ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

What is an 'official' memory?

First Republic Day 1950

The term official memory may refer to the possible ways in which certain historical images, people, and events of national importance are remembered/evoked/commemorated by performing a set of official rituals. In this sense, official memory as a concept is inextricably linked to the official history of the state and those specific ritualistic modes, which have been evolved in postcolonial Indian political milieu. Perhaps for that reason, the history-memory dichotomy, especially in its Euro­centric version, which characterises history and memory as two very different modes to approach the past, is not very useful for our purpose. The official history of India, which is analytically generated by government publications, school textbooks, introductory histories of the “monuments of national importance” and the official websites and web portals of the government of India, is performed through official celebrations and commemorations. The official memory therefore is not entirely related to what remains in the collective historical consciousness of a group of people at a particular historical moment; rather it is about the ways by which citizens as members of national community are forced to remember events, persons and images of well-defined national importance, which may or may not have any direct significance for their everyday lives.

I take two instances to elaborate the relationship between official history and state’s rituals to elucidate this understanding of official memory: Discussion on an official historical version of the freedom movement, and republic day celebrations, in the 1950s.

Rajendra Prasad and Nehru both were keen to have a comprehensive history of India, especially the history of the freedom movement. However, the question was to develop a nationalist or rather official approach to this kind of enterprise. In an official reply to Prasad, Nehru wrote:

An authoritative and comprehensive history of the freedom movement of India should be compiled and written. The question is how to do it. Everything depends on the individual or individuals who will be put in charge of this work. I am afraid that there are very few competent men or women who might be able to do it. This requires two qualities at least. One is an emotional and intellectual appreciation of what has taken place and the other is high literary ability…. it seems to me that the first step is to collect material. (SWJN, Vol. 3, 504) 

In another note to the Education Minister on the same day, Nehru elaborates these concerns. He says:

The purpose of having such a history prepared is not merely to have correct record of a significant phase in our national history but also to place before the world the various phases and the techniques of a struggle which was unique in its character and which will no doubt influence the world more and more as its technique is understood and appreciated. My difficulty is to find proper person or persons who could be asked to undertake it. Such persons must have an intellectual and emotional understanding of India in its many political, economic and social and cultural aspects, of Gandhiji’s techniques and the mass feelings roused by it…I do not want second rate or shoddy work to commemorate our great struggle. Nor do I want a panegyric or a mere record of event. The critical faculty has to be exercised and things seen in perspective…. It will be necessary to collect material for it…it means a survey of all aspect of national activity during the past two generations and more especially during the last 30 years. That collection would become the nucleus of national museum. (SWJN, Vol. 3, 504)

We find that Nehru wanted to have a collection of material and a critical yet emotional approach to contemporary history of freedom struggle. The idea of national museum, which had been evolving since 1945, was somehow linked to the manner in which this authoritative history had to be viewed and commemorated.

The objects of official history were closely related to the official celebrations of the republic day. Nehru very clearly wanted to organise this celebration in highly theatrical manner where official idea of nations could easily be performed. However, it required two interrelated components. One, the conceptual designing of a package in which all non-conflicting elements of independent India could be housed. Second, it also required a disciplined political community of citizens who could not only function as recipients of the given package but also contribute to the success of the event. Somehow the first republic day celebration was a simple experiment. According to Nehru, although it went well – the ceremony held in a stadium and a procession of the President went to the crowded places of the capital-the perfection of arrangement kept the crowd away from the main function.

For Nehru, it was a partial success. He was aware of the fact people’s participation was important to display his vision of India and it would also be crucial for developing an emotional relationship among various groups of people. Nehru’s correspondence suggests two larger objectives in this regard. First, the celebration should be organised in such a way that large number of people could come and participate in the main function. The crowd was not at all a problem in India. But Nehru wanted an informed crowd. For that it was essential to publicise the meanings of Republic Day. We must remember that the Independence Day celebration marked continuity with earlier political events. The end of British rule was the clear outcome of 15 August 1947. But republic day was something in which common people were not directly involved. The Constituent Assembly was a high profile elite space, which had no direct relationship with the masses. In this sense, it was crucial for the state to educate the citizens about the significance of republic day and the constitution. The second objective was related to the celebration package. In the early 1950s it was not an easy task to identify no-conflict elements of post-British, post-Pakistan, India. In fact, it was entirely contingent upon the uncertain political conditions, in which India as a political entity was emerging. In this sense, it was important to evolve the celebration package in such a way that citizens could identify themselves with it.

By 1954, Nehru successfully achieved these objectives. The first elections in 1952 had already helped in creating an atmosphere where the meanings of new constitution, and for that matter, republic began to make sense, especially in the urban areas. The fifth Republic Day celebration of 1954 had 3500 military men and impressive fly past by the Air Force. It also had 17 tableaus depicting various cultures of India and progress in science, agriculture and industry. A huge crowd attended the Delhi event and the day was celebrated as a festive occasion. Nehru himself appreciated the success of this event and wrote a detailed note to his office. The most important aspect of this note was Nehru’s insistence on filming of Republic Day. He notes:

I have been surprised to learn that no attempt has been made to make full length films of the parade and pageant as well as of the folk dances….It seems to me essential that a full length film of the celebrations should be made preferably in color (sic)….it is the finest publicity that we can have…Such film would be of great value not only in our normal cinema houses, but in our villages where mobile vans could take it. With proper explanations in various Indian languages, it would have a tremendous educational effect. The script would have to be very carefully and imaginatively written to indicate the broad perspective of India’s history culminating in the establishment of the Republic, bringing out the diversity and variety of India as well as the great unity of our Republic. (SWJN, Vol. 25, 141)

The relationship between official history with a “proper perspective” and performance of official history through rituals and celebrations is clearly reflected in this note. Nehru aims at expanding the scope of this act of performance through another medium-film, which could reproduce the event at different times and spaces. In addition, “imaginatively written script” of such a film, Nehru seems to suggest, would help the nation to commemorate the past in an official way. Thus, by the mid-1950s the relationship between official history and officially memory was fully worked out. However, it had now become important to search more concrete sites, apart from national celebrations, to display the official history and to commemorate the nation’s officially constructed past and the present.

About Author

Hilal Ahmed ( ​ is Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing societies, New Delhi. He is the author of Monuments, Memory and Contestation: Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India (Routledge/Forthcoming). Ahmed writes on popular Islam and Muslim politics. He is working on his second book project, Politics of Muslim Political Representation.     
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