Honouring the national flag: Learning from the Constituent Assembly Debates

The flag should be a symbol of freedom, and most importantly freedom from fear.


TO mark the 75th year of India’s independence, the Union Government  initiated the ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’, a campaign meant to ‘encourage people to bring the Tiranga home and to hoist it’. The purpose of bringing the flag home is to build a ‘personal connection to the Tiranga’ and also an ‘embodiment of our connection to nation building’ as per the website of  the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ celebrations.

Most of the website provides technical information on the flag, without venturing into the territory of what the flag symbolizes. The only gesture to the history behind the flag is a section titled, ‘unsung flag martyrs’, which through its pen sketches shows that there were ordinary Indians from all parts of the country who defied the British to hoist the flag and paid the price with their lives. 

To take just one example, Nallavenkataraya, who was a resident of Mysore State, aged 34 attended a large public meeting in a garden at Vidhuraswatha village in Kolar, Mysore, held by the local Congressmen in defiance of the order which prohibited the hoisting of the National flag and holding of public gatherings. The gathering was first lathi-charged and then fired upon to disperse; Nallevenkataraya died in this police firing on April 25, 1938.

Other than this glimpse into the narratives of  blood and tears which is part of the history of the flag, the website is surprisingly silent on what is the ‘idea of India’ for which blood was shed.  Or put simply, what does the national flag symbolize?  

Also read: Patriotism isn’t determined by a gross physical act, the intention behind the act will be the true test: Madras HC

The debate

The Constituent Assembly Debates on  July 22, 1947 in which 24 members from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds spoke on the resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru on the National Flag, crystalizes the meaning of the flag for all Indians. The resolution itself in Nehru’s words was a ‘technical resolution’ with no ‘glow or warmth in the words’. It read: 

Resolved that the National Flag of India shall be horizontal tricolour of deep Saffron (Kesari), white and dark green in equal proportion. In the centre of the white band, there shall be a Wheel in navy blue to represent the Charkha. The design of the Wheel shall be that of the Wheel. (Chakra) which appears on the abacuse(sic) of the Sarnath Lion Capital of Asoka. The diameter of the Wheel shall approximate to the width of the white band. The ratio of the width to the length of the Flag shall ordinarily be 2:3.

In moving the resolution, Nehru narrates the ‘history’ behind the adoption of the flag in a speech which Sarojini Naidu described as ‘epic in its quality of beauty, dignity and appropriateness’ and ‘sufficient to express the aspirations, emotions and the ideals of this House’. The flag, according to Nehru, was a symbol of the freedom struggle waged by Indians against British rule. The struggle itself was the ‘concentrated history of a short span in a nation’s existence’, of a ‘brief period we pass through the track of centuries’, he says.

Also read: Breaking down the law governing usage of India’s national flag

The flag symbolizes the objective of Indian freedom.  However, Nehru sounds a note of caution to excessive triumphalism by stating that, ‘we have not attained the objective exactly in the form in which we wanted it’ and goes on to note that, ‘it is very seldom that the aims and objectives with which we start are achieved in their entirety in life in an individual’s life or in a nation’s life.’ 

As much as the flag is a  ‘symbol of  freedom’, Nehru says it will also be a reminder that ‘there will be no full freedom in this country or in the world as long as a single human being is unfree. 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.’

In a typical Nehruvian gesture, he points to the future stating that ‘we may not ‘accomplish’ full freedom but  we ‘hope that our successors when they come, have an easier path to pursue.’ 

“The Constituent Assembly Debates on  July 22, 1947 in which 24 members from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds spoke on the resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru on the National Flag, crystalizes the meaning of the flag for all Indians.

Nehru disavows any ‘communal significance’ to the flag and says that ‘some people, having misunderstood its significance, have thought of it in communal terms and believe that some part of it represents this community or that.’  He prefers to see the colours of the flag, ‘dark green’, ‘deep saffron’ and a ‘white band’ within the register of aesthetics and describes it as ‘beautiful’. However, the ‘beauty’, he says, has its roots in India with the flag representing the ‘spirit of the nation, the tradition of the nation, that mixed spirit and tradition which has grown up through thousands of years in India.’

Also read:  Flagging it

The flag draws its inspiration from the past, from the ‘trackless centuries’ before the freedom struggle.  The ‘chakra emblem’ is associated with Ashoka, ‘one of the most magnificent names not only in India’s history but in world history.’ For Nehru,  to go back to Ashoka ‘at this moment of strife, conflict and intolerance’ is to ‘go back towards what India stood for in the ancient days..’

Ashoka is not only associated with peace but also with ‘internationalism’. As Nehru puts it, ‘India has not been in the past a tight little narrow country, disdaining other countries’. He invokes this Ashokan legacy to ‘receive and adapt’ and states that ‘it is folly for any nation or race to think that it can only give to and not receive from the rest of the world. Once a nation or a race begins to think like that, it becomes rigid, it becomes ungrowing; it grows backwards and decays.’ 

He concludes by stating that ‘this Flag that I have the honour to present to you is not, I  hope and trust, a Flag of Empire, a Flag of Imperialism, a Flag of domination over any body, but a Flag of freedom not only for ourselves, but a symbol of—freedom to all people who may see it.’  

The speech resonates with members of the Assembly and particularly with religious minorities, adivasi and dalit representatives.

I. Muniswami Pillai, welcomes the ‘introduction of the Sarnath Lion Capital of Asoka’, saying that ‘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 to bring solace to the millions of the submerged classes.’

J Khandekar, as the ‘President of the All India Depressed Classes Union’, supports the resolution saying that, ‘If the honour of the Flag, maintained by us even up to this day is  besmirched any time, my Community along with other inhabitants of the country will sacrifice themselves to save the honour of the Flag.

Chaudhri Khaliquzzamam, a Muslim member from the United Provinces supports the resolution and says that, ‘I think that from today everyone, who regards himself as a citizen of India—be he a Muslim, Hindu or Christian,—will as a citizen make all sacrifices to uphold and maintain the honour of the flag which is accepted and passed as the flag of India.’ 

Dr. H. C. Mookherjee, speaking on behalf of the Christian community, says that, ‘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 a 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, speaking on behalf  of the ‘30 million Adivasis’, says that he has ‘great pleasure in acknowledging this Flag as the Flag of our country in the future’ and goes on to say that, ‘members of the House are inclined to think that flag hoisting is the privilege of the Aryan civilized’, but ‘adivasis have been the first to hoist flags and to fight for their flags’.

Frank Anthony, speaking as an Anglo- Indian says that ‘Today this Flag is the Flag of the Nation. It is not the Flag of any particular community, it is the Flag of all Indians. I believe that while this is a symbol of our past it inspires us for the future.

“The flag draws its inspiration from the past, from the ‘trackless centuries’ before the freedom struggle.

Jai Narain Vyas from Jodhpur State says that, ‘this is our national flag. It belongs to all the communities of India—Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Parsis. Let it fly everywhere in India and on the Viceregal Lodge, on the hamlets of the peasants and on the palaces of the princes.Nagappa from Madras says that,  ‘Everyone, whether he be a Muslim, Hindu or Christian, will own this Flag. He has to defend it and stake even his life, if need be then alone will the honour of our country be high in the eyes of the world.’

The Rev. Jerome D’Souza from Madras expresses the hope that, ‘Above all, in every case of fratricidal warfare, of strife among ourselves, when injustice is done, when tempers rise, when communal peace is broken up, may the sight of this Flag help to soften the harsh and discordant voices, and help us to stand together, as we have gathered today in unanimity, in happiness is brotherly feeling to salute this, our National Flag.’

The final word rests with Sarojini Naidu who expresses her happiness that ‘the representatives of the various communities that constitute this House’ have pledged ‘their allegiance to this Flag.’  

She asks the prescient question as to ‘Who shall live under that Flag without thinking of the common Indian? Who shall limit its functions? Who shall limit its inheritance? To whom does it belong?’  She answers it by saying that, ‘ It belongs to India. It belongs to all India.’

Why go back to this history today? 

Going back to this history may help us to give philosophic content and historical depth to the celebration of the 75th year of our independence.  

Firstly, the universal sentiment of those who spoke in the Constituent Assembly was that across the religious, caste, adivasi and gender diversity of India, all were united in the sentiment that the flag belongs to us all. This idea is being contested today. Perhaps, this is  symbolized best in the treatment of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protestors. The greatest sin of the anti-CAA protestors was that many of them being Muslims dared to raise their voice of dissent under the symbolism of the national flag. 

Today, some of those who participated in the anti- CAA protests- be it Umar Khalid, Khalid Saifi or Gulfisha Fatima- are still in jail.  The video which went viral of  five severely injured Muslim men being beaten by the police during the Delhi pogrom, even as they were forced to sing the national anthem is telling. The police were taunting them, to say Azaadi and sing the national anthem. 

The symbolism is clear, the national anthem does not belong to you and if you sing it you will face the consequences one day.  To honour the national flag is to recognize fundamentally the equal right of all Indians under the Constitution.  

“We must be able to give the idea of India, economic content and assert that freedom from want is a critical dimension of freedom as indeed Nehru did.

Secondly, the celebration of the 75 years of independence must have content, beyond just an invocation of a national feeling. We must be able to give the idea of India, economic content and assert that freedom from want is a critical dimension of freedom as indeed Nehru did. This again is missing in the rhetoric around ‘har ghar tiranga, which while full of  nationalistic sentiment, is free of any substantive content.  If India is one of the most unequal countries in the world, then a celebration of freedom must include an awareness of economic unfreedom and the need to redress it.  

Thirdly, if the flag is to be a symbol of freedom it should also be a symbol of  ‘tireless striving’ and of the ‘miles to go before we sleep’. We need an Ambedkarite awareness that we live in a period of ‘contradictions’ with political equality but not ‘social equality’ or ‘economic equality’. We may have one person one vote, but we don’t yet have one person one value. If independence in 1947 could be celebrated by pointing to the road we had to travel, surely there is no space for immodest triumphalism today either? 

Finally, the flag should be a symbol of freedom, and most importantly freedom from fear. As Gandhiji points out in Hind Swaraj, ‘those alone can follow the path of passive resistance who are free from fear, whether as to their possessions, false honour, their relatives, the government, bodily injury, death’.  

Today, people are fearful, fearful of speaking their minds, fearful of acting in accordance with their conscience. To cultivate fearlessness is to learn to speak and act, without worrying about what the government, your family or your society may say. We need to cultivate fearlessness as a form of freedom. 

We need to learn from the founding fathers and the founding mothers on what it means to truly honour the national flag. 

The Leaflet