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An endearing moment of colonial reckoning: The Indian Republic’s Accession to Commonwealth of Nations


The Constitution of India came into force on 26th January 1950. This was a poignant moment in the making of modern India, the declaration of the first Republic of India. The date of 26th January was chosen to mark the earlier occasion on the same date, 20 years ago, when the Indian National Congress declared complete independence from British rule as the non-negotiable goal for the freedom movement. This declaration marked a significant shift from the earlier demand of dominion status within the British Commonwealth. There was a conscious and perceptible change in the attitude of the forefathers of the Indian national movement, in acknowledging their anglicized educational background in the colonial polity, while simultaneously striving to craft a new nation with a distinct native Head of State.

The Constitution heralded a new Republic with ambitious socio-economic and political goals for the nascent nation. This was not a venture in a rewriting the history capriciously; rather there was a perceptive approach in co-opting the beneficial elements from the colonial past, in forging ahead as an independent nation. This included the retention of the judicial machinery, civil service, the use of English language amongst others. Every element was suitably adapted for beneficial use in the new nation; a submissive colonial judiciary was transformed into an integrated independent judiciary, emerging as one of the strongest and assertive constitutional courts in the world.

The attitude that engendered constructive co-option of colonial heritage in the modern life of the Indian nation is manifested in the life of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. A man whose life was crafted in the colonial state, with education rooted in Britain; his, was a balanced perspective that saw the positive dimensions of colonial heritage while carefully nurturing an independent identity. This balancing that he achieved through his own life was also rendered during his tenure as the primal national leader of India. The socio-economic policies of the new nation created a distinct momentum for holistic progress, and there was foundational institution-building across all spheres of national life. The independent streak was translated into diplomatic realms too. The newly freed nation had many domestic challenges to face, but after their resolution, the priority shifted to the domain of foreign policy wherein the Commonwealth link had primacy[1]. The diplomatic leadership that Nehru demonstrated in fostering the new phase of relations between Independent India and her former colonial metropole, is a stellar act of statesmanship, most starkly demonstrated in the process of India’s accession to the British Commonwealth; A process that led to the birth of the modern Commonwealth, shedding its “British” adjective.

Evolution of the Commonwealth Organization

The British Empire was said to have been created in accidents, in a series of waves and troughs, with the creation of the American colonies, settler colonies in other continents, followed by conquest of kingdoms in Asia and Africa. The variations in these processes created unique political relationships and entities such as dominions, protectorates, mandates, princely states amongst others. The autocratic relationship between the imperial state and its constituents was continually unravelling due to various centrifugal political factors, as well as through sheer force of progress and enlightenment spreading across the world.

The political assertion of the settler colonies such as Australia and Canada instigated a new form of relationship between the colonizer and the colony. The Imperial Conference of the British Empire was the site of deliberation to establish a new form of communal relationship within the British domains. The landmark Balfour Declaration of 1926 in the fifth imperial conference marked a starting point for the Commonwealth. The declaration recognized the autonomy of the dominions within the British Empire with no subordination to each other or the British metropole in any domestic or external affairs. The declaration further identified the common allegiance to the British Crown as the point of unity for all the dominions, underpinning the Commonwealth as a free association. This declaration was a formal recognition of the actual state of affairs in the political relationships that were evolving within the Empire.

It is pertinent to note that the central organ of the Commonwealth was the conference of the head of the governments of the constituent dominions. There was a strong military alliance, as well as trade links fostered by adoption of imperial preference in trade within the Empire. But an opportunity was lost in the potential transformation of the evolving commonwealth into a true supranational political union, an Imperial federation. The Commonwealth was held together by inter-governmental undertakings and hence the degree of unity in action was not institutionalized, but rather it wavered on the political context and the inclination of the prevalent leadership. The Commonwealth continued to evolve as an inter-governmental grouping without a clear charter, rooted in cultural similarity.

British Commonwealth and predicament of the Indian Republic

The onset of the Second World War dealt the most severe blow to colonialism across the world. The unravelling of colonial states saw the apogee of various freedom struggles and establishment of new independent nations across the world. During the war itself, negotiations had begun between the British Home Government and the Indian stakeholders towards formal transfer of power and Independence of India. The process finally culminated in the Partition of India.

The newly independent Indian Government had to consider various political and diplomatic questions with urgency. During the period of the drafting of the Indian Constitution, India continued to remain a British Dominion with the British Sovereign as Head of State. This was soon to change with the adoption of the republican constitution. Sovereignty and republicanism represented the ideal of “Poorna Swaraj” or Complete Independence, redemption of a goal that had been set earlier in the freedom movement. This ideal was a non-negotiable for the newly independent country.

Nehru clearly believed and stated that freedom for India must definitely manifest in a republican state, with an Indian Head of State. This was a continuing critique of the then prevailing British Constitution for India, in the form of the Government of India Act, 1935, that vested the sovereign kingship of India with the British Crown. It has even been argued that the Nehruvian insistence on reconciling republicanism with Commonwealth organization led to a radical transformation within, as an endeavor in liberal internationalism[2].

The nascent republic rationally considered the nature of relationship that she wanted to establish with her former colonial metropole and other fraternal nations. Instead of irrationally creating an aversion, it was sought to foster a constructive special relationship with a modern diplomatic outlook. Hence, the Indian Government earnestly considered accession to the Commonwealth as a free and equal country. The membership criterion of the Commonwealth required recognition of the British Sovereign as the Head of the State, and this would contravene the republican nature of the Indian state. The constructive attitude of the Indian Government to evolve a changed paradigm for accession into the Commonwealth can be contra-positively compared with the congruent situation of Ireland. The contemporary Irish Free State, as a republic, chose not to engage with the Commonwealth and exited it. But the Indian leadership sought to work with the Commonwealth to sidestep the requirement of recognizing the British Sovereign as Head of State. This process of negotiation led to the progressive redefining of Commonwealth as an entity.

The way towards the London Declaration of 1949

The independence of Burma and its declaration as a republic outside the Commonwealth had caused consternation regarding the future of the organization. The draft Indian Constitution had already confirmed the status of the new nation as a sovereign republic. The idea of reconstructing the British Monarch as “Head of Association” started being proposed and considered by various stakeholders within the British Government as well[3].

The 1948 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference considered the question of the membership status of the potential future republics of India and Ireland. The 1949 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference was the significant diplomatic summit that sought to principally decide the scope of India’s relationship with the Commonwealth. The declaration of Irish Republic preceded the conference, and had led to its exit from the Commonwealth. The Indian case was distinct due to the Indian leaders’ sincere interest to maintain a stable relationship with the Commonwealth as a community.

The participating leaders in the summit were clear on the historical significance of the underlying matter that they were attempting to resolve, and how it will be viewed in the prism of history of decolonization. The core agenda of the summit itself was defined as the constitutional issues arising from Indian republicanism and its simultaneous desire to retain Commonwealth membership[4].

The Conference had participation from eight member countries, being, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, South Africa and the United Kingdom. All the participating countries had varying attitudes to the core issue. The issue directly dealt with the sensitivities of de-colonization and sovereignty, in a rapidly changing post-war world[5].

The significant Indian leaders who participated in the negotiations were Jawaharlal Nehru and V.K Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Similar to Nehru’s life, Menon had a unique life with significant facets of its being closely intertwined to the colonial context. Menon led the freedom struggle from London, through the India League, and aggressively campaigned against the colonial paradigm. After Independence, he was designated as India’s envoy in London. Both Nehru and Menon are unique antagonists to the Empire, since their commitment to the Indian national cause was tempered with recognition of positive benefits from a healthy diplomatic relationship with the remnants of the erstwhile British Empire.

All decisions of the Commonwealth were to be decided at the Prime Ministers’ conference, reflecting their inter-governmental nature as an organization. The foundational question to be addressed was the Commonwealth’s membership criterion requiring recognition of British sovereign as Head of State. This criterion was unacceptable to the Indian leadership, and the declaration of Indian Republic was imminent.

There was an alternative idea of a two-tier structure with associate member status for republics. This would have fractured the organization. This proposal died down with the realization of the clear optics of white settler nations forming one tier and the newly independent third world countries neatly forming the associate class. Such an arrangement would only foster the historical ills and prejudices of European colonialism and hence never merited practical consideration.

There was also legalistic position from some of the old dominions. The initial Australian stance was that India should demonstrate some loyalty to the Commonwealth by recognizing limited royal prerogative of the British Crown[6]. This was fueled by the notion that dominion status suffices to fulfill national aspirations.  This tension between the interests of the old dominions and the newly emerging commonwealth was exemplified in the case of Canada[7] as well, with their being a deep-set tendency to avoid radical transformations in the organization. The stance of New Zealand was also similarly conservative and was transformed through diplomatic negotiations. The Commonwealth had manifested strong ties of collective security during both the World Wars. The New Zealand Dominion wanted to preserve and strengthen the organization with Indian membership, not diluting the common allegiance to the British Crown. There was a continuous identity crisis in such settler nations, to foster and maintain an umbilical relationship. The reactionary attitude of New Zealand against republicanism in the Commonwealth was only worn down through frantic diplomacy and the dawning realization that insistence of dominion status for Indian membership would only lead to the erosion and extinction of the organization[8].

The final diplomatic solution that emerged to this predicament was for all member states to recognize the British Sovereign as the Head of Commonwealth, and not as Head of State. The resultant resolution of the Conference was the London Declaration of 1949, drafted by Menon. The notion of creating a symbolic link for the organization without impinging on the political sovereignty of the constituent nations was novel. This landmark resolution fundamentally altered the nature of the Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth transformed into the Commonwealth of Nations. The British Monarch emerged as a symbol of the free association of the independent member nations to the Commonwealth. The precedent of reconciling republicanism with membership of Commonwealth, led to the widening of the organization with the inclusion of other newly independent republics as well. It has been argued that Nehru’s diplomatic maneuvering in this regard, led to the constructive re-birth of the Commonwealth organization and was also an act of demolishing the idea that this organization was merely a relic of the British Empire[9].

The Commonwealth of Nations birthed by the London Declaration in 1949, modernized the community and established the member states as “free and equal”. The London declaration was a remarkably brief single page document. But this document marks the moment of metamorphosis of the British Commonwealth into the Commonwealth of Nations. This turning point imbued vitality into the organization and ensured its longevity[10].

Modern Commonwealth

The modern Commonwealth is a voluntary inter-governmental entity that is guided by common values such as democracy and rule of law. Mirroring the myriad political relationships that had been crafted in the British Empire, the Commonwealth finds its strength as an informal forum that lays stress on socio-cultural and diplomatic ties. There are even legal and reciprocal residency and voting rights for Commonwealth citizens, with there always remaining a potential for an organic supranational union to evolve from Commonwealth. Commonwealth nations also continue to exchange diplomatic envoys titled as High Commissioners in recognition of their fraternal ties. The political Commonwealth is augmented by other endeavors such as the Commonwealth Games, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which strengthens the bonds between the constituent countries. The soft diplomacy underpinnings of the Commonwealth organization are deep rooted. The Commonwealth continues to draw countries that do not even have a cultural or constitutional linkage to the former British Empire, solely to gain admittance into a wider collective of like-minded brethren nations.

The Commonwealth’s defining cultural roots are definitely colonial, and it was the British Crown that symbolically motivated and led the colonial imperial enterprise.  Hence, even in the continued retention of the British Monarch as the unifying link, a new constitutional paradigm was evolved with the Monarch reigning as Head of the State for the Commonwealth realm dominions like Australia, while merely remaining as the symbolic head of an inter-governmental organization for other countries. This fundamental question of a monarch becoming the head of commonwealth had been the result of deft diplomatic maneuvering by the Indian leadership. It would be interesting to note the evolving contours of the organization with the contemporary question of the successor of Queen Elizabeth II, as the Head of Commonwealth. Even though the matter was decided in the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that Prince Charles would succeed to the position, the precedent was established that the office is not a matter of right for the British Sovereign but is rather an inter-governmental decision of the constituent countries. During the negotiations, the idea of having eminent Commonwealth citizens as Head of Commonwealth was ruminated upon, and it is not far fetched to foresee an Indian Head of Commonwealth; which would bring to a full circle, the diplomatic endeavor that was initiated by India.


Nations reckon with their checkered past in many political moments. These manifest in critical events such as drafting of a constitution or in diplomatic endeavors. For a newly independent India, this manifested in the proud endeavor to draft a meaningful and purposive republican constitution, without shedding the past. At that phase in history, when the erstwhile British Empire was unravelling, new identities were being forged. The Commonwealth, as an organization, has meandered in the modern world, but the moment in 1949, of the rebirth of the New Commonwealth, is unique in its nature as an insightful illustration of the growth and self-recognition of a newly independent country, seeking to constructively retain ties with the former colonizer, but in its own fair terms. Modern India was made by fostering beneficial and positive relationships with its past. The life and leadership of Nehru delineates the independent India’s narrative as well. The diplomatic endeavor of confronting the question of accession into Commonwealth, and its answer transforming the Commonwealth itself, demonstrates how the colonized and colonizer had finally arrived equally at the negotiating table.

[1] Michael Brecher.(1974). India’s decision to remain in the Commonwealth.The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 12:1, 62-90.

[2] Purushotham, S.(2020). Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian Republicanism, and the Commonwealth. Commonwealth History in the Twenty-First Century. Palgrave Macmillan.

[3]McIntyre, W.D. (2001). Republic Status and the 1949 Declaration. A Guide to the Contemporary Commonwealth. Palgrave Macmillan.

[4] Peter Marshall.(1999). Shaping the ‘new Commonwealth’, 1949, The Round Table, 88:350, 185-197.

[5] Srinivasan, K. (2000). India and the Commonwealth. International Studies, 37(1), 61–68.

[6] Frank Bongiorno.(2005). ‘British to the bootstraps?’.Australian Historical Studies, 36:125, 18-39.

[7] Hector Mackenzie.(1999). An old dominion and the new commonwealth: Canadian policy on the question of India’s membership, 1947–49.The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 27:3, 82-112.

[8]Harshan Kumarasingham.(2006). The ‘New Commonwealth’ 1947 – 49: A New Zealand perspective on India joining the Commonwealth.The Round Table, 95:385, 441-454.

[9] K. Srinivasan.(1999). India and the Commonwealth.The Round Table, 88:351, 445-448.

[10] Amitav Banerji.(1999). The 1949 London declaration: Birth of the modern commonwealth, Commonwealth Law Bulletin, 25:1, 1-8.

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