Purna Swaraj: January 26, India's Republic Day, and the Declaration of the Independence of India
Updated: Dec 10, 2022
It was on January 26, 1930 that the Indian National Congress called for the country to dedicate itself to Purna Swaraj, the fight for self-rule.
The moment was a fulcrum of history. After centuries of British rule, the time had come for Indian nationalists to fight for liberation. While India still had 20 years to go before it would see this vision become a reality, January 26 is the day that became possible.
And now, the date is remembered and celebrated as Republic Day.
But to understand how important January 26 is to Indians and all people who fight against colonial rule, we need to grasp the full weight of this history. Why did Britain eventually give India independence? Who fought for this change? And why is this day so important in world history?
The British Empire and the Fight for Total Independence
The events of January 26th, 1930 came after nearly two centuries of British rule. The colonization began not with an attack from the British government, but by a corporation -- the East India Company.
The 18th century saw the company gradually take over the land that today is known as India and Pakistan. At the time, the subcontinent was mostly ruled by the Mughal Empire, an economic powerhouse at the time. But military conquest by the company's private army gradually overwhelmed the local leaders.
The company ruthlessly opened up India to economic exploitation. This British connection saw the empire grow wealthy on the backs of extracted labor, resources, and taxes.
In 1857, the Indian Mutiny led to the British government installing itself to squash dissent and keep the flow of goods pouring into the heart of the empire.
The Rise of the Indian Independence Movement
By the late 1800s, several political parties made up the nascent Indian Independence Movement. While some parties called for dominion status -- having home rule while still being under the British crown -- there were many who believed the country needed Purna Swaraj.
In their way stood many parties that thought this was too radical, preferring a government controlled by the vast power of the British Empire.
But in 1919, the Amritsar Massacre changed minds. The horrors of seeing British soldiers open fire on 5,000 peaceful demonstrators ignited the country. Pritika Chowdhry has made a powerful anti-memorial to the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 and how it changed India, and other events in the year 1919 that changed the world.
The next year, Mahatma Gandhi began organizing a civil disobedience movement to fight to attain some form of home rule as the fundamental mission of the Indian people. A coalition of nationalist groups, labor unions, and others joined the struggle for independence.
After years of activism and confrontations, the British government decided to solve the grave issues on the subcontinent by a commission made up entirely of Europeans, with no input from Indian leaders.
The Simon Commission, named after Sir John Simon who was appointed its head, was established in 1927. It set out to create a set of political reforms that might mollify India.
In outrage, the Indian Congress created its own group to make constitutional reforms, led by Congress President Motilal Nehru. The subsequent Nehru Report demanded independence under dominion status.
This report was a compromise. It went too far for the likes of the All India Muslim League and the Indian Liberal Party, but for many Indian nationalists, it did not go far enough.
Bringing Events to a Head
By December 1928, the All India Congress Committee was set to vote on demanding dominion status. While others called for full independence, many Indian leaders -- including Gandhi -- considered it a hollow gesture. Why risk an agreement that might grant some freedom with a demand that won't be taken seriously?
The Congress finally passed a resolution for dominion status to be handed over within a year. Optimism ran high, and Indians were ready for good news.
But when the Viceroy of India -- the British appointed head of the region -- met with nationalists like Ganhdi and Motilal Nehru, it became clear that even the limited scope of their demands were too much, and the talks broke down. Something more needed to be done.
The Push for Complete Independence
In late 1929, newly elected President Jawaharlal Nehru (son of Motilal), Congress volunteers and delegates, several political parties, and public crowds gathered in Lahore. It was here that the Indian National Congress held its now famous Lahore session to discuss a demand that once seemed impossible: Purna Swaraj.
The gathering created and approved the Declaration of the Independence of India. It summarized their position:
The British government in India has not only deprived the Indian people of their freedom but has based itself on the exploitation of the masses, and has ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually.... India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj or complete independence.
That New Year's Eve, Nehru hoisted publicly the flag of India, and the declaration was read to a jubilant public. Hopes were high.
On January 26, a full Declaration of the Independence of India was created. Along with this, a civil disobedience campaign restarted with full vigor under the leadership of Gandhi. This led to the fight against the salt tax -- called the Salt Satyagraha, and the Non-Cooperation Movement as a whole.
The British Empire was on its heels in India.
Years of Fighting for a Free India
While January 26 was celebrated as Independence Day in the years that followed, it was August 15, 1947 -- with the British racked by the losses of World War II -- that came to be the true moment that power was handed over to India.
The chaos of Partition that followed led to deep divisions between India and Pakistan, but the land was free of British rule. Purna Swaraj had come. Pritika Chowdhry has made several anti-memorials to the 1947 Partition of India that unpack the far-reaching various far-reaching effects of the Partition.
When a new Constitution of India was passed, the Constituent Assembly set January 26, 1950 as the day it was to come into effect. This pointed to the long legacy of struggle in India for the inalienable right of total independence, one that found its apogee on that day in 1930.
The weight of history on January 26 has made it officially observed as Republic Day of India. And it is this day that we reflect on the brave people and their long pursuit to attain Purna Swaraj.
It was a victory that proved complicated. While freedom was won, the divisions created by colonial control would continue to haunt those who lived in the aftermath. Getting the yoke of imperialism off the neck of a nation proved itself to be the first step. Undoing the deep rifts caused by the plow, however, continues to be the work of the Indian people.
Jonathan Clark is a writer and organic farmer living in the Burned-over district of New York. His work appears widely across the internet and in print. You can find more of his work at www.jonathanclark.net.