With own flag, Karnataka will be dutiful, but not silent, daughter of India

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The current Karnataka State Anthem, Jaya Bharata Jananiya Tanujate written by KV Puttappa reads in translation as, “Victory to you Mother Karnataka, the daughter of Mother India! Hail the land of beautiful rivers and forests, hail the abode of saints!”  80-year-old Vasanthi Hegde, mother of one of the authors, remembers an earlier anthem from her schooldays which went "Udayavagali namma Cheluva Kannada Nadu", which loosely translates as "may our dear Kannada Land arise and dawn".

It took many years for that dawn to arrive. During British rule, areas that now comprise Karnataka were under 20 different administrative units. The princely state of Mysore, the Nizam's Hyderabad, the Bombay Presidency, and the Madras Presidency were among the prominent ones. The physical boundaries of the modern day Karnataka were created during the linguistic reorganization in 1956. However, the quest for building a common identity continued, even after unification.

This was largely because people from the now merged areas, spoke different languages. Kannadigas in Hubli, that was earlier under the Bombay Presidency, also spoke Marathi. Urdu was often the dominant language in the Hyderabad region. Tuluvas in South Canara came from Madras Presidency which used Tamil as the main language. Further, Bangalore’s growing cosmopolitan posed a challenge to the Kannada language in the 1960s. Theatres patronized non-Kannada films. Migrants from Tamil Nadu hoisted the DMK flag outside their homes in Bengaluru. Even many of Dr Rajkumars early films were shot in Madras, where filming facilities were more developed. At this time many pro-kannada organizations came up in protest. 

One such organisation - the Karnataka Samyukta Ranga (Karnataka United Front) organised a convention in Bangalore in 1966. Its aim was to bring Kannada organisations under a common banner. The convention was inaugurated by Vatal Nagaraj and presided over by M Ramamurthy – both staunch pro-Kannada leaders. They eventually went on to form two political parties — the Kannada Paksha and the Kannada Chaluvali Vatal Paksha (KCVP) — with two different flags.  Nagaraj leads the staunch pro-Kannada KCVP even today. Ramamurthy died in an accident in 1967. His Kannada Paksha is defunct.  However, it is its red-and-yellow flag that has stayed on as a symbol of the language and the state, decades after the party’s decline.

Demands for official status to the flag have been intermittent. The last half decade has seen a renewed re-assertion of Kannada pride. This has to be seen in the light of the constant inter-state water disputes (Krishna, Cauvery) and the border disputes with neighbouring states. Recently, the ever-increasing numbers of internal migrants in Bangalore and the Centre's 'imposition of Hindi' at Metro stations have caused much discontent. 

Since coming to power in 2013 – the Congress government in Karnataka has taken a number of initiatives to promote Kannada. This includes recent measures to make Kannada compulsory in schools, providing a five percent reservation in the state civil services examination for Kannada medium students etc. However, it is the Government’s declaration of its intention to give official status to the red and yellow flag, which has seemingly caused controversy all over the Country. 

To be sure, this is not the first time that such a move has been made. In 2012, the BJP government led by DV Sadananda Gowda had made it mandatory to hoist the Kannada flag during Rajyothsava celebrations in all schools, colleges and government offices. This notification was subsequently withdrawn after public interest litigations were initiated before the Karnataka High Court. That notwithstanding, the flag is unfurled across Karnataka on the 1st of November, the state’s foundation day. It is also used during protests on inter-state issues like the Cauvery water dispute with Tamil Nadu. Recently, the flag was seen at protests against the alleged imposition of Hindi in the Bangalore metro.

If the move goes through, Karnataka will be the second state to have its own official flag. The state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is accorded special status under Article 370, already has an official flag. Nagaland is likely to get a separate flag as part of its accord with the Central Government. In spite of this, the move towards giving official status to the Karnataka flag has caused much debate in legal circles. The Karnataka government itself is said to have appointed a nine member committee to look into, what some call a grey area of law. 

However, the position is much more certain than it seems. India follows what is called a ‘quasi-federal’ structure. Other countries like the United States, Australia and Germany allow regions and units to have different regional flags to display their diverse identity. In India, no provisions in the Indian Constitution or the Flag Code bar separate flags for states. More pertinently, a bench of nine judges of the Supreme Court in SR Bommai v Union of India has declared States to be “sovereign in the field left to them.” The Judgment goes on to declare that:
“a very significant and special feature of our society has to be constantly kept in mind. Our society is, among other things, multilingual, multi- ethnic and multi-cultural. Prior to independence, political promises were made that the States will be formed on linguistic basis and the ethnic and cultural identities will not only be protected but promoted. It is in keeping with the said promises, that the States eventually have come to be organised broadly on linguistic, ethnic and cultural basis. The people in every State desire to fulfil their own aspirations through self-governance within the framework of the Constitution. Hence interference with the self- governance also amounts to the betrayal of the people and unwarranted interference. The betrayal of the democratic aspirations of the people is a negation of the democratic principle which runs through our Constitution.”
It would thus appear that any state is free to have its own flag. Needless to say, the manner in which the State flag is hoisted should not dishonor the national flag, which continues to be supreme. 

Given the times, the widespread anger and criticism that the Karnataka Government’s move has generated is not surprising. The party in power at the center and its supporters have (expectedly) latched on to the opportunity to term the move ‘anti-national’. They would do well to remember the Supreme Court’s dictum in Bommai, where the Court reminds us that Indian Society is multilingual, multi- ethnic and multi-cultural. 

We may even usefully remember that even a country like China once had the Hundred Flowers Campaign which encouraged its citizens to openly express their opinions on the communist regime. In the words of Chairman Mao, "The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science”. It is somewhat troubling that the world’s largest and most vibrant democracy needs lessons on pluralism from China. 

In keeping with its state anthem, Karnataka with its own flag, will be a dutiful, but not silent, daughter of the Indian Union.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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