Saturday, August 15, 2009

Remembering Independence Day 1947

In a speech which is now a part of political lore, Jawaharlal Nehru said on the night of August 14-15, 1947 that India, which had made a tryst with destiny long years ago, was redeeming its pledge, “not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially”.

He added, “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.”

As the clock struck 12, loud cheers broke out in the august hall. The state-owned All India Radio carried the proceedings of the house live to the far corners of the country. Knots of people gathered around wireless sets in the towns and heard the inspiring words of the man who was to lead them for the next 17 years.

“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour?” he asked, and answered the question himself. “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”

Not many peasants and workers could have heard the promise of freedom and opportunity that the Prime Minister-designate held out to them as the sun of freedom rose at midnight. Few among them were within hearing distance of a radio, which was a rare, expensive commodity in those days.

As India woke up to life and freedom, most Indians were probably asleep in their modest homes or on footpaths, as on other nights. The next day’s newspapers focused their attention sharply on the grand ceremonies in New Delhi and lesser ones under official auspices elsewhere in the country. It is not possible to reconstruct from their accounts how the ordinary people, especially those living in far-flung villages, greeted freedom at midnight.

The best picture we have is a fictional account of the night’s events in a Kerala village, provided by eminent Malayalam writer Takazhi Sivasankara Pillai in his mammoth novel “Kayar”:

All lights were out. All homes fell asleep. The Party should have celebrated this day. The last Britisher boards the steamer to go home at midnight tonight. Isn’t that something? Isn’t the working class getting any rights tonight?

Surendran walked. He felt a heaviness inside. All working class homes were asleep. Did they not know that India was becoming free tonight?

He walked through the lanes. People were awake in some houses here and there. Maybe they habitually sleep late. Decorations were going on in two or three houses. Festoons were being put up in the village office. Surendran thought of going up to the police station. In the darkness he saw a figure moving in the oppose direction. It was Manikantan.

Surendran recognized Manikantan. And Manikantan recognized Surendran.

Manikantan said a little excitedly: ‘Large-scale decorations are going on at the police station’.

That was big news. Surendran said: ‘At 12 the Tricolour will go up there.’

‘Yes, yes, the cops will salute the flag at 12.’

Manikantan moved away, walking hurriedly as though there was some urgent work to do. And Surendran went to see the police station. As the clock ticked towards freedom, two men were running around in that village. They were full of enthusiasm. The freedom which generations had dreamed of was becoming a reality. Could those who lived a hundred years ago have known that after sunset on the night of August 14, 1947, at 12 o’ clock sharp, India’s flag will be fluttering in the sky? They might have inquisitively wondered when that day would come. This generation had impatiently waited for this day. It was we who had the good fortune to decide that moment.

Time was not moving. That was how Manikantan felt. There was still time left. Fat, unmoving moments.

From where should one see the National Flag going up? The biggest preparations were at the police station. It would be fun to watch uniformed, gun-wielding policemen salute the flag. Might as well see how they salute the flag. Once they had ripped a Tricolour with bullets. It was from that flag that the present one had come.

Yes, that was the place. Some people had already gathered there. Shouldn’t the whole village be there -- men, women and children? Why weren’t they all there?

The village where Takazhi’s story is set is one that has felt the impact of political activity. Manikantan and Surendran who wander rather aimlessly through the village streets that night are young men who are part of two major political streams. Few villages in the country had probably felt the impact of politics to the same degree.

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