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What's In A Flag?

By Sarmila Bose

The Daily Times [Pakistan]
23 September , 2003

An Indian lady of my acquaintance who harbours profound prejudice
against Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular told her
husband that her ideal man was Imran Khan - a common occurrence I

This year around Independence Day public notices from the government
of India instructed the populace on the 'do's' and 'don'ts' of the
national flag. Following litigation by a citizen, Indians are at last
allowed to display their national flag, a common occurrence in the
United States, but the world's largest democracy clearly has no
confidence in what its people might actually do with this national

The flag cannot be draped over anything, for example - except coffins
of soldiers, I suppose. It cannot be worn as clothing - maybe this
warning is due to the incident in which a female Indian designer wore
the national flag as a skimpy dress. That was valiant of her, as the
flag is so over-burdened with symbolism that it is difficult to make
a tasteful dress out of it. I mean, what on earth does one do with
the 'Ashok chakra'! Yet white sarees with saffron and green borders
have been around for years and no one objected. American and British
flags are routinely worn on clothing. Would the guardians of proper
patriotic conduct object to the increasingly common practice of the
national flag being painted on the faces of its citizens? Or a
patriotically positioned tattoo?

If so much is made to ride on the 'right' symbols of patriotism,
inevitably, the 'wrong' symbols cannot be far behind. Terrorist
outrage in Mumbai has been followed by the swift arrest of the
alleged culprits and the death in a police 'encounter' of the alleged
mastermind. It reminds one of an earlier incident when Indian
security forces shot dead two dreaded militants allegedly involved in
an attack on the American Center in Calcutta in which several
policemen were killed. Both the dead men were described as Pakistani
- dreaded and dead militants in India are presumed to be Pakistani
these days, unless proven otherwise later, if anyone bothers to do

They also often carry diaries on their persons, which give details of
their dastardly deeds. And they tend to carry mobile phones, those
must-have accessories of modern life, seemingly inseparable from
murderous extremists as well. These reveal incriminating calls to
mysterious puppeteers across the border. At least such is the
breathless reportage every time such an incident occurs, and they do
seem to occur with disquieting frequency.
It makes one wonder if extremist frenzy makes dreaded militants lose
sight of the most elementary steps to cover their tracks, or whether
being a terrorist zealot goes hand in hand in the first place with
being 'analytically challenged'. In the American Center case,
according to the authorities one of the dreaded and dead Pakistanis
confessed his own name and address, his companion's name and address
and admitted to conducting the attack before succumbing to his
grievous injuries.

The very next day a man was arrested in Calcutta and charged with
being a key conspirator in the American Center attack. All manner of
incriminating evidence was allegedly found in his home and in the
apartment used by the militants. Media reports said the findings
included photos of Osama bin Laden. Of course, by then it would have
been difficult to find any household that was completely free of the
image of Osama in some form. However, worse was to come. A week later
a second search of the suspect's home allegedly yielded - horror of
horrors - a Pakistani flag, which was 'seized' by the police. It
appeared to have been overlooked in the earlier 'search and seizure'.
In the trial now in progress of all the apprehended suspects
including this hoarder of incriminating 'anti-national' symbols, the
'seized' Pakistani flag has duly made its appearance as part of the
evidence produced by the prosecution. At that point in the
proceedings the accused protested from the dock that he had had no
such thing in his possession. He charges the police with planting the
flag in order to paint him a 'traitor' in the eyes of the public.
Be that as it may, the inclusion of an allegedly Pakistani flag found
in a private home in India as evidence in a terrorism case poses an
awkward dilemma for this writer. For if the police turned up at my
house they would find a Pakistani flag there too! They would not have
to 'search' for it really, as the Pakistani flag is prominently
displayed on the mantelpiece in the living room! There it is among
all the other South Asian flags, the stars and stripes, the Union
Jack, the Irish tricolour and a clutch of other national flags
diligently acquired from the United Nations. I had certainly had no
idea that the possession of a neighbouring country's flag might
constitute a cognisable offence in India!

To make matters worse, my children are fans of 'Junoon'. They are
particularly keen on a catchy tune called 'Jazba-e-junoon' and have
been known to dance riotously to blaring renditions of 'Pakistan hai
hamara, Pakistan hai tumhara, kabhi na bhulo'. This item, I found
later, is missing in the 'Junoon' albums available in India. One
concerned relative did suggest to me that I might want to keep the
volume down, in case the neighbours shopped us and the children got
hauled off under POTA. Mercifully the children have moved on to a
folksong called 'Pocha-kaka' - 'Rotten Uncle' - in the East Bengali
dialect by the Bengali band 'Bhoomi', about a man who would not come
home from the river until he had caught a fish.

To return to the 'offending' Pakistani flag - I wonder what would
happen if a person accused of terrorist offences in India were found
to be in possession of the British flag, or the Japanese one, or how
about the Saudi flag (along with those pictures of Osama). Does one
have to keep one's voice down to sing the beautiful song by
Rabindranath Tagore, 'Amar Sonar Bangla' - 'My golden Bengal' - in
the Bengali folk style called 'baul', because it is now the national
anthem of Bangladesh? What about the flags of all the other countries
of the world? Clearly none is estimated to have the impact of the
Pakistani one. Is it an offence to possess an Indian flag in Pakistan?
India seems to be riven in contradictions regarding all symbols
Pakistani. Indians appear to love Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida
Parveen. An Indian lady of my acquaintance who harbours profound
prejudice against Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular
told her husband on her wedding night that her ideal man was Imran
Khan - a common occurrence I suspect for Indian men foolish enough to
ask! I pointed out that Imran Khan was both Muslim and Pakistani, but
the lady waved me away. Clearly Imran Khan was Imran Khan!
Nor is he the only Pakistani cricketer with subcontinental appeal. A
few months back I was sitting in Dubai airport, exhausted, waiting
for the connection to Lahore at an unearthly hour, when a tall man
with a most spectacular torso came and sat down right opposite me.
Glancing up I recognised the familiar face of Wasim Akram. I must
confess that my travel-weariness vanished in an instant and I was
able to get through the last leg of the journey in a refreshed state
of mind! No wonder that while Wasim Akram cannot play cricket in
India, his smiling image can be plastered all over Indian billboards
in advertisements.

Still, in a 'borderless world' full of resurgent militant
nationalism, narrow-minded little 'patriot acts' seem to be sprouting
all over the place. Flags, emblems, colours, melodies; will they all
be divided up and loaded with meanings in black and white, or will
they be swept away by the cross-border currents of global
citizenship? If the alleged possession of a Pakistani flag in India
can be endowed with the connotation of treacherous villainy, what
might be the infinite ways of falling afoul of the official
guidelines on the Indian tricolour?

Sarmila Bose is Assistant Editor, Ananda Bazar Patrika, India &
Visiting Scholar, Elliott School of International Affairs, George
Washington University