In his book Working a Democratic Constitution: A History of the Indian Experience, the late American scholar Granville Austin describes the key and symbolic moment on January 26, 1950, when the old order passed and the new took charge, and when “began the great enterprise of nationhood”.
Ceremonies commenced with Federal Court Chief Justice Harilal Kania administering the oath of office to Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India. The President then swore in Jawaharlal Nehru, as the first Prime Minister under the Constitution, and the members of his Cabinet. Finally, President Rajendra Prasad administered the oath of office to Harilal Kania, as Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court. This was the magic moment. “The country’s new government,” as Austin writes, “was in place.”
The same jurist who headed the Federal Court would now head the Supreme Court. His legal acumen, his sense of jurisprudence, his commitment to justice and fair play — nothing had changed. So what was the difference about? It lay simply in the source of Chief Justice Kania’s authority.
This no longer derived from a colonial government or a dominion of the British Empire; it no more treated all residents of India, prince and pauper, British officer and Indian civilian, as segmented classes. His authority was now derived from the “People of India” — and every citizen would thereafter be equal and non-segregated.
As one of history’s photo-ops or iconic memories, the delicate interplay between Harilal Kania and Rajendra Prasad stands little chance when compared with the midnight of August 15, 1947 and with Nehru’s majestic oratory: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny…” This ends up telling on how the average Indian tends to treat January 26.
For the vast majority, Republic Day, like Independence Day, is simply a welcome holiday. Indeed, it is often a genuine day off, as opposed to, say, a religious festival that may still require household chores and customary duties.
Yet, even within the framework of India’s two most important secular festivals, there is a clear hierarchy. In public perception, January 26 is the poor cousin of August 15.
Part of the reason lies in what the individual dates commemorate. Independence Day is easy enough to understand: it is the day foreign rule ended and India became free. Freedom is defined here in a strictly political sense, as a transfer of power from a British head of government to an Indian one.
Republic Day represents a layered and complex phenomenon. You can explain freedom in the popular idiom, but how can you translate constitutionalism and the republican ethic? “The day we became free” is a simple phrase; “the day we became a Republic and inaugurated our Constitution” is simply not so.
Politicians and political thinkers alike have long pondered this.
Making constitutional questions and debates intelligible to a mass audience is always going to prove a challenge. Take an example. The battle for freedom can be represented in Hindi cinema in the form of a fearless revolutionary who goes down battling the British Raj in, for example, 1942. This battle also has a happy end date: 1947.
In contrast, the battle to uphold the Constitution is abstract as well as ongoing and eternal. January 26, 1950, was only a milestone, though admittedly a very important one. No Hindi film is likely to be made on the struggle in the Supreme Court to insulate the “basic structure” of the Constitution from legislative amendment. Outside the editorial pages of newspapers, Keshavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala (1973) can never invoke the drama and passion of Chandrashekhar Azad’s heroic last stand.
Several attempts have been made to relate the Constitution to the people. Some have been clumsy, others nuanced, but all of them have fallen short. Some years ago, the Gujarat government marked the 60th anniversary of the Constitution by placing a replica of India’s “Big Fat Book” on an elephant and taking it on a yatra around the state, making it a subject of veneration as would be the case with a religious text. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, many politicians have spoken of the Constitution as India’s “holy book”.
While well meant, even such an approach can have its shortcomings. A yatra or an elevation to scriptural status can convey the message that the Constitution is the defining text of the moral, enlightened and egalitarian idea that is India. It cannot, however, entirely convey what the text stands for.
This remains an obligation for our collective, civic consciousness. After all, January 26, 1950, is in a sense much more momentous than August 15, 1947. Independence Day celebrates one aspect of freedom — the political. Republic Day pays tribute to a much wider expression of freedom — the freedom from hierarchy; actually multiple hierarchies.
It was the day the princely kingdoms ceased to exist as even a notion. It was the day India gave itself a President and a set of public servants who would not be defined by inheritance, family or traditional sources of power. To that extent, it inaugurated the quest for a meritocratic society. The 66 years since then have been a process of expansion of that quest. Gradually, little by little, they have cut down so many of our old hierarchies — princely privileges, caste-based suzerainty, unequal access to law and justice.
No doubt, the process is imperfect and incomplete. Royal families have been replaced by political dynasties; the law is the same for every one of us billion Indians but the legal system is slow moving and expensive; caste differentiation, as even the past week’s tragedies tell us, has not been entirely effaced. Yet, who would argue that Indian society is not freer and less hierarchical today than it was on January 25, 1950? That is the true import of the republican revolution. It can never cease; it can only gain momentum, relentlessly — till the finality of time.