Indians forced to buy national flag in return for food rations, says opposition

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Idrees Mohammed/EPA</span>
Photograph: Idrees Mohammed/EPA

India’s opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, has accused the government of forcing people entitled to free food at government ration shops to buy flags in return for provisions in the run-up to Independence Day celebrations on 15 August.

India will celebrate 75 years of independence from the Raj on Tuesday, and the streets of cities across the country are full of flags for sale.

But Gandhi claimed that in some cases patriotic fervour was being forced on people, referring to a widely circulated video showing a shopkeeper in Haryana state scolding a customer who came in for free grain and did not want to buy a flag.

“This is a government order from the top,” the shopkeeper says. “I have been told by my boss not to give rations to those who refuse to buy the flag.”

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party rules at national as well as at state level in Haryana.

Gandhi said nationalism could never be sold. “Along with the tricolour, the BJP government is also attacking the self-esteem of the poor of our country,” he wrote on Facebook.

Other critics of Narendra Modi’s government said students, shopkeepers, housing associations and companies had been pressured by government supporters to display the flag.

An analyst, Parsa Ventakteshwar Rao Jr, said: “Since Modi’s party has appropriated patriotism as part of its ideology, it doesn’t miss any chance to link itself with a patriotic occasion. What is left unsaid is that this patriotism is Hindu patriotism.”

It is the custom for the national flag to be hoisted from public buildings on Independence Day. Some people also display it outside their homes.

This year, however, Modi has launched a campaign called Har Ghar Tiranga (“a flag in each home”) which has become the centrepiece of the celebrations.

The government target is for at least 200m flags to be on display by Monday, and the home affairs minister, Amit Shah, has urged people to change their social media profile pictures to the flag.

In some Delhi neighbourhoods, residents’ welfare associations have taken it upon themselves to enforce the flying of the flag. When some residents on a WhatsApp group said it should be left to personal choice because some people did not want to follow Modi’s demands, an association president said: “It has nothing to do with personal choice. It is a matter of national honour and respect.”

The next day he had 80 flags displayed in the neighbourhood and changed the group’s WhatsApp profile picture to a flag.

In the town of Surat, in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, textile traders went on a procession carrying a flag 5km long.

Normally, strict rules govern the fabric from which the tricolour can be made, and where and how it can be displayed, but this year the government has relaxed the rules to make it easier to display.