Every November, yellow and red flags are ubiquitous on the streets of Karnataka. It marks the celebration of Karnataka Rajyotsava (Karnataka state festival), which runs through the month as November 1 is the state formation day.
From autorickshaw unions to state run buses and private cabs, all adorn their vehicles with the “unofficial” state flag bearing the color of turmeric and vermillion, signifying peace and courage. Some pro-Kannada outfits and residents’ associations also organize orchestras and celebrate the language and culture of the region with songs and events, cementing the identity of Karnataka and Kannada language. The celebrations cut across class, religion, and class barriers.
The celebrations are somewhat subdued this year, not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also a state order banning mass gatherings such as major religious festivals.
The absence of flags this year in the district headquarters, where the ministers and officers hoist the flags, has led to a political outcry for the state’s identity and raised questions on the BJP’s stance on the flag issue.
Sub-nationalism & BJP ideology
The rise of sub-regionalism by way of an identity through flag clashes with the BJP’s idea of ‘one nation, one flag’. It goes against the party’s ideology, as reflected by Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh: ek vidhan, ek pradhan, ek nishan (one constitution, one prime minister, one flag).
The state flag, which exists since the 1960s, was created by M. Ramamurthy, son of freedom fighter and litterateur Veerakesari Seetharama Shastri. Over the last few years, it has fomented a political controversy.
Pro-Kannada outfits as well as the opposition Congress see it as an attempt by the BJP to undermine the local sentiment and regionalism which show prejudice against the Kannadigas.
“Many district administrative bodies have disrespected our state flag by not hoisting it on Kannada Rajyotsava. I strongly condemn this,” tweeted Siddaramaiah, state Congress leader as well as leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Assembly.
While no other state (UT) except Jammu and Kashmir has an official state flag, the Karnataka government, during Siddaramaiah’s tenure, formed a committee, redesigned the state flag, and sent it for Centre’s approval. But the current political dispensation never took it up. The Congress has demanded the BJP’s Yediyurappa-led government to pressure Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant official status to the state flag.
It was the same BJP government during Yediyurappa-Sadananda Gowda’s tenure 2008-2012, which removed restrictions on hoisting the flags in government buildings. Gowda even announced it in a budget speech making it compulsory for state government offices and educational institutions to hoist the Karnataka flag on November 1. Later a PIL was filed alleging the misuse of the flag for political purposes. The state withdrew the order as per the court direction in 2016.
While there was no legal bar on having a state flag, as informed by the Karnataka government to the High Court, the Siddaramaiah government in March 2018, two months before Assembly elections, mooted the idea of official status for the flag and launched the new flag having yellow, white and red, with the state emblem in the middle.
The state sought the Centre’s permission to include the flag in the schedule of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1950.
The BJP government in the state decided not to pursue the issue last year. The party’s national general secretary and also a minister, CT Ravi, had said: “There was no opposition for having a cultural flag, but constitutionally there is only one flag for the country and that is the Tricolour.” He said that Siddaramaiah’s decision was against the Constitution of India.
‘Politics of recognition’
Protests erupted against Ravi in certain parts of the state.
Besides, in 2017, news agency PTI quoted a Home Ministry spokesperson as saying, “We are one nation, one flag. Legally there is no provision either for providing or prohibiting a separate flag for any state.”
Muzaffar Azadi, professor at Department of Political Science at Mysore University, argues that the Karnataka flag is not challenging the national integrity, but the fight is for politics of recognition. “It’s an essential component at the grassroots level and the present dispensation doesn’t want it,” he said.
“Karnataka faces a deep identity crisis at the individual level and collectively. That super national identity (one nation, one flag slogan) will erase this identity and will further marginalize the sub-regionalism,” Azadi said.
His views stem from the fact that Karnataka hasn’t had any mass agitation for the state’s culture and language, except the Gokak agitation — a language rights movement in the 1980s, –and also the agitations led by pro-Kannada activist Vatal Nagaraj, which did not garner a state-wide appeal.
Like in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, the movement for Kannada is not visible. Azadi says it was not reflected during the Hindi language imposition debate, not when it came to reservation for locals in jobs in public and private sector.
“Even flyovers are named after national figures such as Savarkar while local icons’ names are missing, as if we do not have any. The flag is not a simple state-versus-Centre subject. It’s an identity issue. Unless we have a mass agitation, it’s tough to challenge the BJP’s ideological hegemony over language and culture,” says Azadi.