The image of the lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir leading a tiranga yatra (tricolour parade) in Srinagar and the video of a motor-borne cavalcade driving past Dal lake should embarrass any Indian. The LG and his party members know the truth of his claim that all the Kashmiris who took the tricolour in their hands did so voluntarily. Authority has a way of delivering a performance. Many Indians associated with the government also sang ‘God Save The King’ under British rule. That does not mean that most Indians living in the colonial period were lovers of the Raj.
It is also a cold fact that not all Indians were averse to living as subjects of the British. Many of them, in fact, treated with contempt those who were fighting against the Raj. The proportion of the Indian population which participated in the anti-colonial struggle might make us rethink the notion that patriotism and nationalism come naturally to people.
Can all of this be cited to say that India’s desire for freedom was not legitimate or that even those who did not actively participate in the freedom struggle liked their status of being colonial subjects? Everyone resented the fact that their will was not present in the rule they were under. The colonised Indians knew that they were treated by the rulers as lesser human beings and the price of getting benefits from the Raj was the surrender of the self.
The tricolour became a symbol of revolt against this subhuman condition. People took risks to hold it, unfurl it, and declare their autonomy. They endured caning and gunshots. The tiranga represented that free spirit – defiance of the power that sought to subjugate them.
The tricolour also became a symbol of togetherness, a new sociality that India wanted to forge. Freedom can be imagined without togetherness, and togetherness is impossible without equality. Nehru, while presenting the tricolour to the constituent assembly, encapsulated the spirit behind it in his own poetic way:
“…this flag that I have the honour to present to you is not, I hope and trust, a flag of empire, a flag of imperialism – a flag of domination over anybody, but a flag of freedom not only for ourselves but a symbol of freedom for all people who may see it.”
Of course, India is not an empire; we are not annexing any foreign territory. However, the ambitions and ways of those who rule India can sometimes be imperialistic. When we force an unwilling hand to lift the flag, we subjugate them, dominate them.
If an individual or organisation does not want to hold the tricolour, they should not be forced to do so. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), for a long time in its post-1947 history, refused to hoist the tiranga at its offices on January 26 or August 15. Were they ever forced to put up the tricolour? The RSS’s leaders and members enjoyed all the rights that other citizens of India had, without being asked to march with the tricolour in their hands.
Just as the tricolour did not carry the same symbolism and message to everyone in the past, the same is arguably true of the present. The relationship of people in different parts of the country with the idea of the nation-state has been complex and has evolved over the last 70 years. The history of the making of the Indian nation, even after the departure of the British, has not always been pleasant, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself acknowledged in parliament when he attacked the Congress for using the Air Force against separatists in Mizoram in 1966.
And yet, those who gave India its constitution wanted the tricolour to carry a message of friendship. In Nehru’s words, “wherever it may go, it will bring a message, I hope, of freedom to those people, a message of comradeship, a message that India wants to be friends with every country of the world and India wants to help any people who seek freedom.”
The fundamental idea behind the tricolour was that of freedom, “…That I hope will be the message of this Flag everywhere, and I hope that in the freedom that is coming to us, we will not do what many other people or some other people have unfortunately done, that is, in newfound strength suddenly expand and become imperialistic in design.”
The thought behind this national flag was that we would not do to others what the British had done to us. Nehru and others knew that there is nothing very special about us that can prevent us from lashing out at other people.
Nehru said, and the Constituent Assembly agreed, “If that happened, that would be a terrible ending to our struggle for freedom. But there is that danger, and therefore, I venture to remind this house of it… there is this danger in a country suddenly unshackled, stretching out its arms and legs and trying to hit out at other people. And if we do that, we become just like other nations who seem to live in a kind of succession of conflicts and preparation for conflict.”
In 1947, Kashmir chose to associate with India on the basis of its own identity and India accepted its accession on those terms. That compact was obliterated on August 5, 2019 when Article 370 was struck down by parliament. J&K’s flag was snatched from its hands, and it was asked to hold only the tricolour. Now, this is exactly what Nehru and the members of the constituent assembly had forbidden us to do. We have to be honest about the move. It was to hit out at the Muslim Kashmiris and humiliate them.
The images of Kashmiris queuing up to enter a stadium to watch the unfurling of the tricolour should not mislead us into thinking that they were doing so willingly and with joy in their hearts. For them, the tricolour represents the worst of the Indian state. They feel it has been planted on their chests, and their mouths have been forced shut. Journalists in Jammu and Kashmir live in fear of being charged with imaginary crimes. Dozens have had their passports impounded for no reason. You can imagine the state of those who want to hold a demonstration or even a hall meeting to criticize or protest a government decision. Kashmiri lips have been sealed, and hands tied behind their backs. And only then have they been allowed to walk freely.
Jammu and Kashmir is one of the most controlled places on Earth. All aspects of the lives of the people are being watched by the state. Academics cannot write, cannot speak. Their writings, their classes, their pasts are under observation and scrutiny. They can be fired from their jobs without any notice. University teachers are revisiting their academic papers, writings, and getting those pulled down from the websites which the Indian state might find objectionable.
A colleague who was visiting a university in J&K to attend a seminar was taken aback when she saw the police marching in the seminar hall. If we think that in this atmosphere people can speak freely, there is something fundamentally wrong with us.
Circulars and notices ‘inviting’ people to attend Independence Day programs at different venues by their names were sent out to organisations and institutions. At the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, a total of 402 ‘invitees’ comprising professors, lecturers and staff were told they “shall mandatorily attend the Independence Day Celebration Function scheduled on 15.08.2023 at Bakshi Stadium, Srinagar” and that “officers from University of Kashmir [have been] nominated as Identifiers for facilitating identification of participants from University of Kashmir at the Independence Day celebration venue”.
Could these individuals afford to ignore this ‘invitation’ by the Indian state? One where ‘identifiers’ had been tasked to report back? It is only fair to ask how many of the other Kashmiris who turned up did so on the basis of a similarly compelling ‘invitation’?
So, we saw people out on the streets, streets which had no restrictions with even the Internet working. This is the triumphant demonstration of the final victory of India in the valley of Kashmir. We know, however, that it is a lie.
What is true, in a manner of speaking, is that the fear of violence and terror has replaced the fear of something else. All of us who still believe in the vision and ideals of the tricolour must have the courage to recognise the reality.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.