Coauthored with Ashlyn Anderson, research associate for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As President Barack Obama prepares to travel to India—the first American guest of honor to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations, it’s helpful to understand the history behind the day, and the significance of Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to Obama to attend the ceremonies. The history of Republic Day has some unique connections to the United States.
Indians celebrate Republic Day on January 26, a commemoration of the day the country formally became a republic in 1950—not to be confused with Independence Day, celebrated on August 15, marking the day the country achieved independence from the British in 1947.
India formally became a republic on January 26, 1950, the day the constitution came into force. The constitution itself had been ratified by the constituent assembly, a group of 299 representatives selected for the specific task of drafting a new constitution for the newly independent country, in November 1949. Before this day, India’s head of state was an appointed governor-general, not an (indirectly) elected president.
Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) led the drafting committee and he is widely considered the architect of the Constitution of India. Born a Dalit, below the caste structure in India and the group formerly called “Untouchables,” Ambedkar struggled against the caste discrimination that permeated Indian society and would eventually become a noted leader in social justice movements. He arrived in New York in 1913 to study at Columbia University, an unusual path at a time many Indians looked to the United Kingdom for higher education if they studied abroad.
Through his time at Columbia, Ambedkar expanded his ideas of social and political equality, and the ability of democratic institutions to achieve those standards based on his studies of the American experience. A superb web resource for Ambedkar’s work, particularly The Annihilation of Caste, has been developed by Columbia University’s Frances Pritchett. A recent book on the philosophical foundations of modern India, Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, contains an excellent section on Ambedkar.
India’s constitution is the longest in the world. There are remarkable similarities between the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of India that exemplify the principles and values of democracy. Both founding documents begin with the words “we the people,” signifying the investment of political power in the people. India’s constitution similarly guarantees fundamental rights to all Indian citizens, and ensures individual freedoms. The preambles of both constitutions look to ensure justice, freedom, and liberty to their citizens:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
"WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India
into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and
to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and
integrity of the Nation;
IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of
November, 1949, do HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO
OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION"
President Obama recognized Ambedkar for his extraordinary contributions to India in his address to the Indian parliament in November 2010. And this week, as the only U.S. president to travel to India twice while in office, Obama will join Indian Prime Minister Modi and President Mukherjee as the chief guest of the 66th Republic Day celebrations to experience one of the most vibrant parades in the world. Since 1950, India has invited foreign leaders to attend as the state guest of honor at the celebrations, and Obama is the first U.S. president to receive an invitation.
On January 26, parades and flag-raising ceremonies will take place across India, with the most impressive event at Rajpath in New Delhi. From the top of Rajpath, the wide central boulevard built by the British colonial-era architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in New Delhi, the view straight ahead reveals India Gate, a war memorial. Republic Day begins by remembering national martyrs, and is a day on which national honor awards will also be conferred.
The president of India, nominal commander-in-chief of the Indian armed forces, presides over the Republic Day parade, which follows a wreath-laying ceremony in memory of deceased members of the armed forces, a twenty-one gun salute, the unfolding of the Indian flag, and the singing of the national anthem. The parade features military vehicles and equipment, followed by the procession of regiments of the armed forces, police, home guards, National Cadet Corps, cultural dances, and children from across India, some riding on adorned camels and elephants. The finale is a sky parade of Air Force fighter jets over Rajpath.
For the intrepid, the complete nearly three-hour broadcast of last year’s Republic Day parade can be viewed on YouTube’s Doordarshan channel.