Saving the Date: January 26th and the Constituent Assembly

Republic day – January 26 – does not only mark the commencement of the Indian Constitution, but is also inextricably linked to a historical moment in the Indian nationalist movement. On 26thJanuary 1930, the Indian National Congress, through the Declaration of Purna Swaraj, put forward for the first time that “.India must sever the British Connection and attain Purna Swaraj or complete Independence…”. For many members of the Constituent Assembly, the 1930 Declaration, which came out of the Lahore Session of the Congress 1929, had immense political and emotional significance.

One of the first instances in the Constituent Assembly when January 26 was brought up as a potential date for the commencement of the Constitution was in speech by M.A. Ayyangar in July 1947 –

“..I do want that 26th January 1948, the day which we have been celebrating as Day of Independence for India should surely be the day when we celebrate the Independence of India. …I hope all concerned will be able to push through the necessary work so that on the 26th day of January we will really have an Independent India and work under an Independent Constitution..”

In the first version of the Draft Constitution prepared by the Drafting Committee submitted to the Constituent Assembly on 21st February 1948, Article 314 relating to the commencement of the constitution read: “The Constitution shall come into force on…. (blank)”.  Clearly, at this stage of constitution-making, the drafting committee had not made a decision.

However, speeches in the Constituent Assembly after August 1949 indicate that the members assume that the Constitution would come into effect on 26th January 1950. Sure enough, in the revised Draft Constitution of November 1949, Article 394 (previously 314) now stated that the Constitution would come into force on the ‘twenty-sixth day of January 1950’.

While the Constituent Assembly had decided 26th of January 1950 as the date of commencement of the Constitution, there seems to be ambiguity about celebrating it as ‘Republic Day’. We find only one instance where January 26th was referred to as a potential ‘Republic Day’ – a day of celebration. On 17 October 1949, H.V Kamath suggested that the commencement of the Constitution be celebrated as ‘Republic Day, and went on to add –

“..26th of January has got a sanctity all (on) its own in our national calendar, we might still have another day, and it might very aptly and in the fitness of things signify, the advent of our complete freedom and republican status. We may christen it the “Republic Day”. The 26th January would still be regarded as “Independence Day”, the day on which we took the famous pledge of independence. But in all humility, I suggest that we might have a “Republic Day’ which we may observe like other days in our national calendar… so I would suggest a day in January and have it as “Republic Day” to be celebrated like “Independence Day” or “Gandhi Jayanti” or other national days..”.

Kamath’s desire of retaining January 26 as ‘Independence Day’, and not ‘Republic Day’ and ‘Independence day’, seems to be informed by the concern of displacing January 26 as the historical moment of ‘Independence’ – celebrated every year since 1930. An exclusive day for each: Independence Day and Republic Day, would pay historical tribute to both – without diluting one in favour of the other. Kamath’s suggestion of celebrating ‘Republic day’ on a day other than the 26th was not heeded to.  Eventually, 26th January 1950 was celebrated as ‘Republic Day’ with Rajendra Prasad being sworn in as India’s first President.

The Constituent Assembly chose January 26 as the date of commencement of the Constitution in remembrance of the Declaration of Purna Swaraj. The Assembly only invoked a part of the substance of the Declaration – of severing all ties with the British. However, the Declaration was not just an indictment of British policies in India and call for self -rule, it also asserted that

We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth. We believe also that if any government deprives a people of these rights and oppresses them the people have a further right to alter it or to abolish it…

January 26 should not merely be remembered for the Constitution coming into force; it must also be a day that we remind ourselves to be vigilant about the government turning tyrannical. As the Purna Swaraj Declaration did in 1930, we must continue to assert our rights in the face of government excesses and speak truth to power.

 

(This piece has also been published in Law and Other Things)

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