How India Became the First Republic in the Commonwealth
In this video, Varsha Nair revisits how Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru convinced the Constituent Assembly to ratify the Indian government’s decision to remain in the Commonwealth whilst being a republic.
On 8 September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom passed away. This has reignited debates around the role of British monarchy in the contemporary world. It appears some Commonwealth countries are thinking about cutting ties with the British crown.
India did this in 1950 when it declared itself as a Republic. However, it still remained part of the Commonwealth. This was odd. To be a Commonwealth member was to accept the British monarch as the head of State. A Republic meant you rejected the monarchy.
How did we end up being a republic and a member of the Commonwealth? At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in 1949, Nehru was able to convince the conference and the British government to let India continue as a Commonwealth member while being a republic. But this decision had to be ratified by the Constituent Assembly.
On 16 May 1949, Nehru proposed that the Assembly ratify the Indian government’s decision to remain in the Commonwealth. This came as a surprise to many members. It was Nehru himself who in his 1946 Objectives Resolution speech had declared that India would be a Sovereign republic which in effect meant that India’s head of state can never be a monarch, domestic or foreign.
But since 1946, Nehru’s attitude towards the Commonwealth was evolving. He began to believe that Commonwealth membership would bring political and economic benefits to India.
But many Assembly members were unconvinced. For instance, Shibban Lal Saxena suggested that a Commonwealth membership was akin to dominion status—something the Congress had consistently opposed. HV Kamath grasped the novelty of this political arrangement, but saw no benefit in it.
Frank Anthony supported Nehru. He argued that India’s economic and military interests were served by having a cordial relationship with Britain. Begum Aizaz Rasul added that the criticism of Nehru was based on suspicion, mistrust and a certain sense of fear towards the British.
Nehru Quote picture – ‘the world has changed; England has changed; Europe has changed; India has changed; everything has changed and is changing….’
In the end, Nehru responded to the critics. He suggested that the opposition to India’s membership arose out of a place of bitterness towards the British and India’s experience of British colonialism. He argued that things were different now. In the end, the Constituent Assembly ratified India’s decision to remain in the Commonwealth of Nations.