In search of piece of flag's history

In search of piece of flag's history

In search of piece of flag's history

Step into the Fort St George Museum in old Madras (now Chennai), from where the foundations of Britain’s vast India colony were laid in August 1639, what beckons any visitor in its front hall, next to a wooden staircase, is an imposing marble statue of Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805).

The 14.5-foot-tall massive statue leads you in by its sheer dimensions, as much as people usually skirt a stark face of history engraved on its pedestal, a scene of tragic beauty chiselled by a renowned sculptor.

Depicted beneath the tall figure is Tipu Sultan’s emissary handing over the formidable Mysore ruler’s two sons “as hostages in lieu of a ransom he was unable to pay to the British.”

For Britain, the final defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799 was a “cause célèbre”.  But for freedom lovers in India it must have been the first, explicitly shattering untold humi­liation for a defeated moment to be frozen in stone so grandiosely.

Nonetheless, enc­ased in that panel were seeds of a modern India redeeming her political freedom much later in August 1947 that the dialectics of history, which makes winners out of losers and vice-versa, bestows a triumphal moment to even the lowest of the lowly.

Now, 65 years after India won freedom, the Archaeological Survey of India’s Fort Museum decided to unveil a sacred symbol of the national movement that restored the country’s lost dignity.

That symbol of pride, which will now see the light of day for a whole new generation, is the “First Indian Flag which was hoisted from the ramparts of Fort St George on August 15, 1947, at precisely 5.05 am, after India became free at midnight,” say Deputy Superintending  Archaeologist at Fort Museum K Moorth­eeswari and Curator Neeti Anilkumar.

They are thrilled that this symbol of India’s freedom was a civilised reply to Cornwallis as it were. This was one of the early flags hoisted in 1947 after India’s Constituent Assembly adopted the design of the tricolour on July 22, 1947, some three weeks before the transfer of power from Britain to the “Dominion of India” then.

The Pingali Venkayya-designed National Flag, which was adopted with somemodifications as the official Indian Flag with its horizontal bands of “deep saffron, white and dark green” in equal proportions with the “Ashoka Chakra” with 24 wheels in Navy Blue inscribed on the centre of the white middle band, was described by Jawaharlal Nehru as a “symbol of freedom not only for ourselves but also for all people,” after he presented the flag to the Constituent Assembly.

Nehru on that occasion, recalled the museum officials citing historical records, presented two flags, one in “khadi-silk” and another in “khadi-cotton”. This fact is significant though very little is known about this Indian Flag, which had been in the Fort Museum’s depository for so long without being displayed. It had been carefully preserved in a rectangular wooden case in its large second floor room.

This Indian Flag, which measures 3.50 metres long and 2.40 metres wide “is made of pure khadi-silk and it was presented to this museum by the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in 1948,” says Ms Neeti. They have been digging available past records to ferret out more details about this unique flag.

The museum began “with a small collection of the British Raj, donated by the then Madras Presidency Government, the St Mary’s Church authorities, the disbanded Army units and others,” said the officials.

It was then that this Indian Flag was gifted by the PM’s Secretariat in Delhi. While there is no evidence as yet on whether it was one of the two flags commended by Nehru to the Constituent Assembly, it was very significant that it went up at Fort St George on August 15, 1947, after the flag hoisting by Nehru in Delhi.

This Indian Flag, which went fluttering at 5.05 am that historic day, was then hoisted atop the 150-foot high flagstaff, hailed as the “tallest flag-post in India and over 300 years old.” The British had hoisted the “Union Jack” on it till 1947. Interestingly, as the earlier teak wood-made flagstaff at Fort St George showed signs of cracking, Ms J Jayalalitha, during her first term as Chief Minister (1991-96), had it replaced with a “metallic flagstaff” erected by engineering giant L and T.

The museum officials sought public cooperation to know more about this Indian Flag from past records, for there is no definitive information as yet about who had unfurled it first at Fort St George, at 5.05 am.

There are newspaper records, though, to show that the then Governor of Madras Presidency, Archibald Nye hoisted the National Flag later that day at the nearby Island Grounds, and the then Premier of Madras, Omandur Ramaswami Reddiyar, unfurled the tricolour at Ripon Buildings, seat of Madras Corporation.

“There is no information yet where this Indian Flag was made either,” says Neeti. In all probability, it may have been made by the Karnataka Khadi Gramodyoga Samyuktha Sangha in Hubli, she felt.

Significantly, beginning with the display of this Indian Flag, Ms Moortheeswari wants to change the profile of Fort Museum in Chennai, so far seen as containing mainly relics of the British Raj. A whole new gallery with this Indian Flag as the centre piece is now coming up wherein emblems and memorabilia associated with all the freedom fighters from the South would be collected and displayed, she said.

“Because, people want our freedom struggle symbols to be also brought to view at the Fort Museum,” she reasoned, calling for voluntary donations of historical materials by the public to make it a full-fledged gallery. “This Indian Flag, to be given some touches by textile conservati­onists, is our Independence Day gift to the people this year,” added Moortheeswari.

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