Identity in the Time of Dissent II: Tricolour Symbolism

Never have we seen so many Indian flags in India as we do today. Not on Independence Day, not on Republic Day, not in the stadium during an India versus Pakistan cricket match.

Today, every Indian carries a tricolour, every shop and home hangs a flag, and almost every establishment has hoisted the flag this Republic Day.

And never have we seen as many hijabs in public spaces.

I am convinced the hijab is a symbol we deserve as secular Indians – both Muslim and non-Muslim – because as soon as I shared a poster of a tricolored-hijab-wearing woman on social media (which was nothing short of a social experiment), I began to receive expected brickbats – some from users who had a saffron flag as their display picture.

Though there were plenty of people who rejoiced at an image that represents the diversity of India and all that is Indian today – especially hijab-wearing Muslim women who could relate to it the most – the comments of haters are very telling of their mentality.

Also read: The Hijab Has Arrived: Identity in the Time of Dissent and Conditional Allies

A few people “discovered” that it was “copied” from the American version of the artwork (my original post credited the real artist, Shepard Fairey – and had stated that I had sought permission for this version and that he didn’t reply), and started claiming that Muslims are known to steal ideas and take credit, or that Muslims are trying to take over the world by imposing the hijab East and West.

One person went as far as to redesign the poster, this time using Hindu religious symbols.

Some said I had finally accepted the tilak/bindi on the forehead, though the image has a tika and not a bindi. Many pointed out that the “flag” was upside-down, which was disrespectful and also exposing a deeper agenda to “Islamicise” India.

I had clearly mentioned that this isn’t the Indian flag, only a scarf using the colours of our flag – which is plain to see for anyone who is familiar with the flag, as it’s also missing the Ashok Chakra in the white band.

I even made a version with the orange band on top, the colours in an order similar to the Indian flag, just for the comfort of those who asked me to, due to the familiarity of the configuration.

The attackers then changed direction, and began to talk about radicalisation by Muslims, the patriarchal origins of the hijab, and the imposition of it on poor, weak Muslim women against their will, sometimes as young children so that they would be controlled and “conditioned” into accepting it. Others said that I was alienating women who didn’t cover. I also received veiled and open threats to take down my post.

Right-wing big guns/hate icons such as Tarek Fatah and Vivek Agnihotri also got involved, even though they can’t seem to make up their minds. Fatah tweeted, “Truly disgraceful. Imprisoning Muslim women in the hijab, a political symbol of the Arab Muslim Brotherhood and Indian Jamaat-e-Islami jihadis by Islamizing the flag of the Indian Republic. Why can’t these exhibitionist women wear the traditional Indian ‘dopatta?’ Why mimic Arabs?”

How can imprisoned women with no agency also be exhibitionist at the same time? Are we Schrödinger’s women?

Agnihotri, on the other hand, seemed to have become obsessed with the poster, and tweeted about it all day.

The underlying theme that unites all these haters is hatred. Hatred of “the other,” of Islam, of its tenets, of people following it, of Muslim women choosing to wear the hijab even though they could be liberated from it in a free country, of Muslims asserting their identity and claiming the tricolour as their own.

The tricolour has always taken many forms in articles of clothing, from dupattas to sarees to turbans. Only in the form of a hijab is it offensive, threatening, patriarchal, regressive, repressive, communal, anti-national, un-Indian.

Also read: I Am a Muslim. Here’s Why I Wear My Religion on My Sleeve

These ardent “nationalists” didn’t seem to take any issue at all with Prime Minister Narendra Modi using the tricolour to mop up sweat or touching it with his feet or hoisting it upside-down, or even autographing it!

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on international yoga day in 2016. 

The most common repetitive thread in these hateful comments was that the green in the Indian flag represents Islam, the white Christianity, and the saffron Hinduism. Believing that the tricolour represents Hinduism, Christianity, Islam is not only misguided but a very limited and superficial view of our national flag and of our nation. And it goes to show how ignorant about India and its history these so-called nationalists really are.

Though these colours may initially have been selected as a denotation of different communities of India, this simplistic and exclusionary view was replaced by a more evolved and deeper perspective:

Saffron stands for courage and sacrifice.

White represents peace and truth.

Green symbolises faith and chivalry.

The Ashok Chakra represents the eternal spinning wheel of law and change, that replaced the former charkha (spinning wheel).

As Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said:  

Bhagwa or the Saffron denotes renunciation or disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work. The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct. The green shows our relation to (the) soil, our relation to the plant life here, on which all other life depends. The “Ashoka Chakra” in the center of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principle of those who work under this flag. Again, the wheel denotes motion. There is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. India should no more resist change, it must move and go forward. The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.

Now for the most ironic bit: the Indian flag in its current form was designed by a Muslim woman artist from Hyderabad, Surayya Tyabji, based on the Swaraj Flag of the Indian National Congress designed by a student, Pingali Venkayyah. (Surayya also designed the Indian emblem with her husband, Badruddin, and adding the Ashok Chakra to the flag was their idea.) This irony is, of course, lost on ‘desh bhakts’ who lack knowledge and the willingness to learn about anything that defies their confirmation bias.

Knowledge is reluctant to enter minds and hearts already filled to the brim with hatred and ill intent.

India can never be as singular, homogenous, uniform and akhand as some people like to wish. Our differences should become veins and tributaries of celebrated diversity; if they are erased and stifled they may instead turn into cracks and fractures in the gestalt of our nation.

Takbir Fatima is a full-time architect, entrepreneur and educator, and a part-time traveler, thinker, tinkerer from Hyderabad. Find Fatima on Instagram @talkistania and read

Artwork: Takbir Fatima (based on the original design by Shepard Fairey)