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The Birth Of A Nation

August 2007
The Birth Of A Nation

Anybody who remembers the birth of independent India, even vaguely, is a senior now. So that momentous event, though it occurred in living memory, is increasingly distant from our time. Six decades ago, as the clock quickly wound down on the British Raj, there was much violence and chaos during the historic transfer of power. Yet, despite the difficult birth pangs, the transition did take place on August 15th, 1947. As Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru noted in his rousing speech, "At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." In February that year, Britain's Labor government had said they'd leave India by no later than June 1948, but as it turned out, they left within six months. Although January 26th was more symbolic for Indian patriots, Lord Mountbatten, the new viceroy, chose August 15th, the second anniversary of Japan's surrender in Second World War. "So freedom finally came on a day that resonated with imperial pride, rather than nationalist sentiment," notes historian Ramachandra Guha. In another twist, astrologers deemed the 15th inauspicious. Therefore, celebrations began on the 14th, and in a brilliant compromise, freedom was ushered in when the clock struck twelve times.���

The partition of India—and the accompanying carnage—defined that era like nothing else. Sometimes referred to as a holocaust, perhaps a million or more died in what remains the largest cross-migration in history. In West Punjab alone, Hindus and Sikhs left behind 2.7 million hectares of land; Muslims, on the other hand, abandoned 1.9 million hectares in East Punjab. Almost 8 million refugees came to India, resulting in the biggest resettlement operation ever. Newly independent India's population was 340 million; now it's over a billion. On the flip side, the literacy rate was just 14 percent in 1947, whereas today it's approaching 70 percent. At the time of independence, there were well over 500 princely states of varying sizes, and Britain had total control over the remaining 60 percent of the country. Now India has 28 states and 7 union territories. For film buffs who wish to plunge into that turbulent period, here's a selective list: M. S. Sathyu's Garam Hawa, Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth, Chandra Prakash Dwivedi's Pinjar, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, Govind Nihalani's Tamas, and Pamela Rooks's Train to Pakistan. Vic Sarin's Partition is the latest one.

As for books, popular historical accounts include India's Struggle for Independence (by Bipan Chandra among others) and Freedom at Midnight (by Dominique Lapierre & Larry Collins). "The British did not, as is often claimed, give India democracy, except in a primitive form at the level of provincial government," writes Patrick French in Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division, a more recent book. "The decision to grant a universal franchise to the people of India (and from time to time the people of Bangladesh and Pakistan) was made by the relevant elites after independence? The story of India's journey to independence and division remains a contentious and hugely sensitive area of history."

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