[ This piece was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 27.7.17 ]
Karnataka has announced that it will examine the legality of having its own state flag, something it has had unofficially since the 60’s. As expected it has set off a firestorm in TV studios and simulated outrage in political circles. There is probably no legal bar to the idea as the Constitution nowhere prohibits a state from having its own flag or other emblems. Moreover, the Supreme Court, in the Bommai judgement of 1994 specifically ruled that a state can have its own flag, but it would be lower in status to the national flag. ( Incidentally, there is a delicious irony in the fact that at the time Bommai was the Chief Minister of Karnataka! History has its way of coming full circle). Flags are accepted symbols but this Karnataka flag symbolises something which should disturb all right thinking Indians.
Mr. Siddaramaiah may not know this but he is simply an instrument of history in the matter. What he has done is something which was waiting to happen: it was inevitable, just as when you plant a seed the inevitable outcome is the stalk of grain; we would perhaps understand it better through the adage “ as you sow, so shall you reap.”
Through the flag Mr. Siddaramaiah is asserting the distinct Kannada identity. But why, we may well ask, isn’t the Indian identity good enough ? It perhaps was- in the 1950’s- but over the last 60 years our politicians have chopped up and divided the country into so many thousands of sub-identities and sub-nationalities that we are no longer one nation but a toxic mix of different castes, classes, languages ,regions, religions. These always existed, of course, but as one organic coalescence and not as a witches’ brew in perpetual conflict with each other. What we have done is to drive a wedge between each of these sub-identities, pit one against the other for government largesse, political power and jobs, subjugate one at the cost of the other, create distrust among them to the point of mindless and unremitting violence: North against the South, Kolis against Jadhavs, Yadavs against non-Yadavs, Hindus against Muslims, Jats against Baniyas, Haryanvis against Punjabis, Kashmiris against Pandits, plainsmen against tribals, Tamil Nadu against Karnataka, and Bengal against everyone else. This didn’t happen organically- it was engineered assiduously in the quest for political power, and today we have reached the point where, in a grotesque twist, the main identity has become subservient to the sub-identity- I am a scheduled cast first, a Hindu second, a UP-ite third, and an Indian last. I must, therefore, continuously and aggressively assert my sub-identities to remain in the race for political dominance. This is what the Karnataka Chief Minister is now doing by implying that the national flag is not good enough for the Kannadas and asking for his own flag. It is but the natural progression of national fragmentation.
One may well ask, but why now ? After all, no such demand had been raised these last sixty five years. The answer is simple- the central govt. has just upped the ante by once again ham handedly trying to impose Hindi on the southern states. Language is the most vital ingredient of a peoples’ identity : it is not just their medium of communication but it contains their history, their culture, their ethos, their literature, even their Gods. If you want to eradicate a peoples, kill their language. The decision of the BJP government at Delhi, driven by its ideological hormones, to mandate Metro and National Highway signages in Hindi in all the southern states, was exceedingly ill advised. Furthermore, Mr. Modi’s style of centralisation of powers and unilateralism- Aadhar, GST, Cattle rules, Demonetisation- had already made the states wary and apprehensive of further encroachment of their turf. The latest Hindi salvo, therefore, further strengthened the fear of domination by the northern Hindi speakers, and played into the already existing passion for assertion of sub-regional identities.
The Karnataka flag will be seen by purists and political scientists as a struggle for federalism. It is that, but it is also much more. It is the latest manifestation of the splintering of a national identity, the inevitable denouement of the process of dividing communities for political gain, of a reassertion of regional power and relevance. It is a push back for the centre, a gentle reminder that a vote percentage of 31% does not confer a mandate on the BJP to ride roughshod over the sensibilities of the states. It is now inevitable that all other states will demand their own flags: such gestures develop an irresistible momentum of their own, as we have seen with the waiver of bank loans for farmers. When you ride the tiger of populism it is impossible to dismount. There will be other similar gestures of defiance- federalism, to be politically correct- in the days to come. Mr. Siddaranaiah’s flag is not one of surrender, it is a call to troops to let the battle begin.