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.

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.

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.

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."

Indeed, India is attempting to hold together vastly different ethnic and religious groups. Separatist movements simmer across the subcontinent, with the most serious – Kashmir – boiling out of control this summer.

Adopting some of the tactics that won India its independence 63 years ago, Kashmiris have rejected the gun in favor of nonviolent protest – and stone throwing. Police have responded with deadly force, killing 57 since June. Most young Kashmiris fluently use the pronoun "they" when speaking of Indians.

The ebb and flow of Indian patriotism

Indians "have a problem with national symbols," wrote economist Bibek Debroy in a 2008 newspaper article. Indian athletes at the Beijing Olympics showed up to the opening ceremony in training gear, he wrote, adding that few athletes mouth the national anthem before contests.

"We may be proud of our glorious past and our glorious future. But we aren't yet proud of the present," he wrote.

Other cultural observers disagree. Indian sociologist Amulya Ganguli says that the citizens did fly the flag for the first five years after independence, but the novelty wore off.

"That doesn't mean that the people lost their patriotism, but that overt display was no longer considered necessary," says Mr. Ganguli.

Indian patriotic display ebbs and flows, he says. After the Chinese invaded India in 1962, cinema halls started playing the anthem at the end of films. Over time, however, cinema-goers left early so the practice ended.

He suspects "flaunting" of the flag might be met with ridicule, and does not worry much that it could lead to jingoism. "In India, nothing is very solemn. We are a sort of lackadaisical type."

Another Indian who went to America to study, but stayed, sees too much cheap nationalism in his native land. Patriotism calls for shared sacrifice and a concern for one's fellow citizens, says Sumit Ganguly, an Indian specialist at Indiana University in Bloomington. India today, he says, has little patriotism but a surfeit of national pride among elites who rejoice in new malls and shiny cars.

Mr. Ganguly, who recently returned to Delhi for work, has been confronted by young children selling small Indian flags to motorists at traffic stops for 10 rupees, or 21 cents.

"I bought two of these flags because I was soaking in guilt as I was driving in my air-conditioned SUV and I was thinking there but for the grace of God go I. What does 63 years of independence mean for these children?" he asks. "There was a kind of noblesse oblige in India toward the poor. That seems to be completely gone."

Jindal does not claim the flag will heal the nation's deep fractures. But his organizational behavior class at the University of Texas taught him that one way into a person's heart is to ask them to do you a favor. By asking citizens to fly the flag, they become more disposed to do other things for their country.

"Waving a flag has a lot of responsibility," says Jindal. "You take an oath of being a responsible citizen and doing your own job well."

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