India attained independence from the British empire in 1947, thus breaking free from the clutches of colonialism, repression, slavery, and oppression that chained us for almost three centuries, and ordinarily, this ought to be the only day of national significance. Why, then, is the Republic Day, coming almost 2 and a half years after independence, so important? Why is it so revered and respected by Indians across the length and breadth of this country? The answer lies in two very basic things
After the Second World War, Britain simply no longer had the resources with which to control its greatest imperial asset, and its exit from India was messy, hasty, and clumsily improvised. In August, 1947, when, after three hundred years in India, the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.
The distraught partion of 1947
Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.
Nisid Hajari, in “Midnight’s Furies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), his fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.” By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. The comparison with the death camps is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Partition is central to modern identity in the
Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence. The acclaimed Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has called Partition “the central historical event in twentieth century South Asia.” She writes, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
Amidst all that chaotic turbulence, the Constitution gave us an identity and a sense of direction: It was, in theory, a moment of calm in the eye of a storm that threatened to engulf and consume us. However, the Constitution of India was important for a much bigger reason- It led to the creation of an idea of India.
The Preamble of the Indian Constitution (Image Courtesy: The Indian Express)
It is the idea of an evolving land – emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. India’s democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Maharashtrian and a good Indian all at once. In India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. India is a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls (or different flowers in a garden). Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.
So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. Unity in diversity, and the idea of a nation being greater than the sum of its contradictions was born on the Republic Day. India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams, and we are only providing wings to their dreams.They created strong institutions that reinforce the idea that all Indians are created different, but equal, and we must all learn to accommodate conflicting views to grow as one nation.
The underlying message, then, is that to prosper in the 21st century, we have to keep going back to the ideals of the Constitution. It is this sense of identity that makes the Republic Day so important.