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

A+| A| A-

Tryst with Destiny

As the country celebrates 60 years of independence, a look at some of the events around August 15, 1947 and what really marked India's first "Independence Day"


Tryst with Destiny

As the country celebrates 60 years of independence, a look at some of the events around August 15, 1947 and what really marked India’s first “Independence Day”


he first refugees from Punjab were beginning to arrive, with tales of raped women, their babies skewered on sword point, men slaughtered and houses reduced to smouldering ruins. Yet there was bizarre elation in New Delhi, for it was the appointed day of August 15, 1947. The previous midnight Jawaharlal Nehru had thrilled the Constituent Assembly with promise of a “tryst with destiny”. Soon the last British viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, cousin to George VI, would hand the brightest jewel of the British Empire back to Indian hands. British rule over the subcontinent was ending after 200 years. The national Tricolour would now replace the Union Jack and “Jana Gana Mana” “Long Live the King”.

The magnificent handing over ceremony was staged at the appropriately named Durbar Hall of the viceroy’s house. Gandhi wanted it converted into a public hospital. But three years later, in 1950, when India became fully independent, it became Rashtrapati Bhavan. Gandhi had wanted future presidents of the Indian republic to live frugally, like most of its citizens; but the Nehru government and its successors preferred to retain the imperial style.

The contrast between British and Indian attitudes to August 15 was striking. In London, Whitehall, traditional custodian of Empire, saw it as the day to initiate a carefully calibrated transfer of power designed to preserve their essential interests in Asia. Leaders of the Indian National Congress preferred to describe it as Independence Day, to remind future generations of the suffering and sacrifice they had endured in the struggle to achieve freedom.

The Durbar Hall was filled with British officers, their chests ablaze with medals and decorations. Dominating them was the viceroy dressed in full imperial regalia. He represented the British crown; his proud bearing designed to instil into Indians gratitude for the crown’s gesture of returning its Indian empire back to its inhabitants. No sign of the fatigue and bankruptcy caused by the second world war, that had obliged Britain to abandon the empire on which it had proclaimed “the sun never sets,” could be seen. Beside him stood Edwina Mountbatten, regally resplendent. The letters exchanged between them and Nehru, published by her daughter, reveal that her role of softening up Jawaharlal Nehru had begun.

British Continuity

Senior British officers of the regiments that had crushed the last Indian effort to throw the British out – Gandhi’s Quit India movement in 1942 – strutted about the Durbar Hall. Sixty years later, Indian regiments retain their names and treasure their battle honours. Typical is Hodson’s Horse, named after Capt Hodson, the cavalry officer, who shot dead in cold blood the three sons of Mohammad Shah Zafar, the last Moghul emperor, when crushing the first War of Independence in 1857.The contribution of Subhas Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj to pushing the British out of Burma and the Indian naval ratings who mutinied in the cause of independence in Bombay earlier went unnoticed. But the Union Jack was lowered all over India with due ceremony to mark the transfer of power.

Dressed in plain khadi, lacking medals and decorations, the few Indians present in the Durbar Hall ceremony were overshadowed in the brilliant assembly. Perhaps, at the back of their minds, they realised that the independence they were celebrating was illusory, that their country was being partitioned; that bloodshed had begun in Punjab and Bengal – the provinces being divided.

But the crowds outside were rapturous. Pre-partition Delhi had a population of less than a million, yet the broad lawns between the Central Secretariat and the War Memorial (later to be named India Gate) were filled with villagers. They had travelled overnight to the capital in bullockcart trains. That the memorial was inscribed with the names of Indian soldiers killed fighting Britain’s imperial wars was overlooked.

The crowd was the thickest around the mound on which Nehru raised the first Tricolour. It was almost impenetrable by the time the ceremony ended. The road from the War Memorial back to the viceroy’s house was a sea of people shouting “Lord Mountbatten (not Jawaharlal Nehru) ki jai”. The prime minister was lost in the crowd until rescued by the governor-general and given a place in his carriage. Holding their pennants aloft in the manner in which they were trained to protect the viceroy, dressed ceremonially with black thigh boots, the mounted Viceroy’s Bodyguard cleared the way. The President’s Bodyguard retains the same attire.

A photographer captured Nehru looking back like an impish urchin from the front hood of the viceregal carriage. The uniqueness of the departing British viceroy sheltering India’s first prime minister was proudly noted by Mountbatten in his diary. The picture now adorns our history books. A similar picture was taken of Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten together at the viceregal retreat near Simla. It provided another glimpse of Jawaharlal Nehru pursuing his non-sexual, letterwriting romance with Edwina, which we now know had far-reaching consequences. She, possibly innocently, conveyed to her lover her husband’s views on the need to refer the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir to the United Nations. The dispute remains unresolved 60 years later despite three wars.

History shows Nehru to have been an incurable romantic at home and abroad. Educated in Harrow and Cambridge, when he became prime minister he saw India as successor to British imperial power. He was confident that Pakistan would collapse and India return to the size and shape drawn by the Britain. Looking back today,

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

we can see that his foreign policy was dictated by the desire to retain British influence in Tibet, along the undemarcated Chinese border and to bring about the early collapse of Pakistan. India adopted an overbearing big brother attitude to its neighbours. The policy had disastrous consequences.

Mountbatten Influence

Whitehall had long planned to ensure continuity. Only a shadow of independence was transferred to India. George VI changed the title of his representative from viceroy to governor-general. In effect, Mountbatten handed power over to himself. India remained subservient to the British crown as a dominion. As governor-general, Mountbatten had extra qualifications; Nehru and his cabinet, still new to the job, were impressed with his military record and relied on his advice on conducting the war that had broken out in Kashmir with Pakistan. Another advantage to Whitehall was that English generals continued to command the armies on both sides.

In the event, Mountbatten was able to insist that Nehru refer the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations even as war was still raging there and Indian troops were advancing. When they neared the border with Pakistan, he advised acceptance of a UNdictated ceasefire on the line that still divides Indian – from Pakistani-held Kashmir. Pakistan was thus enabled to retain Gilgit, Chitral, Hunza and the strategic northern areas of the divided state of Jammu and Kashmir. Whitehall had planned the creation of Pakistan while partition was still on the drawing boards. Its strategic importance was vital in the Persian Gulf region where British firms had monopolised the oil production that had financed the imperial might.

The transfer arrangements were made with the acquiescence of a Congress leadership tired and frustrated after spending three years in jail for participating in the Quit India movement called by Gandhi in 1942, the last effort to evict the British before Partition. Only Gandhi continued to insist that the Congress achieve complete independence before considering whether and on what terms to accept Partition. He did not trust Whitehall. On June 21, 1946, he warned the Congress Working Committee that they “would gain nothing by entering on their new venture on bended knee”. But, as recounted by his biographer, Pyare Lal, “they dropped the pilot”.

The calibrated process of imposing Whitehall’s terms began thereafter. The Congress leaders agreed to join the viceroy’s executive council, with Jawaharlal Nehru given the honorific title of deputy prime minister. The viceroy retained supreme authority to carry out the plans to partition British India and preside over transfer of the appearance of power to the new dominions of India and Pakistan.

The tragic shift in the Congress leadership from the proud fighters for independence in 1942 to the pawns of British diplomacy in 1947 was explained by Nehru himself to an English author, Leonard Mosley, in 1960: “The truth is that we were tired men, and we were getting on in years too. Few of us could stand the prospect of going to prison again – and if we had stood for a united India as we wished it, prison obviously awaited us. We saw the fires burning in the Punjab and heard of the killings. The plan for partition offered a way out and we took it … We expected that partition would be temporary, that Pakistan was bound to come back to us.”

Nehru was wrong on both counts. The killings increased as partition neared; Pakistan remains a separate nation, though India was able to promote the split between East and West Pakistan in 1971.

Gandhi in Calcutta

Mahatma Gandhi preferred staying in a Calcutta slum to celebrating the birth of the dominion of India in New Delhi. India was being partitioned that day. A year before, the “Great Calcutta Killing” had marked the first outbreak of mass communal slaughter. He had walked, often alone, through the Noakhali district of east Bengal to persuade Muslim leaders not to attack the Hindu minority. He arrived in Calcutta on August 9 when communal tempers were rising, persuaded Muslim leader Shahid Suhrawardy to join him in moving into a dilapidated slum building in an area with a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. His presence had a magical effect. On August 15, members of both communities joined in raising the Tricolour. Mountbatten congratulated him as “a one man boundary force”. The regular Englishled Boundary Force set up to quell communal disturbances in Punjab had failed to stop the killing.

The prime minister felt helpless when he heard that his friend, Zakir Husain (a future president of India), had escaped with his life at Amritsar station. An army captain rescued him from a Hindu-Sikh mob. The first wave of Hindu refugees reached Delhi in early September, when the Nehru government was just two weeks old. Filled with memories of their suffering in the border districts of newly-created Pakistan, they were intent on revenge and attacked Muslim families. Soon the scenes of rape, loot and killing that had besmirched areas that had gone to Pakistan were reproduced in Old Delhi.

Nehru found that some of his colleagues, including his home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, did not share his anxiety to save Muslim lives. They felt that Muslims were responsible for Partition and deserved what they got, though only the rich, landowning class had followed Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s call for Partition. Propertyowning Muslims were reacting to the campaign waged by the Hindu Mahasabha and other communal groups to spread the doctrine of Hindutva.

Nehru’s desperation drove him to threaten resignation. He told a public meeting in the old city in September that if people did not wish to follow his secular policies, he was ready to resign. But he

“Agricultural Finance Corporation Ltd.”

(Wholly owned by commercial banks, NABARD Exim Bank)


Articles on Agril-Rural Credit Development

AFCL invite articles, research papers and case studies for its bimonthly publication “Financing Agriculture”. Articles aiming at policy advocacy or replicable ideas in the area of Rural Finance, Micro-Finance, MSME, Watershed, Livelihood, Environment and Forestry. NGO Sector, Agricultural Exports, Organic Farming, Medicinal & Aromatic Sector and other areas of Rural Development will be preferred. Please send soft copies for consideration of: Shri A K Garg, MD, AFC Ltd. E-mail:;or Visit us at

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007 would never be prime minister of a Hindu state. He asked Gandhi to come from Calcutta to Delhi to help. But even the Mahatma’s presence did not quell the attacks on Muslims. Thousands left their homes in the old city for safety behind the walls of the Purana Qila guarded by troops. Others trekked to Pakistan, attacked on the way by Sikh and Hindu mobs.

Gandhi, too, found himself helpless. He reached the stage when, on his 73rd birthday, October 2, he besought his maker to take him away; he could not stand the sight of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs killing each other any longer. He would rather die.

Then a virtual miracle occurred. In October, Pathan lashkars from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province entered the valley of Kashmir, raping, killing and looting towns and villages indiscriminately. No distinction was made between Hindus and Muslims. When they reached Baramula, some 30 miles from Srinagar, a frantic Hari Singh appealed to Nehru for help. He had been virtually independent after the British left on August 15 but agreed to accede to the Indian Union on October 27 with reluctance. Indian troops were airlifted to Srinagar just in time; the tribals were at its gates. Kashmiri volunteers unloaded their arms and ammunition from the aircraft and rushed them forward in buses and trucks.

The miracle took the shape of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and his Kashmir National Conference Party. He had established his secular credentials by changing the name of his party from Muslim Conference to National Conference, open to all communities, in 1938. With Muslims in a majority of over 90 per cent in the valley and 70 per cent in the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, this was miraculous enough in contrast to the communal tide sweeping the rest of the country. Sheikh Abdullah went further; he endorsed the accession of the state to India, thus providing Nehru the evidence of majority support needed to justify accession of a Muslim-majority state, adjoining Pakistan, to India. The long tradition of interreligious harmony brought about by sufis and rishis in the valley paved the way for the miracle. Without Sheikh Abdullah, the state of Jammu and Kashmir would not have been part of the Indian Union.

The impact of Kashmiri support was immediate. A rejuvenated Jawaharlal Nehru broadcast to the nation on November 2: “It would be well if this lesson was understood by the whole of India which has been poisoned by communal strife. Under the inspiration of a great leader, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the people of the valley, Muslim and Hindu and Sikh, were together in defence of their common country against the invader. Our troops could have done little without this popular support and cooperation.”

Gandhi put the miracle pithily. “My sole hope and prayer,” he told his daily prayer meeting, “is that Kashmir become a beacon light in this benighted subcontinent”.



[This article partly draws on material published inmy earlier work, Countdown to Partition (1997)and Kashmir, the Wounded Valley (1994).]

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top