Since 1950, January 26 has been the day when the Constitution of India came into force. However, the constitution was drafted well ahead of the chosen date and officially adopted by the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949.
Then why do we celebrate our Republic Day on January 26? The answer lies in the history of the Indian freedom struggle in which the date has held significance since 1930.
On January 26, 1930, the historic “Poorna Swaraj” Declaration was officially proclaimed, marking the final stage of India’s liberation struggle towards full independence from British rule.
The context of the 1920s
The Uncooperative Movement ended unceremoniously in February 1922 after the Chauri Chaura Incident. At the time, Mahatma Gandhi felt the country was “not yet ready” for his non-violent methods of protest. Thus, in the 1920s there was no further mobilization on the scale seen during the Non Cooperation Movement and the anti-Rowlatt Satyagraha.
However, the 1920s were far from unimportant. From the rise of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad to the coming of age of a new generation of Indian National Congress (INC) leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Vallabhai Patel and C Rajagopalachari, the 1920s laid the foundations for the future course of India’s freedom struggle.
In particular, in 1927, the British authorities appointed the Simon Commission – a seven-member, all-European team headed by Sir John Simon – to deliberate on political reform in India. This caused a wave of indignation and discontent across the country. For the first time since 1922, protests against the Simon Commission spread across the country, with chants of “Simon Go Back” echoing across the country.
In response, the INC appointed its own committee under Motilal Nehru. The Nehru Report demanded that India be given dominion status within the empire. The Balfour Declaration of 1926 defined dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subservient to each other in any aspect of their domestic or foreign affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” In 1926, countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand were granted dominion status.
Internal Disagreement with Congress: Dominion or Republic?
Crucially, the Nehru report did not enjoy universal support even within Congress. Young leaders such as Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, Motilal’s own son, wanted India to cut all ties with the British Empire. They argued that while India would enjoy a degree of autonomy under dominion status, the British Parliament and the Crown would still have the ability to interfere in Indian affairs.
Importantly, for both Bose and Nehru, achieving dominion status would lead India to engage in colonial exploitation elsewhere in the British Empire, primarily in Africa. With a much more radical worldview than their predecessors, Bose and Nehru looked at anti-colonialism not only as a local political issue for India, but also from a more global perspective.
However, Gandhi was still strongly in favor of dominion status, arguing that it would be a welcome step in India’s anti-colonial struggle. His views would soon change.
Viceroy Irwin goes back on his word
In 1929, Viceroy Irwin had vaguely announced that India would be granted dominion status in the future. Known as the Irwin Declaration, it was warmly welcomed by Indians but faced massive backlash in Britain.
The British people were still pro-empire and India was seen as the crown jewel of the empire. Importantly, when the world economy entered a recession, India was arguably Britain’s most valuable colony with its vast land, resources and population critical to its economy.
So, under pressure from home, Irwin went back on his word. In a meeting with Gandhi, Muhhammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League and a few other leaders, he said he could not promise the status of rulership over India anytime soon.
This would be a turning point as Congress grew increasingly united on the issue. With the British unable to implement even reasonable reforms, the Indians increasingly supported “radical” goals – a fully independent republic was one of the first.
Statement of Poorna Swaraj
The Lahore Session of the INC convened in December 1929. On 19 December, the landmark “Poorna Swaraj” resolution was passed at the session. Literally meaning “total self-government/sovereignty,” the resolution read: “The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their liberty, but has relied on the exploitation of the masses and has ruined India economically, politically and economically. culturally and spiritually….therefore… India must break British connection and achieve Poorna Swaraj or full independence.
This declaration of independence was officially proclaimed on January 26, 1930. Congress urged Indians to come out and celebrate “independence” on that day. The Indian tricolor was hoisted across the country by Congress Party workers and patriotic songs were sung as the country reshaped its strategy for independence. The resolution also reaffirmed Gandhi’s methods of non-violent protest, which would begin almost immediately after the celebration of Poorna Swaraj Day.
Historian Mithi Mukherjee in India under the shadows of Empire writes that Poorna Swaraj’s statement was a crucial pivot point for India’s freedom struggle. With this statement, India’s national movement has “moved from the language of charity to the language of justice”.
Republic Day in India post-independence
From 1930 until India finally gained independence in 1947, January 26 was celebrated as “Independence Day” or “Poorna Swaraj Day”, with the Indians reaffirming their commitment to sovereignty on that day.
However, India gained independence from the British on August 15, exactly two years after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies to end World War II. As historian Ramchandra Guha wrote, “Freedom finally came on a day that resonated with imperial pride rather than nationalistic sentiment.”
So when leaders had to decide on the day on which India’s new constitution would be promulgated, January 26 was considered ideal. Not only did this date already have nationalistic significance, the Constitution in many ways mirrored the “Poorna Swaraj” declaration of two decades ago.
While today’s Republic Day celebrations are very different from what Poorna Swaraj Day looked like under the British Raj, January 26 remains a solemn reminder of India’s journey to achieve self-government.