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A matter of flags and symbols
Recently, the demand for a state flag for Karnataka is witnessing aroused passions. Flag is a very emotive symbol. Depending on the demagogues who are call the shots, the flag can be a rallying point for a just cause or otherwise!

Japanese American semanticist Sam Hayakawa said:  'The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized. The map is NOT the territory. The word is NOT the thing. Most societies systematically encourage the habitual confusion of symbols with things symbolized'.

'For example, if a Japanese schoolhouse caught fire, it used to be obligatory in the days of emperor-worship to try to rescue the emperor's picture (there was one in every schoolhouse), even at the risk of one's life'.

'The symbols of piety, of civic virtue, or of patriotism are often prized above actual piety, civic virtue, or patriotism. In one way or another, we are all like the student who cheats on his exams in order to get high grades; it is so much more important to have the symbol than the things it stands for.'

Throughout my growing up and four decades of professional life, I have witnessed how the same flag as a symbol, can mean just the opposite to another!

-  As a school boy, during our freedom struggle, I used to daily take part in our mohalla's march proudly waving our tiranga, singing 'Vijayi viswhwa tiranga pyaara, zhanda uncha rahe hamara'. If the procession grew large and noisy, it was lathi charged. For us, the tiranga of Indian National Congress stood for our yearning for aazadi from the foreign yolk and oppression. But I was turned out of the class by the English teachers, whenever I had a tricolour pinned on my lapel. For them it was a symbol of gross disloyalty of the thankless natives, towards the Crown.

- 'A flag is not sovereignty': The southern side of Mount Everest belongs to Nepal. The northern side belongs to China. However, when mountaineers ascend the top, they unfurl their nation's flag; but it no way symbolises the conquest of Nepal or China. It just symbolises that the challenge of climbing the highest mountain in the world had been met. Nothing more and nothing less!

- Perceptions can be so different: Our film club at the university once held a Polish Film Festival and the Polish ambassador was present throughout the festival. During screening of one patriotic film about World War II, a Polish soldier who alone was holding out on the hill was shot. His body fell on the fallen Polish flag, which he had been holding. All the students stood up and clapped.

The furious Polish ambassador stood up and had the screening stopped and said, 'Gentleman, in my country we do not clap, when a patriot dies'. There was deadening silence. The coincidence of a dead patriot falling on his country's flag was a great emotional moment for the Indian audience. But a gross insult for the Poles!

-  The German MNC with which I spent my entire professional life, 1956 onwards faced a very piquant situation. The prelude to the story is this:

The Nazis adopted the swastika as the German national flag. For them, as declared by Hitler, the swastika represented the purity and superiority of the Aryan race, which itself was a myth!

In the context of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities, a BBC report mentioned: 'In the Western world the swastika is synonymous with fascism, but it goes back thousands of years and has been used as a symbol of good fortune in almost every culture in the world. As more evidence emerges of its long pre-Nazi history in Europe, can this ancient sign ever shake off its evil associations?'

For Hindus, Jains and Buddhists the swastika has a deeply religious significance. A Hindu website says: "The truth is Swastika is a Hindu ritual word and symbol that has been in use since the early Vedic period. Since it has been such a popular and commonly used word in the Indian subcontinent since millenniums (at least since 2500 BC), it has both secular and religious meanings".

Now the story starts: After World War II, the German government banned the use of swastika in any form. It was total taboo.

In India after Independence, due to shortage of foreign exchange all the goods for exports were to be shipped by Indian flag carriers. For our exports from Bombay to Hamburg port, the best option was by Scindia Steam Navigation Company's sailings. The problem was that the flag of Scindia Navigation was the swastika! (See inset.)

When our first consignment went, the Hamburg port authorities refused entry to the Scindia ship, as it was not only sporting the swastika flag, but all its bills of lading and letterheads, for customs clearance also had the swastika logo! The problem was solved by transhipping the cargo on the high seas on to another ship, which did not sport the swastika. For all our later consignments, we had to ship by longer routes of other Indian ships. This meant higher costs and longer shipping times. All over a flag!

In general, Hayakawa says, "Citizens of a modern society need to be systematically aware of the powers and limitations of symbols, if they are to guard against being driven into complete bewilderment."

(Photo: Flag of Scindia Steam Navigation Company Limited.)

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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