How – and Why – 'Jana Gana Mana' Became India's National Anthem

Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who was instrumental in making it the anthem of the INA, particularly appreciated its pan-India and secular reach.

Note: This article was originally published on August 15, 2020 and was republished on August 15, 2021.

In Berlin, during the autumn of 1941, just a few months after his dramatic escape, Subhas Chandra Bose had recruited a team of enthusiastic Indians to launch a fresh fight against the British Empire.

It included young men like Abid Hasan, N.G. Swamy and M.R. Vyas, along with veterans like A.C.N. Nambiar, Girija Mookerjee, and N.G. Ganpuley.

Detailed discussions and analysis were carried out. Years later, Ganpuley recalled how Bose was ‘very vigilant and was a master of details,’ and Hasan added, ‘He used to throw ideas around and provoked thinking and discussion’.

Soon, supported by diplomatic recognition from the German foreign ministry, the Free India Center was established. And, at the inaugural session of the Center on November 2, 1941 the ‘Azad Hind’ team formally decided that Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’ will be the national anthem and ‘Jai Hind’ will be the national greeting.

The historic significance of these decisions is evident to all of us today. 

In his memoirs, Ganpuley wrote, ‘It was cogently and very enthusiastically argued at that meeting in Berlin that ‘Jana Gana Mana’ which defined India as the union of all provinces, languages and religions was most suited for being a national anthem’.

Hasan remembered that he had opposed the ‘Bande Mataram’ because, ‘How many ordinary people can understand?….A man like myself with no familiarity with music and with a husky voice, should also be able to sing it.’  

Bose himself was certainly interested in the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ . Capt. Lakshmi Swaminathan would recall him saying, ‘This is a truly representative national song’. Also, Bose would have recalled how he and other members of the Congress Working Committee had sought the advice of Rabindranath Tagore to resolve the ‘Bande Mataram controversy’ in 1937.

And so, he summoned B.L. Mukherjee, who worked at the Institute for Fashion Textile Researches in Berlin and was also a regular vocalist at the Berlin Official Radio, and Ambik Mazumdar, who was a doctorate in Music from the Quinsbeck University to prepare the notation and other musical details.

Several months later, on September 11, 1942, Bose inaugurated the German-Indian Society at Hamburg. It was a grand occasion and the existing video shows several German officials and foreign diplomats (including Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem) were present.

It was here that Netaji officially introduced the 55-second song that was destined to become India’s national anthem. ‘The function concluded with the playing of the Indian and German national anthems, the Band was the Chamber Orchestra of Radio Hamburg.’

Ganpuley, a lifelong activist, managed to preserve what was perhaps the only surviving tape-record of the orchestra that evening. In the late 1970s, after a thorough research, Chitra Narain of the All India Radio received access to it.

But that was not all for the anthem.

Among the other resolutions passed at Free India Center was that Hindustani – the mingling of Hindi and Urdu that was the lingua franca of the masses of north India – would be the national language. While clearly supporting ‘cultural autonomy for the different linguistic areas’, Bose – certainly influenced by Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in Turkey – also wanted a common language and script. He had spoken about it even at his presidential address at the 1938-Haripura session.

But the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ is in literary Bengali. So, next year, when Netaji travelled to South East Asia, Hasan (who had been his co-passenger in the U-boat) and Mumtaz Hussain of the Azad Hind Radio were instructed to prepare a simple Hindustani translation of the anthem.

The result was the Sabh Sukh Chain ki Barkha‘. Formally known as the Quami Tarana, it was set to music by Captain Ram Singh Thakur.

 Years later, Singh fondly recalled, ‘Every morning when we hoisted our flags in our camps…whole battalions, whole company used to sing this song. Then, whenever there was any function, this same song was sung at the end.’

In late-1945, when the news of the Azad Hind’s struggle enthralled Indians, a thousand gatherings across the length and breadth of the land enthusiastically sang the anthem. Maj. Gen. Shah Nawaz Khan recalled that when released from the Red Fort trials, ‘We went to pay our respects to Mahatma ji – he was in Delhi and senior INA officers sang this national anthem before him. He was greatly impressed.’

Both the Azad Hind’s motto and salutation/greeting were products of the same zeitgeist.

For the civilian members of the Indian Independence League (in South East Asia), the motto was Viswas-Ekta-Balidan (‘Faith-Unity-Sacrifice’), while the badges of the Azad Hind Fauj carried the same motto but through the words ‘Itmad-Ittefaq-Kurbani’ . The motto was also inscribed on the INA memorial in Singapore that, in an act of unprofessional barbarism, the victorious Allied troops demolished in late-1945. 

‘Jai Hind,’ one of the rousing salutations ever coined,  was the result of a brainwave. Tasked by Netaji to come up with a greeting that was acceptable to all Indians, Hasan noted that while ‘Namaste’, ‘Hello’, ‘Sat Sri Akaal’ and ‘Salaam Alekum’ were all in vogue, some Rajput soldiers in his dormitory used ‘Jai Ramji Ki’. 

Hasan changed it to ‘Jai Hindustan Ki’ and then did a crisp editing to ‘Jai Hind’. It became an instant-hit with his comrades and Bose was impressed.

Almost eighty years later, its popularity has remained undiminished.  

However, what worked well for the anthem and greeting would not work for larger speeches and in-depth discussions, especially because neither Hindi nor Hindustani was followed by many people of the south and the east. Under no circumstances would Bose let them feel alienated. And so, the Azad Hind Radio which started broadcasting from Germany in November, 1941 had daily programmes in seven Indian languages – Hindustani, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Persian and Pushtoo, besides English.

The famous declaration of the Provisional Government of Free India  on October 21, 1943, at Singapore was issued in English, Hindustani and Tamil. In addition, for the benefit of the large south Indian population in South East Asia, all his speeches were immediately translated to Tamil. 

The ‘tricolour and the springing tiger’ on shoulder-piece of the uniform of the Indisch Legion, Germany, around 1942. Photo: YouTube

The inclusive ideal also found its way into the national flag and the medals. Keen to show that the Azad Hind was continuous with the long tradition of anti-colonial struggle in ‘mainland’ India, the Free India Center designed the tiranga with a ‘springing tiger’ in the middle – thus amalgamating the flag used by the mass movement since 1920 with the symbol of Tipu Sultan whose uncompromising battle against the British was admired.

Tipu’s tiger was replaced by the Gandhian charka in South East Asia, making the flag of the provisional government identical to the Swaraj flag used by the Congress since 1931. However, the tiger did find its place in the shoulder-pieces on the uniforms of the Indisch Legion and the Sher-i-Hind gallantry medal awarded by the Azad Hind Fauj for conspicuous bravery in battle. 

The Sher-i-Hind, one of the highest medals of decoration from the Provisional Government of Free India, for exemplary bravery in battle
Source: www.indianetzone.com/62/medals_azad_hind

On similar lines, the three forward brigades of the first division of the Azad Hind Fauj were named after the three top leaders at the ‘home front’ – Gandhi, Nehru and Azad. Soldiers of all three brigades would go on to distinguished them in battle. There were other instances of continuity – the pictures of the three leaders, along with Netaji, were present in the sample currency notes that the Provisional Government got printed circa 1944.

Bose was the first to formally refer to Gandhi as ‘father of our nation’; and the old revolutionary guard was linked by honouring the veteran Rashbehari Bose.

However, the most famous was the all-womens’ Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Led by the charismatic Lakshmi Swaminathan and Janaki Nahappa, it consisted of about a thousand young women mostly from Tamil families working in the rubber plantations of Malaya. But, the building of this regiment, named after the heroic queen of the 1857 uprising, was too radical an idea for the conservative Japanese military and they refused to support it (a similar orthodox Nazi ideology did not allow women to join the German Army).

Netaji, however, held his ground. All his life he had encouraged women to join the anti-colonial struggle and this would be no exception. The Ranis did receive battle training and all were sent to the Burma front. But, the changed trajectory of the war meant they would mainly serve in the field hospitals catering to the hundreds of wounded, and finally retreat through dense tropical forests, with their leader walking by their side amidst the relentless strafing by Allied bombers.

It remains an inspiring tale and today, it should encourage all those who aspire to make their way into ‘mens’ profession’.

The same ideas must have formed the basis to the renaming of the islands. As the head of state, Bose was conscious that the Provisional Government, although diplomatically recognised by the Axis Powers and supported by lakhs of Indians in South East Asia, did not hold actual Indian territory.

So, when the Japanese ceremonially handed them over the Andaman and Nicobar islands, they were renamed as ‘Shaheed’ and ‘Swaraj’ – in honour of the martyrs of the battles of Independence. However, the handover of the islands was nominal. Actual control of the islands stayed in Japanese hands in spite of regular protests from the INA officials.  

But, beyond all the symbolism, Netaji’s prime ideal was to lift the work of the nation above the petty divisiveness that often comes with community, religion, gender and provincialism. Bose, a theist in his personal space (unlike Nehru the agnostic and Bhagat Singh the atheist), was a diehard secularist in his public life and unambiguous about his inclusive ideals.

At Haripura, he had stated that (in independent India), ‘All citizens are equal before the law, irrespective of religion, caste, creed or sex’ and ‘the State shall observe neutrality in regard to all religions’.

It is no wonder that he set about organising the Azad Hind on non-sectarian lines. German officials who worked with the Free India Center noted, ‘We have instead mixed, contrary to the Anglo-Indian army, Muslims (Pathans and Punjabi Muslims), Sikhs and Hindus (Dogras, Rajputs, Jats, Bengalis, Gharwalis, Marathas, Madrasis and Gurkhas), down to the sections. There is also no strict separation in barracks and rooms, although we do try to oblige individual sections who wish to hold particularly closely together…’

Contrary to initial apprehensions, the results in Germany were encouraging and so Bose scaled it up in the Azad Hind Fauj. In the words of Hasan, ‘…Baluchis were there among us, and Assamese, Kashmiris and Malayalis, Pathans and Sikhs and Gujeratis…Every region in India was represented and every religion and every caste, mixed inseparably together not only in bigger formations but even in small platoons and sections, each unit being a living tribute to the unity of India…’.

The men dined together (Bose joining them at times), religious considerations of halal or jhatka meat were amicably solved and, as Lakshmi Swaminathan remembered, ‘In the INA we never observed any religious rite as such’.

Rather, Muslim families invited Hindus on Diwali, and Hindu families returned the courtesy on Id al Fitr. There were also reciprocal visits to places of worship. But Netaji could also draw the line. In a dramatic example, when priests of the wealthy Chettiar community of Singapore – the main financiers of the Provisional Government –  requested him to visit their temple on Dussehra, he turned them down because religion and matters of state do not mix’ and also because the temple allowed only certain castes to enter.

When the priests relented and assured that it would be an unrestricted national gathering, Bose accepted the invitation but entered the temple flanked by his senior officers – Hasan and Zaman Kiani, a clear demonstration of what he wanted.

The atmosphere was, however, highly congenial, every Indian community was present in the temple premises that day and when Bose addressed the gathering he spoke of the future of India and ‘brotherhood across barriers was his message’. Cabinet minister A.C. Chatterjee recalled that by the time Bose had finished his speech, ‘There was a glow on the faces of all.’ 

Delhi, 1945. Capt. Ram Singh Thakur and other Azad Hind POWs sing the National Anthem during a visit by Gandhiji. Source: thedarjeelingchronicle.com/special-article-capt-ram-singh-thakuri/

As Hasan summed it up, ‘We had our different private faiths and we had our different languages, but in our purpose and in our political belief we were a well-knit, determined and indivisible whole.’

It was the same inclusivity that had played a role in the selection of the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ . And when independence had been finally won, India suddenly found that national and international gatherings demanded a national anthem. As cabinet proceedings noted in May, 1948, ‘The question of having a formal National Anthem has assumed a certain urgency…Our foreign embassies specially request instructions. In foreign countries an anthem is played on many occasions and we have been asked by the authorities in these foreign countries as to what our anthem is’.  

Only one song was ready, as Nehru noted ‘It is very distinctive and there is a certain life and movement in it’ and Capt. Ram Singh and his orchestra had been invited to play the tune when the national flag was hoisted from ramparts of the Red Fort for the first time on 16th (not 15th) August, 1947.

Also, as Nehru informed the central cabinet, I consulted the various Governors of Provinces and asked them to confer with their Premiers (as the Chief Ministers were addressed at that time). Their replies almost unanimously support Jana Gana Mana…’

Hence, as the discussions continued in the Constituent Assembly, on August 25, 1948, Nehru stated:

‘The Jana Gana Mana tune, slightly varied, had been adopted as a National Anthem by the Indian National Army in South East Asia and had subsequently attained a degree of popularity in India also.’

He also explained that the Indian delegation at UNO had been asked to provide the official orchestra there with a composition of the Indian anthem.

‘…The Delegation possessed a record of ‘Jana Gana Mana,’ and they gave this to the orchestra who practised it. When they played it before a large gathering, it was very greatly appreciated and representatives of many nations asked for a musical score of this new tune which struck them as distinctive and dignified…’

‘…It produced a sensation and the representatives of the foreign nations said that it was one of the finest things as a national anthem they had heard…’

 Nehru who, like Bose, understood the various nuances of international relations, added, ‘In regard to the National Anthem, this tune should be such as to represent the Indian musical genius, as well as to some extent the Western, so that it might equally be adapted to orchestral and band music, and for being played abroad…’. 

Netaji addresses a meeting at Singapore, 1943. Capt. Lakshmi Swaminathan is on the right. Note the national flag in the background – tricolour and charka. Source: Source: https://www.telegraphindia.com/north-east/lakshmi-sehgal-no-more/cid/402771

Of course, there was some fine-tuning to be done, literally. There were about a dozen slightly varying versions approximating to one another and AIR had got many of these versions recorded. And so, the government approached the reputed London Philharmonic Society to compose the Jana Gana Mana in three ways: full orchestra, string orchestra and military band.

However, ‘In order that it may not become too western in conception an expert Indian musician is advising them. It should be possible for us to evolve a standardised version…’.  

The decision had been made. On January 24, 1950, President Rajendra Prasad, while acknowledging the great historic significance of the Bande Mataram, announced that the Jana Gana Mana would be anthem of the republic.

In a way, life had come a full circle. Unjustly sidelined in 1939, Bose had gone on to prove what he was capable of. But, as someone who was confident that his efforts had the support of his people, Bose had also presented the Azad Hind as a direct continuation of the long tradition of struggle back home.

That had been the major basis to the pluralistic symbolisms of the provisional government. 

But, in 1947, it was the new nation that would make the national anthem of the Azad Hind its own. A musical baton had been passed on, and that is why we reverentially sing the anthem till today. 

Anirban Mitra is a molecular biologist and a teacher based in Kolkata. His interests include  science communication  and facets of India’s freedom struggle.