August 15 is not just about the Red Fort speech

It is not merely the choreography of ‘official’ Independence Day that needs repair. What could be far more consequential are the reasons why, in the mind of an influential section of India, the Republic is a notch above the nation.

india Updated: Aug 15, 2014 01:51 IST

A glance at the writings of India’s public intellectuals may well reveal a curious phenomenon. Whereas many are likely to view 1947 as the point of departure between ‘history’ and ‘modern’ India, there are others who prefer to distinguish between the Raj and the Republic. Some of the usage may well be stylistic but the choice also suggests a hierarchy of values — between nationalism and republican values.

To the irreverent cosmopolitan, January 26 easily prevails over August 15. Republic Day always seems more glamorous: The weather is more agreeable, the pageantry is spectacular and the announcement of the Padma awards invariably adds an extra zing to the President’s ‘At home’. By contrast, a humid Independence Day is excessively focused on the Prime Minister’s Red Fort speech that, judging by the past, has usually left the nation underwhelmed. If the parade on Rajpath on an overcast winter morning is obligatory viewing, the Red Fort speech is often eminently worth a miss.

It is not merely the choreography of ‘official’ Independence Day that needs repair. What could be far more consequential are the reasons why, in the mind of an influential section of India, the Republic is a notch above the nation.

For a start, it is intriguing why the Republic should be shorthand for post-Independence India. After all, Britain isn’t always described as ‘monarchical’ Britain for added emphasis and neither is any political prefix used before the US. In the old days, it was always ‘Nazi’ Germany, ‘Communist’ China and, more recently, ‘Islamic’ Iran. In highlighting its republican credentials, some of the chroniclers of the ‘idea of India’ are certainly placing the country in the dodgy company of States that flaunt official ideologies.

Some parallels are, of course, not so toxic. Germany has discovered something called ‘constitutional patriotism’ — a conceptual jugglery that seeks to separate the present from a troubled past. The idea appeals to post-national Indians.

These are asides. In the Indian context, the over-emphasis on the Constitution as the arbiter of national identity hints at the importance attached to State and authority. For the custodians of the Republic, a plasticine Constitution isn’t what symbolises Republic Day. The object of worship is State power.

The choice of the Asokan lions by Jawaharlal Nehru to epitomise sovereign authority was inspired. The resurrected icon conveyed an imperial-like authority and blessed the Indian State with gravitas. A powerful symbol of the Mauryas was an appropriate replacement for the Crown over the King-Emperor’s head.

A facet of British rule that appealed to Indians was its ‘ornamentalism’. The more imperial-minded of Britain’s representatives in India — Lord Wellesley and Lord Curzon in particular — took exceptional care to create monuments to power and authority. Even Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy entrusted with the job of unravelling the Empire, purposely made his first public appearance in full ceremonial regalia, leaving nothing to the imagination.

Republic Day is centred on this celebration of the spectacular. It is above all a celebration of the State by the State.

The contrast with August 15 couldn’t have been starker. Going by the calendar of the freedom movement, Independence Day should have fallen on January 26, not August 15. It was on that day in 1930 that the Congress adopted the Purna Swaraj resolution and put an end to all British hopes of retaining India as a self-governing dominion. Unfortunately, Mountbatten’s haste and Clement Atlee’s helplessness ruined old calculations. Nevertheless, despite this seasonal departures, August 15 has turned out the way January 26 was originally conceived — an occasion that commemorates democratic vibrancy, historical memory and the functioning anarchy of politics.

Not everything, however, has turned out the way it was conceived in 1930. The nationalist leaders chanted Vande Mataram while unfurling the tricolour; today, perhaps as an unspoken tribute to Subhas Bose’s INA, we chant Jai Hind. For a few, Vande Mataram’s associations are insufficiently secular. In 1930, even Jawaharlal Nehru wore the ubiquitous dhoti. He discarded it altogether after Independence and ‘modern’ India took that as the cue to mock the dhotiwallah. Nehru’s sartorial preferences became the ‘national dress’. Finally, unlike the past when I-Day was spontaneous and improvised, Nehru made the ramparts of the Red Fort the permanent venue for the big speech. He was again prompted by symbolism. The Red Fort stood for the sovereign authority of the Mughal badshah, even when actual control of the territories had passed to others. For independent India, the Red Fort came to epitomise the sovereignty of Delhi and, by extension, the unity of India.

Yet, there was one facet of national life that has defied the intrusions of the new Republic: Popular memory. Despite many attempts to impose some order into India’s myriad past, there remains a fundamental gulf between ‘history’ and memory. The sanitised version sees Independence as a seamless journey from darkness to light. But that’s not how most Indians recall narrations of the past by grandparents and elders.

These stories are a mixed bag. There are tales of heroism peppered with the exaggerations of time; some are curious stories of, say, a kindly zamindar or a benevolent English district magistrate, that defy stereotypes; and others are tales dotted with chronological silences. The past, as seen through the prism of August 15, is about all these experiences — family experiences that zigzag across political faultlines.

That is why there is something very special about August 15 that goes well beyond the Red Fort speech and the Manoj Kumar films on TV. This was the day the disparate expressions of hope and even despondency coalesced into an expression of nationhood. Independence was (and is) about the people’s own visions of the achche din. Together they add up something more potent and substantive than the philosophy of the Republic.

(Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Aug 14, 2014 23:24 IST