INDIA’S FIRST FLAG HOISTING CEREMONY

When India became independent, the National Flag was hoisted for the first time at 6 p.m. on 15 August 1947, in the open lawns of Princes Park near India Gate. The ceremony was organised under the aegis of Headquarter Delhi Area, commanded by Major General Maharaj Shri Rajindra Sinhji, DSO, who also commanded the parade at the flag hoisting.

The parade had six contingents, four from the Army and one each from the Navy and Air Force. The Army contingents were provided by 1 Sikh and my father, Colonel Harwant Singh, MC, (then a Major), being the senior most officer present in 1 Sikh at the time, was privileged to lead the six contingents and was also the Deputy Parade Commander. The contingents were formed in two hollow squares; the inner square comprised three rifle companies of 1 Sikh and the outer square had the contingents of the Navy, the Air Force and the fourth rifle company of 1 Sikh. It was a pleasant sunny August day and the flag hoisting was scheduled for 6 p.m.. A huge crowd had turned up for this historic event and there was an air of festivity and jubilation all around. As per the ceremonial procedure, the parade commander was to call the parade to attention once the Governor General of the newly created Dominion of India, Admiral Lord Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, accompanied by the Prime Minister Shri Jawahar Lal Nehru arrived at the dais. The parade would then ‘present arms’ followed by the Prime Minister unfurling the National Flag along with a 31 gun salute by an artillery battery. This would be followed by the Prime Minister’s address, after which the contingents would ‘March Past’ the saluting dais and then get back to their hollow square formation.

The administrative arrangements for the parade and for the rehearsals had been made by 1 Sikh, which had also catered for seating 15,000 people on either side of the saluting dais. Pipe barricades had been erected as large crowds were expected. The crowd was jubilant when at 1715h, the marching contingents, commanded by Major Harwant Singh entered the ground. Marching to the beat of the brass band and the unit ‘pipe and drums’, the contingent took its place, the Sikhs looking colourful in their red turbans with steel Chakkars, white spats and black web belts. An unbelievable air of festivity permeated from every nook and corner of the ground and expectancy was writ large on the face of the lakhs of people who had gathered to witness the making of history.

At the scheduled time, Major General Rajindra Sinhji, arrived at the dais. Major Harwant Singh brought the contingents to attention, gave the ‘General Salute’, and then handed over the parade to the General. At this point the crowds became excited as many people in the rear, who could not see what was happening, thought that the Flag had been unfurled. The cheering crowds then surged forward, jumping over the barricades and filled the hollow square.

The swirl of happy humanity was impossible to control and under such circumstances, Prime Minister Nehru arrived with Lord Mountbatten and reached the saluting dais. The parade commander gave the National Salute and India’s Prime Minister unfurled the Flag to the accompaniment of the National Anthem, the 31 gun salute and to the thunderous applause of the milling crowds. History had been created but the march past obviously could not be carried out as crowds thronged every inch of the area. The Prime Minister and Lord Mountbatten, after mingling for some time with the crowds swirling around them, were then escorted to the waiting horsed carriage. Indeed, it was a momentous occasion for all.

Next day, 16 August 1947, the National Flag was hoisted for the first time over the Red Fort by the Prime Minister, Shri Jawahar Lal Nehru. Unlike the present practice of holding the ‘Flag Hosting’ ceremony at the ramparts of the Red Fort in front of Kashmiri Gate, the first National Flag on 16 August was hoisted atop the Kahimiri Gate on a given signal by the Prime Minister from the ramparts of the fort.

In the evening of 14 August, the ‘Union Jack’ was ceremoniously lowered with the sounding of ‘Retreat’ by buglers under arrangements of Delhi and East Punjab Area, then under Brigadier AWD Vaughan, DSO, MC. A detailed procedure for this momentous occasion was planned. The Prime Minister, after entering the Red Fort from the Lahori Gate side was to inspect an ‘Inter Services Guard of Honour’ commanded by Captain Balwant Singh of 1 Sikh in an open space close to the Kashmiri Gate. After inspecting the ‘Guard of Honour’ the Prime Minister was to walk up the ramparts of the Fort in front of the Kashmiri Gate and on a given signal, he was to press an electric bell located close to the base of the flag mast on the gate. On hearing the bell, an officer standing below the flag mast was to hoist the National Flag. Immediately after that, some fighter aircraft and Dakotas of the Royal Indian Air Force were to do a ‘Fly Past’ with Dakotas showering flower petals. To coordinate the ‘Fly Past,’ an Air Contact Team of the RIAF was located in the Southern dome(large Chhatri) atop the Kashmiri gate. In the Northern dome of the Kashmiri gate, an Army observation team under Major Harwant Singh, MC was located and given the task to keep in visual touch with the officer detailed for hoisting the flag and the Prime Minister at the ramparts of the Red Fort with a pair of binoculars.

An electric bell at the base of the flag staff, with a switch at the lecture stand at the rampart from where the Prime Minister had to address the Nation were installed. In case any thing went wrong with the electric bell, then Major Harwant Singh had to give a signal to the officer at the base of the flag staff, who was then to hoist the flag. However, there was no need to put the second ‘Stand By’ alternative plan into practice as the bell did ring loud and clear and the flag was hoisted as planned. As an ‘Honour Guard’ or escort for the National Flag atop the Kashmiri gate, seven selected officers from various units in Delhi and from the Royal Indian Air Force and Royal Indian Navy stood guard under seven small arches on the top of Kashmiri gate, nearly 60 feet from the ground level. The officers, dressed in ceremonial, had to stand to ‘Attention’ for nearly an hour. It was a dangerous perch and to avoid any mishap, pipe railings were provided on either side of the small arches. 1 Sikh was represented by a very tall Sikh officer — Lieut. Trilochan Singh who stood in the middle arch and was clearly visible with his red turban and white spats, being the tallest of the lot.

The flag hoisting ceremony went according to plan and there was a thunderous applause from over a million strong crowd that had assembled in front of the Red Fort to witness the historic spectacle. Immediately thereafter, the RIAF made a ‘Fly Past’ followed by a few Dakotas showering flower petals over the crowds. After that, the Prime Minister addressed the Nation. The historic ceremony was a wonderful spectacle as it was after many centuries of foreign rule that the Indian Nation was able to hoist its own flag on the historic Red Fort. Like 15th August, 16th August was also a clear sunny day and the National Flag fluttered proudly and beautifully with the gentle August breeze. Performance of the ‘Inter Services Guard of Honour’ under Captain Balwant Singh and other arrangements made by 1 SIKH were highly praised by the higher military and civil administration.

Col Devinder Singh Sidhu, a third generation officer was commissioned in the Bengal Sappers on 31 March 1972. He commanded an Engineer Bridge Regiment and retired in Oct 2005.

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