he Indian government leads the celebrations for two national holidays. One is Independence Day, which is 15 August. The second is Republic Day, 26 January. On the first we mark the passing of the British Raj and the transfer of power to Indians. This did not happen fully, and the head of state even after 15 August 1947 continued to be Lord Mountbatten, for another 10 months. In this period, the Congress party began integrating the princely states into the Union, often with Mountbatten’s assistance. Some of the states were more tricky than others. For instance Jodhpur’s king Hanwant Singh wanted to join Pakistan and Hyderabad’s Nizam Osman Ali Khan wanted to remain independent. Mountbatten nudged these individuals towards India and was useful for the Congress party as it began the hard task of integration. The task was hard because many princely states said that their agreement with the Raj stood cancelled the moment the British withdrew.
Independence Day is seen as a cut-off point but in many ways it wasn’t. The British transferred significant power to Indians through the few decades before 1947. It was already clear by the late 1930s that the British would leave India at some point in the near future. The people who would lead India after independence, Nehru and Patel and the rest, all had experience in legislatures because the British allowed limited power sharing. Of course the Indian army was entirely British in its raising and creation. The British had also fallen to hard times, especially with the Second World War, where it had a limited role. Managing India in these circumstances was quite difficult. As we have seen even in 2021, our Atmanirbhar government runs large deficits which must be financed through borrowing. Lastly, Churchill and the American President Roosevelt had signed a document called the Atlantic Charter in 1941 which committed them to decolonising the world after Hitler was defeated, and giving all people the right to self-determination.
For all these reasons, 15 August was inevitable and though we use the words freedom at midnight, indicating that the event happened in a moment, it was really a longer timeframe. This is the background we need for a fuller understanding of 15 August and its meaning.
The second holiday the government leads us through is the Republic Day. This is when the Constitution of India, which began being written before Independence (because the British allowed it) formally came into force in 1950.
On that day we celebrate India as a Republic. What does that mean? It means a form of government where the power is held by the people. It is the Indian people who are sovereign and not any individual. It is their government through their representatives. And so Republic Day is a celebration of the Constitution, the document which says Indians are sovereign. The question is: are we? The answer is no.
The sovereign in India is really the State, meaning the government and all the apparatus is controls. It is not the people. The people are useful for the State because they give it legitimacy but they are also seen as a nuisance that gets in the way of government.
It is for this reason that the Constitution has been severely undermined over the years. It is true that this has happened under all governments but it is equally true that it has particularly accelerated under the present one. This has happened in three ways. First through the attack on fundamental rights. Though these are constitutionally guaranteed, the rights to equality, freedom of expression, occupation, religion, movement, assembly and association and right to life and liberty do not exist in India in any meaningful way. This is not the place to go into why and how but ask constitutional scholars and they will agree with what I have said. I have discussed this at length in my last book, ‘Our Hindu Rashtra’.
The second attack has been through the misuse of the State and ensuring that those who violate the law but are on the side of the ruling party are not punished or prosecuted. They include legislators and ministers, like Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra. A judge ordered FIRs to be filed against them but he was transferred out the same night and the FIRs not filed. This sort of thing is common now in India.
The third thing has to do with the Parliament. Those parties for whom Indians voted but are not part of the government are treated with disdain, as if their voters are irrelevant. The government has made much of these parties creating a nuisance in the Parliament. However, the problem is that the violation of parliamentary rule was initiated by the government. Passing the farm laws without a vote in the Rajya Sabha was unconstitutional.
All this leads us to the question — how much of a republic are we? And if we are not especially republican seven decades after Independence what does the future hold? These are things we have to consider as a nation. Independence Day is meant to unite us as a nation across parties because it marks our victory over outsiders who did not consider themselves Indian. It is a good moment to reflect on what we have done with the power we acquired on that day and what we are leaving for the generations to come after us.