Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Déjà View | The virtuous wheel

The wheel is India telling the world that 'this too shall pass'. That civilizations will come and go. So chill. Relax. Send some FDI

Around the time you are reading this week’s column — a few hours before or after — our prime minister will hoist the national flag high over the Red Fort. And that flag, and many millions of replicas made of plastic and silk and schoolchildren and coconut chutneys, will mark yet another Independence Day in the history of the Indian republic.

It is a nice flag. It is rich with symbolism, easy to remember, offers a wide array of interpretations and has a pleasing combination of colours. But I think the best aspect of the flag is the wheel. It is an unusually gentle, and an uncommonly wise, motif to have on a flag. Unlike the defiance of a shield, the implied threat of a rampant animal or some such “martial" entity, the wheel suggests a certain patience and calm and quiet confidence. The wheel is India telling the world that “this too shall pass". That civilizations will come and civilizations will go. That even as eagles soar and crash, even as shields defy and are rent asunder… the wheel of human fate will keep rolling along. So chill. Relax. Send some FDI.

Don’t you think so? The chakra is quite lovely.

On 22 July 1947, less than a month before the transfer of power, the Constituent Assembly of India met at 10am in the Constitution Hall in New Delhi.

The first item on the agenda was “a motion by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru about the flag".

Nehru went on to describe the flag and then followed it with a splendid bit of rhetoric. Perhaps this flourish was meant to mitigate any opposition to a hitherto unannounced alteration to the flag. Instead of Gandhi’s iconic charkha, the flag would now be emblazoned with the Ashoka Chakra.

Why was this change made?

Nehru had a somewhat technical reason for this. He explained that the assymetric nature of the spinning wheel would be confusing. Would both sides of the flag be identical? Or would one side be the mirror image of the other? And how hard would it be to manufacture and replicate this intricate spinning wheel? “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..."

Three amendments were raised to this motion. The first was H.V. Kamath’s amendment that read as follows: “That inside the chakra in the centre of the white band, the swastika, the ancient Indian symbol of shantam, shivam, sundaram, be inscribed’."

But Kamath backed down: “I have now seen the flag and I find that it is somewhat hard to fit the swastika into this chakra."

The other two amendments were also similarly abandoned. Then, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan delivered a formidable analysis of the new flag: “The green is there—our relation to the soil, our relation to the plant life here on which all other life depends... If we are to succeed in this enterprise, we must be guided by truth (white), practise virtue (wheel), adopt the method of self-control and renunciation (saffron). This flag tells us ‘Be ever alert, be ever on the move, go forward, work for a free, flexible compassionate, decent, democratic, society in which Christians, Sikhs, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists will all find a safe shelter’."

But still there is a lingering doubt here. Whose idea was it to swap the charkha for the chakra?

The closest I came to the answer is an essay by Harold Bergsma titled Indian Flag Design: Fresh Insights From Old And New Sources. He quotes a translated entry from the collected works of Chia-Luen Lo, who was appointed the Chinese ambassador to India in 1947.

In this entry, Lo says that he suggested this swap during an official dinner party with Nehru and several other senior members of the government and the Congress party. It was he himself, Lo claims, that pointed out the complexity of the charkha.

Bold claims. Perhaps claims that may not add up at all. For one thing, the translation suggests that the party took place on 30 July 1947, a week after the events I described above.

But then does it really matter where the idea came from? Think like the wheel. Roll on, I say.

Shortly after midnight on 15 August 1947, the national flag of India was presented by Hansa Mehta “on behalf of the women of India". Mehta carried with her a list of names of 74 women—such as Sucheta Kripalani, Zora Ansari, Iravati Karve and Dakshayini Velayudhan—on whose behalf the flag was presented: “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august house should be a gift from the women of India."

“In presenting this symbol of our freedom, we once more offer our services to the nation," Mehta said. “We pledge ourselves to work for a great India, for building up a nation that will be a nation among nations... May this flag be the symbol of that great India and may it ever fly high and serve as a light in the gloom that threatens the world today. May it bring happiness to those who live under its protecting care."

Jai Hind. Happy Independence Day, my fellow Indians.

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview

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