What India’s First Republic Day Celebrations Looked Like

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Three years after India won her hard-fought freedom from British rule in 1947, another milestone was added in the journey of this new nation – India became a Republic. It’s why we celebrate Republic Day, on 26th January 1950. It was the day the Constitution of India took effect, making the country a Democratic Republic.

Here’s what this really means:

Constitution of India | Wikimedia Commons

- On 26th January, the Indian Constitution replaced the Government of India Act of 1935, a colonial piece of legislation that continued to govern India in the first three years after Independence.

- 26th January was chosen as Republic Day as it was on this day that the Indian National Congress declared Purna Swaraj (Complete Self-Rule) at its session in 1930. This historic declaration is considered the first step towards independence from colonial rule.

- Becoming a Republic meant that India was now a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” that “secures all its citizens justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity”. This is enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution.

What was India’s first Republic Day like?

Dr. Rajendra Prasad at the Durbar Hall | Credits: Pranab Mukherjee, Twitter

On that fateful day in 1950, the Durbar Hall at the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) in New Delhi witnessed a solemn ceremony. At precisely 10.18 AM, the first and last Indian Governor-General of India, C Rajagopalachari, declared the country a Republic. Precisely six minutes later, Dr Rajendra Prasad was sworn in as India’s first President. And with that, India’s first Republic Day celebrations were declared open.

The excited crowds during the First Republic Day | Credits: Pranab Mukherjee, Twitter

On India’s 72nd Republic Day, we bring you some fascinating details from the very first celebrations.

What, No Rajpath?

No daredevil motorcyclists performing death-defying stunts, no fancy tableaux gliding down Rajpath, and no pomp and grandeur. India’s very first Republic Day parade was a modest event. The solemn ceremony was held at the Irwin Amphitheatre, now called Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, in the capital.

It began with a flag-hoisting ceremony presided over by India’s first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad. This was followed by a march past of the armed forces, including a fly-past by the Indian Air Force. Rajpath became the permanent venue of the parade five years later.

Interestingly, the colourful and creative tableaux that represent the vibrant heritage and culture of India’s many states made an appearance in the parade only in its second year.

The Curious Case of the President’s Buggy

A gold-plated, horse-drawn carriage can mean only one thing – royalty. And the Viceroy of India was the Sovereign’s representative in British-India. A royal leftover from the days of the Raj, this elegant buggy became the ‘Presidential Buggy’or the official vehicle of the President of India, post-Independence. It’s what the President has been using traditionally when he or she shows up for official events.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad in his buggy, on the way to the Parade | Credits: Pranab Mukherjee, Twitter

So it was in this buggy that Dr Rajendra Prasadpulled up in at the Irwin Amphitheatre for India’s very first Republic Day celebration. He almost didn’t and here’s why.

When the Partition of India took place in 1947, the soldiers in the Army were divided between India and Pakistan in a 2:1 ratio. The soldiers of the Governor-General’s Bodyguard followed suit and those on the Indian side were renamed the ‘President’s Bodyguard’ in 1950. But when the matter of the Presidential Buggy’s ownership was raised, both countries wanted to claim this ‘treasure’. So they tossed a coin!

A coin was flipped between the Commandant of the Indian side, Lt Col Thakur Govind Singh, and his Pakistani counterpart, Major Sahabzada Yaqoob Khan. No prizes for guessing who the winner was.

The First Guest

The chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade is traditionally a foreign leader and the first-ever head of state to preside over this august event was Indonesian President Sukarno.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad with Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru | Credits: Pranab Mukherjee, Twitter

Interestingly, when Indian independence was approaching in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to assist Indonesia in its own freedom struggle against Dutch rule. India thus secretly flew out some of Indonesia’s top leaders, so that they could attend the Pan-Asian Conference, so that their voice could be heard globally. Indonesia finally won its freedom in 1949.

The Bravery Chakras

It was on this day, India’s very first Republic Day, that the country’s top gallantry awards were introduced by Dr Rajendra Prasad – the Param Vir Chakra, Maha Vir Chakra and Vir Chakra.

The highest of these awards, the Param Vir Chakra, was given to five army personnel for their bravery during the Kashmir War (1947-48). The recipients were Major Somnath Sharma (Posthumous), Lt Ram Raghoba Rane, Lance Naik Karam Singh, Naik Jadunath Singh (Posthumous) and Company Havaldar Major Piru Singh Shekhawat (Posthumous).

But the honour was not conferred during the first Republic Day celebrations. While the award for the first four recipients was given during the second Republic Day parade (1951), Piru Singh was honoured during the 1952 celebrations.