scream and condemn the violence – as is only expected when dramatic displays of indignation at dissent have become so institutionalised. 

Also read: Why Was the Red Fort Left Unguarded When Delhi Was on ‘High Alert’?

Contemporary history tells us that India has seen many such and several more virulent protests in recent decades, but hardly ever has public vexation been titrated and channelised so effectively. Those who opposed well-fortified governments earlier were certainly not doing so by showering rose petals on the sentinels. But, they were not automatically condemned as seditionists and user-friendly media did not bay for their blood.

Let us recall, for instance, the Navnirman Andolan of Gujarat in which, in which Narendra Modi claims to have played an active role. Destruction of public property was rampant, as was arson, and credible reports indicate that nearly a hundred persons died in violent clashes with government forces. About 3,000 were injured and police records attest that over 8,000 were arrested.

Also read: The Emergency, and the BJP’s Hidden History of Student Protest

Literally, hundreds of other similar destructive public protests and eruptions have wracked the country since then, but regime-apologists were not to tear their vocal chords in frenzied bouts of feigned horror. The point is that protests do often boil over – in every age and in every country.

The perceived ‘violence’ in the USA during the recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ agitation is just one painful example. No one in their right mind can either encourage or condone violence. Rulers also need to make more sincere and less juvenile, media-targeted attempts to get to the roots of such effervescent angst. 

When Modi mentions of India’s sadness at the insult to the tricolour, it is only befitting to recall the stand that his own parent organisation, the RSS, took just before Independence. Its mouthpiece, Organiser, mentioned in its issues of July 17 and 22, 1947, that the Indian tricolour will “never be respected and owned by the Hindus.”

According to it, “The word three is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”

This is obviously incorrect, as ‘three’ is so prominent in Hinduism – from the trishul to trimurti, the three-pronged sacred weapon of Hindus to the holy triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar.

Also read: A Farmer Can’t Be Draped in the Tricolour at His Funeral, But a Lynching Accused Can

Modi’s guru M.S. Golwalkar, the second chief of the RSS, also bemoaned that independent India’s “leaders have set up a new flag for the country – why did they do so?”

In his Bunch of Thoughts, he declared,, “Ours is an ancient and great nation with a glorious past. Then, had we no flag of our own? Had we no national emblem at all these thousands of years? Undoubtedly we had. Then why this utter void, this utter vacuum in our minds?” Golwalkar did not, however, elaborate which ancient national emblem or flag he was alluding to. We know, of course, that he wanted to replace the all-embracing tricolour flag with the Bhagwa Dhwaj, the saffron ‘split flag’ of the RSS, that represented only Hindus.

It is, therefore, appropriate to view Narendra Modi’s present comments on the tricolour and “insults to it” in this background. Far from disowning this heritage, he actually cherishes it. It was Sardar Patel, who he worships so publicly and at public expense, who actually compelled Golwalkar and the Hindu Right to retract their opposition to the Indian national flag. He set it as a pre-condition for lifting the 18-month ban on the RSS and for releasing its leaders from jail.

It may, therefore, be wiser to let India and Indians decide for themselves which insult to the national flag really hurts them more. 

Jawhar Sircar is a former culture secretary, Government of India. He tweets at @jawharsircar.