The national flag as symbol and substance, as Gandhi saw it

Oct 22, 2017 02:54 PM IST

The ‘nationalists’ now in power in India use the flag only as a cover to promote division and violence. Gandhi’s patriotism, on the other hand, was inclusive and constructive.

Gandhi’s three closest political colleagues were Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and C. Rajagopalachari (known popularly as ‘Rajaji’). A younger nationalist once referred to them as the Mahatma’s heart, hand, and head respectively. Nehru, as Gandhi’s ‘heart’, carried the Mahatma’s message to a wider public through his own charisma and oratorical skills. Patel, as the Mahatma’s ‘hand’, built the nationalist movement at the grassroots, running the Congress party and organising major satyagrahas too. Rajaji, as Gandhi’s ‘head’, provided moral and intellectual counsel.

Workers in a flag factory at Bhiwandi give final touches to the tricolour.(Praful Gangurde/ Hindustan Times)
Workers in a flag factory at Bhiwandi give final touches to the tricolour.(Praful Gangurde/ Hindustan Times)

Recently, while working in the archives of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, I came across a fresh example of Rajaji’s acuity and intelligence. In 1937, Congress governments had come to power in many provinces of British India. Indians now had, for the first time, a limited measure of self-rule, generating much nationalist fervour among the youth, manifested in, among other things, the widespread display of the tricolour that the Congress had adopted as the ‘National Flag’. This had the identical colour scheme as the flag which independent India later adopted as its own; the only difference being that where an Ashoka chakra now is, in the middle, there was then a charkha, or spinning-wheel.

In October 1938, a year after the Congress Ministries had been formed, Rajaji wrote to Gandhi that ‘it has become a far too common occurrence, and therefore deserving of notice at your hands, to set up the National Tri-coloured Flag in such a manner as to indicate rivalry with or predominance over the religious flags and other symbols exhibited on occasions of religious worship and festivities. While we all desire that the National Flag should be a symbol of unity and determination to achieve uninterrupted progress in all directions, we should be undoing this very purpose by trying to make rivalry between the National Flag and other flags and symbols connected with religion and which should predominate on occasions of religious ceremony.’

Rajaji was then Prime Minister of the Government of Madras. He was, of course a thoroughgoing patriot himself, yet he worried that the ‘enthusiasm of some of our workers’ in promoting the flag everywhere and on every occasion had, as he told Gandhi, served ‘in fact to develop an opposition in some quarters to the National Flag which did not exist before’.

Rajaji was concerned about this excess of zeal among young nationalists and where it might take the country. ‘It seems as if’, he wrote to Gandhi, ‘ever so many of the movements for which you were responsible are liable to be misconstrued and misdirected, unless you are always ready to re-explain, re-interpret and prevent misdirection. I particularly fear the consequences of doing anything to create a rivalry between the National Flag and the religious symbols of either Hindus or Musalmans or of others. The tendency of setting up the National Flag on temple cars and temple towers offends my sense of the universality of religion and the incongruity of trying to nationalise God’.

As always, Gandhi took Rajaji’s ideas seriously. Notably, he replied to his colleague’s letter not in private but in public, through the columns of his journal Harijan, where he referred to the Prime Minister of Madras merely as ‘a correspondent‘. After excerpting the relevant sections of Rajaji’s letter, Gandhi drew the readers’ attention to what the tricolour was supposed to stand for. The ‘flag has been designed’, he remarked, ‘to represent non-violence expressed through real communal unity and non-violent labour which the lowliest and highest can easily undertake with the certain prospect of making substantial and yet imperceptible addition to the wealth of the country’.

Such was the ideal; but the reality was a different matter. So, wrote Gandhi, ‘as the author of the idea of a national flag and its make up which in essence the present flag represents, I have felt grieved how the flag has been often abused and how it has even been used to cover violence’. He agreed with Rajaji that ‘since the flag is not a religious symbol and represents and reconciles all religions’, it had ‘no place’ in ‘religious processions, or temples or religious gatherings’.

Gandhi insisted that the flag as ‘a symbol of non-violence must also mean humility.’ Although the Congress was then in power in seven out of nine provinces in British India, Gandhi said that ‘in the present state of tension, I would not hoist it on Government buildings or municipal offices unless it is accepted not merely by an overwhelming vote but unanimously’.

This fascinating exchange is now forgotten, and I resurrect it here because it speaks directly to the present. For it shows that Gandhi, whom we call the Father of the Nation, would have been appalled by the attempt to make all Indians forcibly and continuously worship a flag that he had himself played a key role in designing. Gandhi would have been horrified by how the self-styled nationalists of today use threats, coercion and even state power to force citizens to display and bow down before the national flag. He would not have wanted temples, churches, mosques, offices, schools and colleges to mandatorily fly the flag every day or at a certain height.

The ‘nationalists’ now in power in India are consumed by hatred and vengefulness. They use the flag only as a cover to promote division and violence. Gandhi’s patriotism, on the other hand, was inclusive and constructive. Rather than induce an unthinking worship of the flag, he sought to redirect Indians to the ideals for which the flag stood — namely, non-violence, humility, communal harmony, and the dignity of labour— ideals, which, 70 years after Independence, we are not even remotely close to fulfilling.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

Twitter: @Ram_Guha

The views expressed are personal


    Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include India After Gandhi, A Corner of a Foreign Field, Environmentalism: A Global History, and Gandhi Before India. He tweets as @Ram_Guha

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