The rules against lampooning the tricolour place the largest democracy in the company of the most authoritarian regimes

The British are very careless about the way they treat their flag and so are the Japanese. The French get upset only if their flag is reviled during a public ceremony when the Republic is all dressed up. Sweden and Norway are easy about the flag but America, like India, has an elaborate flag code which carries a number of restrictions.

Negative trait

Trust India, as always, to pick a negative trait from America and enshrine it in law. The British who ruled India for over a century just about allow everything and everyone, in whatever position or bodily form, to carry the colours of the Union Jack. The question that naturally arises is: why did our flag code not imitate British practice? The Canadians did and they too were once a British colony. In fairness, though, while America is very honour conscious about its flag, it allows it to be burnt as a right to expression.

Even so, in none of these countries is anybody charged for lampooning the national flag in a cartoon. Denmark advocates that care be taken so that the flag does not trail on the ground and the Germans balance their laws against flag desecration with the right to freedom of expression. Ireland has no established norms on how the flag should be treated, but only advises that it should be handled with care and respect. It does not elaborate the matter much beyond that.

But in India we are different. Not only is the caricature of the flag a major offence but it can be coupled with other charges, such as sedition, to lock people up. Now this is pretty serious stuff and quite uncommon in the democratic world. But take issue with the Indian law on this and you might well end up in a cell as cartoonist Aseem Trivedi did. It is true that India is not entirely alone in its sensitivity to political cartoons, especially involving the flag. Countries like Saudi Arabia, China or Iran, which are hardly democratic, would have reacted in the same way. As we pride ourselves for following the Westminster model and for being the world’s largest democracy, surely best practices in places like Britain should have been our guide.

Cartoons that play around with the national flag feature quite regularly in a variety of British newspapers like The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Observer or The Daily Telegraph. In fact, way back in June 1977, a cartoon appeared in The Observer which was similar in style to what Aseem Trivedi had drawn, but nothing happened. In the British cartoon, the crisscrossing lines of the Union Jack were shown as if they were cancelling out the national chant, “God save our Gracious Queen.” But the cartoonist did not face any legal action; he came out of it bright eyed and bushy tailed. In fact, in Britain even the Queen is not cartoon-proof.

When two socialists threw a flaming Union Jack at the Queen’s motorcade, all they got was a wrap on the knuckles for a breach of peace. The flag could have been any old rag as far as the British law was concerned. During the recent London Olympics, a local company producing cushions with the British flag wanted to capitalise on the event but had to stop production instantly. This was not because of any offence to national honour, but because the Olympic copyright rules would not permit any other logo but its own.

Though the United States is touchy about the flag, a number of liberties can be taken with it as Americans simultaneously respect the freedom of expression. Not only is flag burning not prohibited in that country, any cartoon depiction of the stars and stripes escapes judicial intervention too. In The Denver Post, for example, Mike Keefe drew the American flag with this saucy accompanying tag: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America — a wholly owned subsidiary of the People’s Republic of China.” This was easily far more audacious in content than what Aseem Trivedi had drawn. By using China to taunt America, Keefe cut the U.S. administration and rubbed salt into the wound at one go. In India, that would be plain sedition!

In some other flag cartoons that have appeared in the U.S. national press, the stripes are positioned alongside stars but as they would appear on the Chinese flag. In some cartoons, the stars appear as gravestones, the remains of a war.

The stripes too have been depicted in a number of ways, sometimes even as prison bars or as rifles. Obviously these were inspired by cartoonists who were peaceniks, just as Aseem Trivedi today is an Anna Hazare groupie.

Before we forget; there are some well brought up countries like Norway, Denmark and Japan who are quite exemplary. They allow their own flags to be burnt or caricatured, but won’t stand for it if that were to happen to a foreign flag on their soil.

Insecurity?

All of this raises the obvious question: are we as a nation so insecure that we see sedition everywhere, even in a humble cartoon? A page out of history might help reach a conclusion.

Diana Donald, a British academic, has argued that the Age of Caricature which first emerged in mid 18th Century England came to an abrupt end with the French Revolution. William Pitts, the then British Prime Minister, had a violent attack of the shakes because he saw Robespierre look alikes everywhere. He promptly banned political cartoons in the hope that this would keep insurrectionist ideas from seeping in across the channel. It was only after Nelson chalked up victories in Trafalgar and Waterloo that British confidence returned and so also did the cartoons.

Of course, the Nelson option is not open to us so we need to think of other confidence gaining measures. Perhaps a healthier, more robust and a sustained growth rate? Perhaps, a more caring democracy that delivers services to the people. Something has to give.

Till then our news channels will verge on the comic, and the comic will increasingly appear as news.

(The writer is a former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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