[Picture Credits- The Print]
The Central government recently announced that the new Indian passports shall have a lotus symbol printed on them, as part of enhanced security features to identify fake passports. Interestingly, ‘lotus’ is also the election symbol of the Bharatiya Janta Party (“BJP”) which is the political party at power in the Centre and therefore, the opposition has attacked the move by terming it as an attempt to saffronise the country and infuse electoral politics into governance.
The spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs (“MEA”) has justified the imprint by stating that ‘lotus’ is the National Flower of India and is a national symbol connected by India and therefore its printing has no politics behind it. He has further stated that other national symbols (i.e. the national animal, national bird etc.) shall also be printed subsequently in the passports.
The government’s move raises interesting questions on national symbols in India. First, what is a national symbol and what gives a symbol the status of a ‘national symbol’ Second, what are the national symbols recognised in India and third, whether lotus is one such symbol. I aim to answer all these questions in the present post. Here, I shall break down the law governing national symbols in India and argue that contrary to popular opinion, ‘lotus’ is not the national flower and hence not a national symbol.
A. Law governing National Symbols in India:
Before we discuss the law governing a national symbol, understanding the meaning of a national symbol is important. As per the Courts, any symbol that connotes the idea of the presence or representation of the Indian nation is considered a national symbol (Karan Singh v. Jamuna Singh, AIR 1959 All 427). This idea of representation is key to identifying a national symbol. For example, the Indian national flag is considered a national symbol as wherever it is flown it gives an idea that in some form or the other the Indian nation is present or represented there. Other examples include a nation’s national emblem, animal, bird, river etc.
The threshold for recognition as a national symbol is very high. In fact, the Courts have even rejected a plea wherein M.K. Gandhi’s portrait (mistakenly referred to as the Father of the Indian Nation) was sought to be considered as a national symbol. The Court held that there is no doubt that people keep the portrait of Mr. Gandhi as they revere him, however, it cannot be said that the portrait represents the Indian Nation. In the words of the Court,
“People may keep his portrait because they revere him or have a great regard for him and treat him as the father of the Nation who alone brought independence of this country. By keeping his portrait, however, it cannot be said that there is any intention to signify that the Indian Nation as such is present or represented where that portrait happens to be. It appears to us, therefore, that it is not possible to hold that a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi is a national symbol in the sense that it represents the Indian Nation which was the only suggestion which could be put forward before us during the course of arguments when this point was considered by us.” – Karan Singh v. Jamuna Singh, AIR 1959 All 427
There are five ways in which a symbol may be recognised as a national symbol. They are,
- By a resolution of the Constituent Assembly (Pre-Constitution of India)
- By a law passed by the Parliament
- By a declaration by the Government of India (in exercise of delegated powers)
- By international recognition
- By recognition by the nation as a whole
It should be noted that majority of symbols which have been recognised as national symbols in India, gained their recognition under the above-mentioned category (a) i.e. by a resolution of the Constituent Assembly. For instance, the tricolour flag, the song Jana Gan Man, the song Vande Matram were accorded the status of the National Flag, National Anthem and National Song respectively, as per the resolutions of the Constituent Assembly.
Category (b) i.e. by a law passed by the Parliament has been used once when the state emblem i.e. adaptation of the lion capital of Ashoka was recognised as a state emblem through the “The State Emblem of India (Prohibition of Improper Use) Act, 2005.”
Using Category (c), the central government has notified ‘Tiger’ as the National Animal and ‘Peacock’ as the National Bird respectively, in 2011. [Harinder Dhingra v. PIO, MoEF, 2016 SCC Online CIC 15729]
Till date, no symbol has been recognised as a national symbol under category (d) and (e).
B. ‘Lotus’ and its Status:
As discussed above, the MEA’s justification behind the imprinting of lotus on the passports was its status as a national symbol since it was the national flower of India. It should be noted that this stance of the MEA is incorrect and contrary to government data and records which categorically state that India has no official national flower.
In an RTI filed in 2012, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (“MoEF”) failed to provide any information on the point of India’s national flower. (Aishwarya Parashar v. MoEF & Ors., 2017 SCC Online CIC 8611). The Central Information Commission which is the authorised statutory body under the Right to Information Act, in a 2016 order recorded that the MoEF has no official records regarding India’s national flower.
The above position is also backed by the statement of Shri Nityanand Rai (Union Minister of State in the Home Ministry) in the Rajya Sabha. In a response to a query the Hon’ble Minister said,
“As informed by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), Tiger’ and Peacock’ have been notified as the National Animal and National Bird respectively vide their Notification No. 25-1/2008-WL-I dated 30th May, 2011; however, no such notification has been issued regarding National Flower’ by MoEF.”
In light of the above, the stance of the MEA is patently wrong and contradicts their own previous statements.
Interestingly, the status of ‘lotus’ as the national flower is not the only factoid that does rounds on the social media. We also have hockey as the national sport, mango as the national fruit and M.K. Gandhi as the father of the nation. Although it is upsetting to see a common man blindly believe what she/he reads on social media, one can ignore that. However, when the central government makes a statement which is incorrect and wrong in law, shutting one’s eyes is difficult.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of Subramaniam Swamy v. Election Commission of India, [(2008) 14 SCC 318] had made an interesting observation about election symbols. The Court opined that although a symbol is not a tangible thing, it is an insignia which provides an essential association with a political party and is a factor which weighs in with the voters (at ¶34).
The trouble in MEA’s decision to imprint the ‘lotus’ becomes apparent when one reads it light of the observations of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Swamy’s case. The use of an ‘election’ symbol on a government document carries a political undertone and for a country that once was and aspires to be a healthy democracy, it’s not a good sign.
[PS- I wish to point out that there is a dearth of legal material on the aspect of national symbols of India, which represents the neglect of the governments (past and present) and its departments towards maintaining a robust database on the country’s national symbols. Fortunately, there exist few important judicial decisions which have discussed these issues. The petitioners/RTI Applicants who brought forth such interesting questions of law before these judicial forums, need to be commended for their efforts.]
[Views are personal]