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On Nehru’s Death Anniv, Revisiting National Anthem As We Know It

On his 53rd death anniversary, revisiting the crucial role he played in making ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the National Anthem.

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Among the umpteen debates India faced right after its Independence in 1947, one of considerable significance culturally, and from the perspective of national identity, was around what would be the country’s National Anthem. The choice boiled down to Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Vande Mataram – two fine pieces of work written by highly accomplished personalities.

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Here, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – whose 53rd death anniversary falls on 27 May – played a crucial role, vouching for Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana in a speech in the Constituent Assembly on 25 August 1948. He narrated how Tagore’s work was “greatly appreciated” when it was played during a United Nations General Assembly meet in 1947, and how it was decided by the Cabinet that Jana Gana Mana should provisionally be made the National Anthem after consultation with the provincial Governors. But, the final decision in this regard, he stressed, was to be taken by the Constituent Assembly.

Nehru’s advocacy for Jana Gana Mana as the National Anthem was founded especially on the seeming global appeal of its tune – characterised by its distinctiveness, one which “has been greatly appreciated and admired abroad” and can be seamlessly made into orchestral and band renditions.

This didn’t mean that he disregarded Vande Mataram – calling it irreplaceable and reflective of “passion and poignancy of that (the freedom) struggle”. But ultimately, he did lean towards making Vande Mataram the National Song, and Jana Gana Mana the National Anthem, referring to how “some people” considered the former as “not easily suitable for being played by orchestras in foreign countries”.

On his 53rd death anniversary, revisiting the crucial role he played in making ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the National Anthem.
(Photo: Kapir Upmanyu/The Quint)
On his 53rd death anniversary, revisiting the crucial role he played in making ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the National Anthem.
(Photo: Kabir Upmanyu/The Quint)
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Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, was of a different view. He had the following words for Chattopadhyay’s Vande Mataram:

On his 53rd death anniversary, revisiting the crucial role he played in making ‘Jana Gana Mana’ the National Anthem.
(Photo: Kabir Upmanyu/The Quint)

Each With Their Own Controversy

The two household songs were mired in controversies, too. Before Independence, it was speculated that the phrase ‘Bharata Bhagaya Vidhata’ in Jana Gana Mana was an eulogistic reference to King George V, only for this to be debunked by Tagore himself.

The word ‘Sindh’ has also attracted controversy after Independence and Partition, as the province went to Pakistan, with demands being made time and again to replace it with some other region or state, but to no avail.

On the other hand, Vande Mataram, which referred to Goddess Durga, did not appeal to some Muslims and unfortunately acquired a communal colour.

Ultimately, Nehru triumphed in his push for Jana Gana Mana when it was officially proclaimed as the National Anthem by the first President Rajendra Prasad on 24 January 1950 – two days before India’s Constitution came into force. Along with that, there was Vande Mataram too – now the National Song of India.

Nevertheless, the popularity of these masterpieces remains intact – widely sung and respected, even over six decades later.

(Photo Credits for the video: Wikimedia Commons, The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Government of India, Calcutta State Archive, gandhiserve.org, Visva Vharati Archive, New Zealand Archives, Columbia.edu and i.guim.co.uk)

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