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Mainstream, VOL LV No 14 New Delhi March 25, 2017

Politics of Flags: India‘s Largest National Flag on the India-Pakistan Border

Saturday 25 March 2017

by Gautam Sen

India has recently hoisted the largest and tallest national Tricolour at the Wagah-Attari crossover point, on the Indian side. The flag is of 120 feet by 80 feet dimension, flies at a height of 360 feet and has involved a public expenditure of Rs 3.5 crores. This will be an unique symbol of national identity and inspiration for the Indian security and other government personnel who control the border and the installations of state display and ceremony at the border-point. The special flag will have a similar value for those who would be witnessing the public ceremonies of daily opening and closing of border gates at Wagah-Attari in Amritsar, with all the trumpetering and fanfare. Incidentally, near-similar large national flags have been hoisted at a few other places in the country, such as at Hyderabad on the banks of the Hussain Sagar lake on the occasion of the second anniversary of the new State of Telangana, at Ranchi atop a hill, at the southern end of the Shanti Path and at Connaught Place or Rajiv Chowk—the main downtown area of the national Capital, and a few other places.

It may be worthwhile to ponder on the significance of such large national standards and the manner of their display. Telangana raising such a flag in the State capital at a historic central place like the banks of the Hussain Sagar Lake and on the important occasion of the State‘s second anniversary, is unexceptional and in fact, laudable. It is a celebratory event, and will inspire the people of Telangana to work for the success of their new State within the ambience of the larger nation-state and its democratic and accommodative polity which allows for fruition of regional aspirations within the canopy of the larger Indian state. Such flags at other places like Ranchi, may not have similar significance but, nevertheless, will have an inherent inspirational value. The flags at the national Capital may be deemed to proclaim or herald the significance of the Indian state with all its cherished values and the motivational aspirations of its people in a spirit of national identity.

The latest flag at Amritsar has, however, a slightly different significance. It is placed at an important or strategic border-crossing to our neighbour, Pakistan, with whom our relational history has been chequered. Moreover, the Pakistani border guarding force, the Pakistan Rangers, has already lodged a protest with India‘s Border Security Force (BSF), on the positioning of the flag. Pakistan, apart from being piqued with the hoisting of such a huge-sized Indian national flag, which will be visible from as far as Lahore, is reportedly worried on its security implications. Pakistani authorities seem to be apprehensive of the Indian flagpole being used to mount observational or electronic monitoring devices to track communication and security-oriented movements on their side of the border. Though such latent implications may be there, governments at Chandigarh and New Delhi are not expected to indulge in exploring such possibilities in normal circum-stances, only to negate the prospects of using the emblem for promoting tourism and motiva-tional visits of its citizens to the site. All such positive opportunities will be undermined if tension and trouble descend on the border-point and the fluttering of such a beautiful flag is not feasible. In fact, India‘s BSF may propose to the Pakistan Rangers to install a similar Pakistani flag on their side as a friendly gesture.

A point worth pondering is whether the possibility of all such objections being raised were weighed carefully by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government of Punjab in concert with the Government of India, before the huge and high national flag was hoisted. The enthusiasm of the BJP partner in the State Government coalition was evident with its Minister for Municipal Affairs, Anil Vij, hoisting the flag instead of the Chief Minister or a Minister from the major partner, the SAD. New Delhi must have been part of the decision-making process, because the BSF, a central force, has positioned and hoisted the flag. India is well within its rights to instal such a flag on its territory. However, any such unique installation or structure with certain security attributes at a border-point with a country with whom our relations have not been the best and military operations of high intensity had taken place in the past, should have been carefully appraised with all its attendant implications, before being actually operationalised.

Assuming that such an assessment has been done, India need not backtrack or ignore the Pakistani objections, but instead persuade them to live with the special display of the Indian national flag and also put up a similar Pakistani flag on their side. This may assuage the Pakistani ego, and also ultimately foster a sense of brotherly competetiveness. From the security point of view, such a structure may also be a confidence-building measure to the extent that Pakistan and India would consequently have enhanced their monitoring capability vis-à-vis each other, in the event the such structures are surreptitiously exploited for security purpose.

There should a national policy based on a political consensus and also reckoning the views of our citizens in as broad-based manner as possible, regarding the pattern and parameters of display of the national flag. The initiative for evolving such a norm undoubtedly devolves on the Central Government. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India recently, to enjoin on the Union Government to formulate a law on the national standard, means of its respectful display, etc. The Court, however, rejected the petition alluding to the Constitution of India wherein the status of the national flag has been clearly specified.

Notwithstanding this Court decision, the realities of competitive politics in the country today is such that at the slightest instigation, to whip up frenzy, the national flag is brought out and displayed at all sorts of places. It is for consideration whether such displays, while campaigning or propagating different issues, some of them prima-facie of divisive or sectarian nature, are appropriate from the national ethos and unity points of view. Moreover, a norm may be decided on the dimensions of the national standard and its display at places of significance from the national perspective, reckoning all relevant aspects which impinge on India‘s overall interests.

The large-size national flags hoisted at various places in the country are apparently inspirational, and have been welcomed by the people in their vicinity and are harmonious towards promoting the feeling of national identity. The flag at Amritsar however, is of special import because of its location and apropos India-Pakistan relations. The authorities concerned in India may now only use their diplomatic and administrative skills to get Pakistan on board with the unique arrangements for display of our national flag at Wagah, to accept this phenomenon and become part of the same, as suggested above.

The author is a retired Indian Defence Accounts Service officer, who has served till recently as Adviser to the Nagaland Chief Minister in the rank of Additional Chief Secretary. The views expressed were are the author‘s own.

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