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Who Designed the Indian National Flag?

There has always been a debate about the history of the Indian national flag. Who designed the tricolor? Some people take the name of Pingali Venkayya, while others say that Surayya Tayyabji, wife of Badruddin Tyyabji (Indian Civil Servant), developed the current design of the Indian national flag. But to find the answer to this question of what history says about this, I flipped the pages of history and found the matter quite complicated.

The Government of India has no answer

A perusal of documents from the National Archives of India reveals that questions about the history of the national flag of India have been raised since independence, but no one has the correct answer.

Interestingly, the question that is in our minds today is the same question that came before the ‘The Boys Scout Association (India)’ soon after the country got independence and they also asked the Government of India about it.

On September 01, 1948, The Boys Scout Association (India) wrote a letter to the Home Secretary, Government of India, saying that ‘Our boys are required to know the history of our National Flag from its early dates, but no such authenticated history is available. So I beg to approach you with the request to let me know the same history as maybe taught to our boys.’

In response to the association’s request, the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Govt. of India said that there is no confirmed history of the national flag available in the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Prime Minister’s Secretariat may be able to tell something about this. But it said that they also do not have any information regarding this and that the All-India Congress Committee may be consulted. Not only this, but the Constituent Assembly of India Secretariat could also not give any information about it.

It simply stated concerning the origin and adoption of the flag that one needs to look at the Constituent Assembly debates of 22 July 1947. According to this information, 13 people were included in this committee that considered and designed the flag including Dr. Rajendra Prasad (Chairman of the Committee), Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, C. Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu, K.M. Manshi, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, Frank Anthony, Pandit Hiralal Shastri, Dr. B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Sardar Baldev Singh, K.M. Panikkar, Satyanarayan Sinha, and S.N. Gupta are included.

I also read the entire debate of the Constituent Assembly of India, in which the participants included Jawaharlal Nehru, Chaudhry Khaliq-Uz-Zaman, Muhammad Sharif, Syed Saadullah, and Tajjamul Hussain. Nonetheless, in this whole debate, the question of who designed the national flag was not answered.

What do historians say?

Sadan Jha, the Associate Professor, and historian at the Center for Social Studies in Surat, Gujarat, told me two years ago in a conversation that no one’s name came up during his entire research. So, he also could not tell who designed the national flag in 1946. According to him, it might be possible that someone very close to Nehru was approached by Nehru himself to design the flag. Sadan Jha has researched the politics of flags. His book Reverence, Resistance and the Politics of Seeing the Indian National Flag published by Cambridge University Press is quite popular.

But it is also true that the Government of India or Indian historians may not have a history of their own national flag, according to Trevor Royle, a world-renowned historian of war and empire based in Edinburgh. According to him, the flag that is hoisted in India at present was designed by Badruddin Tayyabji. Trevor Royle has written this in his book The last days of the Raj which was published in 1989.

It should be noted that Badruddin Tayyabji’s grandfather’s name was also Badruddin Tayyabji. His grandfather was the first Indian barrister to practice in the Bombay High Court and then the first Indian to become Chief Justice. He started practicing as a barrister in the Bombay High Court in 1867 and became the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court in 1902. He was a pioneer in the foundation of the Indian National Congress along with A.O. Hume, W.C. Banerjee, and Dadabhai Naoroji. Gandhiji believed him to be the driving force behind the foundation of the Congress.

His father, Justice Faiz Tayyabji, held the Judiciary of Madras and Bombay. He was well versed in Islamic law. His mother, Salima also achieved distinction as a social worker, educationist, and political leader. She was elected to the Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1937.

Badruddin Tayyabji was an Indian Civil Service Officer. Later, in 1962, he became the Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. He then became the Indian Ambassador to Japan. Badruddin Tayaabji was one of Nehru’s close friends. Surayya Tayyabji was his wife.

Trevor Royle writes in his book The last days of the Raj, about one of the contradictions which run through India’s history, that the national flag was designed by a Muslim, Badruddin Tayyabji. Originally the tricolor was to have contained the spinning-wheel symbol (charka) used by Gandhi but this was a party symbol that Tayyabji thought might strike the wrong note. After much persuasion, Gandhi agreed to the wheel because Emperor Ashoka was venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike. The flag which flew on Nehru’s car that night had been specially made by Tayyabji’s wife.

What does Surayya Tayyabji’s daughter say?

Surayya Tayyabji’s 73-year-old daughter Padma Shri Laila Tayyabji wrote an article, How the Tricolour and Lion Emblem Really Came to Be at ‘The Wire’ in 2018, in which she said that her father Badruddin Tayyabji had set up a flag committee headed by Dr. Rajendra Prashad on the instructions of Nehru. Badruddin Tayyabji was then working as an Indian Civil Service officer in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Laila Tayyabji says that it was her parents who not only gave Nehru the idea of Ashok Chakra, but her mother also drew a pictorial map of the flag. According to Laila Tayyabji in this article, ‘my father watched that first flag – sewn under my mother’s supervision by Edde Tailors & Drapers in Connaught Place – go up over Raisina Hill.’

Her statement sets to rest all controversies about who designed our national flag. We should strive to maintain the dignity and honor of the flag at all times. But asking people to hoist the flag on the rooftops of their houses is a sudden outpouring of pseudo-nationalism by those people who had nothing to do with the national flag for many decades after independence.

National Flag and Gandhi

It is believed that in the days when the Khilafat movement was started in India in favour of Turkey in 1920, a booklet was presented to the public by P. Venkayya, the official of Madras Presidency (present-day Andhra Pradesh). It mentioned the flags of other nations. Along with this, designs for the national flag of India were also presented. At the same time, the Khilafat Committee also prepared its flag for the Khilafat movement. From here it came to Mahatma Gandhi’s mind that there should be a separate flag for his country which can awaken the spirit of the nation.

Mahatma Gandhi writes in Young India on April 13, 1921, ‘A flag is a necessity for all nations. Millions have died for it. It is no doubt a kind of idolatry that it 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…’

Gandhi further writes in the same article, ‘I have always admired the persistent zeal with which Mr. Venkayya has prosecuted the cause of a national flag at every session of the Congress for the past four years, he was never able to enthuse me; and in his designs, I saw nothing to stir the nation to its depths…’

It should be noted that Lala Hansraj of Jalandhar suggested to Gandhiji that the spinning wheel should have a place in our Swarajya flag. Gandhiji wrote on it, ‘I could not help admiring the originality of the suggestion. At Bezwada I asked Mr. Venkayya to give me a design containing a spinning wheel on a red (Hindu colour) and green (Muslim colour) background…’ 

Gandhi was not happy with the removal of the Charka from the flag

When the new design of the national flag was adopted on 22 July 1947, Gandhiji looked very depressed. He did not like the removal of the spinning wheel from the flag. Gandhiji said in one of his prayer meetings on the same day, ‘Four sisters came to congratulate me today because the tricolour with the wheel has been adopted as the national flag of India. I see nothing in it for congratulations. I am told that instead of the charkha there is only a wheel on the flag. But it is all the same to me whether they keep or do not keep the charkha. Even if they cast it away I will still have it in my hand and in my heart.’

On 27 July 1947 in New Delhi, Gandhiji said, ‘Some say that the original flag has gone, that a new age has begun and with it have come new ways, and that the flag will be one to befit this new age. I have not known a worthy son to whom his mother appeared ugly. It may be possible to gild pure gold, but who can make his mother more beautiful? Hence, in my opinion, nothing would have been lost if no changes had been made in the original flag…’   

These words of Gandhiji were published in an article in Gujarati’s Harijan Bandhu.

In the Gujarati newspaper Harijan Bandhu published on August 3, 1947, Gandhiji writes, ‘Looking at the wheel some may recall that Prince of Peace, King Asoka, ruler of an empire, who renounced power. He represented all faiths; he was an embodiment of compassion. Seeing the charkha in his chakra adds to the glory of the Charkha. Asoka’s chakra represents eternally revolving Divine Law of ahimsa.’

On August 6, 1947, while talking to the Congress workers in Lahore, Gandhiji wrote, ‘You know the National Flag of India was first thought of by me and I cannot conceive of India’s National Flag without the emblem of the charkha. We have, however, been told by Pandit Nehru and others that the sign of wheel or the chakra in the new National Flag symbolizes the charkha also. Some describe the wheel-mark as Sudarshan Chakra, but I know what Sudarshan Chakra means.’

Interestingly, on August 3, a gentleman from Hyderabad wrote a letter to Gandhiji. This letter was published in the 17th August 1947 issue of Harijan Sevak. In this letter, it was mentioned that K.M. Munshi has described the chakra in the flag as Sudarshan Chakra. On this, Gandhiji had said, ‘Under no circumstances can the Asoka Chakra become a symbol of violence. Emperor Asoka was a Buddhist and a votary of non-violence. The Sudarshan Chakra can have no connection with the wheel in the flag.’

Gandhi forbade the hoisting of the tricolor on temples

Interestingly, at the time of independence, Hindutva valleys who were opposing the national flag used the spinning wheeled national flag to create Hindu-Muslim riots in the first country of independence. It was exactly like how today the environment of the country is being spoilt in the name of the Tricolor.

Mahatma Gandhi was strongly against the national flag being used in temples or for religious purposes. Gandhi wrote many essays and letters during his life in which Hindutva hyper-nationalists were criticized for misusing the national flag.

Gandhiji wrote in a letter dated September 29, 1941, to the Minister of the Hindu Mahasabha of Shimoga, Mysore State. ‘I have known [that] the national flag [has been] used in Ganapati processions. It is wrong to use the national flag on temples. The Congress is a national organization in that it is open to all without distinction of race or creed. The Congress has as much or as little to do with Hindu festivals as with any other.’

Gandhiji had earlier clearly written in his article in Harijan on November 5, 1938 – ‘As the author of the idea of a national flag and its makeup 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. The flag has been designed 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.’

There are four colors in tricolor

Around two years back, during my long conversation with Sadan Jha, an interesting thing came out that the tricolor of the national flag does not have three but four colors. He questioned, why do we call our national flag a three-color flag? Why is the blue color of the Ashoka Chakra erased from our cognitive frame when we define the color in the national flag of India?

Then he explained that the blue color of the national flag is the color of rebellion and Dalit politics in India. In popular memories of the colonial era, blue has been the color of resistance. It depicts the political imagery of the peasant revolt against the indigo planters in Bengal in 1859-60 and the subsequent ‘Indigo Movement’ in Champaran. The color is a perfect tribute to the rebellious peasants at the center of the flag.

It is certainly worth pondering that whenever we talk about the national flag, only three colors are mentioned in our conversation but the blue color is forgotten. Is it a mere coincidence or is there a deep conspiracy against the voices of the Dalits, the backward and the weaker section of our society?

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