Editorial Articles

Editorial 43

Reflections on Republic Day

Pushpesh Pant

As the rainbow hued floats move down the Rajpath from Vijay Chowk to Amar Jawan Jyoti under the canopy of India Gate every year on 26 January, thousands throng the lawns on the sidelines to participate in an annual spectacle that commemorates the birth of the Indian Republic. The Parade showcases not only the nation’s military muscle but also proudly displays and celebrates the resplendent diversity that is the essence of our heritage.

It is impossible to remain unmoved as supersonic jets streak through the sky in a fly past in impressive formations. Our thoughts turn back to the years of struggle that led India winning back its freedom. We are also reminded how fortunate we are to live in a republic.

The Preamble of our constitutions proclaims India that is Bharat to be democratic republic. It may be argued with some justification that it is the republican form of governance that protects all other values we cherish- democracy, social justice and secularism.

The word Republic is associated with memories of revolutionary upheavals that ended millennia old dynastic despotism and introduced ‘governance of the people by the people for the people’. The American and the French Revolutions are readily recalled in this context and are widely recognised as Republican milestones. While it can’t be denied that these revolutions have played a major role in inspiring freedom fighters all over the world in their long drawn struggle to overthrow the yoke of colonial oppression, India had known republics as early as 6th century BCE. Buddha was born in a republican state that was a member of federation. Kautilya in his classic treatise on statecraft comments at length on strengths and weaknesses of republics in his time.

India chose not to remain a Dominion and declared as soon as it became independent that it would be a Republic. This meant that though it would maintain close and cordial relations with Britain and continue to be a member of British Commonwealth the Monarch or his or her representative would cease to the Head of the State. This Indian decision asserted that we were not prepared to settle for any thing less than ‘Poorna Swaraj’- complete Independence- redeeming the pledge taken on 26 January on the Banks of the River Ravi in 1930.

A large number of major powers in the world today are republics- USA, Russia, France, Germany, Peoples Republic of China, Indonesia and Brazil. Some have presidential form of government while others have opted for the parliamentary (cabinet) system. There are other nations

By the time the Nation celebrated its first Republic Day the ‘merger’ of over 550 Princely States in Indian Union was complete. But the challenge of liberating the subjects in these territories from fetters of feudalism remained daunting. These principalities and fiefdoms had, with few exceptions, had lagged behind in development from areas governed directly by the British and required extra care. Though the princes, referred to as Native Rulers, accepted British paramountcy for all practical purposes they exercised sovereign power over their subject. The concept of ‘equality before law’ was essentially incompatible with ‘divine right to rule by birth.’ The King Emperor or the Empress Queen in Great Britain was bound to ‘rule’ constitutionally and couldn’t deny the Supremacy of Elected Parliament, the Maharajas and Nawabs in India brooked no such challenge to their unbridled authority. They were reluctant to accept that the old order had been extinguished.

It was only decades later that the privy purses and privileges of earstwhile rulers could be abolished.

Another task that had only been partially completed was the rehabilitation of millions rendered ‘refugees’ by the Partition. The wounds of communal rioting would take years to heal- painful scar tissue continues to cause us misery. Still the joyous celebrations restored the self confidence and offered a ray of hope to  the nation that had somehow pulled back from the brink.

In just about two years India held its First General Elections. This was a massive exercise in mobilisation and exposing hundred of millions unlettered and impoverished masses to democratic processes. Indian people were thrilled by the experience. They could feel and exercise their own power that they had been denied.

Filled with excitement and exuberance the Indians unshackled from slavery took giant strides to realise shared dreams. Ambitious Five Year Plans were drafted to build New Temples and Mosques of New India. Large Dams and Factories were constructed on war footing. Research Laboratories and National Akadamies of Arts and Letters were established. Every one realised that there was no time to lose. Through out the freedom struggle Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters had emphasised that without economic self reliance political independence would remain an empty shell devoid of substance. This is the what planning set out to do.

Much was accomplished in the first decade. Foundations were laid to ensure conquest of disease. The hurdles were many. The onset of Cold War had vitiated the atmosphere in our neighbourhood. It was very difficult for India to receive technical or financial assistance from either ideological block. It was difficult but grit and determination paid rich dividends. Indian scientists like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai carved out a niche for India in the field of peaceful uses of Atomic Energy and Space Exploration.

Unfortunately, the border dispute with China flared up suddenly and India was embroiled in a short but severely disruptive war with its neighbour in 1962. India was constrained to curtail expenditure on development programmes as scarce resources were directed to improve defence preparedness. The reverses suffered on the battlefield left the nation badly demoralised. Neighbouring Pakistan, trying to take advantage of the changed strategic milieu indulged in reckless agression and attacked India in 1965. The war with Pakistan galvanised the Republic and India’s fighting forces not only repelled invaders but also marched victoriously to the outskirts of Lahore. When the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri met Field Marshall Ayub Khan in Tashkent after the Ceasefire the trauma of 1962 had all but faded. Self confidence surged and India resolved to dedicate itself with renewed vigour to unfinished task of nation building.

Half a century has passed since the days when the stirring slogan ‘Jai Jawan-Jai Kisan’ first reverberated. Few have personal memories of acute shortage of food grains and the country’s humiliating dependence on imports from foreign countries. Top most priority was accorded to attaining self sufficiency in food production. Indian scientists rose to the occassion and with enthusiastic collaboration of those who toiled in the field ushered in the ‘Green Revolution’.

Conquest of Hunger and Disease has been arguably the greatest achievement of the Republic. Small Pox, Polio and Plague diseases that killed and crippled countless people have been eradicated. Malaria has been controlled to a large extent. Infant Mortality rates have fallen and life expectancy increased dramatically. True, a very large segment of population still lives below the poverty line but the quality of life has registered an overall improvement. Children and adults are better nourished and more literate. Few other countries can match the size and quality of the ‘pool of skilled man power’ that India can boast of.

The Indian Diaspora has carved out a special niche for itself in Europe and the Americas. They are proud to identify themselves as People of Indian Origin. They place India in an exceptionally favourable position to project its ‘Soft Power’. Many of the scientists and managers operating at top echelons in advanced nations are Indians trained at IITs and IIMs. The CEOs of some of the best known multi national corporations are Indians and Indian enterpreneurs and companies are prominent players in Steel and Pharmaceutical Industry with truly international presence.

Creative Spirit of India too has blossomed keeping pace with those working in the realm of science and technology. Indian authors, artistes, musicians and film makers are no longer showcased as representing the exotic or ethnic.

This day provides a unique opportunity to take stock of our progress and scan the horizon for emerging challenges. We have travelled a considerable distance in the past 67 years but the days of struggle aren’t over. Advent of the ‘Age of Globalisation’ has opened up unprecedent opportunities for India to take its rightful place in the comity of nations and its potential as an energing power in the global arena is widely recognised. The republic has unleashed the energies of a billion and quarter plus Indians most of them young- full of idealism and hope. India is at the cutting edge of Information Technology (IT) and Bio-Technology (BT). It is among the largest producer of fruits, vegetables and milk. ISRO is reckoned among those most capable of launching multiple satellites synchronously. 

Unfortunately, the strategic environment in our immediate neighbourhood continues to cause concern. Pakistan next door continues to provide sanctuary to fanatical terrorists. It lives in perpetual denial and has systematically exported terrorists across the LoC to destabilise us.It has not desisited from aiding and abetting secessionist elements in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It has tried to take advantage of the conflict in the West Asia to leverage its geopolitical location to save itself from ostracisation. It has repeatedly spurned the hand of friendship extended to it. In years to come a major challenge for India will remain to neutralise the hostility of this implacable neighbour. India is keen to forge harmonious relations with all her neighbours but it would be unwise to remain blind to basic incompatability between a secular, democratic republic and a thinly disguised military dictatorship allied to religious zealots masquerading as a modern nation state.

Environmental degradation and Climate Change are Global Concerns. What makes India acutely sensitive in this case is that it is the poor whose lives are most adversly affected by even minute disturbance in ecological balance. Pollution- of water we drink and the air we breathe, is a matter of life and death. Our food and energy security is precariously dependent on the health of the planet. Carbon emission levels, melting of glaciers and increased frequency of extreme weather related ‘events’-Sunamis and cyclones are no longer considered subjects only of specialist interest. These are inextrcably entwined with livelihood of millions. Nature recognizes no man made borders. We sail or sink together on this mothership named Earth.

The expectations are rising constantly like tidal waves and those who have lived lives of deprivation and suffered social discrimnation for generations are getting impatient. India must learn to cope with social unrest including periodic outbursts of (even unreasonable) rage and persist with relentless pursuit of excellence. The Prime Minister has in his speeches repeatedly emphasised the imperative of Inclusive Growth. We just can’t afford to delay social and gender justice. This is not to be confused with appeasement of vote banks succumbing to the compulsions of ‘identity politics’ at the time of election. Without sustained high rates of growth the lot of the hitherto downtrodden can’t be improved. Unless, communal harmony is nurtured and ample space provided for peaceful democratic dissent, India’s peace and prosperity will continue to be threatened.

On Republic Day we must renew our pledge to make and preserve India as a place where the mind is always without fear and everyone can keep the head high. Jai Hind!

The author is Ex Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. e-mail Id : pushpeshpant@gmail.com View expressed are personal.