A chapter in the book “Freedom at Midnight” by Dominique Lapierre & Larry Collins that I read many years ago in Pune knocked me three years back while I was going through some old newspaper archives. I tried to match what I heard from many of those old timers who had seen the day India got her freedom & the same time got her arms amputated.How freedom came to us on that cloudy friday ? Was it celebration all around or it was gloom as dark as midnight ? Was Neheru’s ” tryst with destiny” was enough to make people free or there was a cavern of doubt how life will go when home is lost ? What the man named Mahatma Gandhi was doing on that day ? Was he still a hero of the nation or the most hated to many ?
Freedom came to us with a heavy price.The blood & devastation that was seen in Europe during 2nd world war was almost revisited this sub-continent in that August of 1947.Still India survived & rocked. The chapter in that book titled ” Oh Lovely Dawn of Freedom ” describes how common people, leaders,Brits experienced the first day of freedom at various parts of India.For someone it was the darkest morning & for some it was the brightest dawn.For one leader it was the day of victory while for other it was the biggest failure of his political career. Finishing this the said chapter of this book had overtaken me so deeply that I had called my 65 years old father in Calcutta from Pune to know his experience of that day.Recently while discarding some old papers from my office desk I found three front page of three major newspaper published from Bombay,Calcutta & New Delhi on Friday 15th August 1947. As soon as I gone inside of them cutting teeth a little deeper inside of every news printed I found myself taken away with a time that is frozen in those newspaper pages.It pushed me to read few more books to realize that India of that August was not a land of fun & frolic.It was the place that even God can not handle properly.
India as an independent nation was born politically on 15th August 1947.I read somewhere
that initially it was decided that freedom will be gained in June 1948 because the gargantuan task of allocating assets between India & Pakistan was far from completion & still there was massive border de-marking dispute at various districts of Punjab & Bengal.However a political tumult in England changed the plan & freedom came to us few month before culminating some never ending issues.
Bombay : August 1947 – City with a broken spirit & divided from inside.
In upscale residential area of Bombay’s Malabar Hills a huge palatial house with lawn was calm on that day.It’s owner one of the top advocate of Bombay High Court was on tour with his younger sister.He was not holidaying .
He was out to carve his name in the history of mankind with an unimaginable significance.The man by birth a Gujarati but by his life style an Englishman was Md Ali Jinnah the first & only man so far in the history of mankind who created a land for Islamic people even with out knowing what islamic country means.He was a muslim not knowing that during Ramzaan religious people keep fast in day time. He was such a muslim who does not know that there can not be any painting of Prophet. He was such a muslim who loves bacon & ham in his breakfast & the finest whisky in his evening relaxation.For months he used to stay in the most expensive sea facing suite of Bombay’s Taj Mahal hotel.He spent his honeymoon in Darjeeling’s Mount Everest Hotel one of the most expensive hotel of that time. He was the man with unquestionable dedication to secularism much more than Gandhi.It was Jinnah who had the guts to castigate Gandhi’s decision to mix politics with Islamic sentiment.It was he who wanted to take an official proposal to thank Rabindranath Tagore in a Congress session for his decision to return knighthood to British Govt in the protest of Jaliwanalabagh massacre in 1919.No logic can ever work to calculate how this man changed so much in last 7 years & wanted a direct action on the street of Calcutta to get his dreamland called Pakistan.He was in Karachi on that August .He took his responsibilities as head of the state of newly born Pakistan & in his first speech made on 11th August 1947 he made it clear that he does not understand anything other than secularism.He addressed his nation by saying “ you are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
Thus was a man who divided India but did not disconnect himself from Bombay.He never thought for moment to sell his dream house of Malabar Hills.He requested Neheru to rent it out for any foreign embassy so that it is kept in proper shape.He only shifted his body not his soul out of Bombay.He always had a dream to come back to this great city where he had everything of his life.Pakistan was only his place of work and never his home.His home was always Bombay.Was not Bombay the great city crying too for his one of the brightest citizen who only to settle an ego clash with Hindu leaders had gone mad to create a thing which he himself never thought a practical one ?
Tension prevailed everywhere.Few days back a riot broke in Crawford market area & army was marching almost every road of Bombay .The city had just witnessed Naval mutiny & uprising in support of INA soldiers.Communist Party was out to explain people that ” yeh azadi jutha hain“. Ganesh Utsav the biggest festival of marathi people was approaching near but with a low spirit.( a years back riding on the popularity of Netaji Bose many image of Ganesh was made in INA uniform rendering the same posture of Netaji’s Delhi cholo).Bombay in 1947 was a city of one leader that is Bose & not anyone else.
Bombay film world was divided house on the eve of independence.It was already suffering a shortage of technicians mostly Germans who were either arrested or fled Bombay during 2nd world war.Bombay Talkies was passing through a crisis . Ashok Kumar one of the top hero & his partner already parted relation with Devika Rani. Ashok Kumar with Shashadhar Mukherjee had formed a new production house named Filmisthan Studio.Many talented actors & actress were crossing borders. Noor Jahan the golden voice of Bombay decided to
move Paksitan while from Lahore a young Punjabi actor Pran moved to Bombay.A boy of early 20s name B R Chopra & a small girl named Geeta Bali have already landed Bombay as refugee loosing all in the hand of muslims in western Punjab.Kidar Sharma directed Neel Kamal was completed by that time introducing two legend on the same movie viz Raj Kapoor & Madhubala for the first & last time. Saigal decided to stay back.So were the Kapoors & Yusuf Khan. Suraiya stayed back & thank God Md Rafi also ( no doubt Allah is great ).Most of the muslim preferred Bombay as theie home over Lahore or Karachi. Bombay won over Lahore in talent draining. Kismat the movie was still running in Bombay echoing the spirit of freedom.
Indian People Theatre Association ( IPTA) the cultural wing of Communist Party of India was very strong in Bombay.It was already teamed up with people like Ravi Shankar,Prwithraj Kapoor, Ismat Chugtai, Saddat Hassan Manto,Bijone Bhattacharya,Dev Anand,Kisan Chand & Khowaja Ahmed Abbas etc.While almost everyone preferred to stay back in India the most talented of them Manto did the bigget mistake of his life.He left Bombay & moved to Lahore only to die a broken hearted after few years. Manto’s loss was perhaps the biggest loss of Bombay on that August.
The city celebrated as usual.
Local people flooded the street.From Marine Drive to Chaupatty people touched almost every landmark of Bombay.A huge mob even shown the audacity to enter the citadel of Taj Mahal Hotel turning the luxury hotel into a mass play ground. While common Marathi people were celebrating many of those who had started hating Gnadhi from their heart were planning a different game at various places of Bombay,Pune & Nagpur.
The Gate way of India another marvelous Indo-Euro colonial architecture was witnessing the most significant implication of India’s independence.It is from here batch
after batch of British army were doing the farewell parade of leaving the shore of India ever since London had decided to leave New Delhi on it’s own fate.Though the last batch of army left India on 28th February 1948 it all started from August through Gate way of India.Somerset Light Infantry the last batch of British army finally left Bombay ( thus from India ) on 28th February 1948.The last commander John Plat received a small silver replica of this Bombay monument from General Bateman symbolizing the last memento of a colony which in reality British never counted as colony but a 2nd home.
Calcutta – August 1947 : A city sleeping on the sack of explosive.
A year back on 16th August 1946 Calcutta saw how Muslim League riot mongers ravaged the city for 48 hours & then how hindu-sikh combined force over took the mayhem & ensured a double degree retaliation.Infact the conspiracy plotted by Muslim League back fired badly in Calcutta.It started well by plan killing thousand of hindus for two full days by keeping police inactive under the instruction of Shaheed Suhrawady but from 3rd day such a horrific reply was rendered by hindus & sikhs that it really smashed al gambit of Direct Action called by Jinnah.
As a revenge Muslim League selected Noakhali a non-descriptive district of East Bengal with only 17% hindu population. There from 9th October 1946 to next 15 days the most brutal abuse of mankind was done with no protection offered to hindus from Government.Gandhiji visited the place after few months only to tell hindu girls to consume poison before being raped & hindu men to flee Noakhali if they want to be alive – such was a father we had behind our shoulder in that dark time !
In such an explosive atmosphere Calcutta was no mood to dance in joy when freedom arrived.
Gandhiji was again in Calcutta & camped at Hydari Manzil a dilapidated muslim owned house
in eastern part of the city.This locality was such where in 1946 hindu mobs did ravaged muslims. Still a sizeable muslim population was there in a slum called Miyabagan basti. Gandhi instead of going to any area where hindus were butchered and looted selected Beliagahta thinking he is doing a great service to mankind. The day when freedom finally came to India the man named Gandhi who remained a poster boy of Indian struggle of independence to world for last 30 years was a broken & vanquished man. He was in a house where not a single lamp of celebration was lit up.In every refugee camp across Punjab,Bengal & Delhi people were asking blood of Gandhi for his political failure to prevent partition.In Calcutta Gandhi was keeping a fast .His Beliagahata house was over crowded with cheering people coming from various corners of the city but Gandhi did not speak to anyone except Prafulla Ghosh the newly
appointed chief minister of West Bengal & few more .
Till last midnight more news of loot,arson,rape and killing were coming to Gandhi & he was trying his best to ventilate that to Suhrawady the leader of Muslim League. In evening he took a stroll in the city in his Chevrolet & everywhere he was greeted with warm cordiality.People were cheering Vande Mataram & Gandhiji zindabad.
Tram ran free all through out the day carrying people. Gate of Governor House was open ajar in morning & mob entered inside of the great palace.It was time when last British Governor Sir Fredrick Burrows & his wife were having breakfast in one room of the palace.People from nearby slums also took an entry thinking in a free nation no one can stop an Indian to do any non sense at anywhere.They even walked barefoot on the carpet. Some of them even jumped on the beds. Some of them damaged oil paintings of various British rulers by stabbing with their umbrella – Aha it was the meaning of freedom to many of us.
The game of changing name of roads started as soon as freedom came to Calcutta. The first road that got a new name in independent Bengal was Clive Road in Dalhousie square.It named as Netaji Subhash Road after a man whom Bengal or say India expected to arrive at red fort as a victor in 1945. Bose by August 1947 was either dead or was perishing in a Russian prison.
Bengal bleeds : People forgot that with Punjab another province is also partitioned.
Common people specially Bengali Hindus of east Bengal were mostly shivering in panic.
In east Bengal on that time nearly 80 % of land was owned by hindus where as in size of population they were just 30% plus. So it was evident & sure that soon hindu lands will be targeted by muslims . Noakhali the small island like place of East Bengal where only 17% hindus were almost butchered by muslims in October 1946 was still in every hindus nightmare. From Dhaka to Khulna & from Chittagong to Faridpur everywhere hindu property & girls were under threat. In places like Dhaka, Rajshahi, Sylett the atmosphere was tensed.A stream of hindu refugee already started to cross the border while many Urdu speaking muslims from Bihar & Uttar Pradesh were migrating to Dhaka thinking as a muslim they will be cordially accepted by Bengali speaking muslims. How grossly wrong they were will be proved in 1971 when Bengali muslim of East Paksitan will count Urdu speaking muslim an equal enemy to them.
In 1947 My father was 11 years old.
In his village Joara of Chittagong ( a small village near India Burma border ) there was no communal tension. Chittagong was a Hindu – Buddhist majority district & by no chance it was supposed to be a part of Pakistan but Cyril Radcliffe found a creative logic to make a mess.The man responsible for border demarcation a job which needs atleast 5 years tried to finish it in two months. He has never visited India before. Knowing nothing about how things matter in social life of India Radcliffe thought he knows his job best.He included Chittagong into Pakistan showing that this land mass has no direct connectivity with India.He did not get enough time to see the map with minimum attention that Chittagong has connectivity with Indian state Mizoram & that should have been logically included to India. So my parent’s family who had a sure chance to become citizen
of India were pushed to Pakistan where till 1964 they somehow managed to survive. My father was always able to recollect the day when independence came. In his village school every student got an apple from school management. Muslim League party workers distributed Pakistan national flag in all hindu families with a request ( read it threat rather ) to hoist it. My father’s family was known to Congress leaned. My Pishamosai ( Paternal Aunt’s husband ) Jatindra Mohan Rakshit was a well known Congress leader who used work closely with Nellie Sengupta wife of late Congress leader Jyotimdramohan Sengupta & Kalpana Joshi ( earlier Dutta ) co-worker of Surya Sen & later wife of Puran Chand Joshi one of the top Communist Party of India’s leader My two aunts ( Preeti Nandi & Rani Rakshit ) spent nearly 2 months with the team that camped with Mahatma Gandhi at Noakhali. Thanks to all these connection they were under the watch. My father could not recall whether Pakistan flag was indeed hoisted at his home or not on 15th August 1947 but he clearly could recollect that at school the flag was hoisted. My grand father Dhirendranath Sen was already retired from his job in Corporation & was having a peaceful life in his village. He had no plan or any idea to leave Pakistan because there was a clear confidence among hindus that no one can dislodge them from the land which they have owned for several centuries. He died just three years after this in 1950 & by that time massacre of hindus in the hand of muslim & large scale grabbing of hindu properties all over East Pakistan were a reality. Village after village hindus left everything behind to save their lives & dignities to chose a life spent on the slums & refugee camps in West Bengal.
Chittagong was more or less not that impacted till 1964. In 1964 a riot broke out in
Calcutta & everything changed. The knife of Islamic nation was out to slit throat of every hindus & my father found his motherland a most uncertain reality. Hindus were already deprived in scope of jobs & education in east Pakistan . It was not easy to leave everything for him. Out of his three brothers 2 preferred to stay back in Pakistan while the youngest one ( my father) left his job at Lipton Pakistan Limited in 1964 and started his life as a refugee in Calcutta. Luck is kind that he got a job in Duncan Brothers very shortly.
At Jessore, Kushthia & Khulna it was a celebration time for hindus. On 14th August mid night every household hoisted Indian national flag thinking these three hindu dominated district all bordering Indian soil can never go to Pakistan. Many people started investing in land & other properties.Some apprehensive people who wanted to cross to India on 13th August were prevented by local CPI leaders assuring that there is no need to leave these places because these all are going to be a part of India. A similar sequence was found in Murshidabad district where 67% strong muslims celebrated the day by hoisting Pakistan flag. Dinajpur district in north Bengal was in doubt till 18th August. Balurghat the main town remained in India while a major part was given to Pakistan. It was only a matter of three days when it was announced that Khulna,Jessore,Kushthia & Sylett will be a part of Pakistan while Murshidabad will be a part of India for the sake of saving Calcutta port’s navigability.
Punjab : August 1947 – non stop dance of death :
It is blood and only blood every where.
In Lahore muslims were killing hindus & in Amritsar hindus & sikhs were killing muslims in equal brutality.Girls were getting abducted and gang raped on both side in equal beastly way.In Patiala Sikhs lead the killing of muslims who were trying to flee Paksitan where as train after train full of hindus and sikhs were getting butchered by muslims almost everyday. On 15th August a train from Lahore arrived at Amritsar station with no sound of passengers.When station master curiously got inside the train he found only dead bodies in the pool of blood.It was a sight even God can not tolerate. Amputated head of man was found on the lap of his wife.Killed son’s body was found on the arms of mother and most horrific is that on the wall of
that compartment some one has written in white lime brush ” Gift from Pakistan to India ‘.Few days back a similar train arrived at Lahore station. This time also there was no sound from any passenger when the train arrived at station.This time on the wall there was writiing in blood that read ” Gift from India to Pakistan”. Few days after at Amritsar railway station a young Punjabi Hindu boy of 22 years was seating next to his 18 years old pregnant wife.They lost everything at their home in Lahore & now going to New Delhi knowing nothing what to do.He had a wish to do further study & wanted to serve his country as IAS. In that day on the platform of Amritsar station with lakhs of other people in an horrific atmosphere he was trying hard to console
his weeping wife who might have thought all is over for her & her unborn baby in the womb.The station was full of dead bodies & platform was wet with blood.Foul smell was in air & there was no place for women to go for sanitation.Still he with all other members managed to catch a train that finally took them to Delhi from Lahore via Amritsar. 50 years after that nightmarish experience the same man had the honor to hoist India’s national flag from Red fort as prime minister of India celebrating first fifty years of freedom.Destiny smiled to Inder Kumar Gujral just 50 years after a long journey.Another victims of partition who fled India & then made a mark in politics are Manmohan Singh . Lal Krishna Advani left his home in Karachi in Sindh & came India as refugee.
New Delhi – August 1947 : The ” new” Delhi rejoiced while “old” had a sleepless night.
Freedom meant nothing for those lakhs of hindu & Sikhs families who were perishing that day at various refugee camps of Delhi and around. It was the hell India had never seen before.
Punjab & Sindh were burning ever since Hindu had ensured a revenge of Noakhali killing in Bihar.In Lahore electricity & water supply were cut to all hindu areas.In Rawalpindi ,Karachi & other places hindus & sikhs were passing through the most horrific nightmare of their lives.Rotten dead bodies were spreading foul smell almost evey railway station near Delhi. At the stroke of midnight hour of 14th August Jawaharlal Neheru delivered an epoch making speech describing his journey to the day as “ tryst with destiny “.Sucheta Kripalini sang “Vande Mataram” in the parliament.
Neheru earlier had a fight with Babu Rajendra Prasad who after consulting some astrologers found that 15th August is not a sacred day to pro-claim independence.A man with modern outlook like Neheru this was just a pure non-sense & he rejected the proposal to change date immediately. Next morning lakhs of people came on the street of New Delhi only knowing that ” British are going & we are free “.
Free ! Free at what cost & free at what for ?
Nobody bothered to understand. New Delhi then was still a baby city compared to gigantic Calcutta, Bombay & Madras.From India Gate to Raisana Hills over the Viceroy house the dream city of Lutyenn & David Baker turned into a human sea. At 5 pm Neheru hoisted the flag from red fort & illumination donned every corner of South & North Block.Louis Mountbatten the last viceroy with wife got introduced to Neheru’s ministers & some of the ministers whom Neheru himself forgot last evening were asked to take oath.The rajpath was janpath on that day.
Old Delhi was rolling under communal tension at specific pocket but New Delhi had no time to give freedom a miss.From south block to Birla temple all significant buildings were illuminated.Celebration was every where almost.
At Purna qila,Humayun Thomb & other places life was passing through it’s darkest phase
for million of refugees.Leaving all behind at western Punjab & Sindh people were perishing there.Gandhi’s death was prayed at many places while many of them walked in the rally of freedom thinking now everything will be fine.The front page of Hindustan Times Delhi’s highest circulating newspaper carried advertisement of shops saying to help refugees.This shows many of those uprooted Punjabis have already started a new life there in a new unknown city.New Delhi got a chance to rebirth with independence & partition. Only becasue of partition it experienced an un-predictable growth as an urban jungle that no city in India had ever seen before.
It was a time when India had very few telephone lines.Newspapers circulation was limited to cities and town while radio was rarest of the rare product in village. India finally broke the shackle of British dominance after 200 years.It is evident that this news did not reach many places of India even 5 years after 1947. In many places people keep on believing that their country is still ruled by Bilaiti Laatshab. Still freedom came to our grand parents. Our parents who were very young thus known as midnights children who got a freedom much different of what they thought.
Nearly 70 years after that mid-nights grand children like us still see that day with deep pain & pangs.It is not that freedom walked into our lives with partition.Partition was unavoidable & in some context a blessing for us.It is the ignorance of people how freedom arrived to us .We only know how to celebrate – we were never taught how to introspect & how to derive lesson from mistakes.
In support of the above the best example I found in an article published in today’s The Statesman.Describing the reports & advertisement published in The Statesman dated 15th August 1947 author has pointed out an advertisement published by a bank showing lower per capita income of India of that era ( that was only Rs 65 compared to Rs of England 980 & Rs 1406 of USA ) & advised a hard-workship to all Indian to go ahead.Author very optimistically concluded his article saying 68 years after today UK’s economy is growing 2.6 % per year & USA’s economy is growing 2.4% per year.India the poorest of that three in 1947 ( & still the poorest among them ) is able to give a growth of 7.4% per year.
So we have no reason to look back our wasted years when economy was under shackles
No doubt it is a great country !!!!!
English Books & Periodicals :
The Last Days of Raj by Trevor Royle
The Mumbai Factfile by Derek O Brien
Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre & Larry Collins
The Man Who Divided India by Rafiq Zakaria
Liberty Or Death by Patrick French
Pages From The Past – A Statesman Collection.
Bengal Divided – Unmaking of a Nation by Nitish Sengupta
Remembering India’s Freedom At Midnight by Raja Murthy – The Statesman dated 15th August 2015
Sahibs Who Loved India – Edited by Khushwant Singh
Hastantar by Shankar Ghosh
Bangla Bhag Holo by Jaya Chatterjee
Read more of Somen Sengupta – http://www.somensengupta.com