Friday, January 26, 2007

Republic Day

Every year the 26th of January is celebrated as the Republic Day in India. Today is India's 58th Republic Day. While India gained political independence from the British empire on August 15, 1947; we formally adopted a democratic constitution and became a Republic on January 26, 1950. There is a curious bit of history behind this date. The Indian constitution was drafted by the Constituent Assembly, which was the body of elected representatives that governed India since independence. The Constituent Assembly passed the Indian Constitution on November 26, 1949. January 26 was deliberately chosen as the formal date of adoption of the constitution because it was on that day in 1930 that the Indian National Congress had symbolically declared "Poorna Swaraja" - complete independence- from Britain.

In some ways the Republic Day is more important than Independence day in my opinion. It was on this day that we chose the path we would take as a nation. We committed ourselves to the ideals of a liberal democracy. We chose to become a nation governed by laws - not men. Half a century later much remains to be done to fully achieve a true democracy in India. Politics in India is still dominated by caste equations, religion based vote banks and by parties which - while participating in the democratic process - are themselves highly un-democratic and governed by "supremos" and "high commands". When we adopted the constitution, we decided that India would be a "Sovereign Socialist Democratic Republic". The word "Secular" was added to that list later in 1976. Most of the socialist policies implemented since independence have been counter-productive and have posed a great impediment to progress in India. After India began dismantling some of those policies in the 1990s, India has seen significant economic growth. Secularism too has a long way to go in India.

During this period India has fought five defensive wars against it's neighbours (1947, 1962, 1965, 1971, 1999). There were internal threats as well. Pakistan has waged a proxy war with India by fostering and sponsoring terrorists in Kashmir. There was also the separatist militancy in Punjab in the 1980's and early 1990's. Regional threats such as the ULFA separatists in Assam continue to operate even today. The 18 months from 1975-77, when Indira Gandhi declared national emergency and suspended civil liberties, was perhaps the only time when India came close to wavering from the democratic path. In spite of all these threats and shortcomings, India has managed to remain a democratic country. This I believe is a significant achievement. The fact that we have managed to hang together as a democratic country in spite of the multitude of differences in our country is in my opinion a huge asset for India. It is common nowadays to compare India's progress to that of China's in every aspect. Some believe that political freedom in India will prove to be a great benefit for India vis-a-vis China in the long term. I tend to agree with that line thought to a certain extent. Economic and political freedom go hand in hand. China's economic prosperity with the lack of political liberties is bound to create a clash. While China has the challenge of managing that clash in the future, the challenge for India is to bring the benefits of democracy and economic liberty to her poorest citizens.

Republic Day for me also evokes fond memories from my childhood. We used to go to school dressed in a clean uniform early in the morning for the flag hoisting ceremony. The best part for me used to be the sweets distributed at the end of the ceremony. Then I used to run back home to watch the Republic Day parade on the TV. The Republic Day parade on Rajpath in Delhi is celebrated to honor the war heroes and display the military might and cultural treasures of India. It is a great sight to watch the columns of soldiers marching in perfect harmony. The tableaux from various states follow the military parade and display the motley cultural traditions in India.

Today as India continues to grow economically at a spectacular rate, let us all renew our commitment to democracy and work to fully realize the democratic values that are enshrined in our constitution.

Jai Hind!

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