When Mahatma Gandhi visited Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh), then commonly called Bezwada, for the All India Congress Committee meeting (not to be confused with Annual Congress) on March 31-April 1, 1921 he carried the blueprint for a national flag in his mind. Those were the heady days of Khalifat and Non Cooperation Movements that demanded cooperation between the Hindus and Muslims. The flag he had in his mind had horizontal chambers of Red and Green representing Hindus and Muslims respectively. Lala Hansraj of Arya Samaj suggested a Charka (Spinning Wheel), the symbol of Swaraj, superimposed on the flag. The idea had appealed to Gandhi.
‘At Bezwada, I asked Mr. Venkayya to give me a design containing a spinning wheel on red (Hindu colour) and green (Muslim colour) background. His enthusiastic spirit enabled me to possess a flag in three hours. It was just a little too late for presentation to the All India Congress Committee. I am glad it was so’ wrote Gandhi in Young India dated April 13, 1921. On mature consideration Gandhi included White in the middle representing other communities of India.
The designer Gandhi referred to was Pingali Venkayya. Born in Machilipatnam (Andhra Pradesh) on August 2, 1876 he possessed a doctorate in Geology. Gandhi apparently knew him since the days of Second Boer War (1899-1902), when Venkayya visited South Africa as a young recruit in British Army.
It might appear from the above testimony that Venkayya merely executed Gandhi’s idea. In reality he was the man who sensitized Gandhi about the necessity to have a national flag. Venkayya had studied flags of at least thirty nations. He had been visiting Congress sessions every year advocating the need to adopt a national flag. But somehow Gandhi was not fascinated with his ideas until 1921.
The flag designed by Venkayya underwent several changes before India adopted her current standard in 1947. But interestingly there was a continuity in those changes. The seven member National Flag Committee (1931), appointed by the Indian National Congress, rebuffed any attempt to give communal connotations to the colours. Finally, it suggested the monochromatic saffron flag with Charkha (Spinning Wheel) on the top left quarter. But its recommendations were found to be infeasible. India’s national flag was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on July 22, 1947. Its saffron, white and green with Ashoka Chakra (Wheel of Dhamma) appear to be based on the flag designed by Venkayya. The communal connotations, however, have been discarded from the colour scheme.
Venkayya was nicknamed ‘Diamond Venkayya’ for his expertise in diamond mining. He apparently picked it up during his stay in South Africa. He dedicated a significant part of his life researching on superior varieties of cotton. A Gandhian, he passed away in a hut in Vijayawada in 1963. In 2014, Shri Venkaiah Naidu, the then Minister of Urban Development unveiled a statue of Pingali Venkayya in the forelawns of All India Radio building in Vijayawada. Let us salute him on his 141st birth anniversary.
(The writer is an independent researcher based in New Delhi. Views expressed herein are his personal)