January 26: The day Indians reclaimed their republic

The events of January 26 constitute an unprecedented moment in Indian history.

Farmers participate in a protest against farm laws introduced by the government, at the historic Red Fort in Delhi on January 26, 2021 [Reuters/Adnan Abidi]

On January 26, India’s Republic Day, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers marched into New Delhi to protest against newly introduced farm laws. A few thousand protesters split from the main procession and entered the iconic Red Fort, where each year on India’s Independence Day, August 15, the prime minister hoists the national flag and addresses the nation. The protesters, who are predominantly Sikhs from the state of Punjab, hoisted their holy flag, the Nishan Sahib (symbolising spiritual and political sovereignty), right by the national tricolour.

January 26 is symbolic for Indians, as it is the day on which in 1950 the Indian constitution came into force, officially proclaiming India as a republic. The events that took place in New Delhi 71 years later demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the people of India are reclaiming their republic.

Like any reborn republic, this one is imperfect and incomplete. There is chaos, there is uncertainty as to where the nation is heading, but let us pause and acknowledge that we have just witnessed an unprecedented moment in Indian history.

Unprecedented, because India’s Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could neither foresee, nor control the events leading up to the uprising at the Red Fort, although it runs one of the most autocratic and oppressive governments in the history of independent India. Unprecedented, because, this time around, the farmers’ movement did not fizzle out over time, as has happened in the past, but instead it expanded despite threats from the police and security agencies. Unprecedented, because neither the mainstream national political parties nor the liberals could hijack – and eventually ruin – the movement. Unprecedented, because the movement grew despite the false narratives broadcast by the mostly dysfunctional Indian media, and in fact reclaimed the fourth pillar of Indian democracy by giving birth to a new media outlet.

Yes, the BJP has regained some amount of control since the events of January 26. Yes, the police have cracked down heavily on the protesters. Yes, the extensive networks of Hindu nationalist groups on social media are working overtime to spread fake news and rumours to tarnish the image of the movement.

But that does not imply what happened is not historic, revolutionary and of significant consequence for India’s future. It seems difficult for many to comprehend this.

Of course, the BJP has taken the lead in condemning the events of January 26, portraying the protesters as “anti-nationals” for hoisting the Sikh flag. Curiously, when in 2014, a Sikh flag was also raised above the Red Fort, the BJP did not complain, as it fitted into its broader anti-Muslim agenda (it was perceived to symbolise the 18th-century defeat of the Mughals, who built the Red Fort, by the Sikhs).

More surprising, perhaps, is the reaction of the Indian liberals who seemed quite upset over the sight of protesting farmers entering the Red Fort and hoisting another flag alongside the Indian tricolour, as this challenged their idea of a peaceful protest. Messiahs of the armchair liberals, such as activists Yogendra Yadav and Medha Patkar, condemned the farmers’ movement for resorting to “violence”.

It is amusing these liberals are crying foul because some protesters did not follow the designated route of the march as approved by the Delhi Police, broke barricades and entered the Red Fort. Dear liberals, you should be aware that revolutions never follow meticulous plans. They are not dinner parties where food arrives from starters to desserts in strict order, as you like them.

Even the most organised political movements in history had unexpected twists and turns. Organisation and spontaneity are not necessarily at odds – they can complement each other in the course of successfully overthrowing oppressive regimes. In fact, the spontaneity of the Red Fort takeover is a byproduct of the unprecedented scale of organised politics among the grassroots across India.

This movement is historic in that it has persisted and expanded, despite – and not because of – its leadership which includes several ideologically contradictory and regressive forces. For example, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the farmers’ organisation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) aka CPI(M) is part of the movement’s leadership. It is well known that right from its birth in 1964, the CPI(M) has been a revisionist force, and wherever it headed state governments, it worked against the interests of the working class, seizing land from farmers, selling it to corporations and suppressing dissent.

Ironically, while Hannan Mollah, a politburo member of the CPI(M) and head of AIKS, was busy condemning those who entered the Red Fort, some protesters at Red Fort were seen raising the AIKS flag.

Among other leaders who distanced themselves from the events at Red Fort is Rakesh Tikait, a former BJP ally who faced charges of inciting communal tensions during the 2013 Hindu-Muslim riots in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

There were also former BJP allies among those who appeared to support the Red Fort takeover. It is actually alleged the farmers who entered the fort were inspired by the uniquely colourful character called Deep Sidhu, an actor turned politician, who was able to mobilise large numbers of farmers in Punjab to protest against BJP’s farm laws. This is despite the fact that as recently as 2019, he was part of the BJP electoral campaign in Punjab.

Such contradictions reflect the complexities of Indian politics. On one hand, the presence of regressive forces within the movement is deeply problematic, and yet it has to be acknowledged that – due to complex ethnic and caste relations – such forces can mobilise the masses in large numbers. On the other, progressive forces of various ideologies and ethnoreligious affiliations may represent a minority in the farmer movement’s leadership, but they do have the ideological integrity to own and support events, such as the spontaneous siege of the Red Fort.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that the ongoing farmers’ protests are resonating with the Indian masses more than past demonstrations led by progressive forces within the Dalit and Muslim communities. Unfortunately, due to the ethnic, religious and caste relations that dominate Indian political and social life, it has always been extremely challenging for Muslims and Dalits to mobilise the masses and to assume leadership at a pan-Indian level.

That explains the lack of enthusiasm at a national level for the Dalit gathering in 2018 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, in which a Dalit force defeated a Brahmin one, or the massive sit-in against the citizenship laws led by Muslim women in New Delhi in 2020, or the crowd of Dalits and Muslims that gathered in 2019 at the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi, where Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan proclaimed Dalit-Muslim unity.

Although progressive forces in India do not have the same mobilisation capacity as some regressive forces, their presence and influence in the farmers’ movement have been clearly visible.

On January 26, while the events at the Red Fort were unfolding in New Delhi, in Mumbai, thousands of small farmers marched in solidarity. These farmers were predominantly from India’s most marginalised Indigenous communities, who are historically the most oppressed and yet the most resilient. Numerous progressive organisations across India also held small marches and parades in solidarity with the protesting farmers in New Delhi. There were even small social groups that mobilised to help the protest, like the transwomen of Karnataka who prepared and distributed food for the protesting farmers arriving in the state capital Bengaluru from all over the state.

Each of these groups and organisations, within their own capacity and ideological orientation, mobilised on January 26 to reclaim the republic of India. They sent a warning to far-right Hindu nationalists that dissent is alive, that India is indeed a republic. Such coexistence of both progressive and regressive forces may seem contradictory, but it is this imperfect union that has expanded the farmers’ movement and moved it forward. And this has happened before, during important moments in Indian history.

One such moment unravelled 91 years ago, on New Year’s Eve, when the Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, hoisted the Indian flag on the banks of the Ravi river and demanded “Purna Swaraj” – complete independence from British colonial rule, and not just “dominion status”. Several weeks later, Nehru called on the supporters of Congress to mark January 26 as India’s Independence Day.

The day was celebrated by freedom fighters from numerous organisations across India and marked a new beginning for India’s struggle for independence. Gandhi, despite initially opposing the idea of complete independence, came on board. It was an historic moment that shook the British, who could not imagine such “seditious disobedience” from the Indians.

Although Nehru has gone down in history as the Indian leader who took this decisive step towards independence, credit should be given to another man, Punjabi socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh, who spread the idea of “Purna Swaraj” more fiercely than any of his peers. Singh, who was also a staunch atheist, advocated not just for complete independence from the British, but also for the overthrow of India’s ruling upper class.

Leaders like Gandhi were quite uncomfortable with his revolutionary ideas and actions and condemned them. Singh was far too much of a radical for the taste of the political elites that led the Indian National Congress, yet they could not but accept his idea of “Purna Swaraj”.

Thus, it was an imperfect union of contradictory ideological forces – similar to the one we are seeing today – that made January 26 an historic day. It was the beginning of a long journey to claim complete independence from the British – a journey in which every organisation in India participated organically in their own capacity, except for the Hindu right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which either distanced itself or remained an ally to the British during the independence struggle.

The irony is that today, the BJP, which has the same ideology as the RSS, finds itself in a similar position. It has positioned itself in opposition to a popular movement that seeks to reclaim the Indian republic and strengthen its foundations. And the irony goes further: Just as the British did not imagine that the Indian National Congress, which essentially worked as a safety valve of British colonial rule, could challenge their authority, the BJP did not imagine that its own allies, like Tikait and Sidhu, would turn against them so fast.

So this is where the significance of January 26, 2021 lies: It echoes the historic events that unfolded on the same day in 1930 and 1950. It is the day when the Indian republic was reborn and reclaimed by its people.

Yes, it is imperfect and incomplete. But let us remind those who are still denying the historic importance of this moment or are busy discrediting the movement, that the events of January 26, 1930, may too have appeared chaotic or rushed, but they eventually led to the downfall of the British colonial regime. On January 26, 2021, India’s masses made it clear they are now on their way to defeating the nexus between the far-right Hindu nationalists and corporate interests standing on the wrong side of history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.