In 1947, when Australians were celebrating the 159th anniversary of ‘white settlement’, Britain’s Indian Empire came to an end. India gained independence from British colonial rule. Sir Raghunath Purushottam Paranjpye, the first High Commissioner of India to Australia, organised the hoisting of independent India’s flag in Australia just seven hours after India was officially recognised as a nation.
Sir Paranjpye was a well-known scholar actively involved in the political, educational, and literary life of India. He was the first Indian to be awarded the title ‘Senior Wrangler’ in 1899. This title was given to the topper among those getting First Class Honours in undergraduate Mathematics at Cambridge.
He worked as the head of the Mathematics Department at Fergusson College, Poona, then served as its Principal (1906-26), and then became Vice-Chancellor of Bombay and Lucknow Universities. He also founded the Indian Rationalist Association in Madras (1949) and remained its president for many years.
Sir Paranjype was appointed India’s High commissioner to Australia in 1944. Soon after taking up residence in Canberra, he strongly advocated for forming a direct trade and shipping line between Australia and India.
Sir Paranjpye told local media that such an initiative would “result in an enormous increase in trade between the two countries” that had both pre-colonial and colonial links.
These included stong connections as the trade between Aborigines and Makassar seamen, the rum of the Rum Rebellion or Great Rebellion of 1808 came from India, lawyer John Lang who represented the Indian Queen of Jhansi in Court against the British was the first Australian-born novelist, the Ghans and hawkers who connected the outback with towns and cities, were brought from Northern India, an Australian named James “Rajah” Inglis made a fortune through his “Billy Tea” brand, and the Mahalaxmi Racecourse in Mumbai was designed after Caulfield and Randwick Racecourses.
Owing to many connections, even today, some Australian towns and pastoral properties carry Indian names reflecting a deep but sometimes fractured connection between colonial India and white Australia.
The Australian settler colonies – the white man’s club – and British India had a very different relationship to the British Empire. Given the maritime and trade links between Australia and India, this celebration to mark India’s independence in Canberra, Australia was a momentous occasion as it was for the first time that independent India’s tricolour was officially hoisted in a foreign land.
Independent India’s new flag – horizontal stripes of saffron, white, and green, with Ashok Chakra at the centre – arrived by air from India.
To mark this occasion, Sir Ragunath Paranjpye was joined by 350 guests which included members of the Indian community in traditional dresses along with Australian federal ministers and official representatives of other countries.
After unfurling the Indian flag on the roof of the Prudential Building in Martin Place, Sir Paranjype explained the significance of the three colours to the gathered people:
“The saffron denoted courage and sacrifice, the white stood for purity and truth, and the green for devotion and chivalry. The blue wheel was the symbol of the law of duty.”
The magnitude of this occasion and its significance should not be underestimated as Indians took their destiny into their own hands.
Sir Paranjype further added that “India would always work for the liberty of all peoples of the world for peace among nations and the progress of humanity.”
Ben Chifley, the 16th Prime Minister of Australia, in a message to the Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, said “the Australian people rejoiced in India’s new status as a sovereign nation and warmly welcomed their fellow members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
In his message, Dr H. V. Evatt, Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, said:
“Australia would watch India’s development with friendship and sympathy.”
He also announced the appointment of Sir Iven Mackay as the first Australian High Commissioner to independent India with headquarters in New Delhi.
After the flag hoisting ceremony, Sir Paranjype, Dr Evatt, and the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom (Mr Williams) drank a toast to “The New India.”
(Originally published on 15th August 2022).