The Birth of India: Tales of 1946-1947

On 31 December 1929, Congress President Jawaharlal Nehru hoisted Indian Flag on the banks of Ravi River during the Lahore session of Congress. Lahore session saw Indian National Congress resolved for Poorna Sawaraj. Congress asked Indian nationalist to celebrate 26th of January as Independence Day.
Freedom came to India after about 17 years of their first "Independence Day" on 15 August 1947. British chose to handover power on 15 August 1947 as it was the anniversary of Japanese surrender to the Allied forces in the Second World War. Even the Independence Day of India was not escaped by the Indian habit of horoscope matching as apparently due to some astrologers declaration of 15tth of August as an inauspicious day, special session of Constituent Assembly was held on 14th August.

Celebrations began at 11 p.m. with singing of Vande Mataram  and was followed by speeches. It concluded with presentation of flag on behalf of the women of India. There were three main speakers: Chaudhary Khaliquzaman (representing Muslims of India), Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (for his work in reconciling East and West) and the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his famous speech called, "Tryst with Destiny" and it has been widely quoted since then. A part of the speech is quoted below.

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."

On 15 August 1947, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru along with 13 other ministers  swore in. Nehru's ministers were across party line and included represntative from the world of commerce as well as Sikhs. Most notable non-congress ministers were Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee ( member of Hindu Mahasabha).

Gandhi marked 15 August 1947 with 24 hour fast in Calcutta. The last 12 months had seen almost continuous rioting between Hindus and Muslims. The violence had begun on 16 August 1946 in Calcutta and spread to Bihar and then through United Province to finally Punjab. The violence of August 1946 was instigated by the Muslim League. The league was led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He was lawyer trained in England and he had once been member of Indian National Congress. By starting the riot in Calcutta, Jinnah hoped to polarize the two communities further and thus force the British to divide India when they finally quit. On the Afternoon of 13 August 1947, Gandhiji set up residence in the Muslim dominated locality of Beliaghata. On 15 August, he declined to make any statement to BBC and fasted whole day. Though reports of Hindus and Muslims together celebrating independence lifted Gandhiji's mood and he addressed a large crowd of around 10,000-30,000 at Rash Bagan Maidan.

By November 1946, all India total of deaths in rioting was more than 5000. According to a statementr submitted to the House of Lords said that 4,014 people were killed between November, 1946 and May 1947. The epicenter of the violence was Bengal and Punjab. Both provinces were muslim majority  and thus
were claimed for Pakistan. But both of them also had millions of Hindus and therefore both provinces were divided with muslim majority districts going to Pakistan and districts dominated by Hindus or Sikhs alloted to India.  On 1 August 1947 a Punjab Boundary Force was set up to control the violence. Head of Punjab Boundary Force , Pete Rees estimated casualties  in  Punjab were estimated at 4,500 civilians dead and 2,500 wounded during March to July, 1947. However official casualties reported by troop were estimated to be around 15,000 killed and actual figure may be two-three times of the reported number.

Ten million refugees were on the move, on foot, by bullock-cart, and by train. This was the greatest mass migration in the history in so few days.  Unfortunately, no Pakistani politician was willing to take on religious
fanaticism.  Jinnah was headquartered in Karachi which was the capital of the country at that time and he visited Lahore in Purdah. This coward attitude of Jinnah was in striking contrast to the brave defence of their minority by Nehru and Gandhi. There were fresh riots in Calcutta which forced Gandhiji to embark a fast. He began his fast on 2 September. By the next day, Hindu and Muslim miscreants were coming to him and laying down their arms.  Mahatma broke his fast after three days when a deputation of leaders representing Congress, Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha assured Gandhiji that there would be no further routing. Gandhiji left for Delhi on 7 September from Calcutta and visited camps in capital  and outside it. Gandhi's biographer D.G. Tendulkar writes:

"He begged of them all to bring about peace in Delhi so that he might be able to proceed to both East and West Punjab."

Gandhiji also spoke at a camp of Rashtriya Swaymsewak Sangh. Founded by Maharashtrian doctor named Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the RSS was a cohesive and motivated body of Hindu young men. Gandhiji was impressed by their discipline and absence of caste feeling. Gandhiji urged its member to dispel the notion that RSS was inciting communal hatred and asked them to show by their uniform behaviour that the allegations were baseless. However Nehruji was not inclined to give Sangh the benefit of doubt. He told his home minister Vallabhbhai Patel that the RSS have a great deal to do with the disturbances not only in Delhi but elsewhere. At the initiative of Gandhi and Nehru, the Congress now passed a resolution on the "rights of minority". Its said:

"Whatever be the situation in Pakistan, India would be a Democratic Secular State where all citizens enjoy full rights and are equally entitled to he protection of the State, irrespective to the religion to which they belong." 
However the head of RSS,  M. S. Golwalker was strongly opposed to the idea of secular state that would not discriminate on the basis of religion. Gandhiji's meetings were frequently disrupted by the refugees who shouted slogans asking why he did not speak of the sufferings of those Hindus and Sikhs still living in Pakistan. The biographer of Gandhiji writes, Gandhiji wanted to go to Pakistan. But with what face could he now go there, when he could not guarantee full redress to the Muslims of Delhi. With attacks on Muslims increaing, Gandhiji chose to resort to another fast. One of the precondition of ending his fast was to transfer the money (Rs. 550 Billion), which was Pakistan's share of the money that British owed jointly to both countries on account of Indian contributions during second world war, withheld by India. On 15 January 1948, India decided to release the money. On 17 January, Central Peace Committee was formed under leadership of Rajendra Prasad and had representatives of Congress, RSS, Jamait-ul-Ulema and Sikh bodies. Their joint declaration satesfied Gandhiji to end his fast.

On 20 January, a Punjabi refugee named Madan Lal threw a bomb at Gandhiji in Birla House while he was leading a prayer meeting. No one was hurt. On the evening of  30 January he was shot dead by a brahmin from Poona named Nathuram Godse. He was sentenced to death but before that he made a remarkablespeech justifying his act. There were tributes from Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell except Jinnah who said that the death of Gandhi was a loss merely to the Hindu community. Gandhiji's death could not  reconcile Hindu and Muslim but he did reconcile Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel who were involved in bitter row.

This essay is based on the first chapter "Freedom And Parricade" of "India After Gandhi" by Ramchandra Guha.

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