August 15, 1947 speeches are beacons to desired future

The August 15, 1947 speeches remain beacons to our desired future

Mountbatten’s and Prasad’s speeches were a neat contrast of old and new, of personal and societal

Apart from Nehru’s speech itself, the presentation of the national flag, the singing of the national anthem are well known from the day. Credit: AFP Photo

Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech late in the night on August 14, 1947. It was delivered during one of the most momentous sessions of the Constituent Assembly, one that is well-known and well-recorded. Apart from Nehru’s speech itself, the presentation of the national flag, the singing of the national anthem, the taking of the pledge by all the members of the Assembly at the stroke of midnight are all well-known. Many evocative accounts of that moving day, by members and observers, are present and easily accessible.

But the session did not end there. The Constituent Assembly only adjourned to the morning of August 15, 1947. This day, when Nehru flew the Indian flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort, saw speeches by Governor-General Louis Mountbatten and Rajendra Prasad, in his capacity as the president of the Constituent Assembly. The speeches are revealing about the immediate circumstances in which India became independent -- what was said being as important as what was left unsaid.

The day began with the reading out of congratulatory messages received from nations far and wide. Mountbatten was then invited to speak.

The bulk of Mountbatten’s speech covered the events leading up to independence, specifically his role in the whole process. No doubt he played a key role in the exercise, but one notices not only a certain level of self-congratulation, but also self-exculpation. Self-congratulation for having advanced the date of independence from July 1948 to August 1947, when everyone thought that even June 1948 was too early. Self-exculpation for the failings that resulted from such a hasty withdrawal.

Mountbatten gave himself credit for the idea behind implementing Partition (“the leaders agreed to discuss a paper which I had laid before them on the administrative consequences of Partition”) while also subtly telling us who to blame for things that went horribly wrong (“To the ministers and officials who have laboured day and night to produce this astonishing result, the greatest credit is due”).

Prasad’s speech was almost a riposte to Mountbatten’s, focused as it was on the future, and has no mention of the speaker himself. Prasad, in this vein, outlined an almost utopian vision for what he hoped India would become.

He said: “Let us resolve to create conditions in this country when every individual will be free and provided with the wherewithal to develop and rise to his fullest stature, when poverty and squalor and ignorance and ill-health will have vanished, when the distinction between high and low, between rich and poor, will have disappeared, when religion will not only be professed and preached and practised freely but will have become a cementing force for binding man to man and not serve as a disturbing and disrupting force dividing and separating, when untouchability will have been forgotten like an unpleasant night dream, when exploitation of man by man will have ceased…”

While articulating this utopian idea, Prasad also mentioned the important task at hand -- the making of the Constitution. Even while the draft Constitution was still being framed, Prasad articulated the hope that it “will enable the people’s will to be expressed and enforced, and that will not only secure liberty to the individual but also reconcile and make that liberty subservient to the common good.”

Mountbatten’s and Prasad’s speeches were a neat contrast of old and new, of personal and societal, of individual and institutional. Where Mountbatten looked to the past, his own role and the parts played by specific individuals in getting India to independence, Prasad looked to the future -- of what independence would bring, of what the society and nation would look like, and what individuals could hope to achieve in the new country.

Both viewpoints are, however, valid. It is good to remember that India’s independence came about in hasty, confused and, eventually, bloody circumstances that continue to haunt us to this day. Yet, it was also infused with hope for a better future -- one that we have made progress towards but are a long way from achieving.0

(The author is Co-founder, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, uses his legal training to make the case that Harry Potter is science fiction and Star Wars is fantasy)