Independent India, the Long Struggle

Yatindra Bhatnagar

I am one of the lucky ones who saw the Sun of free India rising on 15th August 1947 in Delhi and also witnessed and heard India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when he hoisted the Tri Color (Tiranga) from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort as he addressed the newly-independent people, a day later.

Nehru gave his historic speech before members of the newly set up Constituent Assembly and many other prominent people in the Central Hall of the Parliament of India, in New Delhi, right at midnight of August 14-15 heralding Independence. Nehru’s “A Tryst with Destiny” speech is one of his greatest speeches and an historic one referring to the ancient and promising more for the future.

[Of course, Nehru spoke in English, the language he was more comfortable with, but it was for the English-educated elite of the country and the world. On a liberal estimate, only 2% of Indians knew English then. But that’s okay, I guess. He spoke at the Red Fort in Hindi, the next day.]

Nehru had said in Parliament’s Central Hall: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity with some pride.”

He had added: “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service.” He went on to say that “we are citizens of a great country, on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard.”  [Wish his own successors had followed that in letter and spirit.]  

Nehru ended his speech with “Jai Hind. Jai Hind,” The slogan that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose raised when, in 1942, he formed the Indian National Army and set up the Azad Hind government in South East Asia after he was hounded out of Congress (and then India) by Nehru and his mentor Mahatma Gandhi.

Nehru raised the same slogan at Red Fort also, and sensing the respect and love for Netaji also said that he is hoisting the Tri Color on behalf of Subhas who had vowed to do the same in free India. Netaji had exhorted and inspired Indians living abroad with the fiery slogan “Chalo Dilli,” (on to Delhi).

On that day in August 1947 we all forgot what happened between Gandhi-Nehru-Subhas and others. We could not imagine what the Partition of India will bring and continue for months (and years); we were only rejoicing on India getting independence. And that day, it was a great feeling of joy and fulfillment.

I was in Delhi, arriving a few months before the Independence Day. I remember major newspapers came out with headlines like, “India Independent, British Rule Ends” (Hindustan Times), “India Free Today, Jai Hind” (Indian News Chronicle), “Two Dominions Born” (The Statesman), “Birth of India’s Freedom” (Times of India - Bombay) and so on. The British-owned The Statesman’s headline was typical – announcing the birth of two countries but still tied to Britain as its “Dominions.” Although that was the technical and legal status that day but the overriding fact was that both the countries had gained independence and the paper in India was expected to hail India’s freedom and not emphasize the status as a “Dominion” of the British Empire.

Anyway, that was among the last vestiges of British influence and ownership of a newspaper in India. The Times of India (Bombay – Delhi edition had no yet been started) was also under the British with an Englishman as Editor and still today, the organization that owns the large newspaper group is Bennett, Coleman & Company. We change the names of cities and shed the colonial legacy but somehow, the company’s name continues, despite its total Indian ownership.

But of course, I am digressing.

Rewind a little:

India’s independence was the culmination of a series of events and untold sacrifice of millions of common Indians and their leaders at least since the first war of independence in 1857. In the 20th century, scores of revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh and his associates, also VD Savarkar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose took up the cause of India’s independence in various ways and made sacrifices. Earlier Rash Behari Bose fought the British while in Europe and then Japan and organized the freedom movement there. He was the great organizer and persuaded Japan to help and support India’s freedom movement much before World War II.

Rash Behari had escaped India in 1915 when the British authorities were after him. Subhas also escaped the British dragnet and finally landed in Japan where he was greatly helped by Rash Behari Bose in forming the Indian National Army. [I was only 9 years but I clearly remember Subhas Babu coming out of Delhi railway station to a huge welcome (must be after he was elected the Congress President defeating Mahatma Gandhi’s nominee Pattabhi Sitaramayya). I had climbed the big lamp post to get a good view.   

I have some more on a personal note.

Mahatma Gandhi, with his own principles of non-violence and non-cooperation from 1915 (when he returned to India from South Africa) and the final step culminating in ‘Quit India’ movement launched on August 8-9, 1942 from Bombay (now Mumbai) was the leader who awakened the common Indian. He wielded great influence. I had the proud privilege and honor to see him, and touch his feet though in my mind, even as a teen, I disagreed with his methods.

I was a revolutionary in my own thinking. The British, I maintained will not leave by themselves. Of course, both paths led to the same goal. The major Naval Mutiny, again in Bombay, and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army taking active part in attacking the British in South east Asia and actually landing on Indian soil freeing Andaman-Nicobar Islands and non-stop violent/non-violent agitation in India were the final straws that broke the British back.

[Netaji had renamed Andaman-Nicobar islands as Shaheed (Martyr) and Swaraj (self-rule) when he hoisted the Indian flag there on 30 December, 1943 and appointed INA’s General Loganathan as the first Indian Governor. Under the British, these islands were home (prison) for some of the top Indian freedom fighters such as Veer Savarkar and others. During the British rule thousands of political prisoners were kept there, hundreds died and more tortured.]  

All that finally convinced and forced the British government in 1947 to pass an act in their Parliament to grant independence though with division of the country. It was a painful Partition about which Gandhi Ji had once said, “over my dead body” but he also finally accepted it. [Millions had to migrate, hundreds of thousands had to sacrifice themselves, families were divided, and untold properties were destroyed, looted and burned. I witnessed some – killing, looting, and fleeing.]

I had the honor and privilege to be a tiny part of the movement as a school boy, as an attendee at the famous Congress session in Bombay at which the “Quit India”   resolution was moved and passed. I was also a witness, and a victim too, of yet another five years of atrocities launched by the British government of India right after the resolution was overwhelmingly passed at midnight (8-9 August, 1942.)

[Gandhi Ji also gave a call to Indians, Karo Ya Maro (Do or Die) that caught on almost like Jai Hind. Of course ‘Jai Hind’ – a more permanent slogan - remains.]

The morning of August 9 was fixed for Mahatma Gandhi to hoist the Flag [those days the Congress Flag with the same tri-colors but with Charkha in the middle, instead of the Ashok Chakra, as it is now, was THE FLAG under which the freedom movement was carried on.] The authorities had moved swiftly and a couple hours after the resolution was passed they started arresting leaders. All the top ones, including Gandhi-Nehru-Patel and others, and most of the middle-level stalwarts, were also put in prisons.

That morning father and I were at the ground for the Flag hoisting ceremony, found no leaders but a strong police force at the venue. The English Police Chief was in-charge of the force and an announcement was made declaring the fairly big crowd and the ceremony as illegal. We were ordered to vacate the place and disperse immediately.

We did not stir. We ignored the call.

A couple minutes later Aruna Asaf Ali – a junior leader but a dedicated and active Congress member  - suddenly stood up and declared that she would hoist the Flag. The next moment the Flag was up and the Police swung into action. Aruna Ji disappeared after doing her limited part of flag-hoisting to continue her role in the larger underground movement. 

Amid tear gas firing and baton attack by the Police the crowd started dispersing. The Police, led by the Englishman, continued attacking indiscriminately and I was hit directly by the Police Chief. I remember, with bloodshot eyes – tear gas and my anger – this 13-year-old boy would certainly have done something terribly reckless, but my father, sensing trouble, quickly led me away from the scene.

Tear gassing and baton charge – and at some places firing also – continued till as the government claimed, the situation was under control.

Demonstrations, more atrocities, more arrests, more strikes at schools and more incidents of underground activities and attacks on government institutions and the police continued. Father and I did our part – he on a bigger and different scale, me at my school level. I played a leading part in organizing hartal (strike) and boycott of the exams with daily singing of national songs instead of the regular prayers. Some of us students formed an Azad Party ( Free Party) where core members had to prove their dedication and commitment by putting our hand to a burning candle.

I was one of them. Actually I was the youngest at 13 of the famous trio. The other two were older; Shri Ram and Jagdeesh, about the same age, 16 or 17. 

The same year, 1942, my Yoga guru and my father’s friend, Dhyandhar Gupta’s institute (Hind Yogashram) was locked down by the authorities and Guruji went underground to continue the fight. The third active freedom fighter in this trio was Kundan Lal Sehgal (Arya), one of our close family friends, who later married my ‘Rakhi sister’ (father’s ‘adopted’ daughter) Bimla ji and moved. We lost touch. [Years later we were re-united in Delhi; our families are still very close though both their parents are no more. They both loved me very much – their children have continued the nationalist tradition and have love and respect for us.]

The stop-and-go resistance continued till 1945 when the British government softened up due to the resistance from Indian and also international pressure. The World War had ended leaving England severely weakened and incapable of holding on to the vast British Empire where once ‘The Sun Never Set.’

The same year the government started releasing leaders and changing its course. There was confusion politically as Gandhi Ji was reluctant to endorse whatever violent acts were resorted to by the leaderless freedom fighters who did not believe in non-violent policy. However, it was so planned that Nehru acknowledged the contribution of the ‘revolutionaries’ also and publicly commended them. He, sort of, justified their reactions and said that he takes full responsibility for what his countrymen and women had done.

That was something that unified the divergent sections of the freedom-fighters in India and the British realized that Indians are one in demanding ‘Quit India.’

I will be miserably failing in my duty if I don’t mention – and also heap lavish praise on – a few leaders of the movement who between 1942 and 1945 kept harassing the British and leading the underground movement. Aruna Asaf Ali was one of them and the other three stalwarts were also all comparatively young courageous leaders such as Jaya Prakash Narayan, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia and Achyut Patwardhan. They were underground for some years, jailed during the freedom struggle and played important part after independence. All were left-leaning and formed, along with many others, the Congress Socialist Party, within Congress – later disallowed by the parent organization.

JP Narayan studied at Berkeley University and some other institutions in America. Lohia Ji got his doctoral degree in Germany. I had the honor to come in close contact with both and also Aruna ji when, in 1958, she became Mayor of Delhi and played a prominent part in social life in the Capital when I was a reporter.  She was the wife of a prominent Congressman, Asaf Ali, who was 20+ years her senior and died in 1953. Later Aruna Ji was active in Communist Party and headed a left-leaning Delhi publication (Patriot). She passed away in 1966 at the age of 87.

Patwardhan ran a parallel government during the ‘Quit India’ movement in Maharashtra’s Satara district against the British conducting underground activities.   After independence he retired from politics and taught at Banaras University till his death in 1966. I did not have a chance to meet with Achyut Ji but had several opportunities to come in close contact with JP and Lohia.

With Lohia Ji I had another close connection – he graduated from the same high school (in Bombay) just 20 years before I did. He happily acknowledged this connection and maintained close contact with me while in Delhi and also in Hyderabad where he organized a conference and invited me.

Lohia Ji emphasized promotion and adoption of Hindi as the national language. He said: “The use of English is a hindrance to original thinking, progenitor of inferiority feelings and a gap between the educated and uneducated public. Come, let us unite to restore Hindi to its original glory." He would speak in Parliament and public meetings in Hindi though he was fluent in English and also German. Unfortunately he died in 1967 at the young age of 57.

JP Narayan besides playing important part in Mahatma Gandhi’s earlier freedom movement and also ‘Quit India’ agitation was the main force behind anti-Indira Gandhi movement after the disgraceful Emergency period (1975-77) that resulted in her defeat and formation of the first non-Congress government in India. JP never wanted anything for himself. His statement and quote emphasized that: “My interest is not in the capture of power, but in the control of power by the people.”

He quoted a line from the celebrated nationalist and progressive Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and made it an inspiring slogan: “Singhasan khali karo ki Janata aatee hai,” (vacate the throne, the people are coming.) It caught on. 

I was frequently reporting/interviewing JP in those tumultuous days. It was a historic opportunity. It was exciting. It was an honor.  

Earlier, in his younger years, JP was a socialist but later opposed that ideology. One of his famous quotes is something like this: “If you are not a socialist before 30, there is something wrong with you; if you are a socialist after 30, there is something wrong with you.”

JP had his sarvodaya (progress for all) program as his ultimate aim.[It is like Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan, “sabka saath, sabka vikas,” meaning development for all, together.

Jaya Prakash Narayan was hailed as a Lok Nayak  (People’s Leader). He was sick most of his later years and passed away in 1979 at 76.

I had the utmost regard and admiration for these stalwarts of India’s freedom struggle; I am privileged and proud of my close association with many of them.

Just a little rewinding to early 1947 and the British decision to really Quit India: 

The final gasp took another two years till early 1947 when I was again a part of an ‘unlawful’ procession on the birthday of Netaji [common Indian never accepted the report of Netaji’s death in an air crash in 1945.] That day, 23rd January, I was again a victim of a tear gas attack. I took these things as ‘prasad’ (God’s reward) for whatever I had learnt as I grew up.

The 9th August 1942, is now known as August Kranti Divas (August Revolution Day) and the hallowed Gowalia Tank ground where the ‘Quit India’ resolution was passed was named as August Kranti Maidan (August Revolution Ground.)  

The two days, Independence Day, August 15, and August Kranti Divas, August 9, are etched in my memory.

I salute those who made untold sacrifices and brought us freedom to march forward and protect our independence. Mistakes were committed – and historians will analyze as we also do - but today we should keep moving toward a brighter  future with new leadership firmly in charge, new milestones reached and new challenges faced, new goals planned and a new energy seen everywhere.

As Nehru had said in his address, “We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest. We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be.”


Random Recollection