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Indian Tiranga & Northeast: For Assam Minorities, Yet Another ‘Test’ of Loyalty

The burden of showing fidelity to India is unevenly placed on Muslims, especially in places like the Northeast.

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A flag, particularly a national flag, carries with it deep attachments and emotional legitimacy. It can be seen as a cultural symbol that invokes such sentiments. If we turn to the history of our nation, we can mark many such moments. One that perhaps stands out is when Jawaharlal Nehru presented the national flag to the Constituent Assembly on 22 July 1947. In that speech, he noted:

“[…] it is a folly for any nation or race to think that it can only give to and not receive from the rest of the world. Once a nation or a race begins to think like that, it becomes rigid, it becomes ungrowing; it grows backwards and decays.”

To my mind, the new thrust of forced nationalism of flying the flag and monetising its sale has taken our country to that moment against which Nehru had expressed his concern. There is a fundamental difference between freedom of speech and expression and compulsion of freedom of expression. When we are compelled and forced to do things, it is a violation of one's rights. Nehru also noted further in his speech: “There will be no full freedom in this country or in the world as long as a single human being is unfree.”

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Who enjoys freedom in this country? Increasingly, it is tilted towards only the majority. The minorities are unfree. Data show that 4,15,821 cases of violence were reported against Dalits between 2011 and 2020. The recent murder of a Dalit boy for drinking water in a school in Rajasthan speaks of how not all Indians are really 'free'.

What is the nature of this erosion of freedom?

Narrow Definitions for Citizenship & Patriotism

Let us take the comments made by the Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, on the ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ initiative. Sarma noted, “No one should forget to fly the tricolour from August 13 to August 15. Applying for inclusion in [the] National Register of Citizens (NRC) as an Indian citizen isn’t enough. Only by unfurling the national flag one can prove they are true children of Bharat Mata.” What happens when both citizenship and patriotism are defined in such narrow terms?

It is a well-known fact that the National Register of Citizens in its current form is only a test for the Muslims in Assam. How? Because the Muslims in Assam are the only category of citizens to whom the category of ‘original inhabitants’ and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act are not extended, making them an exceptional group of people in the NRC process.

This insistence of the Chief Minister also reveals the primary target of his comment.

Hilal Ahmed recently expressed concern about the excess burden Muslims in India have to carry to show their loyalty and patriotism. Ahmed rightly reminds us that for Muslims in India, it is not about just showing fidelity to India, but they are also expected to show anti-Pakistan sensibilities. This treatment is not just limited to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). During the days of Indira Gandhi, such burden and doubt were cast very loudly and violently on the Muslims. However, now, with more frequency and regularity, their everyday actions, both in public and private life, are constantly brought under serious scrutiny. It is so easy now to call any Muslim a ‘jihadi’. One can here also think of Yati Narsinghanand’s plea to not buy flags from Muslims as they are ‘made in Bangladesh’, and because ‘anything paid to a Muslim will be used to wage jihad against Hindus’.

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Proving Fidelity to Nation

The burden of showing our fidelity to the nation is unevenly placed on Muslims in India. The same is the case with zones such as Northeast, Kashmir and the Red Corridor in India, whose people face different measures of fidelity.

The Assam Chief Minister’s comments carry more weight and can be a moment for us to reflect on how despite being part of the same country, citizenship is experienced in such a skewed and violent manner by many.

I have seen this need to show loyalty and fidelity extended to even cultural festivals in Assam.

There are many instances where Muslims have been forced to show that they celebrate the “traditional” festivals of Assam. Not doing so is seen as anti-Assamese and the person may potentially be labelled a “Bangladeshi”.

Hanging decorative items in the drawing room and wearing attires that signify a cultural economy of the caste Assamese also become a part of this routinisation of certain aesthetics that become essential to the assimilation process of the “migrants” in Assam. The violence of the assimilation process can be measured by the fact that many “Assamese Muslims” have publicly rejected their religious identity so that the caste Assamese will consider them a part of the Assamese community. Similarly, Muslims all over India suffer from such symbolic violence that constantly erodes their identity and freedom.

Failing to show your assimilative mood in Assam can land you in trouble. It can invite questions about your citizenship in real terms. This is how thinly the cultural and political lives intertwine in the region, with direct relation to citizenship.

Seemingly then, the flag, waved or not, camouflages these acts of violence that remain accepted, hidden and ignored in everyday life. They are so because such a differential burden is not shared by the majority in India.

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Is Our Nation Flying Backwards?

Growing up in the eastern part of Assam, marked with a violent history of insurgency and counter-insurgency, I spent all my childhood being locked up at home during both Independence Day and Republic Day. Those were the days you avoided going out on the streets. One could become a victim of either insurgents, on one hand, or the army and police, on the other, if found outside. I have seen my share of people and families getting killed and caught between these two power structures in those days of unfreedom.

From those days of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) unfurling black flags on Independence Day to ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’, the homecoming of the test of fidelity to the nation has a different meaning for the Indian state and its state-making process.

To return to Nehru’s speech again, “...This flag that I have the honour to present to you is not, I hope and trust, a Flag of Empire, a Flag of Imperialism, A Flag of domination over anybody, but a Flag of freedom not only for ourselves but a symbol of freedom who may see it.”

The conditions under which we are asked to hoist the flag today are remarkably different from that of the India that Nehru was addressing. As ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ turned into a spectacle under the rise of Hindutva, let us all carefully witness and think about how this event became a test of citizenship for many.

(Suraj is an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at RV University, Bangalore. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect or represent his institution. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Assam   NRC   har ghar tiranga 

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