AFTER AN EXPERIMENT with an allegedly more ‘indigenous’ design, India’s traditional naval ensign has been restored, and so the Cross of St George once again snaps from the sterns of the Union’s warships. The old Indian Naval Ensign dated to 1950, when the Indian Union became a republic, three years after achieving dominion status as a wholly self-governing member of the British Commonwealth. The Royal Indian Navy had flown the unaltered White Ensign but with the changeover to a republic it was decided to simply exchange the Union jack in the canton with the national flag of India, retaining the red St. George’s cross on a white field.
Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all continued to use the unchanged White Ensign until they came up with their own designs in the 1960s, with the dominions down under retaining the Union Jack canton but ditching the red cross. South Africa, meanwhile, had changed their cross from red to green, and featured their own national flag in the canton of the naval ensign.
The enemies of tradition in India claimed the Naval Ensign was a “colonial hangover”, though they curiously neglected to attack the civil service, constitutional government, nor the famous Indian Railways, as “colonial hangovers”. In 2001, it was decided to replace the traditional ensign with a new design featuring an heraldically-stylized anchor and without the traditional red cross.
As well as changing the Naval Ensign, the rank flags of the Indian Navy (which also mirrored those of the Royal Navy) were also changed.
The old rank flags of the Indian Navy, 1950-2001: Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, and Commodore.
The second round of rank flags, 2001-2004: Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, and Commodore.
The new ensign was not adopted with unanimous approval. “National flags and naval ensigns change under special circumstances like changes in history of concerned nations,” wrote Vice Admiral Subimal Mukherjee (Ret’d). “Milestones in Indian naval development since independence … have all taken place under the current Ensign. It has been a cementing symbol. To dump it into the dustbin of naval history is, to my mind, a mistaken historical step.”
The attempt to attack the Cross of Saint George as a “colonial hangover” was also attacked by Vice Admiral Mukherjee as “jingoism”:
The new flags, had they remained, would have finally put an end to some of the slightly-lewd humour of the Indian Navy. As Admiral J. G. Nadkarni (Ret’d) explains:
When an Admiral relinquishes a particular appointment, his flag is hauled down on the last day and handed over to him as a memento. Thank God, this tradition is still alive. On completion of my command of the Western Fleet, my flag, the one with the two red balls, was presented to me and is encased in a glass and wooden box. It sits proudly on the mantelpiece. Let the new Navy have its new flags. I will always cherish my balls.”
The President’s Colour of the Indian Navy features the golden elephant from the presidential standard, and reflects the Sovereign’s Colour granted to the Royal Navy.
The blue flags were a complete flop, as sailors complained the blue and white blended too easily into the sea and sky and resulted in decreased visibility. Happily, the Indian Navy has dumped the blue flags for a third series of designs which are both a return to tradition and an aesthetic improvement on the past.
Third time’s the charm. The Indian Navy rank flags, 2004-present: Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral, and Commodore.
The current designs are basically the same as the 1950 designs, but the Ashoka chakra has been enlarged so that it no longer hides inconsequentially at the meeting point of the cross. The new Naval Ensign (seen at the top of the article, and below) is much the same as before, only the proportions have been set at 1:2, and an Ashoka lion on the cross.
Oh, and about that cross. While the traditional design has returned, according to the Indian Navy, it is not officially a Cross of Saint George, but rather “a single horizontal red line and a single vertical red line on a white background”. As you can see, political correctness is not a purely Western disease!