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Opinion Raise your Indian flags high: There’s much injustice to cover up

A worker prepares Indian national flags for Independence Day celebrations on the outskirts of Kolkata on Aug. 4. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images)

To celebrate 75 years of independence, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked people to proudly display the tricolor of the Indian flag — well, perhaps “asked” is not quite accurate.

An initiative spearheaded by Modi’s most radical nationalist minister, Amit Shah, is urging people to display flags at homes and businesses and post pictures on social media. But of course this could only lead to more polarization in Modi’s India, where blind nationalism is displacing democracy at a rapid pace: In a viral video, daily wage workers complain about being forced to buy flags to “prove” their patriotism, when they barely have enough to buy a meal.

Modi’s “Har ghar tiranga” (“tricolor in every house”) campaign has become yet another flash point in our society — a tool of distraction for what really matters. As India grapples with an economic crisis — with the rupee plunging to historic lows — and the pain of rising unemployment is felt on the streets, the Modi government has decided to announce an ambitious plan: display at least 200 million flags by Aug. 15, Indian independence day.

In the middle of serious challenges, one would expect India’s government to use the independence celebration to call for the strengthening of our founding values — democracy, inclusiveness, freedom of expression. Instead, we get ugly displays of patriotic fervor and institutional discrimination. In the state of Uttarakhand, ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the state leader already asked his supporters to take pictures of households that do not display the national flag on Aug. 15.

WhatsApp groups among relatives, colleagues and friends are descending into virtual “us” vs. “them” slugfests over the flag. In India, patriotism has become a toxic performance.

A Muslim friend who works in finance and lives in an exclusive neighborhood in Mumbai found himself removed from his office WhatsApp group because he refused to change his profile picture to the national flag. “I did not change my display picture. I felt pressured. I was being singled out with every third person asking me to change it. I did not want to be coerced into proving my patriotism,” he told me.

In a room full of people, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was not loyal to India.

There’s little to celebrate this independence day. The past eight years have made India a global cause of alarm, as the Modi government has subverted democracy in favor of his own brand of autocratic Hindu nationalism. India has fallen to the 150th position in the World Press Freedom Index as journalists are arrested every odd day over tweets or for reporting critical stories.

Hate crimes against Muslims have been normalized, to the extent that news channels do not even consider them worthy of coverage anymore. Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partially free” in its annual report over attacks and discrimination of religious minorities and the weaponizing of government agencies against critics. For the fourth consecutive year, India suffered the dubious distinction of leading the list of countries with the most internet shutdowns.

For the first time in the history of India, the country faced an unprecedented diplomatic backlash by 20 countries over a government spokesperson’s insulting remarks against Islam.

The country’s powerful film industry has set out to dehumanize Muslims and promote Islamophobia. And the country continues to fail many of its most vulnerable citizens. In the Global Hunger Index, India ranks 101 out of 116 countries.

On the eve of the 75th independence day, those who fought and gave their lives for India’s freedom are being derided. Gandhi’s contribution to the freedom movement is being questioned, while his assassins are glorified.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, is being excluded and his legacy besmirched. There have been no references to him in official communications. Nehru’s iconic speech on the eve of independence, “Tryst With Destiny,” laid the foundation for an inclusive India.

Clearly there’s no room for that in Modi’s vision.

This Aug. 15, the Indian government asks only one thing of us: Let’s raise up our flags!

Let’s raise up the tricolor everywhere — to cover up the injustice, the poverty and desperation, the vindictive and pervasive cruelty of a government that has only succeeded in making us less independent and more narrow-minded.