In Mani Ratnam’s iconic 1992 film ‘Roja’, Arvind Swamy, a cryptologist working for the Army, is held captive by militants fighting for the Kashmir cause. Upset that the Government of India refused to swap a top militant for a military asset, one of the militants sets the Indian flag on fire. His spirit crushed after weeks of torture and arms bound by rope, the incident sparks patriotic fervor within Swamy as he fights his way out of confinement to put off the fire. Dressed in red woolens, Swamy rolls over the burning flag, and A R Rehman’s acclaimed soundtrack stirs emotions among viewers to a new level. Surprisingly, his jeans, not the sweater, catches fire. An inconsequential goof up by one of India’s best known director, whose trilogy of films — Roja, Bombay and Dil Se..– accurately captured human emotions set in a political backdrop. The entire movie boils down to this scene, where the protagonist shows how much India means to him and that flag is not just another empty symbol.
Three years later, when the same Arvind Swamy starred in ‘Bombay’, theaters in Hyderabad and northern Karnataka had to take it off the screens as a few found certain scenes objectionable. The film was also subjected to heavy censor cuts and Mani Ratnam had to make more concessions to keep former Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray happy. The reasons behind the protest were more to do with religion than anything else.
The flag, which epitomises patriotism and arouses nationalistic feelings, was originally used by military units of the old order to distinguish themselves from the enemy. The cross of St. George, a constant feature in banners used by Knights and later adopted by Roman legions, was used by the likes of knights Templar, a religious order formed to protect Christians against marauding “savages”. The concept of the flag was later extended to maritime use, where trade and military ships alike proudly displayed their colours. Countries only began adopting the practice in the 18th century — Denmark and Netherlands, however, remain an exception.
The Supreme Court order making it mandatory for theaters to play the national anthem, with accompanying images of the national flag, before the screening of a film, and for people to stand up as a mark of respect, could infringe upon at least one of the six fundamental rights recognised by the Constitution. The court, in its order, said: “Time has come for people to realise that the national anthem is a symbol of constitutional patriotism… people must feel they live in a nation and this wallowing individually perceived notion of freedom must go…people must feel this is my country, my motherland.”
In America, individuals are protected by the same “notion of freedom”, namely the first amendment. President-elect Donald Trump’s recent outburst on Twitter, threatening to put those burning the star-spangled banner behind bars, raised doubts whether the US Supreme Court’s landmark 1989 ruling on flag desecration would be overturned. In a controversial 5-4 decision, the bench recognised the burning of the American flag as an act of free expression. Americans have also shown “disrespect” to the US national anthem, but there is no law against this act of free will. Take San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for example. At the start of the National Football League season, Kaepernick kneeled in protest when the national anthem was being sung. With his actions captured on live television and the subsequent visuals beamed across the nation, Kaepernick wanted to highlight the discrimination against blacks in America. This act of protest drew widespread criticism and he was constantly hooted by fans. However, he found support from fellow players who similarly took a knee or raised their fists during the anthem.
In India, many have returned awards or refused government citations in protest. But no law stops them from doing so. Now, with the Supreme Court mandating everyone to stand in attention, doing a Karpernick in India would invite court sanctions and punishment. This is likely to breed a new set of dissidents who would follow the law in letter but not in spirit.