Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Five Things You Didn’t Know About India’s Independence Day

First published on

How come South Korea and India share their independence day? And who became the King of India after independence?

India’s Independence Day is an extremely important event in modern history, freeing a fifth of the world’s population from colonial rule and indeed heralding the end of imperialism.  While reams have been written about the day, here are 5 things that you might not have known about the 15th of August:

1. The date of independence was chosen to satisfy Mountbatten’s vanity

What is often forgotten in the nationalistic histories of the day is just how chaotic independence was. After 200 years of holding on to India any way they could, the British, wrecked by World War II, wanted to get out as fast as possible. Important decisions—such as the exact date of transfer of power—were therefore chosen using less than ideal methods. When the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, was asked why he chose the 15th of August, this was his reply:

“The date I chose came out of the blue. I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was the master of the whole event. When they asked: had I set a date, I knew it had to be soon. I hadn’t worked it out exactly then—I thought it had to be about August or September and then I went to the 15th of August. Why? Because it was the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender.”

15 August 1945 was when Japan—pulverised by two nuclear bombs—surrendered. The date, therefore, had a personal appeal for Mountbatten as he had been Supreme Allied Commander of South-East Asia Command and, in Singapore, had accepted the Japanese surrender himself.

South Korea—at the time colonised by Japan—also celebrates this day as their Independence Day. Thus, not only do Seoul and Delhi celebrate their Independence Day on the same day but, in an improbable coincidence, both countries reference the same event: Japan’s surrender.

Of course, the fact that Independence Day for one-fifth of humanity was chosen extempore and to flatter the vanity of our erstwhile Viceroy should give you a small indication as to why things went so wrong.

2. The 15th of August was Independence Day but Partition actually took place 2 days later

It was well known that the Punjab was a tinderbox and splitting it would almost certainly exacerbate the situation. One way to keep things under control was to announce Partition before Independence, thus giving advance warning in case anyone wanted to migrate. Thus, we have Evan Jenkins, the Governor of the Punjab writing frantic letters to Mountbatten to have the Boundary Award published before 15 August.
Given this urgency, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, working in record time, actually had the boundary ready by 9 August. Shockingly, though, Mountbatten refused to publish the award till the 17th. On the morning of the 15th, therefore, while Punjabis had ceased being subjects of the Raj, surreally, they did not know which country—India or Pakistan—they belonged to.

The reason for this delay was to make sure that the British did not have to bear any responsibility for the Punjab holocaust, since now the killings would take place after the Raj had ceased to exist. In a report to the Secretary of State for India on 16 August, Mountbatten writes:
“…it had been obvious all along that the later we postponed publication [of the Punjab boundary award], the less would be the inevitable odium react upon the British.”

As expected, this criminal delay played its part in greatly increasing the panic in the Punjab, especially since any minority population transfers would now need take place under “hostile” governments rather than under the Raj, which was seen to be largely neutral. Thus, when the boundaries were finally announced, the Punjab simply exploded into violence. The raula that followed was unprecedented and saw both halves of the province empty themselves of their minorities.

3. Pakistan changed its Independence Day to 14 August

Even though Pakistan observes its Independence Day on 14 August, technically, the day it achieved freedom is the same as India. The Independence of India Act is quite clear when its states that “as from the fifteenth day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, two independent Dominions shall be set up in India, to be known respectively as India and Pakistan”. In fact, the first postage stamps that Pakistan printed have on them “15 August 1947” as the date of independence.

In Pakistan, however, this date was changed to 14 August in 1948. Some think this was because Mountbatten delivered the King’s message of independence on 14 August 1947 in Karachi. Others postulate that it was because 14 August 1948 was extremely holy in Islam (it was the 27th day of Ramzan), hence the small shift. Or maybe, Pakistan just wanted to be a day ahead of India.

Whatever the reason, it lead to an incongruous situation where twins ended up with different birth dates.

4. India didn’t achieve purna swaraj till 1950

In the Congress’ iconography, its Purna Swaraj resolution of 1930 occupies a special place. It was the first time the party had declared complete independence as its goal, moving on from dominion status.

Therefore, it is somewhat ironic that when India eventually acquired freedom on 15 August, it actually became a dominion: a constitutional monarchy with King George VI (styled ‘King of India’) as its head of state in much the same mould as Australia or Canada today.

Unlike those two countries, though, India abolished the monarchy, becoming a republic on 26 January 1950. Pakistan remained a dominion right till 1956; consequently, in 1953 when Elizabeth II was sworn in, one of her titles was ‘Queen of Pakistan’.

5. Independence Day, inexplicably, saw an outpouring of affection for our departing colonisers

Massive crowds thronged Delhi on 15 August for the ceremonies relating to the transfer of power. The people hailed Gandhi and Nehru, as would be expected, but also, puzzlingly, cheered on Mountbatten as well. This was described by the Indian Army’s journal, Fauji Akbhar, in its account of the day’s events:

“On both occasions the Governor-General, when he drove in his State coach, was acclaimed as no other Governor-General of India within living memory has been greeted. Cries of ‘Mountbatten Zindabad’ and ‘Lord Sahib Zindabad’ were heard.”

The day’s programme originally included a ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack. On a request from Mountbatten, however, Nehru agreed to skip this since it could “offended British sensibilities”.

Overwhelmed by this reception, Mountbatten writes, “The 15th of August has certainly turned out to be the most remarkable and inspiring day of my life”

As the cherry on the cake, British troops departing for the UK were given a very warm send off in Bombay as well. Mountbatten estimates that there were “several hundreds of thousands” in reception with chants of "England Zindabad" and "Jai England" for, what was till yesterday, a colonial army of occupation.

In a way this reception for the departing colonisers, even as Indians were butchering each other elsewhere, captures the many contradictions and, indeed, realties of a post-colonial society.

On this note, here’s wishing you a happy 67th Independence Day.

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