After a spell of extremely cold weather, the morning of 26 January 1950 saw a clear and sunny day, albeit cold, in the capital city of New Delhi. India’s defining moment – the day it freed itself completely from the shackles of colonialism to become a truly sovereign state – had arrived three years after it gained independence.
Between 15 August 1947 and 26 January 1950, the Dominion of India was a constitutional monarchy, with its King still being George VI and two Governor Generals (not Viceroys any longer): Lord Mountbatten (1947-48) and C Rajagopalachari (1948-50). Jawaharlal Nehru held office as Secretary for State (the head of government) of the Union of India throughout this period and governed the country through the Government of India Act (1935).
During this gradual transition phase, the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly (also the interim parliament in this period) was hard at work drafting a constitution for the infant country in the backdrop of lawlessness and bloodshed of the Partition and the beginning of the Kashmir conflict, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 and the complex political integration of 565 princely states with India. Nevertheless, in 1949, the Constituent Assembly finished drafting the world’s longest constitution with a solid foundation of justice, liberty, equality, unity, integrity and democracy as its leading values.
A historic session of the Constituent Assembly was held at the Central Hall of the Parliament House where the Constitution was passed with loud cheering and thumping of desks.
Before the motion and draft Constitution was passed, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the then President of the Constituent Assembly, said:
It was decided that India would become a truly sovereign state on 26 January 1950, the date chosen for its significance in history when in 1930, the Indian National Congress decided to demand for Purna Swaraj: complete freedom from the British.
Two days before the big day, on 24 January, at a special session of the Constituent Assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad was elected as the first President of independent India. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel became the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister while the Constituent Assembly assumed the role of Nehru’s Central Cabinet. Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram officially became the national anthem and song of the country on this day as well. All the cabinet members signed the Constitution, with Dr Rajendra Prasad choosing to do so last and at the very bottom, with a small scribble below Nehru’s name and a line of text.
Last round of preparations for the celebrations of the first Republic Day were set in motion, rehearsals for which had begun since 7 January. On 25 January, the first Indonesian President, Sukarno, arrived in Delhi, warmly greeted by his close friend and ally, Nehru and C Rajagopalachari. He was to be the first Chief Guest at the celebration; a natural fit given the similarity of his ideals with Nehru’s– of democracy and secularism– and the interminable cultural links between the two countries, going back to the time of the Mahabharata.
On Nehru’s request, Delhi University had organised a special convocation to confer an honorary PhD on Sukarno. One moment to be remembered from this ceremony was the riveting role reversal between two of Asia’s charismatic leaders. It was common practice for Nehru to conclude his speeches by shouting Jai Hind. Then, he would say “Louder!” and the crowd would satisfy his demand.
PB Venkata Subramaniam, former Law Secretary, was studying law in the University at that time. Reminiscing about the function, he told V Suryanarayan writing for South Asian Analysis, quoting William Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to have been young was very heaven.”
Dr Rajendra Prasad stood in a brilliantly lit, high-domed circular Durbar Hall in Government House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) delivering a speech, first in Hindi and then in English, shortly after taking oath as India’s first President, replacing the King as India’s head of state. He had spent the morning paying his respects to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat.
Six minutes earlier, at 10:18 AM, the last Governor General, C Rajagopalachari, had officially proclaimed India, that is Bharat, to be a Sovereign, Democratic Republic.
“Let us begin with offering our thanks to the Almighty Power that has enabled us to see this day, to the Father of the Nation who showed us and to the world at large his infallible method of Satyagraha and led us on along it to freedom and to the numberless men and women, whose suffering and sacrifice have rendered the attainment of Independence and establishment of this sovereign democratic republic possible,” he continued smilingly with folded hands, in a black achkan, white churidar and a Gandhi cap.
Inside the Durbar Hall, Nehru was the first to get up from his seat after Dr Prasad’s speech and shake hands with Sardar Vallabhbhai patel. Together, they walked up to the dais and congratulated Dr Prasad. Over 500 guests had assembled in the hall, including President Sukarno and his wife, several members of Diplomatic corps, members of the Constituent Assembly, the outgoing Governor General, C Rajagopalachari, Cabinet Ministers, Supreme Court Judges, the Auditor-General of India and other prominent citizens.
Nehru and other Cabinet members were sworn-in soon after. The Speaker of Lok Sabha, G V Mavalankar, the first Speaker, sat in the front row. For the first time, the national emblem of the Ashoka Pillar with three lions was placed near the throne of former British Viceroys. A statute of Lord Buddha was placed behind the throne. Unlike the one-day holiday we have come to know, a two-day national holiday was declared as a part of the celebration.
At India House in London, V K Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner too proclaimed India as a Sovereign, Democratic Republic in front of Indian servicemen, students and revolutionaries living in the UK, after which he took an oath of allegiance: “On this day when India becomes a sovereign democratic republic, I send my warmest greetings to all my countrymen abroad. In the long and eventful annals of our country, this day will have a special place. The Pledge taken long ago is fulfilled and every Indian wherever he may be has a new status as a citizen of a republic. This brings new rights...to live as free men and women.”
The dignified part of the celebrations were over; the revelry was set to begin.
Rajpath has become synonymous with Republic Day celebrations 68 years since, that majestic boulevard that runs from the Rashtrapati Bhavan through Vijay Chowk to India Gate. But it was not the venue of the first celebrations in 1950. Beyond India Gate lay, Irwin Amphitheatre (now Major Dhyanchand National Stadium), named after a former Viceroy where 15,000 people had gathered for the big parade, still nascent compared to the gala it is today.
The new President took a slow, ceremonial ride from Rashtrapati Bhavan with President Sukarno to the amphitheatre in a 35-year-old open state coach bearing the Ashoka Emblem. It was drawn by six Australian horses along the five-mile road to the Amphitheatre, escorted by the President’s bodyguards.
The roads were lined with exuberant crowds with the tricolour in their hands, cheering and chanting “Jai” joined by those peering from neighbouring building roofs and treetops. Dr Prasad greeted them all with his hands folded and a modest but beaming smile.
His arrival at the amphitheatre was marked by a resounding 31-gun salute, solemnising the event as a milestone in India’s “chequered history”: Our first Republic Day celebrations as an independent nation.
Dr Prasad proceeded to take a round of the amphitheatre, this time in a jeep, while saluting the 3,000 armed forces that had gathered there, after which he hoisted the tricolour, our national flag for the very first time. Another memorable speech by him was in the offing.
Today, for the first time in our long and chequered history, we find the whole of this vast land...brought together under the jurisdiction of one constitution and one union which takes over responsibility for the...men and women who inhabit it.Dr Rajendra Prasad speaking at the Irwin Amphitheatre
Four Param Vir Chakras, India’s highest gallantry awards, were awarded to soldiers for their bravery during the Kashmir Operation in 1947-48, two of which were posthumous. The Armed Forces then put on a grand parade for all to see, after which the crowd sang the national anthem and dispersed.
The whole event was over in slightly above two hours. There were no performances or elaborate tableaus that we have come to know of today. Very few policemen guarded the VIPs inside the stadium who mingled with each other and the crowds, especially Nehru who reportedly spent close to half an hour interacting with the commonfolk.
Across India’s small towns and villages, prabhat pheries, or morning rounds where people came together to chant songs before the sun rose to invoke good vibrations for a new day, were organised.
Outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan, amidst booming cheers by jubilant pools of people dressed in their finest, who had come to take part in the celebrations from adjoining states, the capital city had an air of festivity. People congratulated each other in the streets, raised slogans of “Gandhiji ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram” and visited Rajghat, the resting place of Mahatma Gandhi, in thousands.
Nearby, in Connaught Place, people of all age groups thronged the streets and crowded restaurants; shops remained illuminated through the day while the Rashtrapati Bhavan lit up at night, marking yet another first of a custom followed till this day. The atmosphere was electric and the spirit of freedom, infectious. India was the first Commonwealth country to have entirely come into its own; it was the biggest national ceremony of the 20th century.
Not all was good as there were several reports of anti-Republic Day celebrations from various regions across India. In Calcutta, communists attacked police officers with bombs and in Bombay, they protested that the workers’ rights had been ignored in the constitution. In Hyderabad, there was an attempt to assassinate the Nizam, and in the capital city itself, the navy almost walked out of the parade!
Under the sea-faring British Empire, the navy was understandably the foremost of the three Armed Forces. Today, it can be argued that the honour lies with the army but in 1950, it was still a matter of contention. During the rehearsals for the first parade, the Navy found itself placed after the last and comparatively huge contingent of the Army. When they protested, they were not taken seriously.
Until one day, during a routine rehearsal closer to 26 January, the Lt Commander and officer-in-charge of the Navy Contingent, Inder Singh, ordered the troops to march off the ground in protest. Chaos ensued and within fifteen minutes, senior army forces including the then Brigadier arrived at Irwin Amphitheatre to request the Navy to rejoin the parade, but this time in the lead. The offer was accepted, and that’s where the Navy marched on the final day.
From 1955 onwards, the venue of the celebrations was shifted to Rajpath, giving birth to an increasingly spectacular ceremony that remains a defining moment in the lives of all Indians each year, an event of national pride that displays the might and diversity of India: the Republic Day parade as we know it now.
It can be argued that the values encapsulated in the Constitution have eroded significantly in today’s political and cultural environment, in which case we need only look back at Dr Prasad’s words at the Irwin Amphitheatre 68 years ago for a glimmer of hope and rejuvenated enthusiasm: “We must re-dedicate ourselves on this [Republic] day to the peaceful but sure realisation of the dream that had inspired the father of our nation and the other captains and soldiers of our freedom struggle, the dream of establishing a classless, co-operative, free and happy society. We must remember that this is more a day of dedications than of rejoicing – dedication to the glorious task of making the peasants and workers, the toilers and the thinkers fully free, happy and cultured.”
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