Reflections on patriotism for the poor on this Independence Day

The World Economic Forum estimated that as many as 220 million Indians sustained themselves for as little as Rs 32 per day. 80 million still do not have access to safe water either

Reflections on patriotism for the poor on this Independence Day

Sarosh Bana

The political turbulence buffeting India under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is generating heat even on the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi “urging” all citizens to hoist the national flag at home from 13 to 15 August, under his ‘har ghar tiranga’ (Hindi for ‘tricolour in every home’) campaign. “The idea behind the initiative is to invoke the feeling of patriotism in the hearts of the people and to promote awareness about the Indian national flag,” he remarked.

Nothing wrong with that, one might assume. However, the issue stirred a hornet’s nest, as this meant producing and providing the saffron-white-green flags to families across the country of a population of 1.4 billion, and millions of whom are homeless.

Many of them felt, “If the government is asking all of us to hoist flags at home, in a show of patriotism, it should first ensure housing for the poverty-stricken who live rough, so that we have homes where we can display our national flag with pride.”

India’s poor recall the Prime Minister’s promise to them of “housing for all” while campaigning for the 2019 elections. To lusty cheers, he had announced, “Let me inform you all that Modi, as Prime Minister, has made a solemn pledge that by 2022, when we celebrate 75 years of our independence, no family in India will be without a home of its own, and by home, I do not mean four walls and a roof, but one with tapped water, cooking gas connection, electricity, LED bulbs and a toilet.”

That this promise faded once the government was re-elected by a massive majority is evident from the fact that millions still are roofless, 80 million people lack access to safe water, and 229 million have no proper sanitation.

Moreover, 13 per cent of Indian households still have no electricity, and this included the ancestral village of the newly-elected President, Droupadi Murmu, the country’s second woman and first tribal President. Authorities were quick to electrify the village upon her nomination.

Another dispute arose. Those who changed their social media pictures to the tricolour were branded BJP acolytes and nationalists, while those who did not were labelled anti-nationals and traitors. A senior BJP leader also warned that homes without the flag would be photographed and the “anti-nationals” acted against.

“They can’t give you education, healthcare, so they feed you nationalism,” tweeted Twitter user Dr. Swaiman Singh. “Har ghar tiranga is fine, but only after har ghar food, har ghar education, har ghar healthcare.”

Varun Gandhi, an outspoken BJP MP, shared videos on Twitter where impoverished ration card-holders lament that they are being forced to buy the national flag for Rs20 (25 US cents) in order to procure their monthly subsidised provisions from the Public Distribution System (PDS). A staffer of a ration depot explained that senior officials had ordered that rations not be sold to anyone refusing to buy the flag. “We have to do what we are ordered to,” he says.

“It would be unfortunate if the celebration of the 75th anniversary of independence becomes a burden on the poor,” Gandhi tweeted. “It is shameful to collect the price of the tricolour, which resides in the heart of every Indian, by snatching the morsel of the poor.”

The PDS caters to the poorest in the country, providing them only basic subsistence from coarse foodgrains sold at affordable prices. A 2020 study from the World Economic Forum estimated that 220 million people in India sustained on an expenditure level of less than Rs 32 (40 US cents) per day. Purchasing a flag would thus dent their daily budget.

Woefully for them, the government has for the first time started levying Goods and Services Tax (GST) on staple foods, while simultaneously slashing budgets for nutrition programmes that are critical to India. Regretting that “unacceptable levels of malnutrition persist in the country”, New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment reports that 71 per cent of Indians cannot afford a healthy diet.

Last December, the government amended the Flag Code of India, 2002, permitting the flag to be made by machine and also of polyester, when previously it was only to be of handspun or handwoven cotton, in deference to the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who had tied indigenous cotton to Indian self-determination as he launched a boycott of British cotton goods.

The BJP government’s move to switch to non-biodegradable polyester, made out of petroleum, was widely derided. The government consequently placed huge orders for the flag with major textile groups rather than the grassroots cottage industry that has hitherto produced India’s flag and which provided gainful employment to the poor.

Many, including Opposition party leaders, questioned the bona fides of the BJP in preaching patriotism, when the party’s progenitor and political ideologue, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a rightwing Hindu paramilitary volunteer organisation founded in 1925, had stayed aloof from India’s independence movement and which idolises Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist.

The RSS had besides opposed the tricolour in favour of a saffron flag, saffron considered a sacred colour in Hinduism. In its issue of 14 August 1947, a day before India attained independence, the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, had maintained that the tricolour would “never be respected and owned by Hindus”. Evidently stung by the third green band in the national flag, which symbolised India’s Muslim population, the article added, “The word ‘three’ is in itself evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”

(The writer is Executive Editor of Business India in Mumbai, Regional Editor, Indo-Pacific, of Germany’s Naval Forces journal. He studied in India, Switzerland and Germany, and has been member of the Board of the East-West Centre Association (EWCA), a Hawaii-based think tank. Views are personal)

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