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Karnataka flag no threat to Indian Union: Yellow, white and red symbolise different aspects of citizens' identity

A flag symbolises identity. A flag symbolises power and jurisdiction. A flag symbolises the collective aspirations of a people. And in any normal human assemblage, identities are multiple, power and jurisdiction are often layered and divided and the collective aspirations of a people also distributed along these multiple identities. These multiple identities are not about part and whole, but are about different aspects of one’s identity, of various forms of belonging. This is especially true in an essentially multi-national federal polity like the Indian Union whose linguistic states and the identities contained therein predate the formation of the Union.

Chief minister Siddaramaiah unveiling the new flag of Karnataka. Twitter/@CMofKarnataka

Chief minister Siddaramaiah unveiling the new flag of Karnataka. Twitter/@CMofKarnataka

Thus, one is at the same time a Kannadiga and a citizen of the Indian Union and the promise of the republic inaugurated on 26 January, 1950, was precisely to create conditions such that these two identities are never in conflict with each other. However, when homogenising forces try to flatten the diverse peoples of the Indian Union, people who are not rootless do not simply succumb to the steam-roller and they hold aloft their banner of resistance. That can take many forms. One of them is a flag. What Kannadigas always knew has now been declared to all other citizens of the Indian Union. Karnataka has its own flag.

On 8 March, the government of Karnataka officially approved the state flag. Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah unveiled it, with the chairperson of the Kannada Development Authority flanking him. The design was arrived at after extensive discussion with stake-holders, including Kannada organisations and renowned Karnataka intellectuals. A few months ago, the government correctly sought public input for such an important matter as the flag of a state belongs to the people and not the government. There are a few discordant voices that have taken exception to the design of the flag and insisted that the widely used yellow-red flag was good enough.

The present flag is a close variant of that banner, with yellow on top, red on bottom with the addition of a white band in the middle which has the official Karnataka state symbol in it, including the lion crest of Ashoka. Siddaramaiah stated what the newly unveiled design symbolises: “Yellow represents wealth and celebration, white represents peace and stability, red represents valor and pride.” Originally, the yellow and red also represented arrishna (turmeric) and kumkuma (vermilion), thus symbolising auspiciousness and well-being.

Unlike some other states, the yellow-red Karnataka flag is wildly popular. It has for long been the almost official flag of Karnataka. It has till now fluttered proudly on Karnataka Rajyotsava or Karnataka state formation day on 1 November, when in 1956, the largely Kannada speaking regions were united by popular demand under a single homeland. That is what Karnataka represents in addition to the dignified presence of native linguistic minorities like Tulus, Kodavas and others. This Karnataka flag has been held aloft in recent years by APJ Abdul Kalam when he was President of the Indian Union, BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa when he was chief minister of Karnataka, by former Prime Minister of Indian Union HD Deve Gowda at his party rallies and by present Karnataka premier and Congress leader Siddaramaiah.

Thus, there is documented evidence of this flag being used as a banner of Karnataka identity by all hues of political opinion in Karnataka. This flag flies proudly in almost all government offices of Karnataka, including Union government offices.

Even on streets of Karnataka, flagpoles with the banner flying proudly is a common sight. The official website of the Government of Karnataka also proudly uses this flag, though one would assume that this will now be replaced by its close cousin, the official Karnataka state flag. The ubiquity of the yellow-red flag in Kannadiga consciousness has made the yellow and red hues the identity colours of Karnataka as a state and Kannadigas as a people.

However, this widely used flag needed to be modified if it were to be adopted as the official flag of the state of Karnataka. That is due to a few cogent reasons. Firstly, for the Karnataka state emblem to be accommodated in the flag, the white band in the middle was needed. Secondly, the original flag, though widely used, actually belongs to a specific political party called the Kannada Paksha. Though almost defunct, it still holds rights to that flag. This association with a specific political party makes it somewhat of a misfit for a Karnataka state flag. Contrast and compare this with the adoption of the Indian Union flag, which is a minor variant of the Indian National Congress flag, with even the wheel-like of the Charka being retained in the form of the Ashoka Chakra. Charka became Chakra. The rest was all the same. Be that as it may, that flag is the flag of every citizen of the Indian Union.

Interestingly, the one of the most popular native flag for the whole of British Empire in South Asia was a Bandemataram flag unfurled in Kolkata in 1906 at Girish Park and designed by Sachindra Prasad Bose, a Surendranath Banerjee follower who was later jailed in Rawalpindi. That flag had saffron on top, green on bottom but in the middle there was yellow. More importantly, that flag had 8 unbloomed lotuses, signifying the 8 provinces that made up the British Empire in South Asia. It was the most natural thing to do since the warriors fighting for independence from British rule had always imagined this subcontinent as a gigantic federation of national provinces before the centralised Congress system was developed under Gandhi and Nehru.

This representation of constituent provinces as stake-holders in a federal Union is seen in other federal flags like the United States of America where the number of stars have changed according to the number of states and in the flag of Australia where the seven-pointed star represents the six states of Australia and the other representsF the territories. That is not the case in the Indian Union flag. Some assume that the number of spokes in the Ashoka Chakra represents the number of states. That is not true. The number is fixed at 24 and is adapted from the 24 spoke dharma chakra found in many Ashokan edicts where the first 12 spokes represent, according to Buddhist philosophy, 12 stages of suffering and the next twelve spokes represent ‘no cause no effect’.

To anyone who thinks that the Karnataka state flag or any other state flag represents some threat to the unity and integrity of the Indian Union, I would invite them to remember the motto “Unity in Diversity” in letter and spirit.

The Constitution of India does not prohibit state flags. It is not illegal. It does prohibit secession. That is illegal. In fact, centralising, homogenising tendencies that are being propagated by Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideological forces are the biggest threat to the unity and integrity of the Indian Union. The result of Urdu-Muslim-Pakistan ideology being imposed on East Bengal is there for all to see.

Thus one has to learn from stable federations that exist in the world. Some examples are the United States of America, Japan, Canada, Australia, France, Hungary, Italy, Indonesia, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Russian Federation, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Germany, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE and many others. In South Asia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka’s provinces have their own official flag. And yes, provinces of Pakistan have their own official flag: Each of them.

If anything, as far as unions made of up to state/province/canton/sub-units go, the absence of state official flags for every state of the Indian Union is actually an exception and not the rule. It is insular thinking and belief in exceptionalism premised of anxieties of the Delhi imperium that in the Indian Union one encounters warped narratives like a state flag being a threat to unity.

If Pakistan, with dismemberment of more than half of its territory, has learned from the Bangladesh example and after 1971 (before 1971, the provinces were not allowed their own flags), its provinces started having own provincial official flags, then Delhi’s anxiety about state flags is troublesome to unity and integrity and not any official state flag.

The Government of Karnataka has sent the Karnataka state official flag for approval to the Government of India. I will hope that the Union government approves it immediately and does not play mischief in the way it has done with the Government of West Bengal by not approving the state name change approved by the its Assembly. In fact, it is hardly logical that Delhi has to approve what people of a state call their state as or what design they adopt as their official state flag.

The Karnataka state flag is not “superior” to the Indian Union flag. Each flag has its own purpose and scope. Just like the Union government has its own scope and the state government has its own scope. That is called federalism and the federal structure is part of the unchangeable basic structure of the Constitution.

The Karnataka loyalty and identity of a Kannadiga living in Mysuru is not superior or inferior to anything. It speaks to a different aspect of his identity. Indian Union citizenship and loyalty to the Constitution of India is also part of his duty. They are not in conflict.

Those who ask questions such as are you a Kannadiga first or an Indian Union citizen first are trying to create conflict and are the real enemies of unity and integrity and absolute enemies of diversity, equality and dignity.

While Jammu and Kashmir is the only other state with an official state flag, many states have official state anthems: Karnataka (Jaya Bharata Jananiya Tanujate), Tamil Nadu (Tamiḻ Tāy Vālttu), Andhra Pradesh (Maa Telugu Talliki), Telangana (Jaya Jaya Hey Telangana Janani Jayakethanam), Assam (O Mur Apunar Desh), Odisha (Bande Utkala Janani) and Gujarat (Jai Jai Garavi Gujarat).

Has the presence of these state anthems ever decreased the prestige of Indian Union’s anthem? The flag is no different. All states of the Indian Union should have their own flag if they so wish. I congratulate the people of Karnataka on their official state flag. I wish my state West Bengal had its own flag too. I have a feeling that Karnataka won't be the last state to have one.


Updated Date: Mar 11, 2018 18:06 PM

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