India became independent in 1947 through the Indian Independence Act, 1947; it was only in 1950 that it became a ‘Republic’. Between 1947 and 1950 India was a dominion of the British Empire.
A Republic nation is founded on popular sovereignty. As Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional scholar, argues, a characteristic of a Republican Government is that its Constitution is ‘derived from the People’ and can only be altered by a ‘majority’ of them. In this two-part series, we will investigate the evolution of India as a ‘Republic’. This post will answer the question - at what point in the Indian freedom movement did India decide to become a Republic?
The formal proceedings in the Constituent Assembly are not the beginning of Indian constitutional thinking. Although the Indian Independence movement was focussed on the demand for freedom and self-rule, concurrently articulation of constitutional demands was being made through ‘Historical Constitutions’. These Historical Constitutions were either drafted by British India (example – Government of India Act, 1935) or were indigenous aspirational political documents (example - Nehru Report 1928).
Prior to 1928 India sought the right to self-govern and demanded Dominion status. After 1928 Indians voiced complete independence cutting off all ties with England. We can trace the evolution in the kind of freedom Indians wanted which made India a Republic.
Various Historical Constitutions including The Commonwealth of India Bill (National Convention, India, 1925) and Nehru Report 1928 demanded the freedom to self-govern and demanded that India become a Dominion of British Commonwealth like its previous colonies (Canada, Australia). Freedom was sought within the context of British Commonwealth. The effect of this would be that the King/Queen of England would be the Constitutional head of India and the power to govern India would symbolically be derived from the English throne.
In 1928, a section of nationalists were disappointed with the Nehru Report 1928. Jawaharlal Nehru led the objections to this report drafted by his father, Motilal Nehru. In the December 1928 Congress Session, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Satyamurthi demanded that Congress should strive to achieve complete independence i.e. ‘Purna Swaraj’ for India. This call was supported by several other delegates. However, Motilal Nehru and Gandhi argued that a national consensus had been reached on India becoming a Dominion and deserting this would be impractical. The Session concluded with the Congress deciding that if British did not grant Dominion status to India in a year, then they would work towards ‘Purna Swaraj’ and launch a civil disobedience movement. This marked the first attempt in articulating India as a Republic rather than a Constitutional Monarchy.
On 31st October 1929, Lord Irwin (Viceroy of India) made an announcement (popularly referred to as Irwin Declaration) that India will be granted Dominion status and promised a Round Table Conference after the Simon Commission had submitted its report. His declaration was unpopular and led to a backlash in England. A debate on 5th November 1929 in the House of Lords made India’s chance of becoming a Dominion weak. Finally, on 23rd December 1929, Irwin informed Gandhi and other leaders that he could not promise Dominion status to India anymore.
Thereafter, in the Lahore session of Congress on 31st December 1929, with Jawaharlal Nehru as its President, Congress passed the ‘Purna Swaraj’ resolution calling for complete independence and severing all ties with England. Jawaharlal Nehru in his presidential address remarked:
‘I must frankly confess that I am a socialist and a republican, and am no believer in kings and princes, or in the order which produces the modern kings of industry, who have greater power over the lives and fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the old feudal aristocracy’.
The Congress made a public announcement on 26th January `1930 that called for celebrating 26th January as ‘Independence Day’. Celebrations and public meetings were held all over the nation and this marked the first formal demand for India becoming a completely free nation and a Republic.
In 1947 although national leaders hoped that India would be granted independence on 26th January, Lord Mountbatten (last English Governor General of India) chose 15th August 1947 as it marked the 2nd anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II.
The Indian Constitution makers chose 26th January 1950 as the date on which Constitution came into force to honour the declaration of ‘Purna Swaraj’.
Read 'Becoming a Republic: Journey in the Constituent Assembly' here.