The river symbolised a purification process, its cold water meant to jolt one out of the slumber that had resulted in the colonisation of the country. One by one, leaders of the Indian National Congress took a pledge of freedom, Purna Swaraj or complete self-rule, in 1929.

The Ravi, the lifeline of Lahore, was witness to this event, just as it had witnessed the epic battle mentioned in the Rig Veda in which the tribal kingdom of Bharata had emerged victorious. Not long after, the river saw the sage Valmiki compose the Ramayana while sitting on its banks, narrating the story of the ideal king Ram. The river was witness to the last 17 years of Guru Nanak’s life, and how he performed ashnan (bath, as a purification process) every day before working in his fields. The river also cleansed the body of Guru Arjan after he was tortured on the orders of Emperor Jahangir, and it accepted the guru in its embrace, providing him salvation from the Mughal forces.

And there it was again, on that cold night of December 31, 1929, witnessing another moment that would chart the path of a modern India.

One pledge, different meanings

But what exactly did Purna Swaraj mean to the thousands of delegates who had gathered on that fateful night? For Jawaharlal Nehru, the young president of this pan-Indian political party who had just months ago secured for himself the top job, Purna Swaraj meant a socialist overhaul of the economic structures of the country. Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that had ended tsarist rule in Russia, Nehru represented a new form of nationalism in which Karl Marx’s Dialectical Materialism was to play a central role. Purna Swaraj for Nehru, therefore, was not just an overthrow of the colonial state but also a new economic policy, of nationalisation, of land reforms, of taking from the elite and distributing to the have-nots.

Supporting Nehru in this endeavour were young passionate communist workers for whom the Indian National Congress represented the revolutionary party that would usher in a dictatorship of the proletariat. Inspired as they were by the socialist rhetoric of Nehru, they were also enamoured by Bhagat Singh, the young communist revolutionary who had become a household name after his hunger strike in a colonial jail for better prison conditions. Young revolutionaries all over India were teeming with passion by the end of the year 1929.

However, standing next to Nehru that day pledging to fight for Purna Swaraj were some of the most prominent industrialists of the country, patrons of the Indian National Congress. They were as sceptical of Nehru’s vision, of this Purna Swaraj, as they were of the prolongation of the colonial state. For them, Purna Swaraj meant an enhancement in economic opportunities.

The first Republic Day celebrations in India in 1950. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The first Republic Day celebrations in India in 1950. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The delegation also included members from the burgeoning middle class that had sprung up in the cities of India, benefiting from the educational opportunities provided by the colonial state. They belonged to various religious communities, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. For them, Purna Swaraj meant better positions in government departments, and an independent nation where they received a fair representation in the bureaucratic machinery. Politics for them was, therefore, an avenue through which they were to achieve their career ambitions. This demand for a fair representation in the bureaucratic set-up had already aggravated the communal problem in India’s urban centres, Lahore included.

Many of the delegates present that night were members of the Arya Samaj. For its members, Purna Swaraj meant a revival of the glorious Hindu past that had been corrupted by the influence of foreigners, including Mughals and other Muslim rulers before the British. For them, Purna Swaraj was not simply a handover of authority from the British to the Indians but a cultural revolution that would bring about the true spirit of India, represented by Hinduism. The Indian National Congress, for them, was not an ideological party but an anti-imperial party, the ultimate goal of all of these diverse interests groups.

Gluing them all together was the charismatic Mahatma Gandhi, who had by now emerged as the most popular leader in the country. But even Gandhi had his own vision of Purna Swaraj not shared by his young protégé. While on the one hand it represented political freedom, on the other it also meant control over one’s own impulse. In fact, it was the latter swaraj that was more important, for the former would be easily achieved if everyone attained internal swaraj. For Gandhi, political independence without this internal self-control, purna swaraj, held no meaning. He had demonstrated as much when he had abandoned the civil disobedience movement at its peak after clashes between his supporters and the police in Chauri Chaura had left some 25 people dead – he had been disappointed at the lack of control, swaraj, demonstrated by his supporters.

The significance of January 26

Thus, thousands of supporters took a pledge for Purna Swaraj that historic night in Lahore, bringing their unique interpretation of what Purna Swaraj meant. This pledge was to be celebrated as Independence Day on January 26. But because of its symbolic importance in the Indian national movement, this date was also chosen as the day the Constitution of an independent India would come into effect in 1950. It has since been celebrated as Republic Day.

Eighty-eight years since that first celebration on January 26, the idea of India still remains contested, as it was at that time, represented by a motley crowd that had come together under the banner of the Indian National Congress on the banks of the Ravi.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail