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Writing in Young India on April 14, 1921, India’s most famous nationalist Mohandas Gandhi provided the first of many accounts of how he was the father of the Indian national flag.
According to Gandhi, he had been approached on several occasions by Pingali Venkayya, an enthusiastic college student from Masulipatam who wanted the Congress to adopt a flag for the nationalist movement.
Venkayya had presented Gandhi with several possible flag designs and with information about different national flags. Gandhi was not satisfied with any of these proposals, however, “and it was reserved for a Punjabi to make a suggestion that at once arrested attention” (Gandhi 1921).
Lala Hansraj’s suggestion entailed the depiction of a spinning wheel on the proposed flag. Accordingly, Gandhi gave Venkayya three hours’ notice to produce a flag with a spinning wheel superimposed on a green and red background, green being a “Muslim colour” and red a “Hindu colour” for display during the Congress session at Bezwada in 1921. Venkayya delivered, but a little too late, and Gandhi was unable to present the flag to the All India Congress Committee.
In Gandhi’s opinion, however, this delay was a good thing. His reasoning for this is worth reproducing in full:
“On maturer [sic] consideration, I saw that the background should represent the other religions also. Hindu-Muslim unity is not an exclusive term; it is an inclusive term symbolic of the unity of all faiths domiciled in India. If Hindus and Muslims can tolerate each other, they are together bound to tolerate all other faiths. The unity is not a menace to the other faiths represented in India or to the world. So I suggest that the background should be white and green and red. The white portion is intended to represent all other faiths. The weakest numerically should occupy the first place, the Islamic colour comes next, the Hindu colour red comes last, the idea being that the strongest should act as a shield to the weakest. The white colour moreover represents purity and peace. Our national flag must mean that or nothing. And to represent the equality of the least of us with the best, an equal part is assigned to all the three colours in the design.”
Gandhi’s comments on the flag in terms of the communal or religious significance of each of its colours point to a general dilemma of Indian nationalism that would increasingly occupy centre stage: how to proclaim national unity without erasing subnational diversities of religion, language, region or caste.
Gandhi’s initial solution to this dilemma was to visually represent Indianness as the coming together of different religious groups, a construction of nationhood that entailed practices of selecting, classifying, categorising and otherwise objectifying certain aspects of identity and difference within a matrix of unity in diversity.
By collapsing the complex field of social relations into a triad of Hindus, Muslims and all others, Gandhi was certainly responding to what was at the time the most significant aspect of social and political life: the valence of religion. In a similar vein, the presentation of the Hindu-Muslim dyad as “symbolic of the unity of all faiths domiciled in India” reflected the political context of the Khilafat movement and Gandhi’s ongoing efforts to mobilise a united national front of Hindus and Muslims.
As increasingly antagonistic demands from representatives from the inclusivist category of “all other faiths” would soon indicate, however, the Gandhian vision of religious unity around a central Hindu-Muslim alliance did not convince everyone.
Thus by 1929, an agitation for the inclusion of a Sikh colour (black) would become vociferous enough for Gandhi to address the issue of the flag’s colours in public speeches and writings.
Initially, Gandhi attempted to reason with the Sikhs and to persuade them to drop their demands. He wrote in Young India in 1921:
“The Sikh friends are needlessly agitated over the colours in the proposed national flag. … I have not the shadow of a doubt that they should withdraw the objection. The white includes all other colours. To ask for special prominence is tantamount to a refusal to merge in the two numerically great communities. I would have had only one colour if there had been no quarrel between Hindus and Mussulmans. The Sikhs never had any difference with the Hindus. And their quarrel with the Mussulmans was of the same type as the Hindus. It is a dangerous thing to emphasize our differences or distinctions.”
This plea to “merge in the two numerically great communities” did not resonate with the Sikh leaders, for whom the denial of “our differences or distinctions” had equally dangerous implications. Gandhi was unable to wish away these stubborn realities of religious identity, and the question of what the colours of the Indian flag meant was eventually decided by the Flag Committee convened by the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress.
By 1929, Gandhi was offering a new interpretation of the colours of the flag, one that highlighted the supposedly universalist values that each colour embodied.
In the new rendition, red stood for sacrifice, white for purity and green for hope.
Gandhi acknowledged that this revised signification of the flag was a response to specific political exigencies. By decommunalising the flag, efforts of mass mobilisation for the nationalist cause could proceed more smoothly. Further, by recasting the meaning of the flag in universalist terms, Gandhi felt that it would allow the flag to endure as a symbol long after the specific needs of the hour – uniting religious communities in and through their differences – were met.
As he observed:
“When we have achieved our unity, there is no doubt that we shall be ashamed of recalling things which had no use but to placate warring elements in the nation. When we are really united, we shall never need to remember our differences, we shall want to forget them as soon as we can. But we shall always need to cultivate and treasure the virtues of bravery, calmness and purity.”
The effort to transform the flag into an enduring, even eternal symbol was part and parcel of Gandhi’s attempt to sacralise the flag, an attempt that was riven by a series of internal contradictions.
The first set of contradictions related to the origins or the authority of the sacred: Was the flag sacred in and of itself, or was it the actions of the flag bearers that invested the flag with its sacral aura?
Gandhi would endorse both positions, depending on the audience being addressed and/or the specific political exigencies to which he was responding. Thus, on the one hand, the flag was likened to an idolatry that inspired reverence and worship or a woman whose chastity must be upheld at all costs and in defence of whose honour Gandhi could make a rare exception to his rule of nonviolence.
In this rendition, the flag signified itself and was an object of national devotion because it was a flag. As sacred in itself, the national flag had several specific characteristics.
First, and as we have already seen, it was an enduring, timeless symbol that outlasted the specific political exigencies of its birth; in other words, it was impossible to read the symbolism of the flag within a functionalist paradigm.
Second, the sacred flag was an apolitical flag; in Gandhi’s words, it should be “untouched by party politics”.
Third, the national flag necessarily monopolised the realm of the sacred; there was a distinct hierarchy of flags and other symbols with the national flag at the very apex of the sacred pyramid.
Throughout his life, and especially in the period right before his assassination, Gandhi would have to grapple with the multiplicity of flags, with his tricolour symbol increasingly read in particularist terms as a Congress flag rather than a national flag, and visibly resisted by the proliferation of other, differently coloured expressions of identity.
Although the heraldic combination of saffron, white, and green marked the public arena of the 1920s and 1930s, as the nationalist movement entered its final stages, differences between contending perspectives on nationhood, state forms, representation, and modalities of political action became more pronounced.
Jawaharlal Nehru is commonly seen as the definitive architect of abstract national space and the builder of an interventionist or “monumental state” (Abraham 2000) as the visible sign of nationhood. In a significant change, the new insignia on the national flag would no longer be the Gandhian charkha, or spinning wheel, as a sign of how Indians could liberate themselves from economic exploitation, but the Asoka chakra. The Asoka chakra was a reminder that “India has not been in the past a tight little narrow country, disdaining other countries. India…has been an international centre.”
The transformation from charkha to chakra was justified in terms of aesthetics and international standards of heraldic design. According to Nehru, the charkha was an inappropriate emblem because it could not be symmetrically printed on both sides of the flag.
The visual erasure of Gandhi’s charkha accompanied a general constitutional trend of relegating Gandhianism to the non justiciable provisions of the directive principles of state policy.
In this regard, the replacement of charkha with chakra is a literal indication of the wider reorientation of political and economic philosophy under way at the time, as Gandhi’s vision of a decentralised, economically self-sufficient India of village republics was replaced by the Nehruvian commitment to an industrialised and centralised polity.
The new heraldic symbol was also in keeping with Nehru’s recasting of Indian nationalism in universalist terms. Spinning one’s way to freedom would always have a specific cultural and historical resonance, whereas a self consciously internationalist symbol like the wheel could produce a “flag of freedom not only for ourselves but a symbol of freedom to all people who may see it” (Proceedings of the Indian Constituent Assembly 1947, vol. 4).
In sum, the Nehruvian nation-state positioned itself as the representative of India through an emphasis on the specific actions or policies that it undertook on behalf of various subnational groups and on the diverse bases of social support that it enjoyed. At the moment of independence, the tricolour flag proclaimed its Indianness first by belonging to the state and then by showing that this act of belonging was made possible by the consent and participation of diverse communities, all of which imbued this national icon with different meanings.
To see the tricolour flag was to know that at least one discrete space of resistance to colonial authority had been marked out. To be confronted by a sea of saffron, white and green was to realise the spatial limits of colonial state power. The proclamation of being anticolonialist, however, was not enough.
A positive specification of what the flag stood for was also required, and this is where the inherent contradictions of the nationalist project of unity in diversity began to emerge.
Thus, the communal meaning of the flag’s colours was elaborated and then denied; the flag was described in contradictory terms as both an all-encompassing national flag that transcended political affiliations and a limited Congress flag that had to respect the presence of other visual symbols of identity and could not be imposed on others against their will.
On January 26, 1947, eight months before Indian independence, Gandhi refused to raise the tricolour flag at a ceremony to commemorate the historic pledge of purna swaraj (complete independence) taken by Nehru on that day in 1930. A visual representation of Hindu-Muslim unity could not paper over the cracks in India’s social and political fabric any longer.
As Gandhi observed:
“But for the poisoned atmosphere prevalent here, I would have unfurled the tricolour flag myself. . . . But to whom may I appeal today? Suppose I unfurled the flag and even my Muslim brothers accepted it but in sullen silence, I would not want that. . . . [T]he golden day of unity unfortunately now belongs to the past. But to whom shall I appeal? With whom shall I fight? We are all sons of India and hence are brothers. What is our freedom worth if it accentuates internecine strife and hatred? But proclaiming unity is as absurd as building castles in the air.“
At the time of Indian independence, the flag was the god that failed; the sacred aura of the flag had not rubbed off onto its worshippers after all.
Twelve months after his refusal to raise the tricolour, Gandhi was assassinated.
Srirupa Roy is professor and Chair of State and Democracy at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen.
Note: This is an extract from the paper “A Symbol of Freedom”: The Indian Flag and the Transformations of Nationalism, 1906-2002, published in The Journal of Asian Studies, and republished with permission from the author.