The history and philosophy of the Tricolour: Courage, Unity, Faith

ByRavindra Garimella
Aug 15, 2023 01:50 PM IST

Ashok Chakra has a significant place on the national flag. The chakra was modelled after the wheel of dharma – a religious motif from Hinduism, Jainism and especially Buddhism

As we celebrate the 76th anniversary of India’s Independence, the national flag stands out as a visible manifestation of our democratic polity.

It was between 1904 and 1906 that the first Indian flag came into existence. The flag was first hoisted on August 7, 1906, in the Parsee Bagan Square (in erstwhile Calcutta). (File photo)
It was between 1904 and 1906 that the first Indian flag came into existence. The flag was first hoisted on August 7, 1906, in the Parsee Bagan Square (in erstwhile Calcutta). (File photo)

It was between 1904 and 1906 that the first Indian flag came into existence. The flag was first hoisted on August 7, 1906, in the Parsee Bagan Square (in erstwhile Calcutta).

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The flag was composed of three horizontal strips of red, yellow and green, with Vande Mataram in the middle. It is believed to have been designed by freedom fighters Sachindra Prasad Bose and Hemchandra Kanungo. The red strip on the flag had the sun and a crescent moon, and the green strip had eight half-open lotuses.

The second flag was hoisted in Paris by Bhikaji Cama and her band of exiled revolutionaries in 1907. Similar to the first flag, the second iteration’s top strip had only seven stars, denoting the Saptarishi. This flag was also exhibited at a socialist conference in Berlin. One group of academics say Bhikaji Cama unfurled another version of the flag – a tricolour of green, saffron and red strips – at the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, Germany in 1907.

The origin of the modern Indian flag is based on a design by Pingali Venkayya, a young man from erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, who presented it to Mahatma Gandhi at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session at Bezwada (now Vijayawada) in 1921.

This design comprised the colours associated with the two principal religions – red for the Hindus and green for Muslims. Gandhi modified the flag by adding a white strip representing the remaining religious communities in India. Hence the Tricolour, with the spinning wheel on the white background, was unofficially adopted at the AICC Bezawada Conference in 1921. A resolution adopted the Tricolour as India’s national flag. At the same time, the current arrangement of stripes and the use of deep saffron instead of red were approved.

To avert any communal or sectarian associations to the original proposal, new attributes were associated with the saffron, white and green stripes. These were, saffron for courage and sacrifice, white for peace and truth, and green for faith and chivalry.

On July 22, 1947 a resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Constituent Assembly adopted the present form of the national flag. The spinning wheel in the centre was replaced by a blue chakra- the dharma chakra.

“Resolved that the national Flag of India shall be a horizontal tricolour of deep saffron (Kesari), white and dark green in equal proportion. In the centre of the white band, there shall be a wheel in navy blue to represent the charkha. The design of the wheel shall be that of the wheel (Chakra) which appears on the abacuse of the Sarnath, Lion Capital of Asoka. The diameter of the wheel shall approximate to the width of the white band. The ratio of the width to the length of the flag shall ordinarily be 2:3.” Nehru said.

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“So, when I move this resolution, I think of this concentrated history through which all of us have passed during the last quarter of a century. Memories crowd upon me. I remember the ups and downs of the great struggle for freedom of this great nation. I remember and many in this House will remember how we looked up to this Flag not only with pride and enthusiasm but with a tingling in our veins; also how; when we were sometimes down and out, then again the sight of this Flag gave us courage to go on.”

“Some people, having misunderstood its significance, have thought of it in communal terms and believe that some part of it represents this community or that. But I may say that when this flag was devised, there was no communal significance attached to it. We thought of a design for a flag which was beautiful, because the symbol of a nation must be beautiful to look at. We thought of a flag which would, in its combination and in its separate parts, somehow represent the spirit of the nation, the tradition of the nation, that mixed spirit and tradition which has grown up through thousands of years in India. So, we devised this flag,” Nehru said.

India’s first prime minister further elaborated on the flag’s design and philosophy.

“It will be seen that there is a slight variation from the one many of us have used during these part years. The colours are the same, a deep saffron, a white and a dark green. In the white, previously there was the charkha which symbolised the common man in India, which symbolised the masses of the people, which symbolised their industry and which came to us from the message which Mahatma Gandhi delivered.”

“Now, this particular charkha symbol has been slightly varied in this flag, not taken away at all. Why then has this been varied? Normally speaking, the symbol on one side-of the flag should be exactly the same as on the other side. Otherwise, there is a difficulty which goes against the rules. Now, the charkha, as it appeared previously on this flag, had the wheel on one side and the spindle on the other; if you see the other side of the flag, the spindle comes the other way and the wheel comes this way; if it does not do so, it is not proportionate, because the wheel must be towards the pole, not towards the end of the flag. There was this practical difficulty.”

Therefore, after considerable thought, we were of course convinced that this great symbol which had enthused people should continue but that it should continue in a slightly different form, that the wheel should be there, not the rest of the charkha…but what type of wheel should we have? Our minds went back to many wheels but notably one famous wheel, which had appeared in many places and which all of us have seen, the one at the top of the capital of the Asoka column and in many other places. That wheel is a symbol of India’s ancient culture, it is a symbol of the many things that India had stood for through the ages…”

“For my part, I am exceedingly happy that in this sense indirectly we have associated with this flag of ours, not only this emblem but in a sense the name of Asoka, one of the most magnificent names not only in India’s history but in world history…It was a period when India’s ambassadors went abroad to far countries and went abroad not in the way of an Empire and imperialism but as ambassadors of peace and culture and goodwill. Therefore this flag that I have the honour to present to you is not, I hope and trust, a flag of empire, a flag of imperialism, a flag of domination over anybody, but a flag of freedom not only for ourselves but a symbol of freedom to all people who may see it,” Nehru said.

Ashok Chakra has a significant place on the national flag. The chakra was modelled after the wheel of dharma – a religious motif from Hinduism, Jainism and especially Buddhism. The Ashok Chakra is rendered in a navy blue colour on white background. The blue represents knowledge and cleanliness. There are 24 strokes representing the 24 rishis of the Himalayas.

A set of laws, practices and conventions apply to the display of the national flag of India. The Flag Code of India has been divided into three parts. Part 1 contains a general description of the national flag. Part II contains provisions regarding hoisting/display/use of the national flag by members of the public, private organisations, educational institutions etc. Part III comprises provisions regarding hoisting/display of the national flag by central and state governments, and their organisations and agencies.

The Flag Code was amended in 2021 to say that it “shall be made of hand spun and hand woven or machine made, cotton/polyester/ wool/silk/khadi bunting” and to allow it to be displayed day and night. The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 is an act of Parliament that prohibits the desecration of or insult to the country’s national symbols, including the national flag, national emblem, national anthem, the Constitution, and the map of India.

In all, the Tiranga or Tricolour represents the hopes and aspirations of the people of India.

Ravindra Garimella is a parliamentary expert. The views expressed are personal

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