To Whom Does It Belong?: Members of the Constituent Assembly Discuss the National Flag

On 22 July 1947, in the Constituent Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru moved a resolution to assign a flag to independent India. Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
15 August, 2017

On 22 July 1947, the Constituent Assembly of India passed a resolution to assign a national flag to independent India. The resolution was moved by Jawaharlal Nehru, in the form of rousing and emotional speech. Nehru spoke of the decades-long struggle for freedom, and added that though an outcome would soon be realised in the form of Independence, it had not yet concluded. “There will be no complete freedom as long as there is starvation, hunger, lack of clothing, lack of necessaries of life and lack of opportunity of growth for every single human being, man, woman and child in the country,” he said. “We aim at that.” In spite of these challenges, Nehru said, “It is in no spirit of down heartedness that I stand up … It is right and proper that at this moment we should adopt the symbols of this achievement.”

Nehru’s speech was met with cheers and applause in the house. The mood in the room was joyous—member after member arose to speak in favour of the flag, of its design, and of its adoption. Amid this celebration, however, some somber points were made: constituent-assembly members from various communities expressed what the flag meant to them, and how it underscored what they felt was the spirit of the nation. While S Radhakrishnan, who later became the first vice president of India, said that the flag must encourage India to pursue social inclusion, Saiyid Mohammad Saadulla—the deputy leader of the Muslim League—spoke of how the symbols woven into the flag reiterated the place held by the Muslim community in India.

As part of “The Argumentative Indians,” The Caravan’s series of notable excerpts from the Constituent Assembly Debates, the following are edited extracts from the speeches delivered that day. In recent months, symbols such as the flag and the national anthem have become the subject of controversies, and have sparked discussionson whether each citizen retains the right to individually determine their significance. The debates provide insight on this subject. “Who shall live under that flag without thinking of the common India?” the poet and politician Sarojini Naidu asked the house. “Who shall limit its inheritance? To whom does it belong? It belongs to India. It belongs to an India.”

Seth Govind Das: Mr President, I have come here to support the resolution moved by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. … There is no touch of communalism in the three colours of the flag. Panditji has already told you this in the course of his speech. It is true that at a time when the colours were red, white and green there was a trace of communalism in the flag. But when we change these colours to saffron, white and green, we declared it in clear words that the three colours had no communal significance. At that time, we also made it clear as to what these colours signified. Those who have been maddened by communalism today should not take this flag to be a communal flag.

I want to tell those who say that the saffron colour represents Hindus, that it is wrong to say so. No doubt at one time it was the colour of the Hindus. During the regime of the Peshwas it was the colour of the Hindus. In their fights for freedom, Rajputs used saffron dress and saffron ensign. But if we go more remote into the past, we will have to accept that saffron was not the colour of these times. You may be knowing that in the times of Mahabharata there was no question of colour. The flag flying over the chariot of Arjun had the symbol of Hanuman. Karna’s flag had the symbol of the elephant. Therefore to describe any colour as the ancient colour of the Hindus is historically wrong. I say that it is natural that the flag under which we fought the battle of freedom during the last 27 years and have now achieved independence should be our national flag. … Human beings live in this country and not gods, and they have the three dispositions of satvaguna, rajoguna and tamoguna—goodness, passion and dullness. If such incidents occur, peace, righteousness and happiness of which this flag is the symbol, will disappear from this land.

As regards the green colour, there was a time when this was the colour of the flag of the war of Independence. I would remind you of the war of independence of 1857. At that time, the colour of our flag was green and under it we fought that battle. It was at that time not the colour of Muslims alone or of Hindus but of all those who fought the war of Independence. Therefore nothing is more painful than to be against any particular colour and that too at a time when the whole of India is becoming independent and this flag will be hoisted everywhere in the country. We have styled this flag as a world-conqueror and have spoken of its conquest of the world with love. We want to conquer the world with non-violence and love. This is its symbol. When we will have done that, we will have fulfilled our pledge.

VI Muniwamy Pillai: Sir, [Nehru] has explained to us the significance of this flag which is to be held and defended by the millions of the inhabitants that live in this great country. It is not to be the flag of the rich or the wealthy but it is to be the flag of the depressed, oppressed and submerged classes all over our country. … The Harijan classes and all those communities who are in the lowest rung of the ladder of society, feel that the constitution which is on the anvil of this supreme body is going of bring solace to the millions of the submerged classes. The principle of Buddha who exhibited practically his great sympathy for suffering human beings, I am sure, sir, will be practically carried out after accepting this great flag.

S Radhakrishnan: Mr President, I do not wish to say very much after the very eloquent way in which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru presented this flag and the resolution to you. The flag links up the past and the present. It is the legacy bequeathed to us by the architects of our liberty. Those who fought under this flag are mainly responsible for the arrival of this great day of Independence for India. Pandit Jawaharlal has pointed out to you that it is not a day of joy unmixed with sorrow. The Congress fought for unity and liberty. The unity has been compromised; liberty, too, has been compromised, unless we are able to face the tasks which now confront us with courage, strength and vision. …Times are hard. Everywhere we are consumed by fantasies. Our minds are haunted by myths. The world is full of misunderstandings, suspicions and distrusts. In these difficult days it depends on us under what banner we fight. Here we are putting in the very centre the white, the white of the sun’s rays. The white means the path of light. There is darkness even at noon as some people have urged, but it is necessary for us to dissipate these clouds of darkness and control our conduct by the ideal light, the light of truth, of transparent simplicity which is illustrated by the colour of white.

We cannot attain purity, we cannot gain our goal of truth, unless we walk in the path of virtue. The Ashoka’s wheel represents to us the wheel of the law, the wheel dharma. Truth, (satya), dharma (virtue)—these ought to be the controlling principles of all those who work under this flag. It also tells us that the dharma is something that is perpetually moving. If this country has suffered in the recent past, it is due to our resistance to change. There are ever so many institutions that are worked into our social fabric, like caste and untouchability. Unless these things are scrapped we cannot say that we either seek truth or practise virtue. This wheel … indicates to us that there is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. Our dharma is sanatan—eternal. Not in the sense that it is a fixed deposit but in the sense that it is perpetually changing. Its uninterrupted continuity is its sanatana character.

The red, the orange, the bhagwa colour represents the spirit of renunciation. It is said: sarve tyage rajadharmesu drsta—all forms of renunciation are to be embodied in raja dharma. Philosophers must be kings. Our leaders must be disinterested. They must be dedicated spirits. They must be people who are imbued with the spirit of renunciation which that saffron, colour has transmitted to us from the beginning of our history. That stands for the fact that the world belongs not to the wealthy, not to the prosperous but to the meek and the humble, the dedicated and the detached. That spirit of detachment, that spirit of renunciation, is represented by the orange or the saffron colour. If we are not imbued with that spirit of renunciation in these difficult days, we will again go under.

The green is there—our relation to the soil, our relation to the plant life here on which all other life depends. We must build our paradise here on this green earth. If we are to succeed in this enterprise, we must be guided by truth (white), practice virtue (wheel), adopt the method of self-control and renunciation (saffron). This flag tells us: “Be ever alert, be ever on the move, go forward, work for a free, flexible compassionate, decent, democratic, society in which Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists will all find a safe shelter.” Thank you.

(Loud cheers in the house)

Saiyid Mohammad Saadulla: Mr President, sir, my intervention in this debate was not at all necessary, in view of the very learned and able speech of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and speeches from other quarters. The reason for my standing before you is that I want to make perfectly clear our position. The Muslim members who are in this House in spite of the fact that you have extended to them “swagatam” on the very first day, are looked upon by some members with distrust and attempts were made to debar us from participating in this August Assembly unless we disclaim certain opinions we hold. I have seen in the press certain references that the Muslim members in this Constituent Assembly are unwanted, and some papers had gone to the length of saying that the Muslim members here will be fifth columnists and saboteurs of the Constitution. I am very glad that the resolution of Pandit Nehru gives us a chance of belying these aspersions and removing distrust by proclaiming from the housetops our allegiance to the union of India where by accident of residence and birth we happen to be. It the injunction of Islam, emphasised by instructions from League High Command and leaders, that wherever we be, we must be good and loyal to the government which functions there. Acting on the principle I salute the flag, which has been presented to the House by Pandit Nehru.

India is very well noted for her spiritual attainments. Everywhere it is admitted that India has got a great spiritual message to send out to the different countries of the world. The saffron, as is well known, is the colour of all those people who live the spiritual life not only among Hindus but also among Muslims. Therefore the saffron colour should remind us that we should keep ourselves on that high plane of renunciation, which has been the realm of our Sadhus and saints, Pirs and Pandits. I therefore welcome the inclusion of this colour in the flag.

White, both among Hindus and Muslims, is the emblem of purity. … The presence of the white portion in this Flag should remind everyone who takes it up that we must be pure not only in word but also in deed. Purity should be the motto of our life, individually as well as in connection with the state.

Lastly, sir, green reminds me of the fact that it was the emblem of the upsurge of India's freedom. Green was the emblem of the flag that was raised by [the emperor] Bahadur Shah [Zafar] in 1857. But it has more than a sentimental or symbolical value to us Muslims because green was the colour of the flag of the Muslims from the time of the great Prophet of Arabia thirteen centuries ago.

Although the charkha was the emblem of our self-help and of our approach to the common masses and was embodied in our activities by the message of the Mahatma, yet towards the later stage the ideal of charkha had been polluted, the instruction or inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi had been deviated from and those who wore the charkha which was the symbol of non-violence were most violent in their actions. The dharma chakra of Ashoka reminds us of the condition of the people at the time of that great Buddhist emperor of India. He ruled not for his personal aggrandisement but for the contentment, peace and prosperity of the people under his charge. This emblem now embodied in our national flag ought to remind every administrator and every citizen of the federation of India that we should forget the past and look to the future and try to carry on the tradition of that great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, and we should be reminded at all times that we are here not only for our material prosperity but also for our spiritual advancement. This chakra was a religious emblem and we cannot dissociate our social life from our religious environments.

Sir, with these few words not only on behalf of myself but also as deputy leader of the Muslim League Party and as an old inhabitant of the furthest and the smallest province of the Indian Union, Assam, I salute this flag as a symbol of India’s freedom.

HC Mookherjee: Mr President, ever since the Indian Christian community became conscious of the fact that it was fundamentally an Indian community, its great leaders in the past have always fully identified themselves with the Indian nationalism. I need only remind those, who do me the honour of listening to me, of the name of the late Kaka Baptist of Bombay, of the late KC Bannerjee of Bengal, of the late Bishop Chidambaram of the United Provinces and the late Dr SK Dutta of Punjab. These names are only a few out of the many I could quote to prove that we have all along identified ourselves fully with Indian nationalism. From one point of view we have been misunderstood. It has been held that because we profess Christianity—essentially an Asiatic religion—and because we have certain contacts with foreign missions, therefore the Indian Christian community has what is known as Christian mentality. It is not so and I stand here to say that it is an incorrect idea. It is a misconception and I want it to be clearly understood that today I on behalf of my community, am pledging our allegiance once more to the Flag.

Jaipal Singh: Mr President, as I listened to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, I thought no speech would be necessary, but since various groups in this house have severally tried to acknowledge their acceptance of and allegiance to the flag which we are going to adopt as the National flag of this country. I thought I would also say a few words on behalf of the 30 million Adivasis, the real owners of this country, the original sons of the soil, the most ancient aristocracy of India, who have been fighting for freedom for the last six thousand years. On behalf of these my people, I have great pleasure in acknowledging this flag as the flag of our country in future. Sir, most of the members of this house are inclined to think that flag hoisting is the privilege of the Aryan civilised. Sir, the Adivasis had been the first to hoist flags and to fight for their flags. Members who come from the so-called province of Bihar, will support me when I say that, year after year, in the melas,jatras and festivals in Chota Nagpur, whenever various tribes with their flags enter the arena, each tribe must come into jatra by a definite route by only one route and no other tribe may enter the mela by the same route. Each village has its own flag and that flag cannot be copied by any other tribe. If any one dared challenge that flag, sir, I can assure you that that particular tribe would shed its last drop of blood in defending the honour of that flag. Hereafter, there will be two flags—one flag which has been here for the past six thousand years, and the other will be this national flag which is the symbol of our freedom as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has put it. This national flag will give a new message to the Adivasis of India—that their struggle for freedom for the last six thousand years is at last over, that they will now be as free as any other in this country.

Govind Malaviya: … Sir, this flag for which great sacrifices have been made and about which there are many gathas [tales] of patriotism, heroism and sacrifices, has become the centre of our thoughts. Many members have given notices of various resolutions about this flag … I know every mover has his own individual and important reasons for moving his resolution. If their suggestions are not accepted here, it does not mean that we do not appreciate the thoughts of any particular individual or section. We do not entertain the idea that because some differences of opinion exist regarding this flag, anybody forfeits his claim to it. On the contrary, we hold that he has similar claims to it as we have.

There may be some ground for their complaint but it should not be forgotten that this flag has been the emblem of our highest hopes and noblest emotions for 27 years. … The struggle for independence started by the Congress was not on behalf of any particular community or section. Under this flag, the Congress and the Khilafat, the Hindus and the Muslims together infused the fire of enthusiasm in the people of this country; and the Sikh community has made countless sacrifices. Every community in India has shed its blood and has sacrificed its all. This flag does not belong to any particular community. It belongs to us all as a whole. …Every community can think of this flag as its own.

Sarojini Naidu: Mr President, the house knows that I had refused over and over again this morning to speak. I thought that the speech of Jawaharlal Nehru … was sufficient to express the aspirations, emotions and the ideals of this house. … But if I am speaking here today, it is not on behalf of any community, or any creed or any sex, though women members of this house are very insistent that a woman should speak. I think that the time has come in the onward march of the world-civilisation when there should be no longer any sex consciousness or sex separation in the service of the country. I therefore speak on behalf of that ancient reborn Mother with her undivided heart and indivisible spirit, whose love is equal for all her children, no matter what corner they come from in what temples or mosques they worship, what language they speak or what culture they profess.

On the day when peace was signed at Versailles after the last war, I happened to be in Paris. There was great rejoicing everywhere and flags of all nations decorated the Opera House. There came on the platform a famous actress with a beautiful voice, for whom the proceedings were interrupted while she wrapped round herself the flag of France. The entire audience rose as one man and sang with her the National Anthem of France—the Marseillaise. An Indian near me with tears in his eyes turned to me and said “When shall we have our own Flag?” “The time will soon come,” I answered, “when we shall have our own flag and our own anthem.”

I was asked to speak at a peace celebration in New York soon after the peace had been signed. Forty-four nations and their flags fluttering in the great hall in which the assembly met. I looked at the flags of all the nations and when I spoke I cried that though I did not see in that great assembly of free nations the flag of Free India, it would become the most historic flag of the world in the not distant future.

It was also a moment of anguish for me when a few months later 42 nations sent their women to an international conference in Berlin. There they were planning to have, one morning, a flag parade of the nations. India had no official flag. But at my suggestion some of the women Indian delegates tore strips from their saris sitting up till the small hours of the morning to make the tri-colour flag, so that our country should not be humiliated for the lack of a national banner.

But the worst anguish of all was only a few months ago, when on the inspiration of Jawaharlal Nehru, the nations of Asia met in Delhi and affirmed the unity of Asia. On the wall behind the platform there was the flag of every nation of Asia. Iran was there, China was there, Afghanistan was there, as also Siam [presently Thailand]. Big countries and little countries were all represented but we had exercised a self-denying ordinance, so that we might scrupulously keep or pledge that no party politics would be permitted at the conference. Can you not understand and share with me the anguish of that decision which excluded the Tricolour, the Congress flag, from the Asian Conference? But here today we retrieve that sorrow and that shame: we attain our own flag, the flag of free India. Today we justify, we vindicate and we salute this flag under which so many hundreds and thousands of us have fought and suffered. Men and women, old and young, princes and peasants, Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Zoroastrians, all of them have fought under this flag. When my friend Khaliquazzaman was speaking, I saw before me the great patriots, my friends and comrades of the Muslim community who had suffered under this flag. I thought of Mahomed Ali, of Shaukat Ali, of Ansari and of Ajmal Khan. I could mention the smallest community in India, the Parsi community, the community of that grand old man Dadabhai Naoroji, whose grand-daughters too fought side by side with the others, suffered imprisonment and made sacrifices for the freedom of India. I was asked by a man who was blind with prejudice: “How can you speak of this flag as the flag of India? India is divided.” I told him that this is merely a temporary geographical separation. There is no spirit of separation in the heart of India.

(Members say hear, hear)

Today I ask one and all to honour this flag. That wheel, what does it represent? It represents the dharma chakra of Ashoka the Magnificent, who sent his message of peace and brotherhood all over the world. Did he not anticipate the modern ideal of fellowship and brotherhood and cooperation? Does not that wheel stand as a symbol for every national interest and national activity? Does it not represent the chakra of my illustrations and beloved leader, Mahatma Gandhi and the wheel of time that marches and marches and marches without hesitation and without halt? Does it not represent the rays of the sun? Does it not represent eternity? Does it not represent the human mind? Who shall live under that flag without thinking of the common India? Who shall limit its functions? Who shall limit its inheritance? To whom does it belong? It belongs to India. It belongs to an India. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru told us that India has never been exclusive. I wish he had added “India welcomes all knowledge from friend and foe alike.” Did she not? Have not all the cultures of the world contributed to the ocean of her culture? Has Islam not brought to India the ideals of democratic brotherhood, the Zoroastrian his steadfast courage, who fled from Iran with a blazing log from their fire temple, whose flame has not perished these thousand years? Have not the Christians brought to us the lesson of service to the humblest of the land? Has not the immemorial Hindu creed taught us universal love of mankind and has it not taught us that we shall not judge merely by our own narrow standard but that we should judge by the universal standard of humanity?

Many of my friends have spoken of this flag with the poetry of their own hearts. I as a poet and as a woman, I am speaking prose to you when I say that we women stand for the unity of India. Remember under this flag there is no prince and there is no peasant, there is no rich and there is no poor. There is no privilege; there is only duty and risibility and sacrifice. Whether we be Hindus or Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs or Zorostrians and others, our mother India has one undivided heart and one indivisible spirit. Men and women of reborn India rise and salute this Flag! I bid you, rise and salute the Flag. (Loud cheers)

This is part of “The Argumentative Indians,” The Caravan’s series of excerpts from the Constituent Assembly Debates that reflect on subjects relevant to public discourse in the present day.