26th January 1950 was a momentous day in history: not only did the Constitution of India, 1950 come into force, but India also became a republic – marking the first time that an independent republic was allowed to remain part of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Prior to this, former colonies, which chose to remain in the Commonwealth – such as Canada and Australia – were required to pledge allegiance to the British monarch. This monarch would then appoint a representative known as the Governor-General to perform duties on their behalf, a role which is intended to be ceremonial in nature.
The recent release of letters between Sir John Kerr, former Governor-General of Australia and the Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, has brought the spotlight back to a controversial incident, which highlighted the ability of the Queen’s representative to interfere in the governance of its former colonies.
In 1975, Kerr took the unprecedented step of removing Labour politician Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister of Australia, and appointing a politician from the opposition Conservative party in his place. Although the Governor-General is constitutionally permitted to take this step, this was viewed as a violation of the unwritten principle of political neutrality – and more significantly, as an unsavory by-product of Australia’s continued allegiance to the British monarch.
Given that India too decided in favour of remaining in the British Commonwealth, it could have found itself in the same position as Australia. Why and how did India retain its membership in the Commonwealth, despite being a republic?
Jawaharlal Nehru’s Objectives Resolution of 1946, which laid down the founding principles of the Indian constitution-making process, made it clear that India would become a “sovereign independent republic” with no ties to the British Commonwealth.
Yet behind the scenes, Nehru’s attitude towards the Commonwealth slowly became more permissive. He believed that membership of the Commonwealth would bring political and economic benefits to India; in particular, it would ensure close ties with England, still its largest trading partner.
In 1949, Nehru attended the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s conference, where he advocated for India to retain her membership in the Commonwealth while remaining a republic. The motion was accepted at the Conference; the only thing left was for both governments to ratify it.
There were few objections to this in Britain. Its rising tensions with Russia in the aftermath of World War II meant that a strong official relationship with India was necessary: the latter could provide a stable military base in South Asia, and was a formidable source of manpower.
However, Nehru’s proposal faced challenges back home in the Constituent Assembly. Shibban Lal Saxena argued that India would be forced to side with Britain on major issues in global politics, while H.V. Kamath was unhappy because the King of England remained the symbolic head of the group of nations, including India.
Alladi Krishnaswamy Ayyar and Frank Anthony gave persuasive speeches in favour of Nehru’s proposal, arguing that Commonwealth membership would advance India’s economic interests and provide her with military protection. Nehru assuaged Saxena’s doubts, clarifying that “so far as the Republic of India…her constitution, and her working are concerned…none of her subjects owe any allegiance to the King or any other external authority”.
India's embrace of both Commonwealth membership and republic status set a precedent for other decolonizing countries in the same time period. Although older members of the Commonwealth have continued to accept the British monarch as their Head of State, could the recent revelations in Australia be the catalyst for Commonwealth countries to review their relationship with the British Crown?
This Month in Constitution Making (May 1949): India Decides to Remain in the Commonwealth of Nations
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