Amazon Canada has listed for sale a machine washable doormat with the Indian flag printed on it for CDN$27.99. The seller is apparently a Canadian company with Canadians as their major customers.
Somebody tweeted a screenshot of it to the Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and what followed was a fierce nationalistic response by the Minister, wherein she threatened Amazon to withdraw the product along with all other similarly offensive products forthwith and issue an unconditional apology. Failing which, no Amazon official would be granted visa to travel to India.
What would be seen by some as a natural patriotic response by the Indian Minister in upholding the national honour and dignity, would be seen by many others as being hyper-sensitive and overly patriotic, that didn’t need a senior minister to get involved.
National Insult or Simple Callousness?
So is this really a case of deliberate national insult or is it simply somebody following what is common practice in other countries? And was Sushma Swaraj correct in responding with the level of threat on an issue that would be viewed by many countries as a non-issue?
It depends on where you reside.
Most countries in the West maintain high levels of tolerance on the use of national flag and national anthem, as symbols of patriotic expression. While the converse is true in several dictator-led countries, which have harsh punishment, including the death penalty for any insult or perceived insult to the national flag or anthem.
So Where Does India Stand in all this?
We Indians like to believe in our deep commitment to patriotism and the same sees expression through highly emotional responses to patriotic moments in cinema and in sport. And that’s a wonderful thing.
It becomes a problem when we expect all Indians to follow suit and force everyone else to react and respond in the same manner. Any divergence and it triggers a strong reaction which is also violent at times.
With social media making its presence felt across India, it has now become the medium of choice for expressing, testing and even forcing patriotic response and behaviour. This is a dangerous trend.
Ask Mandira Bedi, the popular cricket pundit, who was made to publicly apologise on air for wearing a sari with the Indian flag — in the folds of her sari below her knee, near her foot. Never mind that the sari design itself comprised flags of other participating nations during the Cricket World Cup in 2007 and the Indian flag just happened to be one of them.
And more recently, there was the incident during the Coldplay music concert in Mumbai, where the lead singer Chris Martin was seen to have tucked the Indian flag into his hip-pocket. It was enough for Indian nationalists to outdo each other in condemning him and demanding an immediate apology for what they perceived was to be a national insult.
Well, from where Chris Martin comes, the national flag or the Union Jack can be and is used in all kinds of places, products and manner, without retribution of any kind, from either the law or the people.
Ditto in the US of A, which tends to wear its patriotism on its sleeve. People have flags flying outside their homes and in cars, with pride. At the same time, the US flag can be used in any manner and on any promotional product. One can see the US flag on souvenirs like cups, T-shirts, caps, undergarments and even doormats!
This is a country that is deeply patriotic and yet does not object to their flag being burnt and nor is not standing up an issue when the “Star-Spangled Banner”, their national anthem, is being played.
Is their patriotism any less than ours? They fly their flag with pride at every instance and outside their homes. How many in India feel pride in flying the flag inside or outside our homes?
And yet, we love to show our patriotism not by imbibing it but by forcing others to demonstrate it. Doesn’t that sound hollow?
Patriotism Versus Forced Patriotism
In India, we have had instances where people have recently been beaten up in cinemas for not standing up during the national anthem. People are constantly threatened to be prosecuted under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act 1971.
As a nation, shouldn’t we imbibe the value of patriotism within ourselves rather than force it on others in order to demonstrate our own commitment to patriotism and nationalism?
Did this doormat with the Indian flag being sold by some small unknown entity in Canada to mostly Canadian citizens, warrant an intervention from Sushma Swaraj and that too with a threat of visa denial to officials of Amazon?
The same result could well have been achieved through a discreet phone call by any government official at the centre to the Indian Amazon head, who, in turn, could have done the needful. So has she played to the galleries in her attempt to protect the national honour?
The sad part is that there is an army of hyper-active self-appointed guardians of Indian patriotism on the streets and on social media, who have taken it upon themselves to play vigilantes on a topic where self-realisation is desired rather than have it forced. But then that’s the flavour of the day.