• Abhilasha Iyer

The flag and us: A story of royalty, wars and modern-day identities

By Anitta Jose

The earliest memory of Independence Day celebration for most of us would be the flag hoisting in school. If you were in scouts, NCC, or even the band, you’d have marched proudly before the hoisting. From the beginning of the century, some variation of the present Indian flag has been used to signify the idea of an independent India.

But what is a flag?

Literally speaking, a flag is merely a piece of cloth, tied on one side to a pole. It usually contains the insignia of a country, community, organisation, political party, sports team etc.

But, in reality, a flag is lot more than that, isn’t it? It is the symbol of the collective identity of a group. The Indian flag stands as a metaphor for what it means to be Indian; just like every other flag represents the people of the community. Where did this start? Why was the flag invented? What purpose does it serve now? Let’s see.

History of the flag

The earliest known use of the flag was in ancient China where it was used to denote royalty. Story goes that the founder of the Zhou dynasty in China had a white flag carried before him; it was treated with such respect that even touching the flag bearer was decreed a crime!

Soon enough, the flag became common in battle fields. Armies began using the flag to identify their own soldiers, in the battlefield. It came to represent patriotism, a collective purpose, waging war and eventually conquest. So much so that in the popular boy scout game Capture the Flag, the first one to seize the opposite team’s flag becomes the winner. Hoisting the victor’s flag also is seen as capturing of a territory: The picture showing the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima is an iconic symbol of America’s victory in the second world war.

Flags of global institutions such as the United Nations and the Red Cross have become synonymous with the presence of medical or humanitarian assistance in areas of conflicts. The flag of Bikini Atoll islands, relates the story of their misfortune — three black stars placed on the top right, away from their white counterparts, represent three islands that were vapourised by the United States’ nuclear detonation tests from 1946 onwards. The design mirrors the relocation of the island’s people to two other islands which can also be seen as black stars on the bottom right.

Just as citizens are patriotic in war as well as peacetime, flags symbolise group identities much beyond their role in war. Do you remember seeing the historic photograph of the astronaut Buzz Aldrin saluting the American flag after stepping on the moon for the first time?

It announced that outer space was no more out of our reach. The flag was a statement: that human curiosity, scientific innovation and collective effort could lead us to achieve things that are thought to be impossible. In this case, the flag was used to indicate pride in being American.

A flag is flown at half-mast when a person of great social or national importance dies, which is to acknowledge their place in the country’s history and pay respects. What an honour!

But a flag can represent a lot more identities than that. Multicoloured prayer flags are associated with Buddhism. There exists a Christian flag used by several Church traditions, across the globe. The LGBTQ+ community’s rainbow flag not only brings together a community, wearing the flag displays support and solidarity. The flag is a powerful symbol of group identity that schools, universities, sports clubs and big organisations to have their own flag.

A small piece of cloth, most often in a standard size, varied only in colours and prints, have come to hold in itself a wide range of meanings and sentiments. This Independence Day take some time to explore the intricacies of the flag, the multiple identities it represents, and the role these identities play in the performance of our community membership / citizenship. And to discuss it with your children, who will be the citizens of the future!

We believe that citizenship is an important 21st century skill necessary for collaboration, persuasion and nation-building. We want to be the flagbearers of 21st century skills among school students all over India, with QShala.

What do you want to be flagbearer of? Tell us now!