A young boy, very far from home, was fighting an alien war, on foreign land as part of an imperialist army. His name was Pingali Venkaiah. He was a soldier in the British Indian Army fighting for the British in the Anglo Boer war in South Africa, at the end of the 19th century. Around the same time, another young man in South Africa was starting his experiments with what was to become a lifelong crusade for truth, justice and freedom. His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
When the Boer War broke out in 1899, while Gandhi’s sympathies were with the indigenous Boers, but as a member of the British crown colony of Natal he felt that he needed to contribute to the British efforts. Gandhi set up an Ambulance Corps of 1100 volunteers, out of whom 300 were free Indians and the rest indentured labourers. Gandhi’s task was to instil in this motley group a spirit of service to those they regarded as their oppressors. Gandhi’s corps placed a significant role as stretcher bearers, carrying the wounded out from the battlefield.
At some time during this period, the 19-year-old Pingali met Gandhi, who had already become known for his mission for justice. He must have seen Gandhi as described by the Pretoria News: Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful and confident in his conversation and had a kindly eye. Pingali was deeply impressed and influenced, and a bond was formed between the two; a bond that would endure half a century.
Inspired by Gandhi, and the strong urge for freedom from colonial rule, Pingali, on his return from Africa, became a member of the secret revolutionary units fighting against the British Raj and spent time in Eluru. At the same time he began to seriously pursue his interest in agriculture, especially the farming of cotton. He spent a lot of time in experimenting with cotton cultivation. He imported Cambodian variety of cotton seeds from America and crossed them with Indian seeds to create an indigenous hybrid variety of cotton seeds. He acquired a piece of land in the nearby Chellapalli village and planted these seeds. The fine variety of cotton that grew from these, came to the notice of the local British officers during an agricultural exhibition in 1909. The Royal Agricultural Society of London offered him an honorary membership. He became locally famous as ‘Patti (cotton) Venkaiah’.
Along with agriculture Pingali continued to pursue his academic interests, especially in languages. This took him to Lahore to study Sanskrit, Urdu and Japanese in the Anglo Vedic School. He became fluent in all the languages, and in 1913, gave a full length speech in Japanese that earned him the moniker of ‘Japan Venkaiah’.
Pingali joined the railway services as a guard and was posted to Bangalore and Bellary. During those years, Madras was reeling under the plague epidemic. Seeing the plight of those suffering, he quit his job and went there to work for a short time as an inspector of the Plague Disease Eradication Organization.
Pingali continued his commitment to the freedom movement. He attended the sessions of the Indian National Congress. At the Calcutta session in 1906, Pingali’s patriotic sentiments were deeply hurt at seeing the English Union Jack being hoisted. He returned from the session with a new passion—a national flag for India. He started by researching the flags of different countries, even while pursuing his numerous other interests and occupations. In 1916 he published a book titled A National Flag for India which included thirty designs for the flag. From 1916 to 1921, at every session of the Indian National Congress, Pingali raised the issue of the need for a national flag. Gandhi liked the concept, but his vision was that of a flag that would “stir the nation to its depth”, a flag that “represents and reconciles all religions”.
It was in 1921, at the meeting of the Congress at Vijaywada that Pingali showed Gandhi his book with designs of the flags. Gandhi appreciated Pingali’s hard work and persistence. In an article in Young India titled Our National Flag he wrote: “We should be prepared to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our National Flag. Pingali Venkaiah who is working in Andhra National College Machilipatnam, has published a book, describing the flags of the countries and has designed many models for our own National Flag. I appreciate his hard struggle during the sessions of Indian National Congress for the approval of Indian National Flag. When I visited Vijaywada, I asked Mr Venkaiah to prepare a two coloured flag with red and green colours along with a Chakra symbol and obtained it within three hours from him. Later we had decided to include the white colour, also the colour that reminds of truth and non violence”.
Pingali worked overnight to make a fresh design that would reflect Gandhiji’s vision. The flag, as Pingali Venkaiah designed it, became the blueprint for what would, eventually, become the national tricolour of India. And earned its creator another title: ‘Jhanda Venkaiah’ or Flag Venkaiah.
In 1931, the flag was officially adopted by the Indian National Congress with some changes in design. Pingali Venkaiah’s nationalist mission was fulfilled, but he continued to be a part of Gandhiji’s mission for Swaraj until India gained her Independence on 15 August 1947, when India’s own flag was proudly hoisted, as the Union Jack came down.
After 1947, Pingali Vekaiah withdrew from active politics and settled down in Nellore. He had always had a keen interest in geology, and a sound knowledge of the precious and semi-precious stones in that region. He now seriously embarked on yet another area of study—gemology. He soon became an expert in the field, writing research articles, advising the Government of India and conducting field trips. Thereby adding another title to his repertoire—‘Diamond Venkaiah’.
A humble unassuming man of amazing versatile talents, Pingali Venkaiah lived his life following his inspiration Gandhiji’s motto of simple living, high thinking. So much so that his last days were spent in utter penury. While the young Republic proudly raised its tricolour as the symbol of its growing stature and strength, the man who had dreamed and designed this very symbol was increasingly forgotten.
But for Pingali Venkaiah this flag signified the highest fulfilment of his life. As he wrote in his will, his final wish was that his body be covered with the tricolour before he was put on the pyre, and then be removed and hung on a tree branch. Pingali Venkaiah died on 4 July 1963, and his wish was fulfilled.
This month all Indians have cheered as our tricolour was raised high by our young Olympians. This week we will hold our heads high as we salute our Nation. A good time to also remember the generation of Indians that fought and sacrificed so much to give us these proud moments. And to recall Gandhiji’s words: The national flag is the symbol of non-violence and national unity to be brought about by means strictly truthful and non-violent.