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The Birth of a Nation

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August 2005
The Birth of a Nation

Panic and euphoria, confusion and confidence, despair and hope ? these were just some of the contradictions that characterized the nation that was in the making. Here are snippets of one person's memories of the settings, events and moods surrounding India's Independence.

By R. R. Iyer

If there is one definitive generalization that can be made of the time of India's independence in 1947, it is that there was no singular definitive mood that applied across the length and breadth of the country. There were hundreds of events, thousands of stories, and millions of lives that were hanging in balance with every new development in those final days of the independence saga.

Sure, on August 15, 1947 there was a broader mood of jubilation and gaiety in many regions of this vast mass of land between the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas, and between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Yet, the region was still some ways away from the nationhood of India.

Those who lived in British India (consisting of the eleven provinces and territories directly ruled by the Crown) were clearly more cheerful. For others who belonged to any of the close to 500 autonomous princely states, the feelings tended to be either subdued or ambiguous at best.

Whereas in the North, the British control dominated the landscape, in the South it was restricted to the Madras Presidency, extending all the way to Orissa, and bordered by four native states, Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore and Cochin.

Though a Tamil by birth, I grew up in Cochin and at the time of independence, was in Form V (5th grade). In those days Cochin was unique in that it was the most literate and progressive of all states in India, having numerous schools. Education for girls was free; as was for fatherless boys. The state was awash with newspapers and magazines, both English as well as vernacular. There were even two female members in the state legislature.

Such singularity extended even to the make-up of the population. Twenty-five percent were native Christians, about nine percent Muslims, and the rest Hindus. In addition, there was a notable sprinkling of Gujaratis and Jews. Cochin is the home of one of the oldest synagogues in Asia.

The Maharajah of Cochin was not someone who would fit the customary stereotyping which caricatures the princes as playboys, tiger hunters, or harem keepers. The prince was an aged Brahmin named Sri Kerala Varma, who led a simple life in his "palace" ? a modest bungalow. The prince not only expanded the role of the legislature, but also opened the temple doors to the lower-caste that had been barred entry up until then.

In 1947, as events progressed, a sense of euphoria filled the Northern air as Nehru and others huddled inside an Ivory tower and exchanged felicitations. Gandhi, though, was so disgusted with the terms of the Independence Bill that he left town to spend the days in solitude and meditation. He did not like the idea of a political division the Congress Party had accepted.

Besides, there were other daunting problems. The princely states that were not a part of British India were given the option of either joining or not joining the Indian Union. Cochin and Mysore eagerly agreed to join, but Hyderabad and Travancore were uncommitted. The iron-fisted dewan of Travancore, Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, ICS, threatened to secede. The Muslim Nizam of Hyderabad, where the majority of people were Hindus, began challenging the legalities of the whole process. It was said that the Nizam was ready to opt for Pakistan. He secretly encouraged an army of Muslim militants called Razakkars. Within days, however, Travancore was in India's column, even as the Nizam continued to resist.

High education made the debate in the public domain both lively and intense. There was great joy when Sir Winston Churchill was ousted from office in the British election after the war. Few Indians liked him because he single-handedly blocked all attempts for any progress towards India's independence. To some, he was a war?monger and to others, he was a racist.

Meanwhile the British in India who could see the inevitability of an independent India, spurred into action. Although there was argument about revising history with reference to certain historical events such as the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre (1919), the real focus was on the drawing of boundaries. A Commission headed by Sir Cyril Radcliff literally burnt midnight oil to come up with a solution in two weeks, a deadline predicated by the fact that a date for power transfer had already been announced.

The Muslim League demanded most of Punjab and even Calcutta, in addition to a land corridor linking eastern and western Pakistan. The real losers were those poor villagers who lived along the proposed boundaries in Punjab and Bengal. These denizens waited anxiously without knowing what they were supposed to do or where they were supposed to go. Panic began to grip the residents and no political leader went to these border regions to ease their fears. People began to meet furtively at night gathering small arms. Even on the day of independence, the fate of many regions remained uncertain.

India became independent at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947. The only ceremony that marked the occasion was in New Delhi, where Lord Mountbatten, the outgoing Viceroy presided over the lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the Indian tricolor. Jawaharlal Nehru gave his famous "Tryst with Destiny" speech in English. Most people in India were asleep at the time and thus Independence Day sneaked in without much ado. The minds of many had not yet made the transition from the dream of independence to its actual realization.

In striking contrast, the atmosphere at our school on that day was quite celebratory. Our first task as students was to make a flag of the newly formed nation. It was a new experience. We had never seen a national flag other than the Union Jack that frequently appeared atop the British Residency building. Each class bought virgin cloth pieces and manually bleached them. Some of the piece were dyed using saffron and green. The three segments were then stitched together to form the horizontal bands and finally the wheel emblem was stamped in the center. The exercise consumed considerable time and labor, since the early attempts at dyeing produced messy color runs.

Next day, the first of independent India, we awoke to a cloudy sky. Soon it began to rain cats and dogs. Undeterred, we proceeded to celebrate inside each of our classrooms, shouting slogans like "Bharatha Matha ki Jai," "Jawaharlal Nehru ki Jai," "Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai," periodically pausing only to munch party snacks. Suddenly someone suggested that we could march along the veranda of the building that skirted the sides of the structure. We paraded around-and-around, shouting slogans. Soon other classes joined in. The environment was now charged; it was fun to shout and be out shouted by other classes? for our new and free motherland.

After two hours of this, a few boys decided to brave the rain and step outside. Soon the gathering enlarged. A few teachers volunteered to join and help keep order. And before long we had formed a long file three abreast. Thus began our march through the streets. Neither coarse throats nor the thunderous rain prevented us from exercising our vocal chords, conferring greatness to Mother India. The chorus of "Jai Hind," and "?ki Jai," echoed, reverberated, and matched, as it were, by the spatter of rain pelting the ground.

Outside the school, it almost seemed like just another day. Since the Congress Party (the primary political entity representing India through the independence movement) did not have any presence in Cochin, there were no rallies or public meetings in our area ? the kind that characterized the North.

Yet, there were a few telltale signs. Passengers who disembarked at the railway station were greeted with sweets and small bouquets, courtesy of South Indian Railways. The English language newspaper Indian Express came out with a 100-page supplement filled with announcements of merchants and businesses proffering felicitations. The big news of the day was that Sir R. K. Shanmugam Chetty, a former dewan of Cochin was named India's first Finance Minister.

As the day drew to a close, there was an eerie calm. A calm before a storm! Sure enough, the next day we heard that communal riots had broken out in the border areas in Punjab and West Bengal. The boundary line was blurred in many regions, and in one stroke villages were separated right in the middle along religious lines. People took to their heels, sometimes chased by their neighbors. People hacked, battered, and stabbed one another. Arson and looting became rampant. Women were raped, older people maimed, and children abducted. About half-a-million people were massacred. Millions more became refugees. We in Cochin stood in awe and shock as the drama unfolded from hundreds of miles away.

Gandhi came out of his shell to counsel calm to the thousands of refugees who had over-flown into Delhi. Many were angry. D. F. Karaka, an incensed editor wrote a book titled I have shed my tears. The outraged author called the poorly executed partition "a grand betrayal". A new minister was appointed to manage refugee rehabilitation.

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For the people of India, it was a beginning of a new chapter. It also marked the beginning of the end of the princely states. Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, set about dismantling each native state one by one, and incorporating them in the Union either by assimilation or by integration. Thus, Cochin disappeared to become part of United States of Travancore and Cochin. Pudukottai was absorbed into Madras. Baroda became part of Bombay province. In the North, a new state called PEPSU was born by combining Patiala with Eastern Punjab and Satara.

All the Maharajahs retired into oblivion, some gracefully, others fighting hard to retain a semblance of their old glory. His Highness Rama Varma, the newly crowned Maharajah and a Sanskrit scholar, had only one simple request ? that his subscription to an almanac published by the government be continued without interruption.

A Mahatma had just demonstrated the power of truth and non-violence?the "Raj" had ended?and a nation was born.


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