“At the stroke of today’s midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
On 15th August 1947, these words ushered in a new era for India, marking the moment of their emancipation from British occupancy. It was a hard-fought-for liberation, coming after three long and punishing centuries of foreign imperial rule. The words were spoken by Jawaharlal Nehru, freedom campaigner and India’s first Prime Minister. 70 years later, India continues to flourish as a nation, setting new industrial standards across multiple sectors and constantly proving her tenacity. However, freedom did not come easily, or cleanly, and like many new beginnings, it was bittersweet and bloody in its delivery.
On Independence Day, India’s national colours fill its skies, as thousands of kites bearing the flag are flown in celebration. The focal point each year takes place at the Red Fort in Delhi, where in 1947, Prime Minister Nehru raised the orange, white and green for the first time and addressed a newly free country. Now, every year, both India’s Prime Minister and President raise the flag above the Red Fort and make a speech; songs are sung, sweets are shared, and those who fought and stood for freedom are remembered.
Indian protests and independence movements took many forms during Britain’s long occupancy. The most famous of these is the Indian National Congress, a peaceful movement turned political party founded in 1885, and most notably led by Mahatma Gandhi from 1920. Under his leadership, the INC became the face of Indian independence, with 15 million members and a staggering 70 million participants. Gandhi promoted peaceful protest throughout his leadership, even in the face of violent and fatal backlash from the British and their supporting troops.
Some, but by no means all, of the most notable and tragic incidents of violence were the Jallianwala Bagh and Nankana massacres, in 1919 and 1921 respectively. Both massacres saw armed forces fire on non-violent Sikh crowds, in Nankana whilst they protested British control over their gurdwaras (temples), and in Jallianwala Bagh whilst they gathered for a Sikh festival after curfew. In Nankana, reports of fatalities ranged between 126 to 200, and in Jallianwala Bagh, a shocking 379 to 1000-plus. Gandhi become leader of the INC the year between these two attacks, and whilst violent protests also took place throughout India’s struggle, his ability to inspire peaceful resistance in the wave of such bloodshed was a testament not only to his leadership, but also the discipline and bravery of those who stood with him.
It is impossible to understand India’s struggles for freedom without looking at the religious conflicts within the country. Distrust existed between the Muslim and Hindu communities, with the Muslim minority fearing that they were not heard, respected or safe from the Hindu majority. To a large degree, these tensions had been aggravated by the British over the centuries: in 1857 the first Indian Rebellion took place, with both religions fighting alongside each other for the common cause of independence. This quickly illustrated to the occupiers that ‘divide and conquer’ was the best way to ensure control, and so they encouraged seeds of distrust between these groups. This made such alliances difficult to re-create, keeping Hindus and Muslims distracted with in-fighting instead of forming a united front against a common enemy.
Meanwhile, the British soon learned that the Sikh population posed their own difficulties through their militant national pride and sheer levels of tenacity, both spiritual, cultural and physical. It soon became clear that the Sikhs could not be broken through violence, and so instead of trying to defeat them, the British appealed to their militant spirit by enlisting them. They established and maintained control through manipulating their faith, selecting which religious leaders would govern their gurdwaras, and through doing so, gradually altering the faith’s prayers and beliefs to come in line with their own thinking. This sort of subtle control would only be possible over the long period the British had, and was as clever as it was objectionable.
However, these divisions were not met without resistance. India has in fact observed an ‘Independence Day’ since 1930, not as a celebration, but a call to united protest. The Indian National Congress declared January 26th a day for “civil disobedience”: not only a day when Indians were encouraged to stand with the INC, but also a day to oppose the British through community work such as outreach towards untouchables, and building peaceful relations between faiths. The day was intended as a symbol to stir up national pride and passion, and also to counter the divisive methods being used to keep groups apart. The day was observed from 1930 until 1946. After freedom was finally achieved in 1947, the Constitution of India came into effect on 26th January 1950, and so this original ‘Independence Day’ finally became a day for celebration, now known as Republic Day.
Despite these efforts, deep-set divisions are hard to erase, and when Britain came to handing India back to its people, their own strategies now posed them a dilemma: how to hand power over peacefully with such tensions in place?
In an attempt to resolve this conflict with minimal violence, Britain, through discussion and debate with India’s movement leaders, decided that the best resolution was to divide the country in two: India, with a Hindu and Sikh majority, and the newly created Pakistan, a country devised by and for India’s Muslim minority. The country was proposed and eventually led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, previously the leader of the All-India Muslim League, who served as Pakistan’s Governor-General until his death. Many Indian Muslims feared that in an independent India, they would not be heard by the Hindu majority; to many, Pakistan became the promise of their chance at the freedom, security and empowerment that Hindus and Sikhs hoped for in a united India.
Whilst intended as a peaceful solution, the upheaval of dividing the country proved anything but. In the run-up, talks of Pakistan created uncertainty and aggravated religious tensions, causing increasing riots and massacres throughout the country, and when the divide finally came into effect, over 15 million Indians were displaced, moving between states to reach the ‘correct’ country. Over 1 million died traveling.
Much of this fallout could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, if more time and planning had been put into the divide, and the right systems and provisions put in place. As it was, Britain, which could neither afford to keep India after the ravages of WWII, nor wished to be responsible for the growing violence in the population, set less than two months between the agreement to partition and Pakistan coming into effect. This was a process that included changing the nationality of millions of people, creating new borders, the division of public and private land, the requirement for uncountable new laws – the creation of a country, simultaneous to the liberation and re-invention of another, in eight weeks.
The circumstances around the freeing of India were a tragedy, in how it was conducted and the lives that were lost. However, it was also the beginning of a new chapter for two countries. Tensions and fallout from this period of history still affect both nations, who today are struggling to find peace with each other, as well as to defend their people from internal extremism. However, it can’t be denied that both also have much to boast. India has made huge strides in space travel and green energy, has achieved medical feats such as eradicating Polio from the country, and has created a booming software industry from nothing in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, Pakistan boasts the world’s largest irrigation system, the deepest big sea port, the youngest certified Microsoft professional and the invention of the world’s highest density media processor.
Truly, in terms of industry and global contributions, both countries have much to celebrate this August 15th. However, more than any of that, they are able to celebrate rich cultures, strong peoples and the pride of hard-earned liberation. It is strange to think that this conflict was resolved less than a lifetime ago; as the decades pass, may the fallout that still lingers continue to be overcome, along with the new challenges that have arisen, and for both nations to show the world just what free people can do.