How The Indian Flag Got Its Design

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"I would have had only one colour if there had been no quarrel between Hindus and Mussulmans." - Gandhi

In 1916, the Indian independence movement was only just beginning its demand for dominion status under the Home Rule movement. But that very year, a young man from Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh released a booklet titled “A National Flag for India.” It had 30 proposed designs for an Indian national flag, illustrated by a Mr E. Venkatasastry. Each came with a rationale and explanation.

Pingali Venkayya of Machilipatnam is oft credited as the man who designed the Indian tricolour. In fact, his design was the pre-final, one in a long list of steadily more-minimal flags that began with Sister Nivedita’s design of 1904. But Pingali’s flag design is the ideological parent of the final saffron, white and green tricolour.

Image: Sree Charan R/ Creative Commons

Little is known about him or his legacy, besides a famous meeting he had with Gandhi in 1921. Described as ‘an enthusiastic college student’, Pingali pitched a tricolour of red, green and white with the charkha spinning wheel in the centre. Of the many flag designs of the 1900s, it was the closest one to what became the final saffron, white and green.

But not much is known about Pingali since then. He disappeared in the tumult of independence, dying an unrecognised and impoverished figure in 1963. His booklet, mentioned in Sadan Jha’s ‘Reverence, Resistance and Politics of Seeing the Indian National Flag” gives us a rare insight into a man who helped design the idea of India.

As Pingali wrote in the beginning lines of his booklet,

From my childhood, I have had an inborn fancy for flags. Long ago when it so happened that I had to serve under a nobleman superintending his agricultural operations, I had in ardent enthusiasm for a flag designed one for my own use as my ensign, and always hoisted it in the front of my hut in the midst of the fields from which the villagers in the neighbourhood among whom lived many of our farm labourers, easily understood that I was at my head quarters and were thus very regular in their attendance to their different duties. It was during those days in 1907 that the idea of designing a flag for the mother country strongly seized hold of me first, and I began thinking over the subject.

Sadly, only a torn page from this booklet remains – in possession of the British Library. In it, we can see some of his designs, which incorporated the Union Jack – suggesting that they were for a dominion.

From Pingali’s childhood, he had been driven with a fervour to represent his country. In the early days of the 20th century, this country was the British Empire. When the Boer War broke out, Pingali signed up to fight with the Indian regiment in South Africa – where Gandhi was a captain. It is here that he developed a lifelong association with the future ‘Father of the Nation’.

But, designing a flag that could satisfy everybody was a Herculean task. In 1921, the Swadeshi movement was in full swing. A national consciousness was emerging that rejected foreign wares for Indian. But an icon was needed to unite the Indian fabric. As Gandhi wrote:

A flag is a necessity for all nations. Millions have died for it. It is no doubt a kind of idolatry, which it would be sin to destroy, for a flag represents an ideal.

At the meeting, Gandhi tasked Pingali – who had written to him for many years on the need for a flag – with designing a Swaraj flag. Pingali came up with a design featuring the Spinning Wheel superimposed on a red and green background; red signifying the Hindus and green the Muslims. Shortly thereafter, Gandhi had a white strip added to it. The first tricolour was born.

As a helpful foreword to what the flag had to mean, Gandhi said:

Hindu–Muslim unity is not an exclusive term; it is an inclusive term, symbolic of the unity of all faiths domiciled in India. If Hindus and Muslims can tolerate each other, they are together bound to tolerate all other faiths. The unity is not a menace to the other faiths represented in India or to the world. So I suggest that the background should be white and green and red. The white portion is intended to represent all other faiths. The weakest numerically occupy the first place, the Islamic colour comes next, the Hindu colour red comes last, the idea being that the strongest should act as a shield to the weakest. The white colour moreover represents purity and peace. Our National Flag must mean that or nothing. And to represent the equality of the least of us with the best, an equal part is assigned to all the three colours in the design.”

It wasn’t long before people were dying for this flag. But the flag was not complete yet. As the Indian struggle marched on, so did the divisions within it. The rise of the Muslim League intensified the Hindu-Muslim rivalry; many of its members rejected the existing tri-colour. Other communities, like the Sikhs, also wanted their own colours to find inclusion.

But Gandhi was adamant not to turn the flag into a potpourri of India’s many religions. He responded to the Sikh issue, saying that the white colour would incorporate all other religions, and that “I would have had only one colour if there had been no quarrel between Hindus and Mussulmans.”

However, over time, Gandhi realized that the colours had to mean more than religion. In 1929, it was decided that the red would stand for sacrifice, white for purity and green for hope. And he began to build the monopoly of this flag over all else. When he observed Boy Scouts willing to lay their lives down for their outfit’s flag, Gandhi chided them, saying, “People cannot die for many flags”.

In 1931, saffron replaced the red, and the Ashoka Chakra signifying progress replaced the spinning wheel. In 1947, when the final tricolour flew over the red fort, Pingali might have heaved a sigh – after many years, his work had finally achieved a vision of a national flag that a free nation could salute.

Pingali had many talents. He achieved a senior Cambridge degree from Colombo and performed pioneering studies on Cotton – for which he received the nickname Patthi Venkayya (Cotton Venkayya). He learned fluent Urdu and Japanese (for which he was called Japanese Venkayya) and was even trained as a geologist.

There have been many proposals to award him a posthumous Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award. More than any award, the Indian flag flies as the ultimate memorial to the man who helped design it.

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