Birth of a Nation: Looking Back at India’s First Republic Day

Revisiting India’s first ever Republic Day celebration on 26 January 1950, and the day preceding it.

It was decided that India would become a truly sovereign state on 26 January 1950.
It was decided that India would become a truly sovereign state on 26 January 1950.

(This story was first published on 25 January 2018. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of Republic Day.)

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.

I. Leading Up to The Big Day

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/Vilakshan Jakhu</a>)&nbsp;
A cartoon from HT published on 24 January showing Chairman of the Drafting Committee (and later Law Minister) B R Ambedkar holding an infant Republic of India while Mother India lays in bed exhausted from labour. Around him stand Dr Rajendra Prasad and Nehru, looking anxiously. 

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:

Let us launch on this new enterprise of running our Independent Republic with confidence, with truth and non-violence and above all, with heart within and God above.

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <i>Hindustan Times</i> archive from 25 January 1950)&nbsp;

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.

On this occasion, it was President Sukarno who concluded his speech by proclaiming Jai Hind. Nehru, true to his style, did not disappoint and concluded his speech by shouting Merdeka!, which in Indonesian means, freedom.
(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/Deepankar</a>)&nbsp;
First President of Indonesia, Sukarno, was the first chief guest to witness the Indian Republic Day in 1950.

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.”

II. Breathing Life Into Infant India

It is a great day for our country. India has had a long and chequered history; parts of it were cloudy and parts bright and sunlit. At no period, even during the most glorious eras of which we have record, was this whole country brought under one Constitution and one rule.
Dr Rajendra Prasad

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Hindustan Times archives</a>)&nbsp;

“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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/Pranab Mukherjee</a>)&nbsp;
India’s first Republic Day began with Rajaji proclaiming India a Sovereign Democratic Republic at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Cutting the Chai)</a>
Archive image of the front page of Indian Express dated 28 January 1950. 

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 live as free men and women.”

The dignified part of the celebrations were over; the revelry was set to begin.

III. The First Republic Day Parade

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/Aha Taxi</a>)&nbsp;

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/Shashi Kant</a>)&nbsp;

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Mere Pix</a>)&nbsp;
A 31-gun salute welcomed Dr Prasad to the first ever Republic Day celebrations.

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.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/Pranab Mukherjee</a>)&nbsp;
Dr Prasad inspecting the Armed Forces at Irwin Amphitheatre.
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 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.