A longstanding demand by Kannada activists for an official state flag exploded into a major controversy on Tuesday, triggering allegations of subverting the Tricolour, and playing the political field ahead of Assembly elections. While Chief Minister Siddaramaiah maintained that nothing unconstitutional was afoot and dared the BJP to publicly reject the demand for an official flag for Karnataka, lost in the political noise were the realities of Kannada subnationalism, and the distinction, articulated by a Home Ministry official in New Delhi, between the “people” and the “state”. The background
In 2014, Patil Puttappa, a 96-year-old veteran journalist and Kannada activist, and Bheemappa Gundappa, a 56-year-old RTI activist, made a demand for an official flag for Karnataka. On June 6 this year, the Kannada and Culture Department of the state government notified the setting up of a nine-member committee to examine the feasibility and legal issues around the demand. The matter had been reported in the local media at the time, but it was picked up again on Tuesday, and projected as an effort by Karnataka’s Congress government to subvert the national flag and the laws that allow only Jammu and Kashmir to have its own flag. Attack, counterattack BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje alleged the government was “going against the nation” by setting up the committee to look into the demand for a state flag. BJP leaders alleged that the Congress was trying to whip up Kannada pride ahead of the 2018 elections. Janata Dal (Secular) leader H D Kumaraswamy said there is no provision in the Constitution for a state flag. “The Congress government is using this issue to divert attention from some recent controversies,” he said.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who has often sided with pro-Kannada activists on issues of local pride, rejected the allegations. “We have constituted a committee to look at the issues in the creation of a state flag. Based on the recommendations of the committee we will take a decision. Karnataka already has an official state song and there is a feeling that there is nothing wrong in having a state flag,” he said. “Having a state flag will not disrupt the unity and integrity of the country and will not reduce the stature of the national flag,” the Chief Minister added. “The national flag will always fly higher that the state flag, there are no two ways about it. Most importantly, the Constitution of India does not ban such flags,” he said.
“An attempt has been made to create a controversy. It is wrong of BJP leaders to spread misinformation. Let them state publicly that there is no need for an official flag for Karnataka. The committee has not been constituted with the Assembly elections in mind. The polls are scheduled only for May next year,” Siddaramaiah said. The committee is yet to meet to discuss the issue, said G S Siddaramayya, chairman of the Kannada Development Authority, who is part of the nine-member panel. In New Delhi, however, the leadership of Siddaramaiah’s own party betrayed nervousness at the turn of events. Sources in the Congress said the party high command felt the issue could be used by the BJP to attack it. It was “out of the question” for the Congress to accept a separate flag, a senior leader said. AICC general secretary in charge of Karnataka, K C Venugopal, said: “The Chief Minister has already given a clarification. They have not decided anything. The Culture Department of the state has set up the panel. It is not at the Chief Minister’s level. The committee will see whether the demand is admissible… legal points have to be looked into… The BJP wants to create a problem.”
A flag since the 60s
Incidentally, Karnataka has had an unofficial state flag since the mid 1960s when pro-Kannada groups were agitating against the screening of non-Kannada films in the state. The red and yellow flag was created by Kannada writer and activist Ma Ramamurthy for a pro-Kannada political party called the Kannada Paksha, after he observed that many parties representing non-Kannadigas had flags of their own. This unofficial flag is flown every year on November 1, Karnataka’s foundation day, and is a common sight at public places. Pro-Kannada activists have virtually adopted the red and yellow flag as a symbol of state pride. During agitations and protests like those over the sharing of Cauvery water with Tamil Nadu, the red and yellow banner often serves as protection against attacks by mobs — and private vehicles fly the flag in an attempt at ensuring safe passage for themselves.
In 2012, Karnataka’s BJP government accorded official status to the Karnataka flag through a notification. Chief Minister D V Sadananda Gowda said in his 2012 Budget speech that it would be compulsory to hoist the state flag on government buildings, schools and colleges. However, Kannada activist Prakash Shetty went to the High Court saying that rival activist T A Narayana Gowda was misusing the state flag for personal gain. During the hearing of the case, the then Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Vikramajit Sen, raised questions on the legality of states having their own flags when the law permitted only the national flag to be flown officially. The government then said it would not make it mandatory to fly the state flag. Eventually, on October 4, 2012, it withdrew the notification ordering the hoisting of the Kannada flag on government offices on November 1. People and state
In New Delhi, a Home Ministry official told reporters that “We are one nation, one flag”, but “legally, there is no provision either for providing or prohibiting a separate flag for any state”. This issue had been raised earlier too, but such a flag only represents “the people and not the state”, the official said. The Kannada flag was not raised on Republic Day or Independence Day, but on occasions like the state’s foundation day, Ministry sources noted.