Fracas over the flag


Gandhiji hoisting the tricolour with the charka at the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress, 1929.

Gandhiji hoisting the tricolour with the charka at the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress, 1929.  

"I must say that if the flag of the Indian Union will not contain the emblem of the Charka, I will refuse to salute the flag. You know the National Flag of India was first thought of by me and I cannot conceive of India's National Flag without the emblem of the Charka."

THIS was how Mahatma Gandhi sharply reacted with utter disappointment and displeasure in his talks with Congress workers at Lahore on August 6, 1947, when he learnt that Ashoka Chakra would replace the spinning wheel in the National Flag as resolved by the Constituent Assembly two weeks earlier on July 22.

When the question of national flag for free India came up for discussion in the Constituent Assembly in mid-1947, non-Congress members expressed reservations on the proposal to adopt the existing tri-colour flag with the emblem of the spinning wheel, as it was a flag of a particular political party — the Congress organisation.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, then chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee of the Assembly, and his group informally came up with a compromise: "The Congress tri-colour could be retained with a slight modification, namely, the spinning-wheel at the centre of the flag may be replaced with the eight-spoked time-wheel of Buddhism."

It was later agreed by consensus that, instead of the time-wheel, the 24-spoked Chakra, which appeared on the abacus of the Sarnath pillar of Emperor Asoka, could be inscribed. Moving the resolution in the Constituent Assembly on July 22, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru played with words to placate Gandhiji by clarifying that "the wheel in navy blue represents the charka, but the design of the wheel shall be that of the Asoka Chakra." The Flag of India was to be a horizontal tricolour of deep saffron, white and dark green in equal proportion.

In April 1919, Gandhiji first recommended to the nation a common tricolour flag. At every session of the Congress in the preceding four years, P. Venkayya of Masulipatnam had been offering various designs for an Indian National Flag. Finally, on Gandhiji's suggestion, a design incorporating a spinning wheel on a red (Hindu colour) and green (Muslim colour) background was presented. Gandhiji then added a white stripe, which was intended to represent all other faiths, besides purity and faith. "The white portion representing the weakest numerically should occupy the first place, the Islamic colour comes next, the Hindu colour comes last, the idea being that the strongest should act as a shield to the weakest. The white colour moreover represents purity and peace... The size of the flag should contain the drawing of a full-sized spinning-wheel," thus wrote Gandhiji in Young India dated April 13, 1921, on the significance of the national flag. In the following years, different designs with the charka reproduced all over the colours were in vogue.

Ten years later, on Gandhiji's initiative, the All-India Congress Committee at its session at Bombay in August 1931 "almost unanimously" passed a resolution that "The National Flag shall be three-coloured, horizontally arranged as before, but the colours shall be saffron, white and green in that order from top to bottom, with the spinning-wheel in dark blue in the centre of the white stripe; it being understood that the colours have no communal significance, but that saffron shall represent courage and sacrifice, white peace and truth, and green shall represent faith and chivalry, and the spinning wheel the hope of the masses."

For Gandhiji, the charka represented not a mere hand-spinning device that could provide employment and income to the poor, but much more. "The message of the spinning-wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living so as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant." (Young India, September 17, 1925). "Above all, charka is a symbol of non-violence" (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 71, first edition, p.234).

Gandhiji was, therefore, all the more sad when a correspondent from Hyderabad brought to his notice, on the eve of Independence, K. M. Munshi's indictment in his broadcast speech that the wheel in the new flag represented the Sudarshana Chakra (discus of Lord Vishnu), a symbol of violence! But Gandhiji consoled himself that "under no circumstances, can the Asoka Chakra become a symbol of violence as Emperor Asoka was a Buddhist and a votary of non-violence" (Harijan Sevak, August 17, 1947). Even so, Gandhiji felt that the modification in the National Flag made by the Constituent Assembly was unwarranted. However, as in the case of the greatest and gravest national problem of Partition, Gandhiji succumbed to, and acquiesced in, Jawaharlal Nehru' garbled interpretation that the wheel in the National Flag as adopted by the Constituent Assembly represented the spinning wheel also without the spindle and mal. Gandhiji also found solace in the vague promise that the tricolour flag would certainly consist of hand-spun and hand-woven khadi cotton or silk!

Though he felt ignored, if not betrayed by congressmen in power, Mahatma Gandhi ended his last article on "The National Flag" published in Harijanbandhu (August 3,1947) with a philosophical note, not without an undertone of irony; "One may see some other subtle meaning in the same three colours. Those who see unity in the diversity of the universe may find it in the three colours. Looking at the wheel some may recall that Prince of Peace, King Asoka, ruler of an empire, who renounced power. He represented all faiths; he was an embodiment of compassion. Seeing the charka in his chakra adds to the glory of the charka. The Asoka Chakra represents eternally revolving Divine Law of ahimsa."

Gandhiji left for Calcutta a week before the day of Independence. Nobody tried to persuade him to be the central figure in Delhi on the historical occasion of the transfer of power. They all realised that given the way he felt about Partition and the coming August 15 celebrations, he would be out of place.

On Independence Day, Gandhiji, staying in a suburb of Calcutta, woke up at 2 a.m. — an hour earlier than usual. He spent the day fasting and spinning and having a recitation of the Gita after morning prayers.

He was observing the fifth death anniversary of Mahadev Desai, his lifelong secretary, which fell on that day. He did not attend any flag-hoisting ceremony anywhere in the city. When approached by the All-India Radio and B.B.C. correspondents for a message on the eve of Independence, Gandhiji refused to say anything to the nation and to the world.

La. Su. Rengarajan is a writer, researcher and Gandhian scholar.

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