Independence Day marks the end of British rule in 1947 and the establishment of a free and independent Indian nation. It also marks the anniversary of the partition of the subcontinent into two countries, India and Pakistan, which occurred at midnight on August 14–15, 1947.
British rule in India began in 1757 when, following the British victory at the Battle of Plassey, the English East India Company began exercising control over the country. The East India Company ruled India for 100 years, until it was replaced by direct British rule (often referred to as the British raj) in the wake of the Indian Mutiny in 1857–58. The Indian independence movement began during World War I and was led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who advocated for a peaceful and nonviolent end to the 200-year-old British rule.
The British Prime Minister Attlee appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten as India’s last viceroy, giving him the task to oversee British India’s independence by 30 June 1948, with the instruction to avoid partition and preserve a united India, but with adaptable authority to ensure a British withdrawal with minimal setbacks. Mountbatten hoped to revive the Cabinet Mission scheme for a federal arrangement for India. But despite his initial keenness for preserving the centre and repeated talks, the mainly Hindu Indian National Congress and the Muslim League could not agree on the shape of the new state. The tense communal situation caused him to conclude that partition had become necessary for a quicker transfer of power.
Britain’s Parliament passed in July 1947 the Indian Independence Act. It ordered that the dominions of India and Pakistan be demarcated by midnight of August 14–15, 1947, and that the assets of the world’s largest empire—which had been integrated in countless ways for more than a century—be divided within a single month. Accordingly, Lord Mountbatten confirmed the date for independence as 15 August 1947. As soon as this was announced, British troops were withdrawn to their barracks. In the weeks leading up to independence, responsibility for maintaining law and order was handed over to the Indian Army.
India was formed mostly of Hindu regions, while Pakistan was mostly Muslim areas. The partition of India forced millions of people to leave their homes to move to the other state. The India-Pakistan partition is regarded as one of the “largest” and “most violent” political migration in human history. The horrors of partition in 1947 will always be a terrifying, blood-stained blot. At the stroke of midnight of August 15, 1947, freedom was attained at the price of the country being divided into two independent domains – India and Pakistan.
Partition meant that millions of people found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the borders. Ten million became refugees in what was the largest population movement in history. Muslims travelled to Pakistan; Sikhs and Hindus to India. Up to a million of these refugees were killed in a series of horrific massacres in the border regions. The partition displaced between 10 and 20 million people along religious lines, creating overwhelming calamity in the newly-constituted dominions. It is often described as one of the largest refugee crises in history. There was large-scale violence, with estimates of the loss of life accompanying or preceding the partition disputed and varying between several hundred thousand and two million. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that affects their relationship to this day.
It is estimated that millions of people were killed and millions displaced. They lost everything overnight. They were uprooted and forced to become penniless refugees, hundreds of miles from what had been home for generations. Nearly 6.5 million Muslims moved from India to West Pakistan and 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs moved the other way. The Partition brought with it many uncertainties, where violence, pain and distress seemed to be the only certainties. This period in history witnessed gendered violence inflicted on women where they were kidnapped, raped, publicly humiliated and had their genitalia mutilated. Women were also killed in the name of honour by their families, and many were forced to die by suicide in an attempt to protect their chastity. Across the borders, while villages were plundered and burnt, women were mutilated and sexually tortured, and trains of migrants crossing in opposite directions were found full of dismembered bodies.
The partition was a highly controversial arrangement, and remains a cause of much tension on the Indian subcontinent even today. Many British leaders including the British Viceroy, Mountbatten, were unhappy over the partition of India and he had not only been accused of rushing the process through but also is alleged to have influenced the Radcliffe Line in India’s favor. The commission took longer to decide on a final boundary than on the partition itself. Thus the two nations were granted their independence even before there was a defined boundary between them. The boundary line between India and Pakistan, also known as the Radcliffe Line was demarcated by British barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe on August 3, 1947. It was officially published only on August 17, 1947, two days after India got its independence from the British. On the day of partition, people of Bengal’s Muslim-dominated districts – Murshidabad and Malda – had put Pakistani flags on their houses, but they later came to know that were part of India. Chittagong, with only 2 percent Muslim population went to Pakistan.
On the other hand, 15th August reminds us of all the sacrifices that were made by our freedom fighters in order to set India free from British rule. It is a national holiday and the day is celebrated with flag hoisting, parades, cultural events and other programmes throughout the country. On this day, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, raised the Indian national flag above the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort in Delhi. In his famous Independence Day speech, he said, “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now that time comes when we shall redeem our pledge. At the stroke of today’s midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
On each subsequent Independence Day, the incumbent Prime Minister customarily raises the flag and gives an address to the nation. President of India also delivers the “Address to the Nation”. Flag hoisting ceremonies and cultural programmes take place in governmental and non-governmental institutions throughout the country. Schools and colleges conduct flag hoisting ceremonies and various cultural events. Governmental and non-governmental institutions decorate their premises with paper, balloon decorations with hangings of freedom fighter portraits on their walls and major government buildings are often adorned with strings of lights.
The Indian National flag with three horizontal stripes of red, yellow, and green was hoisted on August 7, 1906, at Parsee Bagan Square in Kolkata. The first variant of our current national flag was designed by Pingali Venkayya in 1921. The current flag with saffron, white and green stripes with the 24-spoke Ashok Chakra was officially adopted on July 22, 1947, and hoisted on August 15, 1947. The length of the Indian National Flag is 90 cm and the breadth is 60 cm.
“From tomorrow (15th August), we shall be delivered from the bondage of British Rule. But from midnight today, India will be partitioned too. While, therefore, tomorrow will be a day of rejoicing, it will be a day of sorrow as well. It will through a heavy burden of responsibility upon us.” – Mahatma Gandhi
The writer is a regular contributor to this newspaper and can be reached at [email protected]