25 Jan 2023  |   04:59am IST

Happy Republic Day


It must have been fun the midnight when Jawaharlal Nehru told his countrymen that India had at last woken to freedom. He did not have to elaborate that midnight utter what it meant to be free of British colonialism. 

Next morning, as he unfurled the Tricolour chosen to be the free nation’s flag from the Red Fort ramparts, he explained to the poor and the rich, the farmers, students, soldiers and businessmen, what an independent India had in store for them. 

They had suffered the humiliation of a 100 years of British crown rule, and before that the humiliating slavery of the East India Company which defeated, bartered, or bought the subcontinent’s feudal overlords. Now they were their own rulers, free to participate in what the Americans have so comprehensively defined as the Pursuit of Happiness. 

A succession of men and a woman have stood in Nehru’s footsteps on those ramparts, amplifying, restating, and often diluting, his words. 

Each year, the country offers more to its people, though it is not each year that the people succeed in enjoying those fruits. Some years, they see morsels snatched from their mouths. And there have been years when they have come to fear that Independence would not last. Or that their personal freedom would be short-lived. The Emergency of 1975 was such a couple of years. 

Unofficial erosion of Independence has been larger, if not so sudden. Imperceptible filings have roughened the edges of freedom in many ways, most of all in matters of the economy, where the gap between the rich and the poor has widened beyond measure. The Covid pandemic brought to focus the resilience of Indians. But it showed how fragile infrastructure was. And how a jolt that severed lives, caused far more damage in ruined lives, jobs lost, and futures washed away in tears of frustration.

Independence, each one of us prays, is permanent. Never again will the country be a slave or a vassal of some new power, military or economic.

The Republic is meant to assure just that. The focus is not on the Prime Minister – as charismatic and loved as Nehru or as powerful as Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi.  The titular head of state, the President of India, basks in the glory of a long military parade showcasing the personnel and homemade or foreign-bought war materiel, in the national capital.  

The star of day is the Constitutionality of the Republic. The freedom we boast of is not a dole, but a right sealed on indestructible parchment. We celebrate the day the Constitution of India, duly signed by members of the Constituent assembly after three years and more of debate spanning one of the worst bloodsheds in history was installed as the rule book. It replaced all iniquitous rules, history, custom, traditions; even faith had bound us to these many millennia.

The Constitution creates us as participating citizens, shareholders in the nation's destiny.  Its many articles, finely honed, and re-honed a 100 times since then in Amendments, are a matter of global envy in that they shatter bounds of race, gender, ethnicity, language, age, land and economic status in the enjoyment of liberties.

Achieving the peak of theoretical equality, the Constitution rises a notch further to protect the weakest, and to offer an oxygen chamber and a ladder, if needed, so that the vulnerable can feel a level field under their feet.

The protection that Dalits, Adivasis, women, and religious and linguistic minorities enjoy is a guarantee of the Constitutional state which has stood the test of time.  

It strikes a delicate but critical balance between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Unlike in the US, the media does not have statutory rights; its independence has been repeatedly stressed as being crucial to the people and the nation.  Weak it may often become in the gusts of economic and political storms, but the fourth pillar of the State has deep roots that overcome these defeats, much as they overcame the censorship of the Emergency or the land shift in technology.

This delicate balance seems strained at present. In the statements of the Vice President of India, the law minister, and sundry lesser political mortals, many would see an assertion by the political party in power to assert itself over the judiciary. The political apparatus questions the system the judiciary maintains its continuity by nominating successive entrants to the High Court and Supreme Court benches. The government’s approval is sought, and the President issues the warrant of appointment, but the five senior judges of the SC in effect choose all future judges.

The politicians do not grudge the SC these powers out of some false sense of ego in that the elected Parliament should be, and should be seen, as the absolute power.

Their critics, among them the sharpest judicial brains of the present and the past, see a larger design – that to get the power to be able to change the basic structure of the Constitution. The SC maintains that Parliament cannot distort, damage or alter the basic features of the Constitution under the pretext of amending it. This is a step to preserve the ideals of the freedom struggle and the vision of the fathers of the Constitution.

The basic structure is what the Preamble of the Constitution hints at in its great words.

Most of what allows us citizens to exercise our human rights, to life, liberty, equality and fraternity, are at the heart of the Constitution. A secular state which does not lean in favour of one or the faith is part of it. And the guarantee that the welfare state will take care of the vulnerable, come hell, high water, or pandemic.

We should cherish it. And protect it.

Happy Republic Day!

(John Dayal is an author, editor, occasional documentary filmmaker and activist. He lives in New Delhi)