Why CJI Chandrachud’s Statement on the 'Saffron Dhwaja as a Unifying Symbol' Raises Red Flags

The endorsement of the saffron ‘dhwajas’ fluttering atop Gujarat’s temples relay a worrying message from the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud. There is context here which must be flagged.

When D.Y. Chandrachud took charge as the Chief Justice of India (CJI) in November 2022, many from the so-called ‘liberal’ fraternity, who also claim to defend the democratic-secular polity of India, exhibited great happiness. They thought that, for some time at least, the idea of the Supreme Court being seen, if not actually conducting itself, as an appendage of the Narendra Modi-led government, had been deferred.

They underplayed the significance of him being on the bench that gave the notorious Ayodhya verdict on November 9, 2019. Many have called it out as an order grounded less in legal and constitutional points but more in an effort to placate a majoritarian agenda – one that is also advocated aggressively by both Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

On January 6, CJI Chandrachud endorsed saffron flags flying atop temples as “the flags of justice”.

After offering prayers at the temples of Dwarikadhish and Somnath with his family in Gujarat last week, the CJI had no qualms in saying, “I was inspired this morning by the dhwaja (flag) at Dwarikadhish ji, very similar to the dhwaja, which I saw at Jagannath Puri. But look at this universality of the tradition in our nation, which binds all of us together. This dhwaja has a special meaning for us. And that meaning which the dhwaja gives us is – there is some unifying force above all of us, as lawyers, as judges, as citizens. And that unifying force is our humanity, which is governed by the rule of law and by the Constitution of India.”

It is to be noted that all the above referred temples fly saffron/yellow flags atop their structures. This is bound to raise deep concerns if CJI Chandrachud, by these much publicised remarks, was implying that the tricolour or the Indian national flag was not the “unifying force” for Indians as were the flags that fly atop temples?

RSS accepted the tricolour only in 2002

The CJI’s statement has to be weighed against the context of the tricolour being chosen as the flag of free, independent and secular India. Unfortunately, the CJI was, knowingly or unknowingly, rephrasing the statement of the most prominent ideologue of RSS, M.S. Golwalkar.

Gowalkar, while addressing a Gurupurnima gathering in Nagpur on July 14, 1946, had said: “It was the saffron flag which in totality represented Bhartiya (Indian) culture. It was the embodiment of God. We firmly believe that in the end the whole nation will bow before this saffron flag.”

While denouncing the choice of the tricolour as the national flag, he said in an essay, titled ‘Drifting and Drifting’, in the book Bunch of Thoughts, “Our leaders have set up a new flag for our country. Why did they do so? It is just a case of drifting and imitating… Ours is an ancient and great nation with a glorious past. Then, had we no flag of our own? Had we no national emblem at all these thousands of years? Undoubtedly, we had. Then why this utter void, this utter vacuum in our minds?”

This seminal hatred for the tricolour even led the RSS to declare the tricolour as ‘evil’ on the eve of independence. The RSS’s English language mouthpiece, Organiser, demeaning the choice of the national flag, wrote: “The people who have come to power by the kick of fate may give in our hands the tricolour but it never be respected and owned by Hindus. The word three is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”

The RSS borrowed this hatred for the tricolour from V.D. Savarkar who declared that “The Charkha-Flag (then the tricolour used to have a charkha or a spinning wheel in the middle, which was later replaced by the Ashok Chakra), in particular, may very well represent a Khadi-Bhandar, but the charkha can never symbolise and represent the spirit of the proud and ancient nation like the Hindus.”

It is a cause for concern that the CJI, who is duty-bound to safeguard the democratic-secular polity of India, which the tricolour so evocatively embodies, appeared to be chiming more with those who protested the tricolour for decades before accepting it grudgingly.

Shamsul Islam is an activist, author, and theatre person based in Delhi.