Calcutta Unfurled India’s First Flag
Not many of us are aware that the very first unofficial flag of India was hoisted at Calcutta. At the height of the Swadeshi Movement launched in protest against Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal, a band of young revolutionaries had created the flag which was hoisted at Greer Park or Parsibagan Square. And the flag that was unfurled on that day was also a tricoloured one.
Prior to the coming of the British, each kingdom had its own insignia but the political unity of India was still a distant dream and hence there was no official flag. The revolutionaries of 1857 fought under the Green Banner of the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The British used many flags on various occasions including the ones featuring the Star of India. But the official flag was definitely the Union Jack which was lowered only when India gained independence. The British allowed various princely states to fly their own insignia but Indians were not allowed to unfurl their own flag.
The concept of a national flag was first floated in Lahore by Sris Chandra Basu. As the moving spirit behind the Indian National Society (INS) founded in 1883 (two years prior to the formation of the Indian National Congress), he designed the national standard as a traditional swallow-tail featuring the ‘sun in its splendor’ in the middle. The flag was paraded by members of the society on the streets of Lahore. The facsimile of the flag was printed on the cover page of the book Indian National Songs and Lyrics which was penned by Basu himself. The caption read 'Our National Standard'.
The necessity of a national flag was felt during the mighty upsurge of nationalist and patriotic feelings during Swadeshi Movement which came in the wake of Curzon’s ill-fated decision to split Bengal. Cries of ‘Vande Mataram’ which took Bengal by storm spread far beyond and even across the country. Since there was no ancient flag which could be revived during the agitation, the member of the revolutionary group Anushilan Samity, decided to design a flag and hoist it. The inspiration for the flag had come from the French tri-colour and the mottos of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, upheld during the French Revolution. Known as the Calcutta Flag, this was designed by Sachindra Prasad Basu, Secretary of the Anti-Circular Society and Sukumar Mitter, a close associate of Aurobindo Ghosh.
Sachindra Prasad Basu founded the Anti-Circular Society which was formed to oppose the Carlyle Circular, issued by the Chief Secretary of Bengal Government to prevent students from taking part in the anti-partition movement. An undergraduate of City College and a promising leader, Sachindra Prasad toured the mufassil areas to spread the message of boycotting foreign goods and Swadeshi movement. He wielded considerable influence among the student community. The President of the Anti-Circular Society was Krishna Kumar Mitter, Editor of Sanjibani and a leading political speaker. Sukumar Mitter was the son of Krishna Kumar Mitter and an office bearer of the Defence Association which trained the youths in various methods of self defence including wielding of sticks, boxing and jujutsu. The President of Defence Association was Aurobindo Ghosh. Cousin and a close associate of Aurobindo in his revolutionary days Sukumar had close links with other revolutionary institutions, as well. Sachindra Prasad and Krishna Kumar Mitra were both deported in 1908.
This tri-colour flag had three bands – red at the top followed by yellow and then green. The red band had eight lotuses – signifying the eight provinces of the country. The lotus, according to Rishi Rajnarayan Basu was the national flower of India. The middle band had “Vande Mataram” inscribed in Devanagari script in blue. Finally, on the green band at the bottom there was a shining sun on the left and a crescent moon and star on the right.
It was hoisted on August 7, 1906 (in some accounts it is 1905 on Boycott Day while others say it was on 1906, on the first anniversary of the movement) to protest against the Partition of Bengal. Barrister P Mitter (Pramathanath Mitra) who headed Anushilan Samity hoisted the flag at Greer Park or Parsibagan Square which was located at 294/2, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road. It has been renamed as Sadhana Sarkar Udyan. In those days, Parsibagan where Rajabazar Science College building stands today was the hot bed of nationalism. Parsibagan had hosted Hindu Mela for consecutive years. Again when the National Education Council was formed by nationalist leaders as an alternative to educational institutions run by the colonial government, its office was set up in Parsibagan. Thus, Parsibagan was significant to the young revolutionaries of Calcutta.
Although Parsibagan was the pre-declared venue for hoisting of the flag, the revolutionaries had decided upon two more spots fearing resistance from the colonial government. Surendranath Banerjee hoisted the flag near the Kalutola Kalibari while the third one was hung from a long pole at Dharmatola Park which was later renamed as Curzon Park, just opposite the eastern gate of the Governor’s House. It was the first time that the national flag was hoisted. The Calcutta Flag continued to inspire revolutionaries and other freedom fighters for years to come.
Meanwhile, Sister Nivedita had also designed a flag. While on a trip to Bodh-Gaya in 1904 and in the company of India’s two great sons – Rabindranath Tagore and Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, Nivedita designed the flag with Vajra (thunderbolt) which was a symbol of Buddha, implying the 'selfless man'. It was also the weapon of Indra and a symbol of strength. According to Hindu mythology, the Vajra was made with the bones of Sage Dadhichi and was a symbol of supreme sacrifice as well. In the square flag, the words "Vande Mataram" was written in Bengali with the Vajra in between and with 108 jyotis or flames at the periphery of the flag. The traditional japa malas or prayer beads have 108 beads that are used to count the repetitions of prayers. The number is a perfect three-digit multiple of three, its components add up to nine, which is three threes; it is considered to be auspicious. Three represents supreme balance. Her flag was made by the students of Nivedita’s school in Calcutta; it was displayed at the Congress’ exhibition in Calcutta in 1906 though it was never hoisted. It is now preserved at Acharya Bhawan in Calcutta, the residence of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose.
But the flag designed by the revolutionaries of Bengal continued to inspire others. The second flag, hoisted by Madame Bhikaji Rustam Cama in Stuttgart on August 22, 1907, was also inspired by the Calcutta Flag. The similarities in colour schemes and symbols used make it evident that the revolutionaries in Paris were well acquainted with the Calcutta Flag. Bhupendranath Dutta, the younger brother of Swami Vivekananda and Editor of Yugantar wrote in Bharat-er Dwitiya Swadhinata Sangram that Khashi Rao, a revolutionary and brother of Madhav Rao – a General in the army of Baroda had gone to Switzerland for military training. He carried a replica of the Calcutta Flag and showed it to Hem Chandra Kanungo in Geneva. Kanungo, a revolutionary from Bengal who was later jailed in Andaman stated in his book, Banglay Biplab Prochesta that he made the flag in Paris and gave it to Madame Cama before her departure for Stuttgart.
Madame Cama’s had said: “This flag of Vande Mataram which I wave before you was made for me by a noble selfless young patriot who is standing at the bar of the so called Court of Justice in our country.” Madame Cama had retained only one lotus and replaced the others by Saptaarshi or seven stars. Madam Cama’s flag was later smuggled into India and is on display at Tilak Museum of Maratha and Kesari in Pune.
Twenty –two year after Madame Cama’s historic unfurling of the flag, the tri-colour was officially accepted and the resolution of independence was accepted by the Congress on December 31, 1929. In between there had been number of innovations though they did not sustain. The colour scheme no longer represented the communities but ideals of sacrifice, peace and prosperity. With independence, the tricolor san the charkha which was replaced by the Chakra or the wheel was accepted as the National Flag. And when it flutters it not only symbolises the freedom we enjoy today but also bears the legacy of those who made innumerable sacrifices to win this freedom for us.