"Those who don't have the money to even pay for ration, where will they get the money to buy a flag?" a resident of Haryana's Karnal said in a viral video on social media, following which it came to light that a depot holder in the district was refusing to provide ration to people if they did not purchase the tricolour for Rs 20.
While only one such incident has come to light in Karnal's Hemda village, there are claims that such practices are ongoing in several ration shops across the district.
This comes amid massive preparations to celebrate the country's 76th Independence Day, or 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav' as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called it.
"I am an Indian and I respect the national flag. But those people who don't know the value of the tricolour, why are they setting a price for it?" a resident of Karnal said, adding that if people were given flags free of cost, they would have happily hoisted them in their homes.
There are around 400 ration depots across the Karnal district. As per sources, a total of 168 flags have been provided to each ration shop for distribution among the public.
Meanwhile, the licence of the accused depot holder, Dinesh Kumar, has been suspended.
'Higher Officials Should be Penalised, Not Depot Holder'
Another resident said that instead of suspending the licence of the depot holder, the officials who allegedly ordered him to sell flags as a precondition to providing ration should be penalised.
"All the depot holder did was to obey the orders of his senior officials," he said.
Residents also said that on one hand, the government was pretending to be friendly towards the poor, and on the other, they were trying to extort as much money from them as they could.
They also said that if the government's aim was to install a tricolour in every home, they should have provided them for free.
"The flag he (the depot holder) was selling was of very bad quality, and was getting torn at the slightest pull. The real cost would have been about Rs 3 or 4, but he was selling it for Rs 20," another resident said.
She also added that it was obvious that the administration was collecting money for the next election in the village.
"People have been finding it difficult to run their households over the last few years because of the COVID-19 pandemic," she said, adding, "Either sell the flag for a lower price so that people don't feel the pinch or don't force anybody to purchase it. It should be voluntary."
'Ordered by Government': Claims Suspended Depot Holder
Meanwhile, officials said that the ration depot holder had been suspended, and claimed that he was not asked to force people to purchase flags.
"A ration depot holder at Hemda village was selling the flags stating if they don’t buy the ration at the rate of Rs 20, they won’t be given the supplies. As soon as the matter came to the knowledge of the district administration, his licence was suspended with immediate effect," Karnal Deputy Commissioner Anish Yadav said.
He also said that while it is true that the tricolour was being sold at ration shops for Rs 20, buying it was not compulsory.
On the other hand, the depot holder claimed that he was ordered by officials to sell the tricolour for Rs 20 as a precondition to providing ration. He said that the department inspector had personally issued orders for the same.
"I have made it clear that the flag will cost Rs 20 as there are orders from the government. We have to deposit the money (charged in lieu of the flags). We won’t give rations to those who will not buy a flag at the rate of Rs 20. The (department) inspector has issued directions that (purchase) of the flag is mandatory for those who are taking ration. We have to follow the orders of the government," he said while speaking to the press.
'Nationalism Can't be Sold': Rahul, Varun Gandhi Slam Govt
Taking a dig at the government over the issue, Rahul Gandhi said, "Nationalism can never be sold, it is very shameful that instead of giving ration, 20 rupees are being extorted from the poor in the name of the tricolour."
He also said that along with the national flag, the BJP was also "attacking" the self-esteem of poverty-stricken people.
Varun Gandhi, who has been criticising his own party over a number of issues of late, said that it would be "unfortunate" if the celebration of the 75 years of Independence becomes a "burden" on the poor.
"It is shameful to collect the price of the tricolour which resides in the heart of every Indian by snatching the morsel of the poor," the Pilibhit MP said on Twitter.
In honour of the 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav', PM Modi had rolled out the 'Har Ghar Tiranga' campaign, urging every citizen in the country to hoist the tricolour in their homes between 13 and 15 August.
Through his radio programme 'Mann ki Baat', the PM also requested people to put the national flag as their profile picture on social media.