Strengthening the republic will automatically safeguard our independence and deepen our democracy.
Beyond the dancers, tableaus and marching soldiers on the Raj Path, what does the Republic Day mean to us? Most of us think of Republic Day and Independence Day in the same vein. Even the clichés used on the two national holidays are interchangeable. But the two days are different and the difference begins with the choice of two dates.
As per the Indian Independence Act of the British Parliament, the original date for India’s independence was June 3rd 1948. The selection of August 15th 1947, once all parties had agreed to advance India’s independence, was an act of vanity by Lord Mountbatten because it was the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Second World War. In his radio broadcast to America on August 8th 1947, Mountbatten drove home the double meaning of “August 15 – V. J. Day – not only as the celebration of a victory, but also as the fulfillment of a pledge.” Mountbatten claimed, as per his biographer, that the date came to him as by inspiration, with only connection being that it was the anniversary of his appointment as the Supreme Commander. The advancing of date to August 1947 was nevertheless a prudent decision, best summed up in Chakravarti Rajagopalachari’s words to Mountbatten: “If you had not transferred power when you did, there would have been no power to transfer.”
Evidently, August 15th 1947 was a date personally significant to Mountbatten but not a date of our choosing. When India adopted its Constitution 894 days later, the chosen date held a special significance for those who had participated in the freedom struggle. After the presidential speech by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Lahore session of the Congress at midnight of December 31st 1929 – January 1st 1930, the tricolour flag was unfurled. Those present there took a pledge – and asked the country — to celebrate Poorna Swaraj (complete Independence) Day every year on January 26th. That is why after the drafting committee presented the Constitution’s first draft to the national assembly on November 4th 1949, January 26th 1950 was chosen as the Republic Day.
The adoption of pre-1947 Independence Day as sovereign India’s Republic Day blurred the distinction between the Independence Day and the Republic Day. The early rhetoric — that though the British left in August 1947, India had achieved its true independence only on January 26th 1950 — further aided the conflation. In any case, for those Indians who had lived under the British rule, gaining independence from the British was the most defining moment of India’s nationhood. The same emotional exhilaration was not possible on the day India became a Republic. The public connected more with the Independence Day. And the Republic Day came to be seen as an extension of the Independence Day.
This was also reflected in the ‘moving pageant’ celebrations of the Republic Day. As per scholar Jyotindra Jain, “To counter the assertive demand for redrawing the map of India on ethnic or linguistic divides Nehru raised the slogan of “unity in diversity”, which became the driving force behind the conceptualisation of the cultural tableaux.” The Republic Day parade aimed to incarnate a newly independent India’s self-image, its hopes, strengths and aspirations, with the marching ranks of soldiers asserting a new nation’s self-sufficiency and martial might.
Whether the same considerations apply today, 65 years after independence and 63 years after India became a Republic, is a question that must be debated vigorously. Independence Day, on a date not chosen by us, is about celebrating the legacy bequeathed by those who fought for our freedom. Republic Day, on a date we ourselves chose, ought to be the more solemn occasion — a day of promises to make and pledges to keep. If Independence Day is about remembrances and retrospection, Republic Day has to be about preserving and improving the Indian Republic.
While conflating Republic Day with Independence Day has put generations off the task of strengthening the Republic, our justifiable pride in our vibrant democracy has had the unintended consequence of disregarding the Republic. Despite a largely poor and illiterate population in 1947, India adopted universal adult franchise well before most western countries. India’s success as a democracy, which stands out in contrast to all other countries that gained independence from colonial rule in the twentieth century, is indeed worth cherishing. But this emphasis on democracy has come at the cost of de-emphasising the republic.
The main difference between a republic and a democracy is the constitution that limits power in a republic, often to protect the individual’s rights against the desires of the majority. In a pure democracy, the majority rules in all cases, regardless of any consequences for individuals or for those who are not in the majority on an issue. Despite having the longest written constitution in the world, most Indians think of their country as a democracy, and not as a democratic republic; even though the preamble to the constitution mentions the “sovereign, democratic republic of India”.
When people come on to the streets, whether against corruption or violence against women, they are asking for greater respect for individual rights, stronger institutions, better governance and a rule of law – all that a republic stands for. Because democracy is the convenient catch-all phrase used by us, people’s anger is directed against democracy, and the politicians who are democracy’s most visible symbols. They might be railing against democracy but what they actually want is a more robust republic.
India’s democracy, however flawed, is now deeply entrenched in the country. While there is always scope for improving our democracy, it is the republic which needs to be restored. India’s independence is also not in danger today; it is the republic that is being threatened every single day. If we can strengthen the republic, we will automatically safeguard our independence and deepen our democracy. Let us, each one of us, make the Republic Day about what it ought to be — about rediscovering and rebuilding our republic.
Photo: Anne White