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India's Independence Day: Patriotism and the right to fly the flag

India's Independence Day has always been a time when all citizens could fly the flag, but up until recent years, India had some of the world's most restrictive flag laws.

By Staff writer / August 15, 2010

Indian children sit in formation as they depict India's national flag at the Red Fort to celebrate India's Independence Day, in New Delhi, India, Sunday. Until recently, flying India's flag was only legally allowed twice a year.



New Delhi, India

Until recent years, Indian citizens could fly their flag only on two days: Republic Day (Jan. 26) and today's holiday, Independence Day. That changed after an Indian studying in Dallas saw Americans proudly waving Ol' Glory six ways from Sunday.

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Naveen Jindal returned to India to take over his father's steel factory. Inspired by the Americans, he started running the tricolor Indian flag up the factory pole every day until a visiting bureaucrat said he was violating the Flag Code. Mr. Jindal headed to court.

In Indian history, Jindal says, "the flag always belonged to the ruler, never to the people. When we got independence, the flag became a government flag" to be flown by officials.

The government argued that if ordinary citizens were allowed to always fly the flag, they might not take proper care of it. But also, says Jindal, these officials wanted to preserve the flag as their own status symbol. As a result, India was missing out on a chance to rally diverse citizens around a still-young nation, he says.

"When a person displays a national flag, then they rise above their political, regional, or caste affiliations," says Jindal, now a Member of Parliament and wealthy steel tycoon. "It is a great unifying factor."

Legal battles over the flag

After decades of legal wrangling, Jindal has fought and won a number of battles: the right for citizens to fly the flag any day (2004), the right to fly the flag at night (2009), and, this February, the right to wear a flag lapel pin in Parliament.

International flag experts, known as vexillologists, say that India's flag laws were among the world's most restrictive. Singapore used to prevent citizens from flying the flag except on its National Day, but they also nixed the rule in 2004. Up until 1985, private citizens in Argentina could only fly a tricolor version of their national flag without the sun emblem.

Britain, the former colonial ruler of India, has also been loosening flag rules. Government buildings used to be allowed to fly the flag on 18 days of the year, mostly to mark royal events. The palace assented to lifting the restriction a decade back, but it's only last year that the Union Jack began to fly daily from the government ministries up and down Whitehall.

Flag as unifying force

"What we are facing is something America faced from its foundation. If you have a non-homogenous population, a multicultural nation, what unifying thing have you got?" says Graham Bartram, chief vexillologist of the Flag Institute in London. "The two things we've got are the queen and the flag."

He sees India facing similar challenges.

"Young nations face from the start the problems that Britain is facing now, and that is you have a group of people who are not necessarily feeling that they belong to each other. But you need them to feel that way in order for your country work."