Why January 26: the history of the day
|Jawans rehearse for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Monday. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha|
Freedom came to India on August 15, 1947. But patriotic Indians had celebrated their first “Independence Day” 17 years before, wrote historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha in India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.
The symbolic day Guha alluded to was January 26. Its choice was serendipitous. The long march to India’s Independence and its formal emergence as a “sovereign democratic Republic” was signified by several totems, icons and symbols. January 26 was one of them.
The Indian National Congress held its annual session in December 1929. It voted for “purna swaraj” or complete independence as against a dominion status for India and passed a resolution fixing the last Sunday of January 1930 — it was coincidentally January 26 — as Independence Day. It resolved to hold countrywide demonstrations in support of the goal. An official draft by Mahatma Gandhi said: “The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually….Therefore, India must sever the British connection and attain ‘purna swaraj’ or ‘complete independence’. ”
The passage to the Lahore declaration was marked by a debate which saw the All India Home Rule League and the All India Muslim League favouring a dominion status while leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Aurobindo and Bipin Chandra Pal argued for a complete separation from British rule. The latter’s view prevailed.
Jawaharlal Nehru was chosen the president of the Congress. On the midnight of December 31, 1929, he raised the first “swaraj” flag that was later adopted as the national flag.
In order to build a tempo to attain its objective, the Congress, under Gandhi’s tutelage, decided that the first January 26 celebration would begin with the hoisting of the flag and the remaining day would be spent on constructive work like spinning, “service to the untouchables”, “reunion” of Hindus and Muslims and prohibition.
However, when the events happened, Gandhi and Nehru were taken aback with the response. In his autobiography, Nehru recalled how “Independence Day came, January 26th 1930, and it revealed to us, in a flash, the earnest and enthusiastic mood of the country. There was something vastly impressive about the great gatherings everywhere, peacefully and solemnly taking the pledge of independence without any speeches or exhortation”. In a press statement Nehru issued after the observance of the “first” Independence Day, he “respectfully congratulate(d) the nation on the success of the solemn and orderly demonstrations”.
Since 1930, every year the Congress members and supporters unfailingly celebrated Independence Day regardless of whether the actual transfer of power had taken place.
But destiny—- or call it the battle-fatigued British— ordained that freedom would come to India on August 15, 1947. Events hurtled to make the British transfer power to Nehru’s provisional government on that day. India did not have its own Constitution and depended entirely on the amended colonial Government of India Act, 1935. It still owed formal allegiance to the British Crown.
The process for the evolution of a Sovereign Republic kicked in soon thereafter. A Constituent Assembly of elected members of the Provincial Assemblies was set up. It included Nehru, C. Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and Nalini Ranjan Ghosh. There were jurists like B.R. Ambedkar, Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer and K.M. Munshi.
Dr Ambedkar was asked to chair the drafting committee of the Constitution. It met for 166 days over two years, 11 months and 18 days. The final document that enshrined 345 Articles and eight Schedules was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on November 26 1949. The Constitution came into force on January 26, 1950, when India officially became a Sovereign Democratic Republic, 894 days after the British rulers withdrew.
On that day, Rajendra Prasad was sworn in as India’s first President, replacing the King as the head of the state.
In Delhi, the ceremonies began with the 34th and last governor general Rajagopalachari reading out a proclamation, announcing the birth of the Republic. The new President took the oath of office at the Durbar Hall of the Government House (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and addressed the crowd, first in Hindi and then in English.
Dr Prasad drove through the streets in his state coach to the Irwin Stadium (renamed as Dhyan Chand Stadium) and hoisted the national flag.
The government declared a two-day national holiday to a jubilant nation.