The declaration of 15 August 1947 as the end of British rule was no cause for celebration for Mahatma Gandhi. Deeply disturbed by the pre-Partition communal violence, he buried himself in peace efforts and was at Calcutta on the night of 14 August 1947. Harijan, the English weekly edited by Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary and close aide, did not show fanfare and enthusiasm either. Functioning as an authentic source of Gandhi’s speeches, thoughts, and ideology, Harijan’s 17, 24, and 31 August editions did not have a single piece reporting the celebrations of Freedom or any article with a highly congratulatory tone. The weekly kept on reporting Gandhi’s post-prayer speeches and other articles completely unrelated to the Independence, except for one topic: debates about the National Flag.
The Congress legacy of the Flag
Satish Kalelkar, Oxford-returned son of Kaka Kalelkar, had walked behind Gandhi in the Dandi March. He wrote a piece in Harijan, pitching for red, white and green stripes in the National Flag. He reminded that the original Congress flag had horizontal stripes of white, green and red in that order with a charkha at the centre. Kalelkar justified his preference for red over orange by arguing that orange could be ‘anything from yellow, saffron, pink to the bhagwa of the sadhu’s kafni.’ The other reason for favouring red was to keep in mind the workers who had ‘partiality towards the colour’. Instead of keeping saffron for the desh-sevikas (women who served the country), as some argued, ‘would not white, the symbol of purity, better suit Indian womanhood?’ wondered Kalelkar. He was in favour of replacing the charkha (spinning wheel) with a wheel, both for design purposes and because of it being a symbol of most vital discovery. The wheel also symbolised farmers, revolution, industry, the Buddhist concept of dharma-chakra, which was adopted by Emperor Ashoka, and as ‘balance-wheel’ of religion that sustains society. (Harijan, 6 July 1947, page 221)
Gandhi added a postscript to Satish Kalelkar’s article, ‘as the originator of the first design’ of the Flag, and clarified that ‘the three strips were to represent all the communities and the charkha was the symbol of non-violence.’ (Harijan, 6 July 1947, page 221) Later in the month, he received an angry letter reacting to the rumour that the Union Jack would occupy a corner of the National Flag after 15 August 1947. Gandhi saw no harm in it so long as India would remain a Dominion. He ‘heard with sorrow at the Congress Working Committee that the Union Jack was not going to occupy a place on the Flag. He even asked them not to rejoice the omission.’ (Harijan, 27 July 1947, page 256)
Gandhi wrote an editorial titled The National Flag in the next issue of Harijan. Some people had a grudge that the Congress flag became the National Flag. Gandhi dismissed the accusation and wrote that the Congress ‘never represented a party, but…represented all parties and all Indians.’ (Harijan, 3 August 1947, page 260) He reminded that the National Flag by very name was accepted by the nation functioning through the Congress in 1921. Referring to an article he wrote in 1921, Gandhi cautioned that ‘the improved condition of the Flag has value only if it answers the significance attached to the original.’ The argument against the old flag with a charkha was that ‘the spinning wheel was an old woman’s solace and Gandhi’s toy…we want Ashoka’s disc mounted with lions…We have had enough of cowardliness…We are tired of wearing khadi in this age of advance.’ Gandhi wrote emphatically that ‘I would refuse to salute the flag that bears the foregoing interpretation, however artistic it may appear.’ (Harijan, 3 August 1947, page 260)
Another group of people interpreted the wheel in the flag as an improved, artistic symbol of the spinning wheel. Gandhi was not against it. He wrote, ‘If any further but not inconsistent interpretations are added to this indispensable interpretation, the additions will certainly be harmless.’ The wheel’s relation to Ashoka’s ultimate renunciation of pomp and power was an addition to the importance of the spinning wheel and Gandhi was willing to accept it as ‘the necessity of obeying ever-moving Wheel of the Divine Law of Love.’ (Harijan, 3 August 1947, page 261) When condoled by some people for the absence of charkha in the new Flag, Gandhi responded that he didn’t have any issue as long as they kept charkha and khadi in their hearts. If not, the flag had no value for him.
A Gujarati cartoonist ‘Chakor’ depicted Jawaharlal Nehru returning charkha to Gandhi with the line, ‘Bapuji, here is your spinning wheel.’
Nehru was not amused with such interpretations. He wrote unambiguously that ‘because the full charkha is not there now, it must not be imagined that we have given up the charkha or what it meant. In the resolution of the Constituent Assembly, it was stated clearly that the wheel in the centre represented the charkha.’
He remarked that the charkha added a certain beauty of conception to the Flag and rejected the suggestions that the wheel should have been bigger and covered part of saffron and green stripes. The suggestion, according to him, ‘showed lack of appreciation of the artistry of the entire design.’ After acknowledging the wheel’s connection to Ashoka, he wrote that the Flag represents the common masses of India. ‘It is modern and also takes us back to the great cultural traditions of ancient India. Thus, it displays both the permanence of Indian culture and the dynamic quality of India today.’ (Harijan, 31 August 1947, page 302)
Professor Radha Kumud Mookerji elaborated the meaning of the wheel, the Dhamma-chakra, as the rule of right as against might, or ‘Ram Rajya’ in Gandhi’s words. He also portrayed it as ‘a successor of Lord Vishnu’s Sudarshan Chakra, the Cosmic Circle, within which is comprehended all that is, animate or inanimate.’ (Harijan, 7 September 1947, page 313)
The fact is, as Gandhi already said, it’s all in the heart.
Urvish Kothari @urvish2020 is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)