By Malinda Seneviratne –
Countries have multiple flags. There are national flags and there are regional flags. Clubs and societies have flags. State departments have flags. Schools and universities have flags. The national flag is special because it is something that (ideally) everyone can identify with. It is a unifying symbol, just like a national anthem. It is special because unlike other flags it warrants mention in a country’s constitution. It flies above all else at ‘national’ events. And as a unity-seeker its use is promoted actively by state agencies, knowingly or unknowingly. People rally around it.
However, flags, like all things, are not for all time even though those who design it may dream of unlimited flying time. Nations were not always nations as we understand the word now. They are sometimes made by the amalgamation of regions (each often with flags of their own) or are fractured into several nations. These territorial movements bear upon flag-design. The national flag of Sri Lanka over which there’s controversy did not exist in the year 1947. There were certainly elements of the current national flag that were part of other flags sometimes considered as ‘national’ or if not in flags at least in popular consciousness.
Symbolism of this, that and the other get stitched on to flags. They represent things that are considered extremely important in terms of what a nation is, i.e. the most entrenched elements of history, heritage, ways of being etc. To the extent that people attach themselves to such things, they get hot under the color over their absence or presence in a national flag.
All of it is of course colored by politics and political preferences. For example, many of those who cry out in horror over ‘versions’ of the national flag that have deliberately cut out those strips which represent the Tamil community and other minority communities, were even asking for parity of status for a separatist group that was waving a totally different flag, calling it ‘national’ after ‘Eelam’ and shooting bullets not by way of salute into the sky but into real, live bodies of citizens whose rights the horrified claim to defend.
The key word, however is ‘version’. There cannot be, by constitutional definition, any ‘versions’ of the national flag. There’s one and that’s it. Anything else is not a ‘version’ of the national flag but something else. You can call it a flag if you wish, you can say it’s a handkerchief or serviette but it is not the national flag. For this reason any piece of cloth that is not identical in design (regardless of size) of the national flag as described in the constitution, is just that — a piece of cloth. A piece of cloth, ladies and gentlemen, can be cut into pieces, cut into different shapes and be decorated in any number of ways. You can paint it, embroider it, cut holes in it or do anything you like. You can use the color red, you can print or paint bo leaves or crosses or a crescent moon all over it or, if it’s rectangular in shape in its four corners. You can have a lion on it or a dolphin or any other creature. You can paint a flower on it or a tree or a leaf. You can have a lion that is yawning. You can have the lion carry a sword or an umbrella. Up to you.
The bottom line is, it affirms this thing called freedom of expression. If removing some element of the national flag is called a perversion, then a white flag (theoretically) would be the ultimate perversion of the national flag because it can be ‘read’ as a total erasing of every ‘sacred’ element stitched into it constitutionally.
It is time that the courts or the law-makers sort this out once and for all. Let us reiterate: there is only one ‘national flag’; even the slightest deviation from that particular design does not make the resultant a perversion but a ‘different’ flag. If someone wants to wave a piece of cloth that resembles the national flag but has an elephant in place of the lion, that’s his/her choice. If someone, similarly, wants to cut off the green or the orange strips or both or the tail of the lion, that too is his/her choice. If someone wants to add a couple of testicles to what appears to be a castrated lion on the national flag it wouldn’t amount to a correction of an error but a political, creative or even hilarious expression on the part of the ‘giver’. Someone could replace the lion with a lioness too. That’s not denigrating the national flag. It’s expressing a thought on a piece of cloth. You can’t legislate against that kind of thing, surely?