New Delhi: Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent out a message to the country. India is all set to complete 75 years of Independence on 15 August and, to mark the occasion, social media users should change their display picture to one of the Tricolour, he said.
The display photo of Modi’s account changed subsequently, as did that of the BJP’s. Scores of other social media users complied too.
But some accounts were conspicuous by the absence of the Tricolour in their display photos — those of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its Sarsanghchalak (head) Mohan Bhagwat, and Sarkaryavah (general secretary) Dattatreya Hosabale.
The opposition didn’t miss this, and sought to draw attention to the tenuous relationship the RSS has had with the Indian flag.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, for one, said the RSS had not hoisted the national flag at its headquarters “for 52 years”, and accused it of insulting it.
The RSS dismissed this allegation, noting that hoisting of the national flag on private premises was not allowed until the early 2000s, and several senior members — including joint general secretaries Manmohan Vaidya and Arun Kumar, and prachar pramukh Sunil Ambekar — changed their display pictures in the ensuing days.
While the RSS has played down the controversy, the organisation has been known to have a complicated relationship with the Tricolour, whose three colours seek to signify different characteristics of India.
M.S. Golwalkar, the second chief of the RSS, said in his 1966 book Bunch of Thoughts that the flag was “not inspired by any national vision or truth based on our national history and heritage”.
On the eve of Independence in 1947, RSS, in an editorial in its journal Organiser, said a flag “having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country”, adding that the Tricolour will never be “respected and owned by the Hindus”.
Even so, RSS watchers insist that while the organisation may have had its issues with the flag, it has never disrespected or refused to accept it.
RSS’ complex relationship with the Tricolour
The Tricolour was finalised as the flag of Independent India on the recommendation of the flag committee, a panel under Rajendra Prasad that was one of several committees formed under the Constituent Assembly.
The flag was adopted during a meeting of the Constituent Assembly on 22 July 1947.
It is largely based on the flag adopted by the All India Congress Committee in 1931 — the only difference being the replacement of the charkha with the “dharma chakra” associated with the 3rd-century BCE Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.
While a precursor to this flag did seek to represent communities, the AICC made it clear in a resolution at the time that the three colours — saffron, white and green — were to “represent qualities not communities”.
The significance of the three colours was explained by Dr S. Radhakrishnan in the Constituent Assembly: “Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation of disinterestedness. The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct, and the green shows our relation to the soil and plant life… the Ashoka wheel is the wheel of dharma and represents dynamism of a peaceful change.”
In an interview published on the RSS website in 2016, the then prachar pramukh Manmohan Vaidya said the “communalisation of saffron happened only after Independence”.
“The Tricolour flag emerged in the political scenario in 1921. It was Gandhi ji’s idea to have a flag representing all major communities. Hence, a Tricolour flag with red (not saffron) at the bottom, green in the middle, and white at the top, representing Hindus, Muslims, and Christians,” Vaidya had said, adding that the flag committee had recommended a rectangular saffron-colour flag with a blue charkha in the top corner.
He further said, “The communlisation of saffron colour happened only after Independence, particularly after the insertion of the word ‘secular’ in the Constitution, when the definition of what is communal and what is secular began to get distorted.”
Tricolour not inspired by national vision: Golwalkar
In Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar raised questions about how the flag was selected.
“Our leaders have set up a new flag for our country. Why did they do so? It is just a case of drifting and imitating. How did this flag come into being? During the French Revolution, the French put up three stripes on their flag to express the triple ideas of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’,” he wrote.
“The American Revolution, inspired by similar principles, took it up with some changes. The three stripes, therefore, held a sort of fascination for our freedom fighters also. So, it was taken up by the Congress. Then it was interpreted as depicting the unity of various communities. The saffron colour standing for the Hindu, the green for the Muslim, and white for all the other communities.”
Out of all the “non-Hindu communities”, Golwalkar said, “the Muslim was specifically named because in the minds of most of those eminent leaders, the Muslim was dominant and without naming him, they did not think that our nationality could be complete”.
He further added that, “It was just a politician’s patchwork and a political expediency. It was not inspired by any national vision or truth based on our national history and heritage. The same flag has been taken up today as our State flag with only a glorious past. Then, had we no flag of our own? Had we no national emblem in all these thousands of years? Undoubtedly, we had. Then, why this void? This utter vacuum in our minds.”
In another book — Shri Guruji Samagra Darshan, collected works of Golwalkar in Hindi — he said “it was the saffron flag, which in totality, represented the Bharatiya [Indian] culture”.
“It was the embodiment of God. We firmly believe that, in the end, the whole nation will bow before this saffron flag.”
The founder of the RSS, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, had sought to equate the Tricolour with the bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag), while rendering support to the Congress’ Purna Swaraj resolution.
He issued a circular on 21 January 1930, asking all RSS shakhas to hoist the bhagwa dhwaj to support the resolution. The circular, found in the book Patraroop Vyaktidarshan, a collection of letters written by Hedgewar, asks the swayamsevaks in Hindi, “Rashtriya dhwaj arthaat bhagwe dhwaj ka vandan karein (pay respect to the national flag, which means the saffron flag)”.
Mohan Bhagwat, in a speech on 17 September 2018 at Vigyan Bhawan, referred to the same circular in a bid to emphasise the RSS’ association with the Tricolour. However, he misquoted Hedgewar as having told swayamsevaks to hoist the Tricolour.
In the same speech, Bhagwat said that the RSS respects the national flag, and that bhagwa is a symbol of ageless tradition.
“Whenever history is quoted, the saffron flag has always been there. Even when it was to be decided what should be the flag of Independent India, the flag committee, in its report, recommended that the well-known and respected bhagwa dhwaj should be the national flag,” Bhagwat had said.
He also said in 2018 that parts of Bunch of Thoughts are not valid anymore.
Ban on RSS lifted after ‘explicit acceptance’ of flag
India’s first home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, while lifting the ban on the RSS in 1948-49, said the organisation’s “explicit acceptance” of the national flag was one of the conditions for the decision.
According to the Collected Works of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Volume 8, edited by P.N. Chopra and Prabha Chopra, Patel told Congressmen that he had conveyed to Golwalkar that the national flag must be universally accepted, and if anyone thought of having an alternative to it, there must be a fight.
The book also mentioned that the then home secretary H.V.R. Iyengar had written to Golwalkar in May 1949, saying, “An explicit acceptance of the national flag (with the bhagwa dhwaj as the organisational flag of the Sangh) would be necessary for satisfying the country and there are no reservations with regard to allegiance to the State.”
While the RSS claims to have hoisted the Tricolour at its headquarters every year since 2002, controversial remarks regarding the national flag keep coming from its stable.
In 2016, senior RSS leader Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi said it was not wrong to consider the saffron flag as the national flag. The Tricolour and the national anthem ‘Jana Gana Mana’, he added, came later.
The RSS subsequently issued a clarification, saying that Joshi did not demand any change in the national flag and anthem.
‘RSS protested but respected the Tricolour’
Sangit Ragi, professor of political science in Delhi University, said the RSS did register its protest against the Tricolour on the grounds that it did not reflect the Indian ethos, but added that it is not correct that they did not give the flag the respect it deserved.
“It is true that the RSS wanted the bhagwa flag to be the national flag as it was closer to Indian ethos. Saffron has been a spiritual and cultural representation of our civilisation. But did the RSS not respect the Tricolour? This is not correct,” he said.
“There is another popular misconception that the RSS did not deliberately hoist the national flag for 52 years after 1950, when India was transformed into a republic. There were strict rules as to where the flag can be hoisted and how it should be taken down,” he added. “In all shakhas, the Tricolour has been hoisted on 26 January and 15 August since we achieved Independence.”
Author Ratan Sharda, who has written several books on the RSS, said there were debates and discussions when the new flag was being chosen by the flag committee.
“Criticism does not mean you hate something. Even when the Constitution was being created, many questions and debates arose because our country’s atmosphere has been open to questioning and discussions. There were several swayamsevaks who laid down their lives for the Tricolour. Then, where does the question of not accepting it as the national flag arise?” he added.
“The RSS swayamsevaks fought to free Dadra and Nagar Haveli from the Portuguese and unfurled the Tricolour. There are several such instances in history. RSS member Rajabhau Mahakal died holding the Tricolour in the Goa liberation struggle,” he said.
“The year 1942 saw many swayamsevaks lose their lives holding the Tricolour flag in Chimur, Patna, and Sindh. Hundreds died saving Hindu Sikhs during Partition and in Jammu & Kashmir.”
In every RSS office, there is a photo of Bharat Mata riding a lion and carrying a bhagwa flag, with “Akhand Bharat” in the backdrop. The bhagwa dhwaj, or the saffron flag, holds greater significance for the organisation, which considers it as “guru (spiritual teacher)”.
Explaining the significance of the bhagwa dhwaj, the RSS wrote in a 2016 social media post, “Bhagwa dhwaj is not the Sangh’s own creation. Nor does the Sangh have any intention of creating a separate flag. Sangh has only accepted the bhagwa dhwaj, which, for thousands of years, has been the flag of our Rashtra Dharma. Bhagwa dhwaj has a long history and tradition and it is an embodiment of Hindu culture.”
Ragi said the saffron flag had been a “part of the glorious history of Sanatan Dharma”.
“Arjuna’s chariot in Mahabharata had the saffron flag. Lord Rama and Hanuman also carried the saffron flag. Thus, it is closer to the ethos of our cultural and spiritual heritage,” he added.
The RSS celebrates six festivals, out of which ‘Guru Poornima’ is specially celebrated to pay respects to the saffron flag. The swayamsevaks also offer ‘Guru Dakshina’ in the form of money and other offerings to the flag. These are used by the RSS for organisational expenses.
We support ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’, says RSS leader
Reacting to the display picture controversy, senior RSS leader and prachar pramukh Sunil Ambekar said such things should not be politicised.
The RSS has already extended its support to ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ and ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ programmes, Ambekar said.
In July, he added, the Sangh had appealed for full support and participation of the people and swayamsevaks in the programmes to be organised by the government, private bodies, and Sangh-related organisations.
On why certain leaders and the organisation’s official handle had not changed the display picture, Ambekar said “we don’t take any decision under anyone’s pressure”.
“If the display picture of our official Twitter handle has to be changed, it will be, in due course of time,” he added.
(Edited by Siddarth Muralidharan)