At the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (an absolutely amazing event by the way), M.J. Akbar, while talking about his new book, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan, claimed that India’s independence day was not really on the 15th of August; it actually fell on what is known as Republic Day. Meant more to jolt than to edify, the statement is true in a very narrow, technical sort of way. What India became on the 15th of August, 1947 was an “independent dominion” which sort of placed India in the same status as Australia or Canada—independent in every practical way but retaining the umbilical link with Britain via “His Majesty's Representative”, the Governor-General (as a result of the close links Mountbatten had with Nehru, he was chosen to be independent India's first Governor-General). With the adoption of the Constitution, India severed that link and opted to become a republic. Interestingly, in 1999, Australia held a referendum to decide whether Australia should become a republic with a President appointed by Parliament. The results of the referendum were negative and the Queen is still Australia’s head of state.
However, given how sacrosanct the 15th of August is in India’s nationalistic iconography, what is a bit incongruous is that for almost twenty years prior to freedom, the Congress had treated Dominion status as a sort of consolation prize that was hardly worth the effort. Starting from the Congress’ famous Purna Swaraj resolution in 1930 (Republic Day is celebrated on the 26th of January to commemorate this resolution which was passed on the same date in Lahore), complete independence from Britain was the only prize that the Congress stated it would accept. In 1930, when Gandhi requested Nehru to wait for two years before demanding complete independence, Nehru (with support from Bose) shot him down saying that he would not be able to even wait for two minutes. In a little more than a year Gandhi was also a full convert to the cause of Purna Swaraj (he had advocated “Swaraj” earlier as well but had never defined it very well) claiming in an interview to a journalist that “we will deny our existence if we do not press for it”.
However, politics being the art of the possible, the exigencies of 1946-47 pretty much made sure that the Congress (as well as the Muslim League) accepted whatever it got.