This Independence Day, private ringtones on mobile phones were substituted with a government campaign called Har Ghar Tiranga, suggesting everyone take a selfie with the national flag at home—this, despite the fact that millions of Indians still don’t have a home to attach a flag to. Yet, so successful was the phone pitch that more than five crore people uploaded their flag selfies on the website. The Ministry of Culture hailed the statistic as a stupendous achievement.
Presumably, the success was not just the impressive number but the ease with which the government recovered the cost of the flags from the public, and also tested the viability of many future political campaigns. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even credited the success to the re-emergence of a collective consciousness.
Doubtless, similar acts of suggestive patriotism occur gracelessly all over the world. Americans are forced to stand for the national anthem at football and baseball games before they can order hot dogs and Coke. British reverence for Queen and country assumes grandiose public dimensions—reflected in palaces, horse carriages, and formal parades. Every country pursues a ceremonial agenda to keep itself relevant in the public eye and superficially connected with the population.
In India, so great is the mistrust—between people and the government, between communities, between regions and religions—that enforcing a picture-book nationalism becomes a necessity. So, the flags come like dutiful markers stretched across the cityscape.
In a concerted campaign to bring the tricolour into perpetual public gaze, steel poles several feet high were planted in a judicious visible radius; and in the high breeze they unfurled a 60 sq. foot flag, the size of a small slum hut. Fabric, steel pole, and concrete foundation, built on site at considerable public expense. But for a government hoping to garner electoral support the effort has long-term benefits. That many flags have been planted in parks, off broken roads and incomplete sidewalks, at the edges of city slums, is of little consequence.
One of the expected shortcomings of any state is to submit so easily to public acts of self-interest, such that civic symbolism becomes more critical than civic action. It does not take much to assess how much would have been spent on thousands of steel flagpoles across Delhi and other cities and towns. Or whether the Ministry of Culture could have directed its funds and efforts into something truly cultural. Indeed, if the cost had been better justified, had the poles also been used for other purposes. Could windmills have been mounted on them to provide electric power to neighbourhoods below? Could they have served as attachments for urban air purifiers? We will never know. It is hard for a government to stretch its bureaucratic imagination to innovate for civic benefit when symbolic intent is so crucial.
The aesthetics of overkill are an essential part of the Indian public culture where subtlety and nuance are forsaken for the loud and the brutish. A public park in South Delhi was lit up in tricolour tubelights, sharp prisms that made people look ghoulish and ghostly. Along the stretch of public roadway, statues of Bhagat Singh, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and others were garlanded throughout the day in leaves and flowers of green, white, and saffron.
All across the country, the face of well-known monuments was lit up in the three colours. India Gate, Victoria Terminus, Char Minar, forts, palaces, railway stations, and other large public buildings together projected a luminescence so bright, it was hard to mistake the full-out force of the intention. This is India, big, bold, and bright. Every possible lighting technique, projection technology, and animation was used to usher in the 76th year of freedom. It is a wonder sound boxes playing the national anthem did not appear at traffic junctions. Or that holographic images of freedom fighters were not projected into the night sky.
Sadly, when patriotism assumes standardisation, its intent is hopelessly lost. Certainly, national occasions such as Independence Day, Republic Day, and Gandhi Jayanti remind us of critical events that shaped our history; their importance to the ideal of Indian nationhood cannot be disputed. But there remains a quieter, more eloquent version of patriotism that emerges more naturally from personal thought and memory.
What would it be like to celebrate a national day like Independence Day in complete silence? No lights, no flags, no speeches, no fanfare. A commemoration that is remembered privately by those who connect in some way to the now-distant event.
For me, the reminders are there in the few pictures of my grandfather’s large colonial house in Lahore and those of the single room in Himachal Pradesh where they lived after Partition, which leave much to the imagination. But it is there, through these faded pictures and incomplete stories that I construct for myself my own family’s independence day. And the impossibly difficult ordeal they must have endured as they crossed the border in north Punjab into India.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.