Myths and Facts about the Indian National Flag

Vexillologist Sekhar Chakrabarti, is a storehouse of knowledge on flags. While tracing the history of the Indian national flag, he also reveals some myths regarding the evolution of the symbol of nationalism.

First Flag designed by Sister Nivedita
Sekhar Chakrabarti

Flags have existed since time immemorial but the concept of a national flag, that represents a nation state, came into existence from the time of the French Revolution, England’s Magna Carta and the American Freedom Revolution.

The thoughts of nationalism and a symbol to represent it percolated to India In India through the great thinkers of the land. The first idea of a national flag came to the mind of Raja Rammohan Roy who was, at that time, travelling to England. He saw the French flag on a ship in Cape Town and wondered to himself if India could also get a flag symbolising liberty. Indian history has recorded several important incidents about the Indian national flag, but several other facts are also missing.

Draft designs by Sister Nivedita

We all know that Mahatma Gandhi had designed the Purna Swaraj flag in 1942 that was used during the Quit India Movement and later. However, the truth is that there were several versions of the flag conceived many years before him. Historically, the first flag was designed by Srish Bose who formed the Indian National Society in 1883 in Lahore. He drew our national standard but that was limited within the organisation. Later in 1888, Rajnarayan Bose in his book An Old Hindu’s Hope mentioned the lotus as the national symbol. This was later published in a newspaper of the time.

The evolution of the Indian National Flag reflects the struggle of the people for freedom in the 20th century. Incidentally, the first person who conceived the thought of a national flag for India was a foreigner. Margaret Noble, popular to all as Sister Nivedita and Swami Vivekananda’s disciple, was also a great revolutionary who had aided freedom fighters of India during the freedom struggle. She was the first person to think of a national flag to symbolise this struggle of the people.

In 1904, she went to Bodh Gaya along with Rabindranath Tagore, Jagadish Bose and others. There she noticed the thunderbolt in the Buddha’s hands and immediately envisaged a flag with the Vajra as a symbol. She then designed the flag in red and yellow with the words Vande Mataram written  in Bengali. However, when this flag was presented before the Calcutta session of the AICC, it was rejected.

The Boycott Flag

In July 1906 Sukumar Mitra and Sachindra Prasad Basu designed the Boycott Flag also called the Bande Mataram Flag. This flag had three colours, green, yellow and red with Bande Mataram written in Sanskrit. This flag had eight lotus flowers drawn in the green belt and the sun and the moon on the red belt. Kumudini Basu, Sukumar Mitra’s daughter, had made the flag.  

Flag designed by Hem Chandra Kanungo for Bikaji Cama

Madam Bikaji Cama had unfurled a 1907 in Stuttgart, Germany at the 2nd International Socialist Congress. This flag was made for Madam Cama by Hem Chandra Kanungo, but unfortunately, this man’s contribution was not mentioned anywhere in the pages of Indian history. Later Bhupendranath Dutta, the younger brother of Swami Vivekananda, has acknowledged Kanungo’s contribution in his works.

Pingali Venkaya, had founded the National Flag Mission in 1916. He had suggested several designs, which were rejected by Mahatma Gandhi. Later, putting together the collective ideas of Gandhi and others, the Swaraj Flag was designed in 1921 in white, green and red with the charkha touching all three colours. What people do not know is that the silent majority had actually rejected this flag. First, because it was too close to the Bulgarian national flag and secondly because it was representing the Congress party.

After extensive discussion, the sequence of the colours was changed and the interpretations of the colours was changed from religions to qualities of the nation.

Babasaheb Ambedkar had made the final change by replacing the charkha with the Ashoka Chakra, again a Buddhist symbol. Suraiya Badr-ud-din Tayebji had made the final flag which was presented on July 22, 1947 and was accepted as the Indian National Flag.

There are also some myths and questions regarding the hoisting of the Indian flag for the first time after Independence. On 15th August, 1947, at midnight after India was declared Independent, the first flags were hoisted on the Parliament House, Rashtrapati Bhawan and India Gate. It is a myth that the first flag was hoisted at Red Fort on 15th August. It was actually done on 16th August by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Artefacts bearing flag impressions in Chakrabarti’s collection

In Calcutta, the first flag was hoisted at Writers’ Buildings and Governor House, at that time called  Council House. However, there is no trace of the first flags that were made for the nation and were unfurled at the time of Independence. I hope the state government will make an attempt to find out and retrieve these national flags for future preservation.