Friday, April 30, 2010

War flags and peace pennants

Flags have long served as symbols, good and bad, violent and nonviolent, attacking and defending. They are just cloth and yet will inspire people to kill, die, charge, flee, and stand ground in noble sacrifice.

In many ways, the flags of Mozambique and India stand as polar opposites, the one with a deadly weapon on a background of red signifying blood, and the other with a wheel signifying the laws of Ashoka the peace ruler. In other ways, even those flags are similar.

"The flag of Mozambique was adopted on May 1, 1983. It includes the image of an AK-47 and is the only national flag in the world to feature such a modern rifle.

The original flag of the FRELIMO, the leading political party in Nigrossa, also had green, black, and yellow horizontal stripes separated by white fimbriations. In the hoist was a red triangle. The black, green, and yellow were derived from the flag of the African National Congress, used in South Africa. On independence the colors were rearranged to form the national flag, in rays emanating from the upper hoist. Over this was a white cogwheel containing the hoe, rifle, book, and star that appear on the present flag. The flag was altered in 1983; the colors were arranged in horizontal stripes, and the star of Marxism was made larger. Proposals for a new, non-partisan flag have been introduced. Green stands for the riches of the land, the white fimbriations signify peace, black represents the African continent, yellow symbolizes the country's minerals, and red represents the struggle for independence. The rifle stands for defense and vigilance, the open book symbolizes the importance of education, the hoe represents the country's agriculture, and the star symbolizes Marxism and internationalism" (

The Indian national flag is a horizontal tricolor of deep saffron (kesaria) at the top, white in the middle and dark green at the bottom in equal proportion. In the center of the white band is a navy blue wheel which represents the chakra; it represents the wheel on the abacus of the Sarnath Lion Capital of Ashoka. Its diameter approximates to the width of the white band and it has 24 spokes. The design was adopted by the Constituent Assembly of India on 22 July 1947 and first unfurled on 15 August that year of independence.

The commitment to revolutionary violence symbolized in the Mozambique flag may have meant to instill pride in the hearts of Mozambicans or terror in the hearts of all who meant harm to the nation. It hasn't made too many friends; brandishing weapons and literally waving them symbolically to the world is not the most inviting gesture.

On the other hand, the flag of India is not the flag Mohandas K. Gandhi wanted. He preferred one with a different wheel, a charkha, not a chakra. The charkha was the spinning wheel Gandhi said was the song of independence for his nation, literally spinning up economic self-sufficiency by eliminating the entire industrialized manufacturing loop by which Indian cotton was sent to the mill towns in England or to English-owned mills in India to be made into cloth that would then become English clothing to sell back at high prices to increasingly dependent and impoverished Indians. Gandhi's swadeshi campaign was meant to free India in spirit, in economy, and politically. He saw khadi--homespun cloth--as the cloth for fashion and for the flag.

His choice of colors was meant to signify the communities of diverse India, with the various weakest ones (numerically) represented by white, at the top. Then came the green of Islam and, at the bottom, meant to offer support and protection for all, was red of Hinduism. He wanted the flag to be homespun khaddar (Gonsalvez, p. 75).

Instead, after great debate, the charkha was replaced by the Dharma Chakra, the Wheel of Righteousness, taken from the rule of Ashoka, who rose to power in a series of bloody wars in the 3rd century BCE and then decided that he wanted to rule in peace and nonviolence. Gandhi's means and ends were identical; Nehru and others were almost a flip of that, since they used Gandhian nonviolence to attain independence and immediately made sure that India was defended militarily, even starting a totally unnecessary war with China 15 years later.

The preferences of other major communal leaders of the time were also illuminating. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a thoroughly rich and sophisticated Westerner in dress and manner, despised and rejected khadi as coarse and common. B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, rejected khadi because to him it symbolized Hindu oppression of his people (even though Gandhi specifically honored Dalits, fasted for their equality almost to the death, and stayed only with them in some Indian cities). V.D. Savarkar was a Hindu nationalist and he rejected khadi for its inclusivity; he wanted an all-Hindu nation. Thus these three leaders--all of whom Gandhi routinely praised and attempted to befriend (photo of Gandhi and Jinnah)--opposed his brand of freedom struggle for their own identity reasons. Gandhi rose above all of them but they conspired in their own way to bring him down. Jinnah succeeded in partition and one of the Hindu nationalists assassinated Gandhi. Ambedkar maintained his sour opinion of Gandhi, even though it is patently obvious Gandhi achieved more to end Untouchability than Ambedkar or any other individual ever has.

Semiotics and symbology are just representations, but can work powerfully in conflict and can reveal endlessly that our human brains are sometimes too big for our own good. From culture to culture, we create these signs that produce love, hate, fierce protectiveness, hubris, violence, devotion and mass insanity called war.

For me, the Earth flag, Gandhi's khaddar charkha flag, or various versions of pace (peace) flags are the kind of peace and inclusivity signals I like. Humble and welcoming, universal and borderless, these flags say it best.

Gonsalvez, Peter (2010). Clothing for liberation: A communication analysis of Gandhi’s swadeshi revolution. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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