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BJP Government Stirs a Flag Frenzy in India

Hindu nationalists collaborated with colonial rulers but are now projecting themselves as flagbearers of Indian nationalism.

BJP Government Stirs a Flag Frenzy in India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tribute to Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar on his death anniversary, February 26, 2015.

Credit: Twitter/Narendra Modi

On August 15, India will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule.

Among the host of events and programs that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has launched to mark the milestone is the “Har Ghar Tirangacampaign, wherein citizens are being urged to unfurl the Tiranga or Tricolor, as the Indian national flag is known, atop their homes, and display it in their social media profiles.

The government says that the campaign is “to invoke the feeling of patriotism in the hearts of the people.” Home Minister Amit Shah has urged Indians to participate enthusiastically in the campaign to show the world that India has “risen from slumber” and is on the way to becoming a “great” power.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the campaign on July 22, India has been in a flag frenzy. People are taking selfies with the national flag and posting them online while the government is issuing certificates to those who register on campaign websites. Traders are reporting unprecedented sales of the national flag.

The Hindu nationalist BJP likes to project itself as the torchbearer of Indian nationalism and the custodian of its interests and culture. However, the party and its fraternal organizations have little understanding or empathy for India’s independence struggle and the values it stood for.

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This is because the BJP’s forerunners and icons stayed aloof from the freedom movement. Their role in the struggle was dubious, even dangerous.

The BJP’s progenitor, the Hindu Mahasabha, and its ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), did not take part in India’s freedom movement. These Hindu nationalist organizations collaborated with the colonial administration, especially at critical junctures of the struggle, including the 1930 Civil Disobedience Movement and the 1942 Quit India Movement.

While the independence movement focused on fighting the colonial rulers, the RSS was busy targeting Indians. “Hindus, don’t waste your energy fighting the British. Save your energy to fight our internal enemies that are Muslims, Christians, and Communists,” Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar (1906-1973), a prominent RSS ideologue, said.

Unlike leaders of the Indian National Congress – the mass-based, inclusive party that led India to freedom – who served multiple and long terms in jail, Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar (1883-1966), who conceived the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, filed clemency petitions five times, promising to cooperate with the colonial administration if he was let off.

The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS’ conception of Indian nationalism excluded Muslims and Christians, in contrast to the vision of India’s founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose, and others. They conceived of all of India’s religious communities as co-equal partners in the nation. The Tricolor represents this vision. The flag, which comprises saffron, white, and green horizontal belts spread in equal ratio, represents Hindus, all other religious groups, and Muslims, respectively.

Neither the Hindu Mahasabha nor the RSS accepted the Tricolor as India’s national flag. In December 1929, the Congress adopted Poorna Swaraj (complete independence) as its goal and called on all Indians to observe January 26, 1930, as Independence Day and mark it by unfurling the Tricolor. Keshav Hedgewar (1889-1940), one of the RSS’ founders, called on all RSS units to hoist and worship the Bhagwa Dhwaj (the saffron flag of the RSS) instead.

On the eve of India’s independence, the RSS mouthpiece “Organiser” declared that the Tricolor “will never be respected and owned by Hindus.” In line with its desire for an exclusively Hindu India, the RSS was in favor of a wholly saffron national flag.

The RSS did unfurl the Tricolor at its headquarters in Nagpur on the day India became free. But so great was its hatred of the Tricolor and the inclusivity and plurality it represented that the organization refused to hoist the Indian flag at its headquarters in Nagpur for five decades thereafter. And while it came around to flying the Indian flag from 2002 onward, it is the Bhagwa Dhwaj that the RSS prioritizes. It is the saffron flag that its leaders and foot soldiers worship during their daily early morning drills.

The political journey of Modi, Shah, and most of the top brass of the BJP and its fraternal organizations began in the RSS. They were schooled in its Hindutva ideology and are aggressively pursuing its agenda to make India a Hindu state. They do not believe in the inclusive India that India’s founding fathers believed in.

Neither have they imbibed the essence of the Tricolor, which represents an India of multiple religions and cultures. However, they are happy to wrap themselves with this flag as it enhances their claims to be guardians of Indian nationalism.

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A year ago, the Modi government launched the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav initiative to mark the 75th year of Indian independence through a string of events and programs. The Har Ghar Tiranga movement is part of that initiative. Launching it on July 22, Modi called on Indians to hoist the Tricolor or display it in their homes. “This movement will deepen our connect with the national flag,” he tweeted. Subsequently, he urged Indians to display the Tricolor as their profile picture on social media as he had done.

He has said nothing about the inclusive India this flag symbolizes.

To its credit, the Har Ghar Tiranga campaign will take the national flag atop and into Indian homes.

For decades after independence, the Tricolor was under the “custody” of the Indian state. The flag flew only atop government buildings with private citizens permitted to hoist it only on certain days.

That changed when parliamentarian Naveen Jindal filed a petition in the Delhi High Court and won individuals the right to fly the flag at their private premises. That effort culminated in an amendment to India’s Flag Code. The Flag Code of India 2002 lifted restrictions on members of the public, private organizations, or educational institutes hoisting the national flag on all days and occasions, ceremonial or otherwise. Restrictions on flying the national flag were eased further recently. The Flag Code of India 2022 permits the flying of the flag during the day and at night.

Allowing Indian citizens to fly the national flag at their homes and whenever they wish is welcome. Steps to free the flag from the control of the state, however small these steps may be, are fine.

However, Har Ghar Tiranga is a hollow campaign that has spread no public awareness of what the flag represents.

On paper, it is not mandatory for people to fly the national flag atop their homes. But when flying the flag is being equated to patriotism, those who don’t want to partake in this shallow brand of patriotism or practice it with the religious fervor expected of them by the BJP government run the risk of being labeled “anti-national.” India’s religious minorities, who are often slapped with such labels, are the most vulnerable as the Har Ghar Tiranga campaign accelerates. Those in India’s separatist regions like Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast are likely to bear the brunt of this enforced patriotism.

There have been reports of Kashmiris being forced to buy flags and contribute monetarily to the campaign. In other parts of India too, people are being denied access to food rations unless they buy the flag.

The possibility of right-wing vigilantes and Hindutva mobs targeting those who do not unfurl the flag atop their homes in the run-up to August 15 cannot be ruled out. They can be expected to enforce, even violently, their brand of patriotism on other Indians.

In the eight years that the BJP has ruled India, it has pushed a muscular nationalism and institutions have fallen in line. In 2016, the Supreme Court made it mandatory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before and after the screening of a movie. The court order emboldened Hindutva activists to physically assault those who did not stand up while the national anthem played. Will that be the fate of those who do not choose to wave the national flag this week?

The government has taken steps to make the national flag affordable and accessible to the Indian masses. While this is laudable, its amendment of the Flag Code to allow the use of machine-made and polyester flags lays bare the BJP’s shallow understanding and lack of appreciation of India’s freedom movement. Previously only flags made of khadi were permitted.

Why khadi? Why did this coarse fabric that is hand spun and hand woven using natural fiber become symbolic of the freedom movement and the obvious choice for the Tiranga?

Mill-made cloth manufactured in mills in Lancashire had flooded Indian markets in the early decades of the 20th century, devastating local economies.

Gandhi advocated the use of khadi instead, as spinning and weaving it was a source of livelihood for millions of impoverished Indians. It strengthened local economies. But also, encouraging the use of khadi dealt a blow to the British textile industry, which had benefited by sourcing raw cotton from India and by flooding Indian markets with finished goods.

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Using khadi was a powerful act of subversion against colonial rule; even as it weakened the colonial economy, it boosted local livelihoods. It drew the Indian masses into what was initially an elite movement. Khadi became the veritable uniform of Indian freedom fighters and the spinning wheel a powerful symbol of the struggle. Khadi and the spinning wheel played a major role in making the violence of colonialism and imperialism comprehensible to the illiterate masses.

By allowing machine-made polyester flags, the BJP government has severed the strong link between khadi and Indian independence, and economic self-sufficiency and political liberation.

This lays bare yet again the enormous distance between the Hindu nationalists and India’s unique and non-violent anti-colonial struggle.