In 1947, the UK was exhausted. The Second World War had ravaged its military and economy, and anti-colonial movements had begun to challenge empires. Within the Indian subcontinent, the UK faced two powerful, seemingly irreconcilable nationalist movements: one calling for the creation of Pakistan, a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia; the other for India, a pluralist democracy.
The UK chose to partition the region and withdraw. Under the terms of the Indian Independence Act, the subcontinent was formally divided into two new dominions at midnight of August 14, 1947 — 75 years ago on Sunday.
Here's what you need to know.
Why is August 15 India's Independence Day?
About 15 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs swapped countries in the political upheaval, marred by violence and bloodshed that cost more than one million lives.
At midnight on August 15, 1947, the red sandstone parliamentary building in the heart of India’s capital echoed with the high-pitched voice of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” Nehru famously spoke, words that were heard over live radio by millions of Indians.
Then he promised: “To the nations and peoples of the world, we send greetings and pledge ourselves to co-operate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy.”
It marked India’s transition from a British colony to a democracy — the first in South Asia — that has since transformed from a poverty-stricken nation into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, earning itself a seat at the global high table and becoming a democratic counterweight to its authoritarian neighbour, China.
Is it really the 75th anniversary?
Although India attained independence from the UK in 1947, it only became a fully sovereign republic with its own head of state on January 26, 1950.
Between those dates, the 299 men and women of India’s Constituent Assembly worked to imagine their emerging country and to inscribe their vision and foundational legal principles in a national constitution. The outcome of their efforts is a remarkable document that remains a source of both inspiration and contention today.
What does India's national anthem Jana Gana Mana mean?
Rendered in the prescribed metre, it takes exactly 52 seconds to sing the Indian anthem, Jana Gana Mana. The lyrics derive from the first stanza of Rabindranath Tagore's five-stanza poem Bharot Bhagyo Bidhata, or “Dispenser of India's destiny”. Tagore set the poem to music himself.
The anthem opens with an exaltation of the Almighty, who guides the country’s destiny:
Jana-gana-mana-adhinayaka jaya he
Or, in English:
You, the ruler of our minds, our nation
To you our humble salutations!
The poem then begins a virtual tour of pre-independence India, beginning in the north and circling west, mentioning the regions of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, the southern states speaking Dravidian languages, and Odisha and Bengal:
Tagore refers to features of physical geography as well: the Vindhya and Himalaya mountain ranges and the Yamuna and Ganges rivers. The Almighty’s name, the anthem says, swells and animates this land. In the final part, Tagore provides a refrain:
Taba Subha name jage, taba subha ashisha maange,
gahe taba jaya-gatha.
Jana-gana-mangala-dayaka jaya he Bharata-bhagya-vidhata.
Jaya he, Jaya he, Jaya he, jaya jaya jaya jaya he.
Or, in English:
Your blessings we seek, your praises replicate you
As the Protector of India's fate!
Victory! Victory! Victory!
Victory forever to you!
- Associated Press contributed to this report