A couple of weeks ago, India’s government functionaries got worked up about some items that Amazon sells. Sushma Swaraj demanded an apology from Amazon for selling a doormat that bore a representation of the Indian flag and threatened denial of visas if they didn’t.
Amazon must tender unconditional apology. They must withdraw all products insulting our national flag immediately. /1
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) January 11, 2017
If this is not done forthwith, we will not grant Indian Visa to any Amazon official. We will also rescind the Visas issued earlier.
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) January 11, 2017
The Indian Government’s Secretary for Economic Affairs wrote:
Amazon,better behave. Desist from being flippant about Indian symbols & icons. Indifference will be at your own peril.
— Shaktikanta Das (@DasShaktikanta) January 15, 2017
Such a souped-up response by Indian leaders is nothing new. They seem to have a fragile sense of “pride” that’s easily provoked. Sometimes they get worked up about the flag, at other times they get worked up about India’s map.
The map issue has died a natural death since foreign publishers and countries don’t care about the Indian government’s dictates. They publish their own views about the geography of world and India can do nothing to stop them from doing so. The USA’s official CIA World Factbook truncates Kashmir to reflect the ground reality. Will Modi stop talking to Trump til the US government changes its maps of India? Since Indian leaders can’t bully the USA, they have started picking on small-time companies.
This type of churlish behaviour throws India into the category of nations like North Korea. Only a nation unsure of its nationhood will react in this manner. The governments of the USA, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, Belgium, Jamaica or Taiwan are confident about themselves and never display such petty behaviour.
In fact, the USA, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, believes that while desecrating the American flag is deplorable, its citizens have the First Amendment right to freedom of expression, a right that includes the right to even burn the national flag or make underwear out of it.
This freedom was tested through a proposed 2006 amendment in the USA that would have prohibited flag burning. But the US Senate rejected the amendment. We could learn something useful from Senators Daniel K. Inouye – who lost an arm in World War II and whose patriotism is unquestioned – said that:
flag burning ‘is obscene, painful and unpatriotic’, … ‘[b]ut I believe Americans gave their lives in the many wars to make certain that all Americans have a right to express themselves – even those who harbor hateful thoughts.’ [Source]
The “misuse” of the flag could arise from kinky patriotism or from sheer hatred. In either case, the right to freedom of expression must prevails. As reported recently in the Hindustan Times,
The US-flag imprinted on doormats, undergarments, cushion covers and shoes are widely sold online, both in India and abroad, by Amazon and ebay among others. The Union Jack is also available on every conceivable product across stores in Great Britain. It is marketed as towels, doormats, even as thongs, undergarments and vests.
Why is it that these nations don’t screech and squawk like monkeys about these issues? India allegedly has freedom of speech and freedom of occupation – yet its leaders don’t demonstrate even the basic understanding of what it means.
A mature and self-assured nation knows that nationalism is like fire – it must be handled with care. Nationalism must not be deployed for minor things. As a collectivist idea, nationalism can become explosive and dangerous if given oxygen. It is important that the nation should not be glorified to the extent that it supercedes the very human freedoms to defend which the nation was created.
We are free to not buy a doormat Indian flag. If enough people don’t buy it, Amazon won’t stock it. But that should remain a voluntary and commercial matter, not a matter for government. There can be no recourse to violence in such things. The denial of visa amounts to blocking someone’s movement and is a form of violence. By all means let Sushma Swaraj deny visa to any proven terrorist, but not to business persons.
Even if some people want to wilfully defile the flag, that’s their birth right. So long as they are not violently harming anyone, let them do what they like. No symbol should be elevated to a level that higher than the human being.
India has a long way to go, in this regard. We have the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 which provides for imprisonment of up to three years, or fine, or both, for anyone who, in public view, mutilates, defaces, defiles, disfigures, destroys, tramples on or otherwise brings the National Flag “into contempt”. In addition, the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act forbids the use of the flag in any trade mark or design.
These laws must go. The founders of India may have lacked self-confidence but India is now 70 years old, a proven nation that is not going to be affected if its symbols are “misused”. All childish tendencies that we are displaying must go. Let us affirm our commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of occupation.
The greater the liberty we give the people, the greater will be their intrinsic nationalism. The USA displays ferocious nationalism even though there is no coercion regarding any national symbols.
We have more important things to do as a nation.