Dileepan Mahendran, disgruntled area man from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, set the national flag on fire in 2016.
In 2020, disgruntled youth or group demanding an ILP regime for Meghalaya did the same in Shillong.
Last year, in support of our farmer agitation against the three Farm Laws, disgruntled diaspora activists repeated this dastardly act in Sacramento, California.
It has also become customary for disgruntled Sikh and Kashmiri groups to burn the tricolour outside the Indian High Commission in London almost every Republic Day.
Clearly there’s a lot of disgruntlement out there. And a lot of it gets taken out on the flag.
And not just ours. In Australia, Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance (RYSA, the youth wing of Socialist Alliance, an eco-socialist and anti-capitalist political party) has peddled ‘flag-burning kits’ to college students in broad bloody daylight. In Coleman versus Kinbacher & Another (Queensland Police), the prosecution’s real grouse with flag burning was not “its political nature, but because given the size of the flag, the use of petrol as an accelerant, and the fact that it was in an open park area, many members of the public experienced ‘concern, fright and anger’, and in these circumstances flag burning could be considered disorderly conduct.”
Before you say “but I am thinking that is only in Australia”, consider that the US, Canada, Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, in fact most nations with thriving liberal democracies — places you’re lately so desperate to move your kids to — are also very non-serious about this matter. Some of their citizens even share flag-burning recipes on YouTube.
The Saudis are slightly more serious. Their flag is inscribed with the holy shahada, so leave alone desecration, even flying those colours at half-mast is an act of blasphemy.
Others are selectively uptight. It’s commonplace to see Israeli and US flags being reduced to ashes across the Arab world. Shortly after 9/11, a bunch of Muslim youth dared me to step on the Israeli and US flags they had chalked at the entrance to some world-famous dargah. I declined, but only because I have zero interest in entering dargahs. Flags are fair game.
The map shows how the legality of flag desecration is uneven across nations and continents, and goes some way to explain why this act comes with dire consequences in some places, but struggles to make even the local news in others. (The wiki on this topic is actually quite interesting. Do read it here.
But Why Would Anyone Desecrate The Flag?
In protest, to begin with: American civil society’s widespread opposition to the US war on Vietnam often found expression in the burning of the US flag. In the world’s first televised war, these little symbolic fires on American campuses and streets would fast become as photogenic to the media as Vietnamese villages doused in napalm.
In anger, of course: When the US reneged on the JCPOA nuclear deal four years ago, the Iranians responded by incinerating a US flag during a session of their parliament. Some claim it was also to clandestinely test the building’s smoke detectors.
In distress: The US Flag Code prohibits anyone from flying their flag upside-down “except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” However, this “has been used by extension to make a statement about distress in civic, political, or other areas,” as Rage Against The Machine did in 1996, draping the US flag upside-down on their amps and getting kicked out of SNL halfway through the show.
In confusion: The Union Jack was frequently burned by the Irish during The Troubles. Across the border in Northern Ireland, British loyalists would return the favour by desecrating the Irish flag, and sometimes the flag of Ivory Coast, because the two look so alike. In fact, “Ivorian flags displayed in Northern Ireland have signs explicitly labeling them as such, to avoid having them desecrated by local pro-UK loyalists mistaking them for Irish ones.”
In shame: When the nation your founding fathers and mothers fought so hard to liberate is hijacked by some pathologically dishonest and unabashedly criminal gang, you could be forgiven for having flag desecration on your mind.
In admonition: When some idiot neighbour, colleague or relative who spends all year wearing khaki knickers to some shakha (eulogizing Godse while spitting on Gandhi, saluting a saffron banner instead of the tricolour, singing ‘Vande Mataram’ in place of the national anthem, and swearing by the Manusmriti rather than the Constitution) suddenly starts to wave the tricolour around Independence Day, much like men with small penises tend to compensate by driving big cars, that’s casus belli, flat out.
And finally, in joy: As Angus Young did one midsummer night before 450,000 AC/DC fans, disrobing to expose the Canadian flag emblazoned on his underwear, followed by whatever lay underneath. I witnessed this joy at somewhat close quarters.
Which brings us to the question you’ve been asking these days
Should You Be Burning The Flag (Or Wrapping It Around Your Privates)?
You really shouldn’t be asking such questions. Your government has overturned the flag code issued by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2002, allowing the tricolour to now be fabricated from polyester.
Polyester, as you probably know, releases phthalates (chemicals associated with hormone disruption) into the air and through contact with skin, as well as carcinogens that can effect your skin and lungs over prolonged use. I wouldn’t recommend wrapping it around anything, public or private. There’s also the small matter of 200 years that it takes to biodegrade the material.
But the foremost reason you shouldn’t burn polyester is that it’s not supposed to burn. You’d have to heat polyester anywhere between 432 to 488 degrees Celsius to ignite it. But remove the flame, and it’ll self-extinguish. Which means if you’re trying to burn a polyester flag today, you probably weren’t paying attention in Chemistry class either.
That said, we’re a nation in distress.
And while unfurling the national flag is your fundamental right, questioning its day-to-day desecration is your fundamental duty.
Reclaim that flag.
PS: I can’t possibly end this without a flag desecration anecdote of my own.
Barely four days into the ‘shock and awe’ of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Rolling Stones (no politics please, strictly business) use Singapore as a pit-stop on their transcontinental Forty Licks tour. In a country where free speech is verboten, demonstrations are banned and mere thought-crimes can earn you free boarding and lodging at Changi (the prison, not the airport) this Stones gig becomes both an affront and a challenge for the antiwar heart beating beneath my corporate criminal suit.
I’m stuck between hard rock and a place. What do I do to get my message across? How do I stay out of Changi? And how creative must I become to achieve both?
I shell out $500 to get front row tickets, within glassing distance of the semi-blind geriatrics on stage. Halfway into the gig, my heart finally getting the better of my head, I slip out the Yankee American flag, about six feet wide, faded and frayed since the Gulf War of 1990 when it first reached my hands, and stand as tall and high as I possibly can in a seething crowd of Asians, unfurling it over their heads, upside down.
The protest is over in five seconds.
The star spangled banner has been ripped from my hands and I’m trussed face-down to the ground.
For years I keep telling myself it was their security.
The sad truth is it was only the fans.