What makes a flag the true symbol of a nation? Technically, a flag is a piece of cloth which can be waved around, hoisted on a mast, carried around on a stick, or just your hands. But emotionally and symbolically, a flag is a lot more. A flag exists so that a group of people, whether they consist of a nation or the same football club, can feel united under its shadow. A flag exists so everyone, whether a soldier, a sportsperson, or a citizen, can salute it and feel at once connected to every other human being who is saluting it. A flag exists to be an indelible part of our identity, whether we acknowledge it every day or not.
Whether it’s Independence Day, Republic Day, or any public holiday or occasion, the Indian national flag is ever present as a symbol of our nation. The Indian tricolour or tiranga, as it’s more popularly known, is, beyond everything else, a symbol of our freedom. For over 200 years, Indians had to live and serve under the British flag and British monarchs. Is it any wonder then that the evolution of our national flag or tiranga is an integral part of our struggle for freedom? In fact, every nation in the world which has overcome colonialism and imperialism has created this symbol of unity to fight back against oppressors.
So, here’s everything you need to know about the evolution of the Indian national flag, and the Indian woman who first made it a global symbol of respect.
The Need for an Indian flag“A flag is a necessity for all nations,” Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of our nation, wrote in Young India in April 1921. “Millions have died for it. It is no doubt a kind of idolatry which would be a sin to destroy. For a flag represents an ideal. The unfurling of the Union Jack evokes in the English breast sentiments whose strength it is difficult to measure. The Stars and Stripes mean the world to the Americans. The Star and the Crescent will call forth the best bravery in Islam. It will be necessary for us Indians—Hindus, Mohammedans, Christians, Jews, Parsis, and all others to whom India is their home—to recognise a common flag to live and die for.”
These words by Mahatma Gandhi are moving, and yet, absolutely true. He might have written these words in 1921, but the idea of Indian nationalists, freedom fighters and revolutionaries uniting under one flag was much older. In fact, it is believed that the first flag of India was hoisted in 1906 in the Parsee Bagan Square area of Calcutta. This flag was, however, unofficial.
Bhikaji Cama: The Rise of A NationalistThe first officially recognised flag of India was made and hoisted by Bhikaji Cama. Born in 1861 in a wealthy Parsi family, Cama was influenced by the rising nationalist movements in India. In 1885, she was married to Rustomji Cama, a pro-British lawyer who did not sympathise with his wife’s politics. It was not a happy marriage, but the young Mrs Cama enjoyed enough freedom (a privilege that often comes with wealth) to pursue her own philanthropic and political career. During the 1896 bubonic plague epidemic of Bombay, Cama carried on with relief work, and contracted the disease herself. She was advised to go abroad to recover properly, and shifted to London in 1902.
While in London, Cama came in contact with emerging Indian nationalists and Indian National Congress (INC) members like Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Har Dayal, and Shyamji Krishna Varma. She joined the INC and even addressed political meetings at London’s famous Hyde Park to advocate for her nation’s rights to self-rule. It was due to these activities that the British authorities informed her that she would not be allowed to return to her motherland if she didn’t desist from anti-British activities. Cama, proving her passion for a free India, chose to live in exile rather than be cowed down by British threats.
Soon after, Cama relocated to Paris where, along with Singh Rewabhai Rana and Munchorshah Burjorji Godrej, founded the Paris Indian Society. Cama also wrote, edited and published nationalist and revolutionary literature to inspire Indians, including magazines like Bande Mataram and Madan’s Talwar (in response to Madan Lal Dhingra’s execution by the British). Despite being in exile, Cama supplied money, materials, and inspiring literature to the Indian freedom fighters living in India and elsewhere in the world.
The arrival of a national symbolContinuing with her work, Cama attended the International Socialist Conference at Stuttgart, Germany, in 1907. With a thousand representatives from across the globe in attendance, this was the perfect place to stage the grievances of Indians under the British rule, especially the poverty and starvation recently experienced during famines. On August 22, in front of all the global delegates, Cama unfurled the first version of the Indian flag, while also becoming the first Indian to do so on foreign soil.
Designed by Shyamji Krishna Varma and Cama herself, this flag was made of three horizontal strips of green, saffron, and red from top to bottom. The top green strip had eight half-open lotuses representing the eight Indian provinces under British rule. The middle strip of saffron had the words Vande Mataram written in Devnagari script. The bottom red strip had the moon and the sun, representing Islam and Hinduism, respectively—the two major religions of India at the time.
“Behold, the flag of independent India is born! It has been made sacred by the blood of young Indians who sacrificed their lives in its honour. In the name of this flag, I appeal to lovers of freedom all over the world to support this struggle,” the fiery Indian woman declared, while hoisting the flag. “This is the flag of independent India. I appeal to all gentlemen to stand and salute the flag,” she is reported to have added. Reports of the time suggest that so dramatic and invigorating was her appeal that all the representatives did stand up and salute the Indian flag!
The Indian Flag After Madam CamaWhether her words and the actions of the representatives actually happened or not, the fact that this Indian flag, the first of its kind, was indeed hoisted on that historic day, remains. The flag was later smuggled to India by socialist leader, Indulal Yagnik, and is now on display at the Maratha and Kesari Library in Pune, Maharashtra.
Cama’s flag became the template for later Indian flags as the Indian freedom movement progressed through the 20th Century. These flags also represented the different stages of the freedom movement. In 1917, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant hoisted a new flag, which had five red and four green horizontal strips, arranged alternatively, and adorned with seven stars, a white crescent and star, and the Union Jack (their movement was to demand for self-rule or Swaraj for Indians, while remaining under the British).
Similarly, in 1921, during the session of the All India Congress Committee in Vijaywada, a young man presented a red and green flag to Gandhi, which had a charkha or spinning wheel superimposed too. Gandhi suggested the addition of a white strip in the middle to represent peace and all the other communities of India apart from Hindus and Muslims. This laid the foundation for the saffron, white and green flag of India, with the spinning wheel at the centre to represent the nation’s self-sufficiency, Swadeshi, and progress. This flag was adopted in 1931.
Finally, on July 22, 1947, the Constituent Assembly led by BR Ambedkar adopted the tricolour as we know it today as the national flag of independent India. The spinning wheel was replaced with the Dharma Chakra of Emperor Ashoka. The same flag became the official flag of the Republic of India after the adoption of the constitution on January 26, 1950. This is the very flag we Indians unite under today.