September 27, 2022

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the new ensign for the Indian Navy concurrent to commissioning India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS ‘Vikrant’ at Cochin Shipyard Limited on September 2. A naval ensign is a maritime flag used by naval ships of a country to denote their nationality. It can be the same or different from the nation’s state emblem or ensign. The new naval ensign has replaced the earlier one that carried the Saint George’s Cross (red cross on white background) with the Tricolour in the top left corner of the flag.

The Saint George’s Cross is named after a Christian-warrior Saint who was a crusader during the Third Crusade. This is not the first time that the Indian Navy’s ensign has been changed since Independence. After Independence, on August 15, 1947, the Indian Navy continued with the earlier ensign but in 1950 when India became a Republic, the Tricolour replaced the Union Jack in top left corner of the ensign. In 2001, the Saint George’s Cross was replaced with the naval crest in the middle of the white flag while the Tricolour retained its place. But the next change came in 2004 with the Saint George’s Cross brought back in the naval ensign along with the state emblem derived from the Lion capital of Ashoka in the middle. Another change came in 2014, with the words ‘Satyamev Jayate’ included on the flag below the Ashoka emblem in Devanagri script.

The new ensign has come after calls from Prime Minister Modi to break from the “colonial past” and the need to “go back to our roots”. With respect to the naval ensign ‘breaking from the past’, this was done in 2001, when the Saint George’s Cross was replaced with the naval crest. Why the Saint George’s Cross was brought back in 2004 remains a mystery though the reasoning reportedly was that the naval crest was not conspicuous being the same colour as the sky – which is not very convincing considering that the new naval ensign unveiled on September 2, also has the naval crest. One interpretation is of political ping-pong; Saint George’s Cross removed in 2001 under National Democratic Alliance (NDA), reinstated by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2004 and removed in 2022 by NDA government.    

As to Modi’s call for the need to go back to our roots, it is said the inspiration for the new naval ensign has been drawn from the royal seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji, since Shivaji was the “first Indian to cultivate the Navy”. After Vasco da Gama landed in India in 1498, Shivaji realised the importance of navy when the Portuguese began monopolising and controlling trade on the western coast of India 1505 onwards. Keel of the first Maratha naval vessel was laid in 1654 near a creek in Kalyan.

By 1659, the Maratha Navy consisted of 20 ships. Interestingly, Rui Leitão Viegas, Portuguese naval officer was hired as fleet commander of the Maratha Navy. Under Shivaji and later Sambhaji, the Marathas fought the Portuguese and Mughals. Shivaji annexed the island of Khanderi 18 km off the entrance to Mumbai and an expedition to Karwar (now Karnataka) was launched.

Under Sambhaji the Maratha Navy fought many battles in the period 1680-1689. Sambhaji also wanted to capture Janjira Fort to dominate trade in the Arabian Sea. The Maratha Navy blockaded Janjira from three sides but Janjira Fort could not be captured. In 1687, the Maratha Navy raided Bharuch, an important trading centre in Gujarat. Sambhaji purchased Elephanta Island to check the influence of the British near Mumbai and inflicted defeat on the Portuguese in his Goa campaign of 1683.

Though used against the Portuguese, Moghuls and the British, Maratha Navy was primarily a coastal “green water” navy, not an ocean-going or “blue water” navy. Their ships were dependent on land/sea breeze. The Maratha did not build ships large enough to engage the British out at sea far from the coastal waters.

Had the advisors to Prime Minister Modi dug deeper into our roots, they would have discovered that Shivaji Maharaj was certainly not the “first Indian to cultivate the Navy”. Much before Shivaji and the Maratha Navy appeared on the scene, the Chola Dynasty spanning an imperial period from 848 CE to 1070 CE had built the Chola Navy; making the Chola Empire a military, economic and cultural power in South and South East Asia.

The Cholas had invaded Sri Vijaya (now Indonesia), excelled in foreign trade and maritime activity, extending their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia. The Tang Dynasty of China, the Sri Vijaya Empire in the Malayan archipelago under the Sailendras and the Abbsaid Caliphate at Baghdad were the main trading partners of the Cholas.

The Chola campaigns involving the Chola Navy include:  skirmishes with Pallva Navy (903-908); invasion of Ceylon (907); first expedition to Sri Vijaya (1027-1029); second expedition of Sri Vijaya (1031-1034); sea battle of Kalinga Campaign (1081-1083), and; destruction of Bali fleet (1148).

Together with the invasion of Ceylon and taking over northern Sri Lanka, the Cholas also captured islands of Maldives and the Malabar Coast; since these were essential to control sea trade with Southeast Asia, Arabia and eastern Africa. The Cholas also established missions in China and other countries. Later, Cholas also fought the Wars of Pandya Succession in 1167 and 1172.

For the new ensign of the Indian Navy, the Chola Navy would have been an added source of inspiration, if not the primary one since Cholas were the first Indians to invest in a Navy. This may have been ignored because of the political focus on Maharashtra. Another reason could be the overseas campaigns by Cholas do not match up with our official line that “we have never occupied any one’s territory, but we also not going to give our territory to anyone,” as Meenakshi Lekhi, MoS, MEA, said at the Teej event at Nepal’s Embassy. The Nepalese would be amused to hear Lekhi though they too are victims of China’s salami slicing.

We take pride in the conquests of Ashoka the Great, the Maurya Empire having the Hindukush Mountains as its western borders, the conquests of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Hari Singh Nalwa, and Zorawar Singh’s expedition into Tibet bringing back a captured Chinese standard. So why should we not be proud of the overseas conquests of the Cholas?

Ironically in India, everything is viewed through a political prism. That is why we refuse to rename India as Hindustan or Bharat, hiding behind the preamble of the Constitution which says “India that is Bharat…” If we are so focused on “breaking from the colonial past”, what can be the bigger colonial past than the name “India”? But the politicians fear changing the nation’s name would cost them votes – isn’t it?

Similarly, every political party claims BR Ambedkar but doesn’t abide by Ambedkar’s dictum that reservations should have ceased 10 years from founding of the Republic. Yet, political propaganda continues unabated. However, MiLords know what politicians actually want – that is why the Supreme Court has refused to entertain a plea seeking adoption of a uniform judicial code across India.

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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