The first stamp issued by Independent India, quite unsurprisingly, commemorated the Indian National Flag or Tiranga. The flag had been formally adopted on July 22, 1947 – just weeks before India’s Independence Day.
It comprised of three colours: saffron for strength and courage, white with a blue Dharma Chakra for peace and truth, and green for fertility, growth and auspiciousness, I know this from my primary school days. But what I did not know was that the flag that we see now has its own story of evolution.
The story of the flag begins with Pingala Venkaiah, the designer of the Indian flag and freedom fighter. In the early decades of the 20th century, Pingala had realised that the Indian freedom struggle needed to unite around a flag for a united and free India. Jhanda Pingala, as he was called, collated 30 potential designs for the Indian flag and published these in a book. In 1921, Gandhi accepted one of Pingala’s designs, and with a some minor alterations, India had a national flag.
Originally Pingala’s flag had only two colours – saffron to represent the Hindus, and green to represent the Muslim community. It also included Gandhi’s charkha (or spinning wheel) that served as a symbol for self-reliance, determination and perseverance. Later a third stripe – white – was added for both aesthetic and symbolic reasons.
Once adopted by the Congress, the flag began to be used everywhere. It became so popular, apparently, C. Rajagopalachari, close friend and colleague of Gandhi, wrote to Gandhi complaining that Congress workers were forcing temples and mosques to replace their traditional flags and decorations with the new tricolour flag. Gandhi promptly addressed the issue in his magazine. He wrote that “as the author of the idea of a national flag and its makeup… I have felt grieved how the flag has been often abused.”. He made it clear that the flag had “no place [in] religious processions, or temples or religious gatherings”.
Gandhi and thoughtful leaders like Rajaji understood the need for balance and the dangers of being overly nationalistic, but in his response, Gandhi also claimed authorship over the very idea of a national flag and its makeup.
Given his personal interest in the flag, I was surprised to read that Gandhi had been unhappy with the National flag post Independence. He had two complaints – one, the new design replaced the heavily symbolic charkha with Ashoka’s Dharma Chakra. and second, the new flag did not include the Union Jack.
Nehru and other members of the Constituent Assembly could not agree with Gandhi’s point of view. The charkha had been on the Indian National Congress flag. India was going to become a multi-party democracy. Shouldn’t the national flag be independent of political affiliation?
Gandhi could not get over it. “I must say that, if the Flag of the Indian Union will not embody the emblem of the Charkha, I will refuse to salute that flag. ” he said in 1947.
Gandhi’s second complaint had been that the Constituent Assembly had not granted Mountbatten’s request to include the Union Jack in the National Flag. Gandhi felt that not giving into Mountbatten’s request was ungenerous and unfriendly to the British. After all, he argued, we had achieved our independence, and including the Union Jack in the corner of the flag “would be no betrayal of India”.
This episode reminded me of how ordinarily human Gandhi could be. We all have experienced this sort of crankiness – when you have worked hard on something and are pleased with the outcome but then someone comes in with an uninvited piece of “constructive” feedback, or worse, hijacks your entire project!
Nehru and the Constituent Assembly were firm. The Union Jack on the national flag seemed too deferential a tone for a fully independent nation. And so, despite Gandhi’s voluble objections, we ended up with our current national flag.
The symbolism of the flag is significant. It has the power to unite an immensely diverse people. Somehow, knowing the story of the flag has led me to hold it in higher regard because it was the product of sincere and thoughtful deliberation and debate. There was an element of sacred idealism in its creation. May that idealism represented by our flag keep our nation on the right path through the years.
- Pingali Venkayya: Visit Bhatlapenumarru to know about the Flag Designer of India. Pendown – Art, Travel and Culture Blog
- The National Flag as Symbol and Substance, as Gandhi Saw it. The Hindustan Times
- Mahatma Gandhi wanted the Union Jack on India’s national flag, said he will not salute it if Charkha is replaced by Ashoka Chakra. OpIndia