On 26 January 1950, the Constitution of India 1950 came into effect and India transformed from a British dominion into an independent constitutional republic – a day we annually celebrate as Republic Day. Much like the day we got our independence, the 1st Republic Day in 1950 had its fair share of celebration and pomp. Most public and private buildings in New Delhi were lit up all through the night. There was dancing and festivity in hotels and restaurants, streets were decorated, florists showered rose petals everywhere, people distributed sweets and kites flew high. A lot of the celebration was spontaneous and rich with emotion.
Indonesian President, Sukarno was invited to New Delhi as the first Chief Guest to partake in India’s Republic Day celebrations. Sukarno and newly elected President of India Rajendra Prasad took a small ceremonial road trip together from Rashtrapati Bhavan to Irwin Amphitheatre – where 15,000 Indians had already assembled to watch the parade. Roads were lined with crowds holding flags and people cheered from treetops and roofs. Prasad hoisted the tri-colour for the first time and delivered a memorable speech on the Constitution. This was followed by a ceremony in which four Param Vir Chakras were awarded to soldiers. The Armed Forces then put on a grand parade for the masses and that ended with the crowd singing the national anthem. Celebrations weren’t restricted to India’s capital and power centres. In small towns of India, people came together to chant songs before sunrise.
President Rajendra Prasad and President Sukarno on the ceremonial ride.
It wasn’t all merry. There were also several reports of conflict. In the city of Calcutta, police officers were attacked with bombs. In Mumbai, people protested the non-inclusion of workers’ rights in the Constitution. In Hyderabad, there was an attempt to assassinate the Nizam. Nonetheless, the overall ambience in most places was one of celebration and achievement.
Newspaper report from January 1950 highlighting conflicts around the first Republic Day.
The nature of India’s achievement was, by any measure, a massive one. After decades of political mobilisation, sacrifice, grit and determination, we finally declared ourselves as a republic: Indian announced to the world that India would no longer be ruled by a monarch – foreign or domestic. Sovereignty was firmly placed in the hands of the Indian people.
Newspaper report from January, 1950.
And the world took notice. The Guardian reported that King George VI congratulated former President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad with the following message, "On the occasion of the inauguration of the Indian Republic I send you my warmest good wishes. May you and the people of India enjoy the full blessings of peace and prosperity in the years to come.”
The then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom sent a similar congratulatory message to the former Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Mr. Attlee also expressed his happiness in India continuing to remain a member of the Commonwealth nations. Reports were apprehensive about India’s membership in the Commonwealth.
An article published in the Manchester Guardian on 26 January 1950 stated that India continues to retain the political legacy of the British: reliance on Government of India Act of 1935. Describing the Indian Constitution, a New York Times article highlighted: the Constitution ‘...abolishes untouchability and includes the most detailed document of fundamental rights of any constitution...'
United States President Harry S. Truman wrote a letter to Dr. Prasad congratulating India. He compared India’s political transition to a sovereign, independent republic to America’s political evolution. He hoped that the future of the new Republic “be characterized by peace, prosperity and good fortune.” Interestingly, during the initial stages of the constitution-making process, Nehru had compared India's constitutional moment to the constitutional revolutions of America and France.
President Truman's letter to President Rajendra Prasad.
Global applause for India’s new status as a constitutional republic was also accompanied by skepticism. Many were apprehensive about India’s survival: India was too diverse and poor to sustain constitutional democracy. As history would have it, India, and its Constitution, did survive – even while its neighbours and political contemporaries like Pakistan and Sri-Lanka struggled to remain democratic and preserve their Constitutions.
Republic Day then is not just a moment for us to celebrate India's status as a constitutional republic, but to remind ourselves to not take it for granted.