'Ensign of Blue Water Navy Should Reflect Chola Maritime Heritage, New Design Is Uninspiring'

The new naval flag incorporates elements from Shivaji's Rajmudra but officers say it would have been better to draw inspiration from South India's expansive maritime traditions rather than the purely littoral exploits of the Maratha navy.

New Delhi: The Indian Navy now has a new ensign, shorn of its colonial antecedents that featured the blood-red Cross of St George. But it is one which a cross-section of veteran and serving naval officers deemed “uninspiring and pedestrian”, but were unwilling to state as much on record.

“The new ensign is undistinguished and lacklustre, but I will not say so publicly, as that would make me a namak haram (treacherous) towards the service that has nurtured and cosseted me for decades,” said a retired senior naval officer.

“It’s too sensitive an issue to adversely comment upon openly, but the reality is that the ensign is disappointing and unsatisfactory, to say the least, and we expected better.”

Another Indian Navy officer, also wishing to remain anonymous, more or less endorsed this opinion, but added that the new ensign design had, without doubt, travelled up and down the naval, bureaucratic and political chain of command, before being finalised.

“Did no one in this entire hierarchical procession, including the new Department of Military Affairs, voice their opinion on such an unexciting ensign which obviously lacks imagination and brio,” he asked disappointedly. “It’s simply depressing to think that no one did.”

“In the run-up to its release the ensign design was kept a closely guarded secret, possibly because Indian Navy headquarters anticipated an oppositional reaction from many officers,” said yet another officer. The navy is stuck with it now, however, it may not like it, he mourned.

Earlier, whilst unveiling the new ensign, alongside commissioning INS Vikrant (meaning courageous), the navy’s first indigenously built carrier at Cochin Shipyard Limited in Kochi on Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that with the new flag India had “taken (sic) off a trace of slavery, a burden of slavery”.

Indian Navy’s new ensign is seen in the background, at the launch of the carrier INS Vikrant. Photo: PTI

“Till now the identity of slavery remained on the flag of (the) Indian Navy,” the Press Information Bureau quoted the PM as saying. But today onwards, inspired by Chhatrapati Shivaji, the new navy flag will fly in the sea and in the sky, Modi thundered.

The PM further stated that Shivaji’s navy had “kept his enemies on their toes”, and when the British came to India they were intimidated by the power of the Maratha chieftain’s ships and the trade they conducted.

In retaliation, the British decided to break the back of India’s maritime power, and history was “witness to how strict restrictions were imposed on Indian ships and merchants by enacting (constricting) laws in the British Parliament at that time”, the Prime Minister said.

The new ensign

The new naval ensign encompasses the tri-colour in its upper left quadrant in a stark white background, alongside a navy blue-gold octagon at the centre, with its benchmark eight points to denote the navy’s vast, presumably Blue-Water operational reach and status. Inside the octagon is the national Ashoka Lion emblem atop an anchor superimposed on a shield and below it is inscribed the navy’s Vedic motto  – Sam No Varunah – which calls upon the sea gods to be propitious and magnanimous.

In an official statement, the Indian Navy enumerated that the ensign’s fouled anchor – one whose cable is twisted around its stock and fluke that rests it vertically on the seabed – also had shades of colonialism in its design, but had now been replaced with a “clear anchor”, symbolising freedom. The amended anchor also underscored the “steadfastness” of the Indian Navy, the statement profoundly added.

Also read: How the Indian Navy’s Ensign Evolved Over the Years

It went on to state that the blue shields’ twin octagonal borders drew inspiration from Shivaji’s Rajmudra, or the seal of Shivaji who had a visionary maritime outlook and had built a credible fleet which earned grudging admiration from contemporary European navies.

However, even a cursory examination of the latest ensign is its close resemblance to the revamped one which was first inducted on Independence Day in 2001 by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government, with the analogous aim of ridding the navy’s flag of its colonial shackles. At the time this remodelled ensign too had the tri-colour where it is located in the new one, but the blue shield encompassing the Ashoka Lion atop an anchor-albeit fouled appears noticeably more robust, its lines delineated more simply, effectively and energetically.

But three years later, in 2004, this ensign was forsaken, following complaints that its stark blue colour was indistinguishable from that of the sky and the seas. The old ensign with the Cross of St George was re-introduced, but with the Ashoka Lion emblem inserted into its intersecting centre.

Meanwhile, some Indian Navy officers questioned the navy’s lack of depth in appraising India’s maritime heritage and confining it merely to Shivaji’s maritime exploits.

Retired Commodore C.Uday Bhaskar declared that while the need to encourage indigenous traditions in independent India’s military flags, ensigns and symbols remain unexceptionable, the extent of the country’s maritime heritage could have been better brought into focus with regard to the new ensign.

And though Maratha naval exploits were significant, in terms of their scale and maritime credibility, the history of some of the older dynasties also merited re-call, Bhaskar argued. The Satavahanas, for instance, who ruled over the Deccan Peninsula from 200 BC to around 200 AD were amongst the earliest Indian empires that traded with distant Rome. Even their coins, embossed with a ship, were discovered in southern Mediterranean archaeological sites, he noted.

Thereafter, the track record of the Chola and the Sri Vijaya empires was even more glorious, and it is believed that at the zenith of their power the Bay of Bengal was a ‘Chola lake’, while their ships ably resisted the formidable Chinese in South East Asia. It’s also historically well known that backed by their navy, Chola armies successfully invaded Sri Lanka, the Maldives as well as Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Thailand further afield.

In comparison, the Maratha’s fielded a ‘Brown Water’ navy capable of operating only in littoral or shoreline waters, compared to the Chola’s relative ‘Blue-water’ maritime force that could independently negotiate the open oceans far from home. In reality, Indian maritime history dates back to 3,000 years to the Indus Valley Civilisation which had a thriving sea trade with Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq.

“I do not wish to appear jaundiced at a time when the mood is celebratory over Vikrant’s commissioning, but the new naval ensign could have incorporated this rich maritime heritage of the sub-continent in an appropriate manner,” Bhaskar observed.