South Asia | August 15, 1947 -- Reliving India's freedom at midnight

August 15, 1947 — Reliving India’s freedom at midnight

August 14, 2015 2:29 PM (UTC+8)

 

From pages of The Statesman, Aug. 15, 1947, and the New York Times

At 11.30 pm on the night of Aug. 14, 1947, Robert Trumbull of the New York Times was in New Delhi to witness the historic meeting of the first government of independent India.

“India and Pakistan Become Nations; Clashes Continue,” the New York Times headlined his dispatch from New Delhi on its front-page, across two columns.

Under the sub-heading “Climax at Midnight,” Trumbull reported: “The Constituent Assembly or the Government of India assumed its sovereign power solemnly in a special session that began at 11 p.m. last night and reached its climax at twelve o’clock.

“As the hands of the clock in the stately assembly hall of the State Council building met at midnight, India’s Cabinet Ministers and Members of the Assembly listened in silence to the chimes of the hour. As the last note died an unidentified member blew a conch shell of the kind used to summon the gods to witness a great event. Instantly a great cheer arose.”

India had become free.

“Freedom for one-fifth of the human race,” declared front page of The Statesman edition of Calcutta, the next morning of Friday, August 15, 1947. Below was history: “ … India and Pakistan, were born at zero hour today, ushering in political freedom to 400 million people, one-fifth of the human race.”

Front page of The Statesman, Aug. 15, 1947
Front page of The Statesman, Aug. 15, 1947

This priceless August 15, 1947 issue of The Statesman, cover price two annas (cents), opened with headlines: “Joyful scenes in Calcutta; Celebrations by Hindus and Muslims.” “First Cabinet of India Begins to Function.”

Inside on page seven, floating above advertisements selling “Britannia, the modern biscuits” and “Bharat Airways,” Prime Minister Nehru proclaimed: “Today is a fateful moment in the history of India, of all Asia, indeed of the entire world … A new star rises, the star of freedom in the East. A new hope fills the world.”

Hours earlier, before being at the midnight hour of August 14, 1947 in India, Robert Trumbull of the New York Times was in Karachi to be present at the moment that Pakistan became free. He covered many epochal moments of that decade in Asia and India. He was there a few minutes after Mahatma Gandhi was shot by a fanatic. “Lying on a wooden cot in his bedroom,” Trumbull reported, “Mr. Gandhi said no word before his death except once to ask for water.”

Robert Trumbull (1912-1990), born in Chicago, joined the New York Times at age 29, and witnessed World War II in Asia-Pacific. He was with Allied landings in the islands near Japan; he was there in Iwo Jima, reporting over his radio even as gunfire rained around him. And he was on the battleship Missouri, on Sept. 2, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered to end World War II.

Trumbull went on reporting from Tokyo (1954-61), Hong Kong (1961-63) as the Times chief correspondent for China and Southeast Asia, before returning to Japan as head of the New York Times Tokyo bureau.

But it was in 1947, that most significant year of modern India’s history, that Trumbull began his seven years of reporting in India. In later years, he said yearningly: “If you stay in India long enough, a part of you never leaves.”

In New Delhi, on August 14, 1947, nearing the midnight hour, Trumbull saw crowds of thousands near the entrance to the Council of State building. Crowded streets of Delhi and New Delhi glittered with public buildings outlined in electric lights. Shopping centers and the adjacent ancient city of Delhi wore a look of gaiety with strings “in colors of the new national flag — saffron, white and green,” Trumbull reported, “with the symbolic wheel of the great Emperor Asoka.”

This is wheel of Dhamma, at heart of the flag of free India.

On a sunny, unusually warm London day of August 15, 1947, a gathering of soldiers and civilians watched India’s national flag being hoisted for the first time ever atop India House, the high commission building. “An Indian Summer,” someone said.

“The atmosphere, if still electric, is rather that which follows than that which precedes a storm,” the Manchester Guardian told its readers in England, of the situation in India on that day when the sun set on an Empire.

“Indians have not fought for independence in the belief that it was a bed of roses,” The Guardian said. “They have claimed, naturally and rightly, the honor of confronting and fighting the dangers with which their country is faced … It is a resolution which every man of spirit will applaud. Today, however, is not the time for thinking too much of dangers.”

About the time when Robert Trumbull of the New York Times saw joyous crowds in New Delhi give Pandit Nehru “a tremendous ovation,” as he entered the State Council building for “the midnight tryst with destiny,” Mahatma Gandhi was in Calcutta, keeping the peace.

They sacrificied their lives for their country, for freedom (1)

An old friend, Horace Alexander, an Englishman, was his guest in India on August 15, 1947. Alexander was with him in Calcutta and, decades later from the US, he described how his host Mahatma Gandhi spent the week of India’s Independence Day, amid communal violence bleeding India, particularly Calcutta.

“Leading Muslims from Calcutta had visited Gandhi and begged him not to go to East Bengal, but to stay in Calcutta, and to try to bring peace in that great city. They argued that if there was peace in Calcutta, there would be peace through all Bengal, both in the west which was still part of India, and in the east, which was now to be part of Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Gandhi agreed … “At this point, we come across Shaheed Suhrawardy, a prominent Muslim leader and a Calcutta politician who had just been Chief Minister of undivided Bengal. He was a sharp critic of Gandhi, whom he described as “that old fraud.” Gandhi now invited Suhrawardy to join him in the attempt to bring peace to Calcutta. First, they would go to a deserted Muslim house, and persuade the local Hindus to invite the Muslim family to return the home they had deserted out of fear. And likewise persuade other local Hindus to invite Muslims to return to their homes.

“Then they would go to a predominately Muslim part of the city, and they would persuade the Muslims to invite their Hindu neighbors to return, and so on, till all over the city Hindus and Muslims were living in peace together. Suhrawardy agreed.

“A deserted Muslim house was found in the section of the city called Belighat and someone got the keys. Here I joined Mahatma Gandhi and Suhrawardy, on the afternoon of August 13th. An Indian friend, Hiralal Bose, kindly drove me there. When we arrived we were met by a crowd shouting, and when Hiralal tried to pacify them by explaining that I was a friend of Gandhi, they shouted: “Gandhi go back.” The shouting and demonstration against Gandhi continued and stones were thrown on the windows. Finally, some of the young men came into the house and began to talk things over with Gandhi.

(Twenty fours later, on August 14) … An angry mob was outside their house baying for Suhrawardy’s blood. “Gandhi went straight to his desk and began writing. However, the noise outside continued. So he went to the windows, threw open the shutters and began talking in a low voice to the angry young men outside. Immediately there was silence, for they all wanted to hear what Gandhi was saying. He scolded them for showing hostility to Suhrawardy. Whatever they thought of his past, he had now agreed to join Gandhi in the effort to bring peace. If they accepted Gandhi they must also accept his colleague.

“Then he brought Suhrawardy forward, and stood with one hand over his shoulder and the other resting on his granddaughter’s shoulder. The critical moment came when a young man shouted at Suhrawardy: “Do you accept the blame for the great Calcutta killing of last year?” “Yes,” replied Suhrawardy.” I do accept that responsibility. I am ashamed of it.”

“That,” commented Gandhi a few minutes later, when he insisted on telling me exactly everything that had just happened — “that was the critical moment. There is nothing more effective than public confession for clearing the atmosphere. In that moment he won them over.”

Even as Suhrawardy was speaking, a police officer arrived and announced news of Hindus and Muslims uniting in peace in another part of the city, and together hoisting the Indian national flag. The crowd outside Gandhi’s house cheered. The insane bloodbath ended. “The miracle in Calcutta,” they called it.

And so on the day of Aug. 15, The Statesman reported: “Remarkable signs of a return to communal amity after a year of bloodshed were seen in Calcutta last night and early this morning. Almost unbelievable scenes of fraternity and rejoicing were witnessed in some of the hitherto worst-affected areas of Central and North Calcutta, particularly along Chittaranjan Avenue, Lower Chitpur Road, Zakaria Street, Harrison Road, Bowbazzar Street and Dhurrumtollah Street.”

“A Great Day,” said a Tata Industries advertisement, on page four of The Statesman. “In this great hour of India’s destiny we offer our homage to those who fought and suffered so that she may be free … With freedom’s battle won, let us dedicate ourselves to creating a happier and fuller life for the people of India and building a land in which, as the Poet has sung, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high.” Then alone shall we be worthy of our great heritage.”

The advertisement ended with listing all of the nine Tata Group companies in 1947, all in India. In 2015, the Tata Group runs over 100 operating companies in over 100 countries, with net revenue of $108.78 billion in 2014-15, employing 611,700 people worldwide.

The Tata Group is the only major industrial house in the world with philanthropy as its majority shareholder. Charitable trusts hold over 60% of Tata Group equity, with profits funding educational, health, environmental, scientific research, sports and hundreds of developmental projects — a special chapter of trust in the India story of the past 68 years.

Jamshedji Tata (1839 –1904), a pioneering Indian industrialist and nation builder founded the Tata Group. This chronicle reliving India’s freedom at midnight is being written in Mumbai, from a peaceful venerable trees-lined avenue called Jamshedji Tata Road.

In Jamshedji Tata Road is the Mumbai office of The Statesman. When India’s freedom was brutally suppressed again during the dark ‘Emergency’ years of 1975-1977, The Statesman, led by C.R. Irani (1931-2005), and The Indian Express were the only two leading newspapers in the country to courageously defy governmental censorship, and fought on to regain India’s democracy and freedom.

“Uphill Task Ahead” said the United Commercial Bank, Calcutta, advertising from the back page of the Aug. 15, 1947 edition of The Statesman. “Free India’s first and foremost task is to raise our economic stature by waging a relentless war on poverty,” the copy said. “Ours is a country exceptionally rich in natural resources  … Let us, therefore, resolve on this Freedom Day to attack the parasite of need through education, organization, increased economic tempo and personal hard work.”

The ad compared annual per capita incomes of India (Rs 65), the UK (Rs 980) and the USA (Rs 1,406) in 1947. World Bank statistics, 68 years later, said GDP growth in 2014 had weighed in at 2.4% and 2.6% respectively in the US and UK, with India, the world’s fastest growing economy, coming in at  7.4% .  No healthier inspiration for a people than this hard-won tonic called freedom.

Raja Murthy is a Mumbai-based journalist. He occasionally blogs at Morning Light

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