Celebrations of India’s independence are always laced thickly with sorrow, but especially so this year. The struggle that won India its freedom from the British on August 15, 1947, was conducted in the name of non-violence, the central pillar of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy. And yet, when freedom arrived, it did so awash with blood.
More than a million people died in Hindu-Muslim violence, as the subcontinent was split into the states of India and Pakistan. The year 2017, the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, has witnessed a revival of the religious ruptures of that Partition, serving as a reminder that the fault-lines had never closed—and that, worryingly, they are perhaps being forced further apart now.
The question of whether Partition was ever avoidable is still hotly debated by historians. Over centuries of British rule, some scholars contend, Indians had been divided and ruled, forced to define themselves by their religious identities. When political power was vested in their hands, therefore, they were bound to wield it with these identities in mind. This is how empire works, the historian Yasmin Khan wrote in her book “The Great Partition”: it “distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths.”
But another line of thought argues that India was driven towards Partition by the frictions amongst its own leaders: Gandhi; Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League; and Jawaharlal Nehru, who led the Congress Party. Gandhi and Nehru wanted a free India to remain whole, but they were unable to convince Jinnah that Muslims would be an integral part of this new nation, that they would not be sidelined or powerless within a predominantly Hindu population. By 1940, Jinnah was calling for the creation of a separate Pakistan.
Reflections on the 70th birthdays of India and Pakistan
In the uncertain years that followed, religious riots unfolded across the country. Nisid Hajari opens his book, “Midnight’s Furies” with an account of the violence that shook Calcutta (now Kolkata) in August 1946, a full year before independence. A mass rally called by the Muslim League slid into bloodshed, and roughly 4,000 Hindus and Muslims died as mobs attacked and counter-attacked each other. A photograph shows corpses littered in a narrow alley, and a flock of vultures perched expectantly upon a nearby wall.
In October that year at least 5,000 people died in similar riots in Bihar. Gandhi threatened to fast unto death if the rioting did not stop. The following month he visited Noakhali, a scene of much violence in what is now Bangladesh.
“‘What to do?’ was the mantra he uttered daily…as he walked barefoot through the blood-soaked mud,” Stanley Wolpert, Gandhi’s biographer, recorded.
Organisational chaos compounded the general uncertainty. In February 1947, Britain announced that it would transfer rule to India “not later than June, 1948”; four months later, the date was suddenly brought forward, to August 15, 1947. Cyril Radcliffe, the British judge who thought he had at least a year to draw the borders of divided India, found his time reduced first to six months and then to just six weeks—a sensitive duty condensed to a speedy cartographic exercise. Radcliffe did not announce his borders until August 17 - two days after independence - plunging millions of Hindus and Muslims into sudden fear that they were now living in the wrong country.
A great and tragic mass migration began, the largest in human history. Roughly 10 million people went on the move - Hindus fleeing into India, Muslims fleeing into Pakistan. India’s borders—with West Pakistan on one side, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on the other—became scenes of unimaginable levels of murder, rape, abduction and arson.
Trains running from one country to the other were stopped midway, so that their passengers could be killed or maimed. Villages in the Punjab went up in flames. If the migrants made it to their destination at all, they arrived as refugees: bereft of their belongings or wealth, torn away from their loved ones, strangers in the places they were now forced to call home.
The animosity that Partition stirred up between India and Pakistan has never been quelled. But more pressingly for India—a country conceived as a secular project, an antithesis to Pakistan—its own internal religious pressures, born in many ways out of the strains of Partition, are now seething and sparking in dangerous ways.
The ascent to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 has emboldened the Hindu right. Groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) believe fervently that India is essentially a Hindu land and no chunk of undivided India should ever have been torn off and handed over to Muslims. Any Muslims who don’t like how they’re treated in India should seek their home in Pakistan, RSS supporters frequently say. Mr Modi himself, and several other BJP leaders, cut their political teeth with the RSS. The BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state—home to 200 million people, including 40 million Muslims—is simultaneously the head priest of a Hindu temple in Gorakhpur. The Indian state and majority religion have never been more closely intertwined.
The headlines tell constantly of crimes by Hindu right-wing groups. The election campaigns of BJP leaders routinely include veiled attacks upon the Muslim community—a crude appeal to the party’s nationalist base. On social media and on TV news, jingoism flirts dangerously with incitement to violence.
One study by the data analysis site IndiaSpend concluded that 68 incidents of violence related to cow-protection have occurred since Mr Modi assumed power. (The cow—an animal revered by Hindus but also central to the leather and meat industry, which employs many Muslims—is a frequent flashpoint, and the BJP’s 2014 manifesto vowed to ban cow slaughter altogether.) Last year, in roughly 700 outbreaks of religious violence, 86 people died and 2,321 people were injured. Muslims are threatened and lynched by vigilantes.
Amnesty International India deplores the "seeming impunity" with which crimes are committed against Muslims - many of them in states where the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power - and the lack of condemnation expressed by the prime minister and various chief ministers.
In its 70 years of independence, India indubitably has several achievements to its credit. It has built a modern economy, remained a democracy, and lifted millions out of poverty. But in its essential duty of uniting its citizens, the state is not only failing but even appears at times to deliberately turn one section of Indian society against another.
The renewal of Hindu nationalism is one reason, but another is surely the wounds that never healed and the fury that never calmed after the Partition in 1947. The long arm of history never fails to reach into the present.
Here, six people relate their memories of India's Independence Day, 70 years ago, as told to Samanth Subramanian
V. P. Appukutta Poduval, 93, still lives in Payyanur, the town in Kerala where he was born. Having been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi as a boy, he threw himself into the freedom movement. In particular, he dedicated himself to khadi, the handwoven cloth that Gandhi championed as a replacement for British-milled cloth that was imported into India:
In 1931, an associate of Gandhi-ji’s came to Payyanur to introduce the charkha [the spinning wheel], and selected our house for the first experiment. Everyone in my family picked up spinning. I was the youngest, and I also got trained in weaving khadi. Then, in 1934, I met Gandhi-ji when he toured Kerala, raising funds for the All India Harijan Sevak Sangh [a body dedicated to helping the former Untouchable castes]. I must have been in the fifth grade.
I worked in the freedom movement in Kerala. In 1942, for instance, there was a flood and cholera in the Malabar area, and we set up a relief committee. Then I worked for the All India Charkha Sangh, (Spinners' Association) of which Gandhi-ji was chairman. I went to many places where governments wanted to promote the weaving of khadi. In 1947, I was back in Payyanur when India became independent.
There were many programmes organised for the public. We distributed kanji [rice gruel] and payasam [rice pudding] in several places to the poor. There was a procession in the evening, and a grand meeting in the police grounds. But despite all this, the mood was not so jubilant, because of Partition and the violence. Gandhi-ji wasn’t even in Delhi. He was in Calcutta [now Kolkata] and on that day he undertook a fast. He was spinning and fasting and praying for Hindu-Muslim unity. We were anxious about his health. All of this cast a shadow. It was a sorrowful freedom.
We’ve become a robust country in some ways. The country has progressed economically and scientifically. That is an improvement, no doubt. But in the field of human relations, a cultural degeneration has set in. We see political murders, we see communal strife. Democracy is in danger. We need another revolution, but there’s no one like Gandhi-ji to lead it. These are facts we need to face.
Amina Kidwai, 85, lives in Delhi and comes from an influential political family. Her uncle was Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, a freedom fighter and a close associate of Jawaharlal Nehru. Amina’s mother died when she was 10, and her father's job as a civil servant took him all over India,so Amina lived with her uncle in Lucknow:
We had no television in those days, of course. So on the night of August 14, we all stayed up to hear Pandit-ji’s [Nehru’s] “Tryst with Destiny” speech on the radio. All of us had tears in our eyes. What a wonderful speech it was. The next day was a holiday, and everyone was happy, but there were discussions in our family about Pakistan, and how the conditions of Partition were so bad.
I remember going to a huge gathering at Raj Bhavan [the seat of the local legislature] that day. A lot of Lucknow’s elites were there. They had a havan [a Hindu rite], and I wasn’t happy with the religiosity. India was born a secular country, after all. They had a maulvi [Muslim scholar] also, but the main emphasis was on the havan.
Later in August, we moved to Delhi. [Rafi Ahmed Kidwai was named minister for communications in India’s first government.] From our house—which is where the vice-president of India now lives—we could see Connaught Place, Delhi's central shopping district, in flames. There was rioting everywhere. We knew a lot of Muslims, so we told them to come over. The result was they camped in our complex and my uncle had to manage them until they could go on to Pakistan. One family stayed for four or five months. My uncle was a very hospitable man.
Then abducted women who my aunt had rescued, they started coming into the house. They had experienced terrible things. Some came to us so devastated. The family tried to protect us, the youngsters, from all this, not wanting to pollute our minds or make us religiously polarised in any way. But it was horrifying.
The riots were just terrible. My husband’s father was murdered. He was an administrator in Mussorie, and his job was to protect all the Muslims stranded there. One day the mobs decided to kill him, because he was their stumbling block.
Despite of all of this, no one in my family even thought of going to Pakistan. We belonged in India, and we stayed here. Now, though, one feels cornered. Frankly, now, it feels like that.
Krishnarao Kona Nayudu,80, lives in Pune with his wife, Raja Rajeswari. He worked in the Indian Administrative Service for more than three decades. In 1947, he was living in the town of Wardha, in the family's ancestral home, with his parents, three brothers, a sister, and "a large number of house guests floating in and out":
My grandfather had been a founder of the non-Brahmin movement (a movement to empower castes that were traditionally oppressed in Hinduism) in the Central Provinces and Berar [a province of British India] and an influential member of the British government, so our family was in the throes of the making of new India, as it were. My parents were also politically and socially engaged, and our family home had hosted many of the most prominent leaders of that time. We also spent a lot of time around Gandhi-ji, at Sevagram [Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha].
In 1947, I was in the 7th grade at Swavalambi Vidyalaya, a school organised on Gandhian principles. We went to school after breakfast and were back by lunch. Along with my friends, I spent the day memorising the national anthem. When I went home, my parents were busy trying to reassure the people in our employ—it was a large estate, so there were many—that independence was a good thing, that they would continue in the same jobs, and that they would be able to send their children to schools.
There was a world of difference in the way the educated, the literate, those who had spent time with the British, and had had Irish and English governesses saw independence, and how the others did. The former had chosen to throw their lot in with Gandhi or remain loyal to the British, so they were either jubilant or apprehensive. The latter were confused, and remained confused for a while, about what independence would mean for them—how it would affect Indian society, for instance. Many of them who came to call upon my father were worried that things had changed irrevocably and they would not know how to live in this new world. Many of the poor came to bungalows such as ours to be able to hear Nehru on the radio, which was quite reassuring to them, as that was someone they recognised. If Pandit-ji [Nehru] says this is a good thing, then it must be.
Libia Lobo Sardesai, 91, now lives in Goa, but in 1947, she was at university in Bombay (now Mumbai) studying English and French. Her father was away working in Kenya on August 15:
In Bombay, we lived in Dhobi Talao, which was where all the processions and protests used to take place. During the Second World War, it was full of fortifications and air-raid bunkers. Those had been cleared away by August. There were three days of grand celebrations for independence. It was like parrots had suddenly been let loose from their cages. Fireworks and street illuminations and bugles and whistles everywhere, and people handing out sweets. You saw the tricolour all over the place—not just the flag, but ribbons and balloons. We were a subjugated people, and now we’d thrown off the yoke.
I think emotions must have run high among the elders, who had participated in the freedom movement. We were young, we didn’t have that experience. We were just enjoying ourselves.
Our family always thought we belonged in Goa, not in Bombay. But even if India was independent, Goa was not - it was still ruled by the Portuguese. A freedom movement started there in 1946. Then India began to make.claims over Goa. At that point, the Portuguese tightened their grip. We had no civil liberties in Goa: no freedom of speech, of the press, of association. Even a wedding invitation card had to be censored.
I became a freedom-fighter. On the day Goa was liberated [in December 1961, after Indian troops took the territory by force], I was the one who made the announcement on radio. That very day also, I moved back to Goa.
In retrospect, I feel that Goa was more beautiful when it was undeveloped. I’m quite disillusioned with what has happened since then. They’re destroying every hill in the name of development. Independence has become—well, not bitter, but we don’t have so much happiness in India today. We’re doing so much to ourselves that isn’t good. We’re turning on each other. See the disruptions and confrontations in parliament, for instance. If there’s so much discord, how can there be progress and peace? Today, the atmosphere is suffocating. So these celebrations of independence feel pro forma, almost statutory. It’s a very difficult time.
Ramkumar Bharadwaj, 78, lives in Mumbai. In 1947, he lived in Nagpur, Maharashtra state, where his father edited a newspaper called Hitavada:
Nagpur was close to Wardha, where Gandhi-ji had an ashram. When Gandhi was there, other leaders like [Jawaharlal] Nehru and [Sardar Valabhbhai] Patel would also come. Hitavada was dedicated to the cause of freedom, so it became an important paper in those times.
I remember the days of the freedom movement. I must have been seven years old when I began to take part in what were called prabhat pheris. These were essentially morning processions, led by adults but with all these schoolchildren behind them. It happened every morning. The leader of our group, who must have been 17 or 19 years old, would start from her house, and she would collect children on the way, from their homes. We were in a residential area, mostly a middle-class area. As the procession passed their house, the children would join in.We woulds wait eagerly every morning.
We went from lane to lane, road to road, shouting: “Freedom is my birthright, I shall have it ! ”in Marathi as well as English. This was at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. We would do this, then we would go to school. This was my little participation in the struggle.
I only vaguely remember August 15. We had a radio in those days, but when Nehru made his speech at midnight on August 14, we were all asleep. We came to know about it only the next morning. Everyone was either confused or rejoicing. We knew it was going to happen, of course. Things had been building up. But in a way, it still felt like a pleasant surprise that the British agreed to leave. Our school must have given us all a holiday on the day.
My father was thrilled. Just imagine: From 1923, when he joined Hitavada, until 1947, when freedom came—that was really the peak of the freedom struggle. My father didn’t go to jail, unlike many other freedom fighters. But he used his pen to help bring down the British.
Shashi Talwar, 74, lives in Delhi. On August 15, 1947, her family lived in Peshawar, soon to be part of Pakistan. with chaos mounting, her parents had to flee to India:
My parents told us there was some noise, some fighting going on somewhere in the city, every night. The mobs attacked Hindu families, but somehow we never thought we’d have to leave. Then, one morning, just after August 15, after Partition, people attacked our front door. It was muggy and hot. I was playing in the courtyard, and my mother was cooking breakfast. We left everything and ran out of the rear door and hid in a neighbour's house.
All the Hindu families in the area at some point went to an influential Muslim man. He said: “I’ll save you, I’ll hide you in our house, if you give me 5 tolas of gold per person.” [A tola was roughly 11.6 grams.] The ladies had a lot of gold on them. Thirty or 40 or us were pushed into a small room - half of it full of cow-dung cakes - and the door locked. We were scared every moment that we’d be discovered. But if anyone asked, the man would promise on the Quran that it was his family’s women inside the room.
During the three or four days we were in there, my father managed to book seats on an aeroplane - a Dakota plane, I remember. After us, there was only one more flight out of Peshawar. Then everything stopped.
Elsewhere, many of our relatives were butchered. They were trying to cross the border on foot. My cousin, her mother, another aunt and her 25-year-old-son were in Mirpur. When they attacked the son and killed him in front of his mother, she said: “I don’t want to live. Kill me also.” They killed her. They killed my cousin’s mother. Then they attacked my cousin, this young girl, with a hammer. They tried to cut her neck, but somehow she survived. She lay among dead bodies for four days, until she was found by a sweeper who came to clean up the place.
Still, I want to tell you, it isn’t as if we hate Muslims because of this. Not at all. Most Muslims are very good people, and there are dark and bright sides to every community.