State governments led by the Bharatiya Janata Party have developed a curious fear of black flags. In Guwahati on Saturday, 13 demonstrators protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill were detained and nine arrested for waving black flags at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s passing convoy. Five of the protesters were from a students organisation known as the Asom Jatiyabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad and four others were students of Gauhati University.

Blacks flags have proliferated across Assam, currently in turmoil over the bill that seeks to ease citizenship criteria for Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Christian and Parsi refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Communities in the North East feel that the bill will make citizens out of undocumented Bengali Hindu migrants who fled Bangladesh to enter the region.

In January, black flags were brandished at Sarbananda Sonowal, chief minister of the BJP-led state government, and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Then, a video that seemed to show a child being forced to remove his black sweater at a function attended by Sonowal emerged on social media. Though the police later denied that this had happened, Sonowal reportedly ordered an inquiry into the sweater episode.

A few days later, the harried state police held a press conference pleading with members of the public not to strip in protest, though black flags at peaceful demonstrations could be allowed. With the prime minister’s visit to Assam, that permission was evidently revoked.

The new black

Across states ruled by the BJP, black flags have made the police see red. On Sunday, journalist Deepu Sebastian Edmond tweeted about having to take off his black socks at Modi’s rally at Tirupur in Tamil Nadu. He attended the meeting as a member of the public, not as a reporter.

In March 2018, eight contractual workers of the National Rural Health Mission were arrested after they waved black flags at a Modi rally in Rajasthan. When Modi visited Jaipur in July, black cloth and wearing black were proscribed altogether.

In Uttar Pradesh, 23-year-old Pooja Shukla was arrested along with 10 others in June and jailed for 26 days after she waved black flags at Chief Minister Adityanath, who was visiting Lucknow University. In July, 24-year-old Neha Yadav was arrested, along with three others, after they threw themselves in front of BJP president Amit Shah’s convoy in Lucknow, armed with the offending flags.

Yadav has spoken of beatings in jail and being branded “anti-national”. Both Shukla and Yadav, who are affiliated to the Samajwadi Party, claimed they were threatened with “encounters”, which has become a euphemism for extrajudicial killings by security forces. Over the past year, Adityanath has even boasted about the Uttar Pradesh police’s encounter count under his watch.

In most cases, the charges are similar: rioting and obstructing a public servant from performing his duty, intimidation or assault of a public servant to deter him from his duty. The health workers in Rajasthan were charged with endangering the life or safety of others. Yadav was also booked for unlawful assembly, “public mischief”, and “disobedience to executive order”.

Sons of anarchy?

Something about the subversive energy of black flags has unnerved an establishment already known for its low tolerance of dissent. Such flags have acquired a range of political associations over the years, from the fascist parties of Europe between the world wars to Islamist groups today. The anarchist black flag used since the 1880s became the “symbol negating all other symbols”, negating borders and oppressive hierarchies. No matter what the ideology, they seem to signal radical political change.

A black flag waved in dissent must speak to the particular paranoias of a party that fetishises the symbols of the state, including the national flag. A government that sees itself as synonymous with the nation has naturally cast any criticism of it as “anti-national”. And a prime minister preoccupied with his public image would rather his rallies were carefully curated events untouched by democratic chaos. In Assam, for instance, Modi gently nudged the local media to cover development rather than dwelling on pesky identity politics.

But as they sweep aside threatening symbols, BJP leaders fail to see the particular grievances behind the flags: communities in Assam who fear being done out of their land and cultural extinction, contractual workers in Rajasthan desperate for permanent jobs and denied meetings with their political representative, students in Uttar Pradesh demanding better implementation of reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.

These demands and anxieties are not beyond the purview of an elected government. Had they been addressed, the BJP would have been seen as a mature, responsive party rather than one which fears dissent.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story said that Deepu Sebastian Edmond works for the Indian Express even though he no longer does so.