The controversy over Indian flag-themed doormats on Amazon's Canadian platform has several dimensions pertaining to specific legal, cultural, ideological and political grey areas. The discussions over the topic have so far been devoid of nuance, conflating separate issues while taking black or white positions.
While Sushma Swaraj, India's external affairs minister, has received widespread social media support for warning the e-commerce behemoth via Twitter to either take down the products or face visa-related sanctions prompting Amazon to drop the merchandise, critics have called it a 'bullying tactic', 'governing by social media' and have suggested that Indians are needlessly touchy when it comes to the Tricolour.
While, all of these are valid issues, each of them merits individual attention.
When it comes to the law, the e-commerce giant's 'marketplace' model may provide it with a certain legal immunity since the product was not part of its inventory. Nevertheless, by facilitating the sale of the Tricolour doormats through its platform in a foreign country did it violate any Indian legal provisions? Bear in mind that though Amazon wasn't selling the products in India, any of its customers even in Canada could have been Indians (residents or visitors).
Section 3 in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) under the title 'Punishment of offences committed beyond, but which by law may be tried within, India' says: "Any person liable, by any [Indian law] to be tried for an offence committed beyond [India] shall be dealt with according to the provisions of this Code for any act committed beyond [India] in the same manner as if such act had been committed within [India].
And what would constitute an "offence" when it comes to the Tricolour? Under The Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971, the subhead 'Insult To Indian National Flag And Constitution Of India' says: "Whoever in any public place or in any other place within public view burns, mutilates, defaces, defiles, disfigures, destroys, tramples upon or *otherwise shows disrespect to or brings into contempt (whether by words, either spoken or written, or by acts) the Indian National Flag or the Constitution of India or any part thereof, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both."
The law is clear. But let's move beyond the legal boundaries and consider the controversy from another angle.
Citing the national flags of other countries, it has been said that if an American or a Briton can turn the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack into tee shirts, cushion covers, undergarments or even doormats (it seems Amazon was selling flag-themed doormats of other countries as well), why do Indians have such a huge problem with the Tricolour being embossed on a product of daily use?
Let me explain why such a "liberal" view is wrong and why Indians are justified in feeling outraged.
This "liberal" argument goes at the heart of what is wrong with "liberalism" as a tradition and why it is facing such a global crisis. This false equivalence is symptomatic more of an ignorance of the nature of liberalism as a truly syncretic tradition, not a "one-size-fits-all" doctrine. True liberalism tolerates, respects and tries to syncretise different traditions of culture and faith and seeks common ground, rather than imposing its own assumptions and beliefs. This western brand of hard, monolithic liberalism runs contrary to the liberal ethos native to us. It sits at odds with the ganga-jamuni multi-culturalism and pluralism inherent in Indians.
Indians have grown to revere the symbols as ciphers of varying beliefs and it wouldn't have survived as a melting pot had there been no mutual respect.
Let me clarify.
The conflation of British and American examples with Indian attitude towards Tricolour ignores the fact that Indians have a different view of emblems. Indian respect for symbols is part of a long tradition of liberalism arising out of a heterogeneous civilisation. As a confluence of different faiths, identities, cultures and traditions, Indians have grown to revere the symbols as ciphers of varying beliefs and it wouldn't have survived as a melting pot had there been no mutual respect.
The imported brand of 'monolithic liberalism' that suffers from a bad case of self-righteous certitude undermines this very inclusiveness of which the respect towards the Tricolour is just one manifestation.
Beyond the argument over cultural sensibilities, let's now focus on the action taken by external affairs minister Swaraj, who had taken a stringent view of the matter and had threatened Amazon with visa-related sanctions and even ordered the Indian embassy in Canada to take it up at the "highest level".
It can be argued that the affable minister is guilty of overreaction and yet the development posed a political dilemma for Swaraj. The very public nature of the rebuke signifies that the minister wanted to leave no space for the Opposition to exploit it, which otherwise could have become a handy issue bang in the middle of an election season. The warning to the e-commerce giant was as much a venting of her personal indignation as a political reaction to a sensitive topic.