What could be an act more uncontroversial, more unexceptionable, than flying the national flag “prominently and proudly” in a public place in this country, more so on a campus, where the young forge the future? Yet, the decision to do so, taken by the heads of Central universities, on their respective campuses, strikes a note that jars. Consider this: The decision was taken in a meeting called mainly to discuss the issue of discrimination on campus, framed starkly by the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, after he was hounded by a university administration and government that had labelled a protest undertaken by him as “anti-national”. It comes in the backdrop of the ongoing unrest on the JNU campus and spilling outside it, over the arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar for alleged sedition, for which no evidence has yet been presented, and which has been followed by vigilante violence by thuggish mobs of lawyers against students, journalists and Kanhaiya himself in the court premises, even as the police looked on. The decision to fly the tricolour on campus comes amid a toxic public debate in free-fall, featuring forged video evidence and a parody Hafiz Saeed Twitter account, in which the allegation of “anti-nationalism” is used as an argument-stopper and the BJP’s rhetoric sets out a Tebbit test of its own — “are you not encouraging anti-national forces by supporting such shameful anti-national activities,” asked BJP chief Amit Shah in a blog, not just of Rahul Gandhi but of critics of Kanhaiya’s arrest in general. The tricolour decision was the outcome of a meeting chaired by Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, whose ministry hectored Hyderabad Central University into taking action against Rohith, and who sought to justify Kanhaiya’s arrest on an apparently flimsy charge by announcing that the country would not tolerate an insult to “Bharat Mata”.
In this context, the resolve to fly the tricolour on the Central university campus — incidentally, it already flies on several campuses, without government diktat — smacks of the Modi government’s attempt to use it as cover for squelching the voices of debate and dissent. Worse, coming as it does in a moment when the freedom of expression seems growingly beseiged, it disrespects the very thing it claims to honour. The adoption of the national flag was a culmination of the struggle for independence — it is symbolic, today, of the people’s assertion and ownership of their sense of freedom. The Supreme Court recognised this when, in 2004, it liberated it from stuffy government protocols and allowed individual citizens to claim it and hoist it. It said: The “right to fly the national flag freely with respect and dignity is a fundamental right of a citizen within the meaning of Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India, being an expression and manifestation of his allegiance and feelings and sentiments of pride for the nation”.
By seeking to wrap itself in the national flag, as it stands on the wrong side of a building confrontation between those who seek to protect the citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and those who would curb it in the name of nationalism, the government does a disservice not just to its mandate, but above all, to the tricolour.