Freedom through the eyes of historians

Speeches, slogans, skits and songs offered as tributes and remembrances, followed by the unfurling of the tricolour and the recitation of the national anthem. That’s how the 72nd Independence Day of India will be celebrated all across the country, albeit at different scales.

A day to remember our "Tryst With Destiny", to feel unbridled pride and joy and to marvel at the wonder that is India. But for a meaningful celebration, the jubilation should gradually fade, and one must acquiesce to perhaps pensively ponder the idea and significance of the day.

Musings of some of India’s finest historians - Sumit Sarkar to Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Ramchandra Guha - will soon explain why.

Odds of existence
In the prologue chapter titled ‘Unnatural Nation’ of his seminal book, ‘India after Gandhi’, Guha discusses how India’s existence was considered to be somewhat of an anomaly and an outlier by some contemporary historical observers and some others before them who in a similar vein issued many incorrect prophetic warnings.

The idea that India could never be or survive as an independent nation was articulated in 1888 by a man named Sir John Strachey whose service for the British Raj eventually led him to the position of a member of the Governor General’s Council. 

First delivered in the form of lectures in Cambridge, Strachey’s ideas were later compiled in a book titled 'India'. One doesn’t know whether famous names such as Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill have read or heard about Strachey’s book or lectures, but they certainly repeated the same ideas. 

Asked about the possibility of self-governance in India in November 1891, during his visit to Australia, Kipling is said to have replied: "Oh no! They are 4,000 years old out there, much too old to learn that business. Law and order is what they want and we are there to give it to them and we give it them straight."

Guha also cites a study that analysed 135 countries and their relationship between development and democracy which found that "the odds against democracy in India were extremely high" due to low levels of income and literacy, and its high levels of social conflict. 

The study predicted that for the period 1950-1990, India should have swung to a dictatorship and indeed many of the other countries did crumble under the weight of their ambitions. Guha himself locates four major axes of conflict - caste, language, religion and class - that may have led us down that path but against the conventional wisdom and in the face of overwhelming conflict, somehow, someway, the world’s largest democracy found a way to cling to dear life. 

Independence Day or Partition Day?

Viceroy Lord Mountbatten did not want to wait till January 26, 1948, to hand over power though the Congress had been celebrating that as the Independence Day since they issued the Indian Declaration of Independence in 1930. Instead, he picked August 15, a day that had marked the official end to World War II, two years ago when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces. Guha notes: “Freedom finally came on a day that resonated with imperial pride rather than nationalist sentiment”. 
 
But the Indian people celebrated nonetheless. 
 
An American journalist reporting about the scene on the streets after Nehru’s famous "Tryst with Destiny" speech said: "...bedlam had broken loose. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were happily celebrating together...It was Times Square on New Year’s Eve. More than anyone else, the crowd wanted Nehru. Even before he was due to appear, surging thousands had broken through police lines and flowed right to the doors of the Assembly building. Finally, the heavy doors were closed to prevent a probably souvenir-hunting tide from sweeping through the Chamber. Nehru, whose face reflected his happiness, escaped by a different exit and after a while, the rest of us went out."

In a distant slum in eastern Calcutta, the father of the nation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was asked by a journalist for a message on the day of India’s independence. Gandhi said it was a day for fasting and prayer. 

Three months before that, historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee points out, Gandhi told three young socialists, Aruna Asaf Ali, Achyut Patwardhan and Asoka Mehta: “In my opinion, the Congress should in no circumstance be party to Partition. We should tell the British to quit unconditionally…Why should we make ourselves accessory to what we hold to be evil?"

Thus, Mukherjee questions the "confidence" and "perhaps even arrogance" in Nehru’s use of the pronoun "We", in his speech.  

Mukherjee writes: “Who was Nehru claiming to speak for? In his own mind, he had no doubt that he was speaking for the people of India. But did the people of India want independence that brought in its trail the trauma of Partition and communal violence? Was this the tryst they had made with the history long years ago? Did Nehru speak for those in Bengal who did not know on the morning of August 15 where they belonged? West Bengal or East Pakistan? Did he speak for those who were fleeing from West Punjab to make their homes in refugee camps in New Delhi? In fact, with hindsight, the poet Faiz when he wrote, "This is not the long-looked-for break of day", captured better the poignancy of August 15, 1947, than Nehru's mood of self-congratulation.”

Faiz’s Poem (Freedom's Dawn Aug 1947):

This leprous daybreak, dawn night's fangs have mangled

This is not that long-looked-for break of day,

Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades

Set out, believing that in heaven's wide void

Somewhere must be the stars' last halting-place,

Somewhere the verge of night's slow-washing tide,

Somewhere an anchorage for the ship of heartache.

When we set out, we friends, taking youth's secret

Pathways, how many hands plucked at our sleeves!

From beauty's dwellings and their panting casements

Soft arms invoked us, flesh cried out to us;

But dearer was the lure of dawn's bright cheek,

Closer her shimmering robe of fairy rays;

Light-winged that longing, feather-light that toil.

But now, word goes, the birth of day from darkness

Is finished, wandering feet stand at their goal;

Our leaders' ways are altering, festive looks

Are all the fashion, discontent reproved; --

And yet this physic still on unslaked eye

Or heart fevered by severance works no cure.

Where did that fine breeze, that the wayside lamp

Has not once felt, blow from -- where has it fled?

Night's heaviness is unlessened still, the hour

Of mind and spirit's ransom has not struck;

Let us go on, our goal is not reached yet.

In a similar vein, historian Sumit Sarkar also reflects on India’s first Independence Day and the alienation of the Mahatma in the final page of his book 'Modern India': "On the eve of his (Gandhi) murder, he had warned that the country still had to 'attain social, moral and economic independence in terms of its 7,00,000 villages', that Congress had 'created rotten boroughs leading to corruption and... institutions, popular and democratic only in name', and that consequently the Congress as a political party should be dissolved and replaced by a Lok Sevak Sangh of genuinely dedicated, self-sacrificing constructive village workers.”

Although Gandhi had his doubts, Sarkar vindicates Nehru’s India in the subsequent paragraphs, reproduced here below in full:

“Far from becoming a puppet of Britain or the USA, India under Nehru did gradually develop an independent foreign policy, based on the then-novel concept of non-alignment and friendship with socialist countries and the emerging Third World. A broadly democratic constitution was promulgated in January 1950 - despite many limitations, a big advance on British-Indian institutions which had avoided universal suffrage till the very end. Princes and zamindars were gradually eased out, land ceilings imposed (though seldom implemented), the old ideal of linguistic reorganisation of states was achieved in 1956, basic industries were built up through planned development of a public sector, and food production increased considerably in sharp contrast to the near-stagnation of the first half of the century."
 
None of this happened automatically due to August 1947, for much of it was only realised through bitter popular struggles—yet the winning of political independence has surely been an essential prerequisite. 
 
The contradictions remain, however, perhaps more glaring than ever before, and rooted in the choice of a broadly capitalist path of development—a path determined by the dominant pattern of our freedom movement, over which the bourgeoisie was able to establish and retain its general leadership. The six decades of India's history that we have surveyed thus find meaning and relevance if considered as a complex process of change through the struggle which is still far from complete. 
 
Perhaps, the reflections of a British socialist writer on history and its contradictions can serve as an appropriate epitaph: 

"...pondered how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name." - William Morris, A Dream of John Ball, 1887.

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Freedom through the eyes of historians

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