Public debates have long been a tradition in India and have played a major role in shaping the country’s politics. This especially held true following India’s struggle for independence as national leaders considered the kind of country India should aspire to be. India is a democracy now, but was this what the authors of the Constitution intended? In the following extract, Bhikhu Parekh offers an answer to this fundamental question and reflects on the evolution of the Indian government.
Although India is a democracy, this does not fully describe what the authors of its Constitution had in mind. The Congress resolution on the Objectives of the Constitution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Constituent Assembly on 20 November 1946 included the word ‘republic’ but not ‘democracy’. When asked why, he replied that the former ‘included’ the latter. His reply implied that the term republic was wider than and did not mean exactly the same as democracy, but he did not spell out the difference. After some weeks when the first draft of the Constitution was introduced, it included the word ‘democracy’ but dropped the word ‘republic’. Its final draft had both and declared India a ‘democratic republic’. For its authors, the country was meant to be not just a democracy but also a republic, and it has since 1950 celebrated a republic day separately from its Independence day and given it a very different orientation. This raises the question of what they meant by the two terms and why they did not think either enough. The two terms are also translated by different words with different histories and meanings in vernacular languages (prajasatta or ganarajya as different from lokshahi).
It is often argued that India was declared a republic because rather than retain the British monarch as its formal head as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand had done, it chose to elect its own. While this is true, it is not enough. Since India had made that choice sometime ago, it does not explain why the Constituent Assembly vacillated over what to call the country. More importantly, it stresses only the formal features of the idea of the republic and ignores the deeper meaning and significance it had for its advocates.
Many leading Indians from the mid-nineteenth century onwards were fascinated by and had written admiringly about the Indian and Western republics from their different perspectives. The republican idea was particularly popular among the spokesmen of the Scheduled and ‘lower’ castes. Jotirao Phule, one of their ablest and earliest spokesmen, had read and was influenced by the Western republican writers including Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and praised the republican spirit of equality, love of liberty, and commitment to public well-being. He attributed the post-Renaissance resurgence of Europe to the rise of the republics and the decline of India to the overthrow of the Buddhist republics by the Brahmanic monarchies. Ambedkar took a broadly similar view and was particularly interested in the French and American republics. He studied the latter closely during his years at Columbia University, wrote and lectured on the subject, and made a powerful case for making India a republic. He admired the French revolution of 1789 and its ‘republican’ and egalitarian spirit. His Independent Labour Party (founded in 1931) was later called the Republican Party of India. Although this happened after his death, he had already set the wheels in motion.
Several mainstream liberal and socialists leaders too were great admirers of the republican form of government. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote about the modern European republics in his Glimpses of World History, praising their great virtues such as civic courage, public spirit, egalitarian ethos, and love of freedom, and was most enthusiastic about the French revolution. He declared himself a republican in his Presidential address at the Lahore session of Congress in 1929 and came close to equating republicanism with socialism. J.P. Narayan, Lohia, Narendra Dev, M.N. Roy, and others shared his view.
Although these and other advocates of the republic drew their inspiration from different sources and stressed its different features, they shared a broad consensus on what it meant and why it was important. For them, it overlapped with but was not the same as democracy and referred primarily to neither an elected head of state nor even a form of government as democracy did but to a political and social order characterized by four important features. These were social and economic equality, the state as a public institution, an active and public-spirited citizenship, and separation of powers.
Featured image credit: “The national flag of India hoisted on a wall adorned with domes and minarets” by Dennis Jarvis. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.