The status of India under British rule is not easily described. The country was not ruled in the manner of a crown colony, with a governor appointed by the Colonial Office and a mainly British civil service. Because of the haphazard manner in which Britain had acquired control of India, its political arrangements were complex. Properly speaking the term British India only applied to those territories under direct British administration: about three-fifths of the country. The remainder consisted of some 560 princely states. These were nominally independent but their rulers had by treaty acknowledged the suzerainty of the British Crown and they were subject to British supervision. About 120 of these states were large or medium-sized; the rest ranged from small to tiny. The rulers of the 65 largest states were entitled to ceremonial gun salutes, the number depending on their size and status. Thus Hyderabad was classed as a 21-gun state, Bophal as a 19-gun state, Bahawalpur as a 17-gun state, etc.

In 1877 Queen Victoria had assumed the title Empress of India and her successors inherited this imperial title. The Crown's representative in India was the Viceroy and Governor-General. Under the former title he dealt with the princely states; under the latter one he governed British India.  These governing arrangements dated from the British government's assumption of direct rule in India, supplanting the East India Company, and they came to an end in 1947 when India achieved independence.



In those Indian territories directly administered by Britain the Union Flag or Union Jack (UJ)  was the proper national flag. For the Viceroy of India the UJ was charged with the Order of the Star of India under a royal crown. This flag was permitted to be used at sea for certain subordinate officials, e.g. governors of British Indian territories. For merchant vessels registered in British India (as opposed to the princely states)  the proper ensign was the British Red Ensign. A Red Ensign with the Order of the Star of India in the fly was used to represent British India in international organizations, leading some sources erroneously to identify it as the national flag of British India


The Union Flag


Civil Ensign


Flag of the Viceroy & Governor-General of India


Red Ensign of British India



Most of the princely states had state flags of which a variety are illustrated here. Usually the ruling prince had a personal standard; I have illustrated some of these. Many flags of the princely states are poorly documented and it is likely that in many cases variants in different proportions with different color shades, different arrangements of stripes etc. existed. States with coastlines were granted British Red Ensigns with a state badge in the fly for use by merchant vessels. This was done because the state flags were not internationally recognized and thus could not be used at sea to indicate nationality as required by international law. I have illustrated one such ensign.


Hyderabad State  •  State Flag


Hyderabad State  •  Nizam's Flag (?)

Sources disagree concerning the state flag of Hyderabad. The flag on the left, dating probably from the mid-nineteenth century is claimed by some sources to have been used up to 1948 when the state was absorbed into India. Others claim that it was replaced at some point by the flag on the right. That flag, however, bearing the coat of arms of the Nizam (ruling prince) may have been his personal flag. Variants with a golden yellow field and red inscriptions are known to have existed as well.


Gwalior State  •  State Flag


Gwalior State  •  Maharaja's Flag

The flags of many Hindu-majority states featured saffron, a color associated with Hinduism. A similar flag was used by the Baroda State.


Jammu & Kashmir  •  State Flag


Jammu & Kashmir  •  Maharaja's Flag

These flags were used between 1845 and 1936. Thereafter the state flag was rectangular with a white plough on a red field.

Bhopal State  •  State Flag


Bahawalpur State  •  State Flag

  Many Muslim-majority states had flags incorporating the Islamic crescent and star.

Sirohi State  •  State Flag


Tripura State  •  State Flag


Makran State  •  State Flag


Rajgarh State  •  State Flag


Janjira State  •  State Flag


Janjira State  •  Civil Ensign



The Home Rule Movement was sparked by India’s involvement in the Great War. Its goal was home rule within the British Empire via Dominion status, like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The flag of the movement reflected that goal. The Union Jack canton symbolized Dominion status; the nine stripes—five red, four green—represented Hindus and Muslims respectively. The seven white stars represented the Saptarishi (Ursa Major), constellation, which is sacred to Hindus, while the white crescent with star was a familiar symbol of Islam. The Home Rule Movement enjoyed a brief period of popularity among urban elites but in 1920 it was absorbed into the Indian National Congress.

The Charkha Flag was designed by Pingali Venkayyaa in 1921 and was approved by Mahatma Gandhi, who regarded it as the future national flag of independent India. Green and red represented the Muslims and Hindus of India respectively, while white represented the country’s other religious minorities. (Gandhi later substituted a more secular interpretation of the colors: white for purity, green for hope and red for sacrifice.) The charkha (spinning wheel) symbolized rural India and the ideals of peace and self-sufficiency. Though often seen during prewar independence demonstrations the Charkha Flag was never officially adopted by the Indian National Congress. 

The flag eventually adopted by the Indian National Congress in 1931, called the Swaraj Flag, was a horizontal tricolor with saffron, white and green stripes. These colors were said to represent courage and sacrifice, peace and truth, and faith and chivalry respectively. The chartkha in dark blue appeared on the central stripe. In 1947 Gandhi expected this to become the Indian national flag but others argued that the chartkha was too homey and humble an emblem for a great state. So over Gandhi’s objections it was replaced by the chakra (wheel) from the Lion Capital of Ashoka.


Flag of the Home Rule Movement  • 1917-20


Gandhi's Charka Flag  •  1921


The Swaraj Flag  •  1931


National Flag of India Since 1947