‘[Karnataka state BJP president Ananth] Kumar said Gujarat BJP unit president Rajendra Singh Rana will hand over the original national Tricolour to Uma [Bharti]. This flag was first hoisted by the great freedom fighter Madam Cama at the International Socialists Conference held at Stutgert (sic) in Germany in 1903. As Rana’s forefathers were freedom fighters, Madam Cama had handed over the flag to them’.

Thus ran a news report carried in the Bangalore edition of a national newspaper on the 10th of September, 2004. The mis-spelling of ‘Stuttgart’ was probably the inadvertent fault of the reporter. All other errors, however, were the deliberate handiwork of the political party concerned. For the tiranga jhanda was the work of the Indian National Congress, which was not Madam Cama’s party. And it came into being only in the nineteen twenties, not (as claimed by Ananth Kumar) in 1903.

The idea of the tricolour as we know it was born in the mind of a Andhra Congressman, P. Venkayya of Masulipatnam. Between 1918 and 1921 Venkayya raised the question of a national flag at every session of the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi liked the idea but not the way it was conceived; as he remarked, ‘in his [Venkayya’s] designs I saw nothing to stir the nations to its depths’. Then a north Indian patriot, Lala Hansraj, suggested that any such flag should have, as its centre-piece, the charkha, or spinning wheel. This attracted Gandhi, who told Venkayya to incorporate the feature in his design. The Mahatma also expressed the wish that the National Flag should be in three colours; red to represent the Hindus, green to represent the Muslims, and white to represent peace as well as all the other faiths of India.

At this time, Gandhi favoured having the white band on the top, followed by the green, with red coming last, signifying that the minorities came before the majority, who had the ethical responsibility for their safety and well-being. The charkha, he thought, should be placed so as to cover all three bands. Through the nineteen twenties it became customary to hoist this flag at patriotic events. Speaking at such a ceremony in Ahmedabad in February 1929, Gandhi observed that ‘today, in India, some people hold that Hindus and Muslims will never get on well together, that these incompatibles can never be on good terms now or in the future, that independence here could either be for the Hindus or for the Muslims’. The Mahatma himself dissented from this counsel of despair. ‘If this line of thinking persists’, he said, ‘it is meaningless to hoist this national flag. You who are present here to witness the unfurling of this flag should take a vow that the Hindus, Muslims, and Christians or any other community which regards India as its home, will co-operate with one another for securing swaraj for India’.

However, in August 1931 a committee of the Congress decided to make certain changes in the design. Red was replaced by saffron, which would be placed first. The white band would come next, in between saffron and green, to heighten the effect and ‘show off the whole flag to advantage’. The spinning wheel was retained, but placed in the white strip alone.

Endorsing these changes, Gandhi observed that ‘the national flag is the symbol of non-violence and national unity to be brought about by means strictly truthful and non-violent’. The tricolour, he wrote, ‘represents and reconciles all religions’.

The next modification took place on the eve of Indian independence. A committee of the Constituent Assembly decided that while they would retain the colours and spirit of the tricolour, they needed to make some changes, if only to ensure that the flag of independent India was not identitied with the Congress party alone. Finally, it was resolved that the spinning wheel would be replaced by a Asoka Chakra.

When Mahatma Gandhi first heard of this he was dismayed. ‘The Congress has been national from its very inception’, he insisted. ‘It has never been sectional. It embraces all sections and all Indians’. Should not ‘the flag under which the Congress has fought so many non-violent battles … now be the flag of the Government of free India?’ But he was ultimately persuaded of the change. The colours remained the ones he had chosen, and with the meanings he had given them: unity, non-violence, and social harmony. The Asoka Chakra could be viewed, imaginatively, as a spinning-wheel without the spindle and spinner. As Gandhi now saw it, ‘looking at the wheel some may recall that Prince of Peace, King Asoka, ruler of an empire, who renounced power. He represents 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 the eternally revolving Divine Law of Ahimsa.’

To return now to Madam Cama. She had nothing to do with the real tiranga jhanda. But she did however once hoist a flag on foreign soil, at Stuttgart in fact, but in 1907 rather than 1903. From an account circulating in cyberspace it seems that this too was an attempt to represent Hindu-Muslim harmony—its colours were green, saffron and red, and it contained both a Crescent and a Sun. By placing it before her socialist audience she sought to make the case for Indian independence.

Brave though it was, Madam Cama’s gesture had little effect on the freedom movement. Now it has been rescued from oblivion by the BJP, and given a terrific amount of spin. It is insinuated that this flag is the tricolour as we know and revere it, when it is a quite different creation altogether. And it is claimed that it is in the possession of Uma Bharti, who got it from her party mate Rajendra Singh Rana, to whose forefathers Madam Cama is said to have handed it over. This too is a falsehood, for the Madam’s original flag was deposited at the Maratha and Kesari Library in Pune, where—unless it has recently been purloined—it must still be.

Why does the BJP need to resort to such distortion of the historical record? Most likely because its progenitor, the RSS, took no part in the freedom movement at all. During the thirties and forties, few, if any, RSS workers were seen saluting the national flag. Their allegiances were sectarian rather than national—indeed, they chose to elevate their own bhagwa dhwaj above the tiranga jhanda. Shortly after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, there were widespread reports of RSS activists trampling upon the tricolour. This greatly upset the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In a speech on the 24th of February 1948, Nehru spoke sorrowfully of how ‘at some places members of the RSS dishonoured the National Flag. They know well that by disgracing the flag they are proving themselves as traitors…’.

The Sangh Parivar has now come round to honouring the tricolour, but their actions suggest that they still do not understand what that flag means. Thus the rhetoric used on the present tiranga yatra of the BJP is designed to divide the peoples of India. In this respect, this yatra is an insult to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and to countless other freedom fighters who fought, under that flag, for national unity and religious harmony. And, it must finally be said, it is also an insult to the memory of Madame Bhikaji Cama—a socialist and secularist who would have been appalled at being forced to keep posthumous company with Uma Bharti and her ilk.

Published in The Hindu, 26/9/2004