Virmani, Arunhati, A National Flag for India. Rituals, Nationalism, and the Politics of Sentiment, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2008.
In this book, Arundhati Virmani outlines the building of the Indian nation-state in the verge of independence through a detailed analysis of its flag. Her main argument is that the design, adoption and popularization of the flag were a conscious decision by the nationalist elite to form a unified social corpus against the British colonialism. Interestingly, the very materiality of the flag stands as a proof of the existence of a nation “without substance”:
“The flag was the reality, although what it symbolized remained an illusion. It was enough to display it, hoist it, and hold it up for the nation to be real. Nationalist rituals around the flag were conceived to unite, to present the form, while awaiting the substance of the real state, and to build a fictional, ritual nation, which had in fact no substance yet. In that sense they can be seen as a form of theatre managed by the Indians, a grand trick of illusions inaugurating the first act of a play Indians hoped would end in independence.” (183)
The physical representation of the nation became not only an instrument but an aim in itself. The need to construct a political alternative to colonial power was not only based on desires and imagination but it need to be material and tangible and thus embody both the collective self and its goal of independence. A flag was not only beneficial, it was vital to rally such a diverse society. But this idea was univocally inspired in early 20th century by Western understanding of identity politics encapsulated by the concept of nation-states (dangerously confused with both “state” and “nation” in Virmani´s book).
Flags and banners were traditionally used to represent geographically defined polities. The work of Robert Taylor in 1877, an Orientalist corpus of knowledge on the symbolic meanings of colors and figures of traditional Indian heraldry, was aimed at representing the princely states. But it was only around the turn of the century that this sort of symbols started to be utilized to rally social collectives. Before Gandhi’s model for the Indian flag popularized in 1921, Sister Nivedita, an Irish-British Hindu convert, designed a flag depicting a vajra in 1910s; and Bikaji Cama, a Parsi nationalist woman living in exile in Paris adapted the flag of the Bengal anti-partition movement designed in 1905.
“The commemorations and celebration initially consisted of public processions and ceremonies with speeches, but were extended under Gandhi’s direction to include spinning and what he termed the contemplation of ‘national or civic virtues’. They had little of the joyous, festive aspect that characterized national festival in Europe or in America. The emphasis was on a laborious learning of a grammar of nationhood that was gradually being defined through conscious and active manifestation of tolerance towards other Indians. Thus, these events became an occasion both for an orderly exhibition of solidarity and display of loyalty to a national programme.” (159, bold are added)
Prior to the Indian nationalist politicians, the Indian Office in London received the suggestion of designing a specifically Indian flag to represent this colony along the rest of the British possessions during the upcoming coronation of Edward VII in 1901. However, Lord Curzon, in his traditionalist mind, trunked these early efforts of providing such symbol and curled up the already baroque celebration of the Empire Day. It was only when Indian troops were to be distinctively represented in WWI and when India participated as a separate member in the foundation of the League of Nations, that the colonial flag of the Star of India was implemented.
The Indian nationalist later appropriated the empire’s materiality (measures of the flag, its horizontal shape, the stripes), its symbolic rhetoric (institutionalizing a Flag Day, nationalist secularism), and the conceptual meaning of the nation-state hidden behind its symbol to start thinking of India as a political geography containing and identified society entitled to self-determination. It was not only the need to materially represent independence within the borders of colonized India, it was also the need to display existence within the international community and implicitly advocate Indian independence.
Interestingly, the publication of this book is immersed in a polemic debate held in India during the last decade. The strict set of norms and rules that govern the use of the official flag constrains its use and detach it from the society it is supposed to represent.
“The formal operation of the flag’s adoption, once complete, the state instituted a set of norms and rules aimed at making it a sacred object. On the model of other countries, India’s flag was to invite respect both within and without. Therefore, while subscribing to international standards, the Indian state affirmed its distinctiveness through values on which it intended to build the Indian state and society. In the process it profoundly modified the practices and uses of the flag that had developed in the colonial period and imposed a restricted model that prevented a more personalized, subjective, and creative appropriation by each citizen. The situation was quite paradoxical, for at the very moment of liberation the flag was being confined in strict rules and regulations.” (286)
Virmani’s book, in an attempt to confront ethnic and religious conflict that threats contemporary India, defines and utilizes nationalism as an agglutinative force that could unify society within the state. Although not explicitly, she subscribes Partha Chatterjee’s overarching utilitarianism of the nation defended in his famous critic to Benedict Anderson’s Utopia (1999). However, Virmani forgets that the other side of this coin is the unidirectional narrative that prevents Pakistan from participating in her historicist narrative. A National Flag for India is an attempt to trace the history of the contemporary state of India; hence Pakistan and Bangladesh appear only as the non-India territories.
Although the title contains it and there is a chapter dedicated to the politics of sentiments, it does not theoretically explore how these sentiments were learnt, instilled, provoked, or staged. Virmani limited herself to point at the importance of these sentiments and did not dissect how they were instrumental in the process of nationalization of both the society and the symbols of the state-to-be.
“It would be too simple to consider these accounts merely as part of personal, private memories, family histories, or anecdotes, fascinating and moving to read but of little explanatory value in understanding the course of social and political movement. It is equally unwise to dismiss them as retrospective intellectual reconstructions of personal itineraries around an object that had become a sacralized, legitimate symbol of nationhood. On the contrary, emotions were crucial, at times decisive in determining individual choices, political action, and behavior” (212)
Unfortunately, Virmani limit herself to describe a number of emotional actions and accounts in reference to the flag, and she does not enter into a theoretical discussion of how the flag was instrumental for the social affection that constituted the nation.