Who is afraid of a Karnataka flag?

kannada state flag

The BJP, obviously. The right-wing party fears the move can imperil its One-India, One-Language dream

Every year, Karnataka celebrates its Rajyotsava day, the 1st of November,  with festivities. And an important component of the festivities is the hoisting of a Kannada flag and the recital of the State song ‘Jaya Bharatha Jananiya Tanujathe’ (victory to mother karnataka, daughter of mother india). The flag and the song share deeply historical links with the socio-political and cultural movements, within the state. Hot on the heels of NammaMetroHindiBeda protest against Hindi Language signboards in metro stations which received massive support, the state government’s decision to constitute a committee to look into the constitutional validity of having a separate state flag raised a few eyebrows. Kannada writer and activist Dr Patil Puttappa and RTI activist and social worker Bheemappa Gundappa Gadad reportedly requested the State Government on the state flag and the Government responded to their plea by setting up a committee to look into legalising the Kannada flag.

Karnataka already has a state song which was given that status in 2006. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Gujarat, Telengana and Assam also have their own state songs. Jammu & Kashmir is the only other state in India which has a state flag and the elected BJP members of the present Mehbooba Mufti government have refused to hoist the Kashmir flag alongside national flag. If the State Government panel can come up with a valid proposal to institute a state flag, karnataka will become only the second state to have its own flag. Karnataka state song is written by Jnanpith winner Kuvempu. There have been efforts from the government to evolve a format for the uniform rendering of this state song (nadegeetha), much like the uniform way of singing adopted for our national anthem. A recent incident of the recital of Kannada state song at Belagavi Corporation made lot of headlines. Karnataka is having border disputes with Maharashtra over certain villages around Belgaum and the rendering of the State song was seen as a matter of Kannada pride. The idea of giving the flag a state status is a bit recent though.

In 2012, the then BJP government in Karnataka brought the idea of giving state flag status to the yellow and red flag commonly used by Kannada organisations, political and cultural, across the state. In 2012, CM Sadananda Gowda in his budget speech had announced the state flag status for the Kannada flag. It had also mandated the hoisting of Karanatka flag and singing of nadegeetha compulsory. This was challenged in Karnataka High Court and the government went back on its decision once the court had sought clarification. The government announced the withdrawal of the idea of state flag before the Rajyotsava Celebrations in 2012. However, in many apartment complexes and offices in Bangalore this practice is still followed. On Rajyotsava day, flag is hoisted and nadegeetha is sung and people pay respect to it by standing up.

Siddaramaiah-led Congress government has done a fair bit to promote Kannada in the state. From this academic year Kannada is a compulsory subject in all the schools in Karnataka. This applies even to CBSE and ICSE schools in the state. The move to make the singing of state song mandatory in schools is still on. With Karnataka going for state elections next year, opposition BJP is accusing that these are moves to hide the administrative failures in the state. But moves to protect the language and state identity could be seen as a counter to impose Hindi on non-Hindi states and the effort to create a monolithic India by ignoring regional and linguistic diversities.

Critics of the idea of State flag and a state song suggest that no flag can be given a status above the National Flag. They also point out that this is against the national spirit. However, there is no constitutional provision that prevents a state from having its own flag. According to our constitution national flag should be flying above the other flags. In countries such as the US and Germany each of the individual states have their own flags. Those who support the separate flag think that it would be symbolic of the federal nature of India. Also, there is no attempt from the state to place this above the national flag.

For BJP, the problem posed by the flag controversy is two-fold. The party is trying to regain power from the Congress and this is significant given its effort to make a mark in South India. Karnataka is where BJP has better prospects. The support received by NammaMetroHindiBeda and now the State Flag row would help boost Siddaramaiah’s chances of remaining in power. At the national level, BJP is seeing the emergence of Kannada activism as a threat to the idea of Hindi speaking Bharath. Given the history of resistance different Indian states have shown towards language chauvinism, a stronger state identity could be seen as a counter measure. If Karnataka succeeds in doing it, other states elsewhere, especially in the South might follow.

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