Why Republic Day is celebrated

India is a republic only when its laws result from free public discussion and pass open scrutiny

Updated - January 26, 2022 07:32 am IST

Published - January 26, 2022 12:02 am IST

Laws and regulations icon, thin line isolated illustration, linear vector web design sign, outline concept symbol with editable stroke on white background.

Laws and regulations icon, thin line isolated illustration, linear vector web design sign, outline concept symbol with editable stroke on white background.

The Preamble to the Constitution declares that India is a ‘Republic’. This self-description must be taken seriously: being a republic is integral to India’s political identity. Moreover, this is not just a descriptive but also a strong, ethical, normative claim. Being republican is an ideal to which we are meant to consistently aspire, and when we go astray, we should know that we have done something wrong, feel remorse, and make amends. If our political identity loses its republican character, we must quickly act to restore it. It is because we cherish being a republic that on every January 26 since 1950, we celebrate this founding moment. The parade and the ritual surrounding it are meaningless unless we get the spirit behind the event.

Against monarchy

What is meant by a republic and what is its significance? For a start, the primary collective intent behind a republic is anti-monarchical. The Greeks defined monarchy as the ‘rule of one (mono)’, a form of government where one person rules and all others obey; one is sovereign, all others his subjects. We usually associate it with the hereditary rule of Maharajas and Maharanis but in the Greek definition of the term, it also covers rule by modern dictators (autocracy). But what is wrong with the rule of one person? Why fear rule by one person? Perhaps the most pernicious quality about monarchy is that it subjects people to the whim and fancy of one person, to his arbitrary will. One day he likes us and gives us, say a land grant. The next day, he withdraws the grant and puts us in jail. All powers are vested in him. God-like, he becomes judge and jury, makes and executes laws, decides when they are violated, and rewards and punishes as he pleases. All these decisions affecting us are taken without discussion, mysteriously, privately, and expressed as revealed truth. The entire decision-making process remains close to his chest. Hidden from everyone, it brooks neither transparency nor accountability. It is this tyrannical potential of the rule of one person, the absolute and arbitrary use of power that we dread.


Government by discussion

What alternative does a republic offer? The English word ‘republic’ is derived from the Latin ‘Res publica’ — the public thing. This translates in the political domain into decision-making in the open, in full view of all. A republic then is associated with what we today call the ‘public sphere’, an open space where people put forward claims about what is good for the community, what is in collective interest. After discussing, debating and deliberating upon them, they reach decisions about which laws to have and what course of action to take. A republic is ‘government by free and open discussion’.

The contrast between monarchical and republican forms of government could not be sharper. Monarchy entails surrender to the arbitrary power of another person, allowing whimsical intrusion in our choices, living at the mercy of the master. It breeds slavery.

Those who live for long periods under subjection of others tend to develop slavishness, a mental torpor difficult to dispel. Silenced, they lose a vibrant sense of their own agency, are rendered without the capacity to think for themselves or take decisions about their own lives. For this reason, Gandhi used the idea of Swaraj to challenge not only political colonisation by the British, but the colonisation of our minds. It is because rule by one makes people unfree and enslaves them that the republic, its alternative, is strongly associated with freedom. To have a republic is to have a free people. This is why Gandhi’s swaraj is an important republican idea. And also why the republican tradition emphasises the importance of citizenship. After all, to be a citizen is to belong to a political community where one can express oneself and act freely. Citizens alone have political liberty. Without it, we are mere subjects.

For republic-lovers, political liberty means not unbridled freedom to do whatever one pleases (negative liberty), but to live by laws made by citizens themselves, that are a product of their own will, not the arbitrary will of others. This explains why republics have a constitution generated by a deliberative body of citizens which provides the basic law of the land, the fundamental framework of governance. The phrase “We, the People” in the Constitution is not a mere literary embellishment but central to a republican constitution. The willingness to live by self-made regulations but enforced by public power or the state also means that those who value a republic are not against states per se but against those that take away our political freedom.

‘Republic’ and ‘democratic’

It appears from what is said above that the word ‘republic’ covers all that is meant by the term ‘democratic’. Our own Constituent Assembly initially took the view that since the word ‘republic’ contains the word ‘democratic’, it may be unnecessary to use both. This would have been in keeping with the French republican tradition where the two terms are used interchangeably. Yet, after announcing its commitment to sever its links with an external, imperial monarch, and with all existing and future claims of local rajas and make India a republic, B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru conceded that since an undemocratic republic is conceivable, a separate commitment to democratic institutions is necessary.

This decision was correct. It was wise to keep both terms in the Preamble. The idea of the republic conveys that decisions shall be made not by a single individual but by citizens after due deliberation in an open forum. But this is consistent with a narrow criterion of who counts as a citizen. Ancient Roman republics were not inclusive. Ancient India probably had aristocratic clan-republics which were far from democratic. In ancient Greece, slaves, women, and foreigners were not considered citizens and excluded from decision-making.

Indeed, for many Greek thinkers, democracy had a negative connotation precisely because it was believed to involve everyone, including plebeians, what we contemptuously call ‘the mob’. What the term ‘democratic’ brings to our Constitution is that citizenship be available to everyone, regardless of their wealth, education, gender, perceived social ranking, religion, race, or ideological beliefs. The word ‘democracy’ makes the republic inclusive. No one is excluded from citizenship. For example, all have the right to vote. At the same time, if voting, for practical reasons, is restricted only to choosing representatives who, in the name of the people, make laws and policies, then citizens must at least have the right to be properly informed, seek transparency and accountability from their government.

A republic must, at the very least, have perpetually vigilant citizens who act as watchdogs, monitor their representatives, and retain the right to contest any law or policy made on their behalf. By going beyond mere counting of heads, the term ‘republic’ brings free public discussion to our democratic constitution. It gives depth to our democracy. It is mandatory that decisions taken by the representatives of the people be properly deliberated, remain open to scrutiny, and be publicly, legally contested even after they have been made.

When the farmers came out on the streets to peacefully challenge the three farm laws made by the current government, they exercised not only their democratic rights but also exhibited the highest of republican virtues. It is to celebrate such political acts of citizens that we have the Republic Day.

Rajeev Bhargava is a political philosopher and Honorary Fellow, The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi

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