Back in school, the history of Modern India chronicled our struggle against the British. Perhaps a lot of these stories were told as the fathers of our young country wanted them to be told. Nevertheless, the fight for independence was chronicled in our textbooks with a reasonable fidelity.
The last chapter of the history book talked about the actual transfer of power by Lord Mountbatten and the declaration of India as a free nation. Everything after that, curiously, ceased to be history and began to be on the pages of civics instead. The history of a newly independent India has been patchily described through our education system. The struggles, the shortfalls have largely been omitted. And in doing that, the sheer miracle that the Indian democracy is, has largely been left out of the story.
The Indian National Congress chose to declare Purna Swaraj (Complete Independence) on the last Sunday of January 1930 and since then every year, January 26 continued to be celebrated as the Independence Day by the Congress. Finally in 1947, when the British were ready for the formal transfer of power, the Indian leaders-in-waiting could not bear the delay till January 26 as a section of freedom seekers would have wanted. The date was then decided as August 15 to mark the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces during the World War 2.
Though August 15 was acceptable by all, some astrologers deemed the date to be inauspicious and therefore, the Congress decided to assume power at midnight on the 14th.
Jawaharlal Nehru was acutely aware of the power of rhetoric at such an occasion and, fittingly, gave a stirring speech that is now part of popular Indian culture – Tryst with destiny. It is interesting to note that Nehru delivered the speech in English and not in Hindi.
During the day on August 14, Lord Mountbatten formally handed over the role of the Governor-General of Pakistan to Jinnah. India, however, was happy to let Lord Mountbatten remain Governor-General and live in Delhi for some more time.
The celebrations on August 15 were wild and energetic. Philip Talbot, who was then the South Asia correspondent for The Chicago Daily, witnessed the events and later recounted to his friend in a letter:
“In city after city lusty crowds have burst the bottled-up frustrations of many years in an emotional mass jag. Mob sprees have rolled from mill districts to gold coasts and back again.
“Despite doubts about the truncated, diluted form of freedom descending on India, the happy, infectious celebrations blossomed in forgetfulness of the decades of sullen resentment against all that was symbolised by a sahib’s sun-topi… in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and probably other major cities, celebrating crowds numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
“Two common, astonishing bright threads ran through the demonstrations nearly everywhere: a sudden, unpredicted return to Hindu-Muslim amity and a warm outflowing of friendly expressions toward Britain… The spontaneity of both is well established….”
Lord Mountbatten ceased to be the Viceroy on the night of August 14, and was sworn in as the Governor-General of India. He then administered the oath of office to Nehru as the first Prime Minister of India, and his council of ministers at the Durbar Hall of what used to be the Viceroy’s residence – what we now know as the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In the melee, Nehru committed a minor gaffe when he went to hand over a list of the members of his council of ministers to the Governor-General – he handed Lord Mountbatten an empty envelope instead. This was but a minor incident; soon the relevant paper was found and was duly handed over to the head of the new Dominion.
Over the past 65 years, independent India has had a remarkable story – often against many odds. That, however, belongs to the civics textbook for our students. For our educational purposes, the history of modern India ended on August 15, 1947.