After winning the Presidential election, Ram Nath Kovind made a very profound remark. He said:
I will represent all those struggling to make a living. I never aspired to be the President. My victory is a message to those discharging their duties with integrity. My election as the President is evidence of the greatness of Indian democracy.Ram Nath Kovind
This customary thanksgiving in the name of democracy is not at all unusual or extraordinary; however, this comment, quite unintentionally, reminds us of the history associated with the institution of the Rashtrapati (President) as an elected head of the state and the Rashtrapati Bhavan as a republican monument.
Integral Part of British India
The Rashtrapati Bhavan is not the original name of this spectacularly grand and magnificent piece of architecture built by the British as the Government House, informally known as the Viceroy’s House, in the early 20th century. It was an integral component of the British-Indian capital, New Delhi.
The naming of this building as the Rashtrapati Bhavan is inextricably linked to the encounter between British imagination of Indians as a ‘crowd’ and the nationalist description of Indians as the ‘public’.
The proceedings of the First Independence Day, 15 August 1947 (instead of the first Republic Day, 26 January 1950, when this building was actually renamed as the Rashtrapati Bhavan) are very significant in tracing the postcolonial narrative of the Rashtrapati Bhavan as a republican monument.
Farewell to the Empire
The Transfer of Power documents very clearly show that the ceremony of 15 August 1947 was going to be a prestigious event both for the British government as well as the Indian political elite.
For the British – it was a mark of a political continuity; while for Indian political elites, it was a crucial discontinuity – a rupture that had to be fully worked out in future nation-building project.
In any case, the event had to accommodate various publics – the elite English educated Indians, Europeans, rulers of the Princely states, and above all the common people, the crowd, that had been introduced to the complex world of modern politics a few decades ago.
Lord Mountbatten’s description of the event is very useful to clarify this crowd-public distinction. He notes,
The 15th August has certainly turned out to be the most remarkable and inspiring day of my life. We started the swearing-in ceremony in the Durbar Hall in front of an official audience of some 500, including a number of ruling princes. The official guests, including Ambassadors, Princes and the Cabinet, then drove in procession from Government House… to the Council Chamber… Never have such crowds been seen within the memory of anyone I have spoken to... At all events they thronged the processional route and if possible gave my wife and myself a greater reception than in the morning.Lord Mountbatten
Jawaharlal Nehru and many others, however, did not fully subscribe to this crowd-public distinction. Despite the fact that the nature of celebration continued to be elitist in many ways, the Government House and the Assembly building (which later came to be known as Parliament House or Sansad Bhavan) were also used as political sites to evolve an equally powerful idea of republicanism.
Indian Republic and its Public
The Constituent Assembly session of 14 August 1947 (where Nehru made his famous ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech) unanimously resolved to adopt the idea of popular control over political apparatus.
The crowd that Mountbatten observed outside the Government House was going to play a central role, not merely in the functioning of the democratic institutions, but also in redefining the fate of colonial buildings such as the Government House. Thus, the public reception hosted by the Governor General for 2,000 dignitaries at the Government House, on 15 August 1947, fitted very well with the enthusiasm of those who were watching the celebrations from outside.
The ideals of republicanism and democracy were used creatively to build a link between these two publics. This might be the reason why Nehru decided to accommodate school children from Delhi in official celebrations.
According to newspaper reports, sweets were distributed in Delhi’s schools on the occasion of Independence Day and the students were given a badge depicting India’s tricolour.
From Government House to Rashtrapati Bhavan
The Government House was renamed as the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1950. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, played a key role in establishing a link between this building and everyday lives of common Indians. In an official correspondence, Rajendra Prasad writes,
I have taken another step to make the Rashtrapati Bhavan more Indian in appearance in its inside than it is at present… I have been considering how to replace the furnishings in the numerous rooms by products of Indian handicraft… I am glad that many of the states have agreed to furnish a whole room or to supply us with articles in which they specialise so that we might utilise them in the best way possible in furnishing our rooms here.Dr Rajendra Prasad, First President of India
This gradual Indianisation of Rashtrapati Bhavan in a truly republican manner continued over the years. And this building, which was once called, ‘Empire in Stone’ by the British, has evolved as a republican monument that is, in principle, owned by the people of India and possessed by their elected head of the state: the Rashtrapati, Mr Ram Nath Kovind.
(The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and Rajya Sabha Fellow 2015-2016. He can be reached@Ahmed1Hilal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)