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Advocate files PIL petition in Delhi High Court against the colonial legacy of using the call sign ‘VT’ by civilian aircraft in India

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Advocate files PIL petition in Delhi High Court against the colonial legacy of using the call sign ‘VT’ by civilian aircraft in India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi alighting from Air India One, a file photograph.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi alighting from Air India One, a file photograph. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

‘Air India One’, the $1.18 billion, Boeing 777-300ER aircraft which transports India’s President, Vice President, and Prime Minister, bears a five-character alphanumeric call sign that is prefixed with the letters VT, like all civilian aircraft registered in India. The letter ‘V’ traces its genesis to the London International Radiotelegraph Convention in 1912 when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) issued ‘British India’ and the other British colonies radio call sign blocks beginning with ‘V’ to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria.

All aircraft should have a unique five character alphanumeric call sign, or registration, under international laws governed by the United Nations. Every aircraft must specify, too, which country and airline it belongs to.

A public interest litigation (PIL) petition under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution has been filed in the Delhi High Court on June 23 by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, a Delhi-based advocate, questioning why India, a sovereign country, continues to use the VT code that is the legacy of the erstwhile British Raj and “is a reflection of colonial rule”.

The petition contends that the use of the letters VT in the registration of all Indian aircraft “is not a symbol of pride but a matter of shame”, given that India is a free sovereign country and not a territory of the Viceroy. The petitioner contends that the letters VT denote “Victorian Territory” and “Viceroy Territory” and, despite this, “the government refuses to get it changed or even make an effort, even after 75 years of Independence”. The petitioner has further submitted that most of the countries which went through colonial servitude have gotten rid of their colonial signs after independence and launched their own code.

States the petition: “Why is India continuing with VT code? The efforts of the government to change the registration code have been fruitless. In 2004, the Indian Civil Aviation ministry approached the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to change the code but no decision has been taken so far. It is a code given to us in 1929 by British rulers, denoting us as British territory. It’s very unfortunate that India, even after 75 years of Independence, retains VT, the symbol of slavery.”

States the petition: “The Centre may be directed to change the call sign VT written on Indian aircrafts in order to secure Sovereignty of India as well as Rule of Law, Right to Freedom and Right to Dignity of Indians guaranteed under Articles 14, 19 and 21 respectively, of the Constitution. And the Court may also pass such other order(s) and/or direction(s) as this Court deems fit and proper to secure sovereignty and dignity of citizens….

“After 75 years of independence, there is one colonial legacy that continues to fly high over the Indian skies: civilian aircraft registered in India continue to carry the prefix VT…. The government is hesitant to change the registration. One can find the codes VT-AAA or VT-ZZZ painted on the aircraft just like the registration number of a vehicle. There have been demands for a very long time to change the code as it is a vestige of the colonial regime, but successive governments have done nothing. Since 1947, the ICAO has been managing code standards and their allocation.”

Citing Air India One’s call sign (VT-EVB), the petition poses the question: “Even the Indian Prime Minister travels to meet world leaders in Air India One which has the call sign VT-EVB. Is the Prime Minister of India a leader of a free democratic country or of a Viceroy Territory? Countries like China, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka have all changed their call signs after their independence. While in India, the prefix has remained on all civilian aircraft even after 93 years. This offends Sovereignty, Rule of Law (Article14), Right to Freedom (Article 19) and Right to Dignity (Article 21).”

Upadhyay further explains in the PIL: “As per rules set by ICAO, each aircraft has to be registered in a country, where it is allotted a registration number which has two letters as the country code, followed by three letters of owners or the carrier’s choice, like VT-123 in case of an Indian aircraft. India was assigned the letters VT while it was still under British rule. In fact, the series VA to VZ were assigned to aircraft registered in British territories. Many countries changed their codes after independence viz. Fiji, Nepal and Pakistan. But India decided to retain VT. Pakistan adopted AP from the newly allocated call signs APA-ASZ. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Fiji use 4R, 9N, A5 and DQ respectively, while the Bahamas changed theirs from VP-B to C6, and Zimbabwe from VP-W to Z.”

Continues the petition: “Using the flight code VT is not only a symbol of British oppression which existed in India for a long time, but it is also an insult to India’s heritage and culture.”

Speaking to Frontline, the petitioner contended that successive Union Ministers, parliamentarians, Ministers of State governments and Members of Legislative Assemblies “have not taken appropriate steps to change the call sign ‘VT’, and, therefore, the court was the last hope for citizens”.

Said Upadhyay: “The ICAO and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) assign the call signs. Futile efforts were made in the past with regard to the change of call sign for aircraft registered in India. Both ICAO and ITU, according to the government, responded by saying that India could not get BA (Bharat) and IN (India) as China and Italy have already taken up B and I, respectively. The then Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel had stated that because India could not get a code of its choice, it would function with VT. This is absurd, as on researching call signs for various other countries, I have discovered that more than one country uses the same primary alphabet with differing secondary alphabets. For example, Argentina, Bulgaria,

Lithuania, Luxembourg, and Norway use the signs LV/LQ, LZ, LY, LX and LN, respectively. Similarly, Haiti, Honduras, Korea and Panama use HH, HR, HL and HP respectively. In addition, some countries even use single alphabets such as Canada (G) China (B), France (F), Germany (G), Italy (I), United States of America (N) and the United Kingdom (G). If these countries can do it, so can India. We need to bring freedom from the feeling of slavery by rejecting the call sign provided by our former rulers.”