India will celebrate its 70th Republic Day this year. In 2017, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of our Independence from British rule. Successive generations of Indians need to be educated on the intrinsic link, both historical and conceptual, between August 15 and January 26. The name of that link is ‘Purna Swaraj’ or complete freedom from the British Raj.
Exactly two decades before the first Republic Day, the Indian National Congress had called upon the people of India to celebrate January 26, 1930, as ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘Independence Day’. Earlier, on December 19, 1929, at its historic session in Lahore presided over by its young and charismatic president Jawaharlal Nehru (only 40 years old then), the Congress had passed a resolution declaring, for the first time, ‘Purna Swaraj’ as its goal. India won Independence in 1947, but it was not completely free. It was still a dominion without a Constitution of its own. In a vital sense, ‘Purna Swaraj’ became a reality only on January 26, 1950, when India’s newly adopted Constitution came into effect and India declared itself to be a Sovereign, Democratic Republic.
Nehru & the Constitution
Among other reasons, public education on this link is necessary to dispel the widespread myth that has acquired the status of a settled fact in recent years − namely, that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is the Father of the Indian Republic since he is (wrongly) projected as the architect of the Indian Constitution. He was only chairman of the drafting committee, with many eminent members and advisors working on the draft. The Constitution received copious inputs from members of the Constituent Assembly and its most important contents came from Congress leaders.
A fierce opponent of the Congress throughout his life, Ambedkar entered the Constituent Assembly in July 1947 by accepting Congress nomination for a seat, and was made chief of the drafting committee on August 29, 1947, almost a year after the Assembly was established (6 July 1946) − indeed, after the Constituent Assembly had already discussed and adopted the all-important Objectives Resolution moved by Nehru on December 13, 1946. Nehru’s Resolution forms the principal basis of the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, and the Supreme Court has declared it as the Basic Structure of the Constitution. Ambedkar’s task was over on November 26, 1949 when the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution. Members of the Assembly, a majority of them from the Congress party, chose January 26, 1950 as the date for the Constitution of India to come into effect so as to honour the date of the public proclamation of ‘Purna Swaraj’.
Right from 1930 till 1950, no other party or organisation was as centrally involved in deliberating on the Constitution of a free India as the Congress. And no leader made a more decisive contribution to these deliberations than Jawaharlal Nehru. Therefore, today’s Congress party first needs to unapologetically educate its own leaders and members about the true history of the making of the Indian Constitution and the birth of the Republic of India. Those who choose to forget their own history can never become strong and self-confident.
Right from 1930 till 1950, no other party was as involved in deliberating on the Constitution as the Congress
August 15 and January 26
The two events – August 15, 1947 and January 26, 1950 – together announced India’s entry into a new era, marking a decisive departure from the past while, at the same time, not severing its cherished continuity with its millennia-long history.
These two seemingly contradictory, but actually complementary, truths must be recognised about the Idea of India. India is an ancient nation and a young Republic at the same time. We are, simultaneously, over 5,000 years old and also a new nation that was born seven decades ago. Unless we understand both sides of this truth, we will never be able to know where India has come from and where it ought to be going.
We Indians have much to be proud of when we look at our nation’s past – both the distant past as well as the past represented by the medieval and post-medieval eras. Of course, we see a lot of dross and many dark episodes, which we must discard. But what is life-nourishing in India’s history far outweighs that which is outdated and disrespectful to humankind’s highest ideals.
If this were not so, our civilisation would have died long ago, meeting the same fate as befell many other famous civilisations which today exist either in ruins or between the covers of books. True, India was colonised by the British for nearly two hundred years, mainly due to the collapse and absence of a unifying political power, and also because of internecine quarrels among constituent ruling units. But even the British rule could not completely change India’s cultural, spiritual and civilisational personality.
It was Nehru again who captured this part of the truth most beautifully and convincingly in his ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech on the midnight of August 14/15, 1947. “At the dawn of history,” he said, “India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again.”
But just as Nehru drew free India’s attention to the path India had traversed, he also pointed to the path it was yet to traverse in the future. “The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”
Challenges before the Republic
As we celebrate yet another Republic Day, we must ask ourselves: Have we Indians been brave enough and wise enough to grasp the opportunity of India’s freedom, and of India becoming a democratic republic, and accept the challenges of the future?
An honest answer to this question clearly shows that our performance has been mixed. We must not shy away from admitting our failures, just as we should be proud of our achievements. Our greatest failure as a nation, just when it succeeded in its struggle to cast away the yoke of foreign rule, was that India was also partitioned at the same time. (An even bigger failure was to prevent the ghastly manner in which partition took place.) One part of India carved itself as a separate and new nation, Pakistan, on the flawed basis of religion.
To its abiding credit, the other, older, part rejected the ‘Two-Nations Theory’ and refused to accept religion as the fundamental criterion to define its nationhood. Instead, it made secularism – not in an irreligious or anti-religious sense, but as a proclamation of its belief in equal respect for all faiths – the marker of Indian nationalism. Today one of the most serious threats India faces is the threat to its secular character.
The systematic effort by the Sangh Parivar to make and declare India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is nothing but a mirror image of how Pakistan declared itself an Islamic Republic. It is putting India’s social fabric and democratic politics under severe stress. This divisive agenda must be resisted with full strength, while taking care not to be seen as being anti-Hindu.
Our failure as a nation to gain freedom with unity – and, at least, to manage the partition amicably and peacefully as members of a family (as Mahatma Gandhi had pleaded to Mohammed Ali Jinnah in 1944) has continued to haunt and debilitate both India and Pakistan. The dispute over Kashmir, which has remained unresolved to this day, continues to bleed both India and Pakistan. The immeasurable amount of Kashmiri blood shed by both sides, because of their unending hostility, is a further blot on our two nations and also on our shared civilisation. Our Republic has to find a peaceful and just solution to the Kashmir issue. This is possible only through dialogue internally with the people of Jammu & Kashmir, and externally with Pakistan.
And for this dialogue to succeed, Pakistan must completely and irreversibly abandon its suicidal reliance on religious extremism and terrorism, just as India has to abandon its reliance on military force as a way of bringing peace and normalcy in Kashmir. Sadly, there is very little dialogue and consensus even among (also within) India’s major political parties on how to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue.
As far as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance on this issue is concerned, the last five years have been a wasted opportunity. Bereft of a clear, consistent and bold policy, and driven by the instincts of grandstanding, the Modi government has bungled both inside Kashmir and in its relations with Pakistan. But will any future government be any different? Is there a leader far-sighted, courageous and committed enough to change the course of history, and (after resolving the Kashmir issue) make India the natural leader of South Asian cooperation and integration? This is one of the big challenges before our Republic.
Have we Indians been brave and wise enough to grasp the opportunity of India’s freedom, of our Republic?
Misuse of institutions
The other big challenge is to make our democracy healthy, participative and purposive. One of India’s greatest achievements since it became a republic is the smooth, peaceful transition of power as determined by the will of the voters in elections held at regular intervals. People around the world praise this achievement. At the same time, all those who are stakeholders in Indian democracy (people, political parties, election commission, judiciary, etc) should honestly introspect on the many chronic flaws and inadequacies in the system, which make it vulnerable to be misused and manipulated by vested interests. The role of money power in elections (most of it unaccounted for) is growing at a frightening pace, corrupting the institutions of the state and making them blatantly partial towards those who are wealthy and well-connected.
The common people frequently find themselves dis-empowered and humiliated in their interactions with state institutions. Furthermore, an unscrupulous and manipulative executive can easily undermine the independence of other institutions, as we have seen in the past five years.
Not to speak of the media, CBI, CVC and RBI, even the highest judiciary is not immune to this worrisome development. Therefore, how to strengthen our democracy through institutional rejuvenation is an urgent task before our Republic.
This requires continuous efforts aimed at making citizens vigilant about their rights and duties, also about constitutional values and ideals. Sadly, political parties have shown no interest in this, since many of their leaders think their self-gain lies in keeping the common people dumb, divided and distracted.
One way of addressing this challenge is for concerned citizens (irrespective of their preferences for political parties) to pressure Parliament and the Election Commission to bring in radical electoral reforms.
To begin with, the funding and expenses of political parties must be made completely transparent and accountable. Secondly, the first-past the-post system is not sufficiently representative and hence democratic. The will and preferences of voters should be properly reflected in the composition of Parliament, state legislatures, urban municipal bodies and even Panchayati Raj institutions. Thirdly, specific reforms are also needed to increase the cooperation quotient, and reduce the confrontation quotient, among political parties at all levels – from Parliament to Panchayat. As also of us know, the polity in India was never as divided as it has been in the past five years, mainly due to the arrogant conduct of the ruling party and its prime minister.
(The writer, who served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of Forum For A New South Asia. He lives in Mumbai and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org)