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In India, Flags May Now Fly High Any Day - 2002-01-25

For the first time since Independence in 1947, it is now legal for ordinary Indians to fly their national flag on any day of the year. The order allowing Indians to fly their tri-color takes effect on Saturday, Republic Day in India, and comes after an eight year legal battle.

Republic Day is the day to wave the flag in India. Thousands turn out for a mammoth parade in New Delhi. All across India ordinary citizens take the opportunity to put small Indian flags on their cars, wave them from their windows and carry them proudly through the streets of the world's most populous democracy.

Until now, Republic Day, which celebrates India's transition to a republic in 1950, was one of the few days ordinary Indians were allowed to fly their flag. A law called the Indian Flag Code banned anyone except a few high government officials from flying the flag over a private home or business, except on national holidays. Anyone breaking the law could go to jail for six months.

Now, thanks to the efforts of a young industrialist, Naveen Jindal, that law has been rescinded by India's Home Ministry. Mr. Jindal first got the idea to try and overturn India's Flag Code when he went to the United States to study business.

"I was inspired by seeing Americans taking so much pride in displaying their national flag," recalled Mr. Jindal. "So I said why don't we do this in India? When I came back over here and realized it was not allowed I was very surprised. I said no, this is not right it must change and I must change it."

Naveen Jindal is the managing director of Jindal Steel and Power, one of India's largest companies. When he returned to India he began flying India's orange, white and green tri-color over his company's factories. Government officials quickly told him to stop and so he went to court.

For eight years, Naveen Jindal's case wound its way through India's court system. According to Soli Sorabjee, India's attorney general, restrictions on who could and could not fly the flag date back a half-century and are based on fears ordinary Indians would not respect the flag.

"I think the thinking which underlay the prohibition about flying the flag by all people except certain dignitaries was the apprehension that the flag would be misused - that the respect that the flag deserves would not be there by hoisting it anywhere or not keeping it at a proper position," said Mr. Sorabjee. "There were fears flags would fall down, people might stamp on it and that due respect for the flag would not be observed by the majority of the people, except for those dignitaries, which I think is rubbish."

Soli Sorabjee says before he became attorney general he advised Naveen Jindal on how to fight his case. He said he has always supported easing provisions of the Indian Flag Code.

Last year India's Home Ministry stepped in to resolve the case, setting up a committee to look into the matter. India's Supreme Court was expected to issue a judgment based on whatever the committee recommended. The case was finally settled this month when, after the committee recommended easing restrictions on flying the flag, India's Cabinet did just that - instructing India's Home Ministry to ease restrictions on flying India's tri-color - even before the Supreme Court issued its decision.

Naveen Jindal stresses the decision is a victory for the people. "So now it is going to be the people's flag and we are all going to be inspired by it," said Mr. Jindal. "I am sure we are going to be a much happier, prouder nation. When a person displays a national flag he rises above his religious and political affiliations and just shows that he loves his country."

Some legal observers say India's Cabinet moved to settle the case this month to take advantage of a surge in patriotism following the attack on India's parliament last year and the subsequent rise in tensions with Pakistan. Naveen Jindal rejects that argument saying India's Supreme Court was scheduled to rule on the case before the end of the month.

Meanwhile since the Home Ministry announced it was easing restrictions on flying India's tri-color, sales of Indian flags have surged at the few outlets where they are sold. Salesman says stocks of flags have all but disappeared and they have put in urgent requests for production to be stepped up.