In the run-up to “India’s Tryst with Destiny” in 1947, the mood and atmosphere in Chennai, then called Madras, was one of celebration and joy, unlike in parts of the northern and eastern regions of the country which were being rocked by migration of people on a massive scale and communal disturbances.
The city, which had seen numerous agitations against the British in the preceding years, had begun sporting a festive appearance a few days before the D-Day. At midnight on August 14, every man, woman and child, as reported by The Hindu on August 15, 1947, were overtaken by the zest of the occasion and “it is difficult to see even a single person without wearing a National Flag.”
Government buildings, Central and Egmore railway stations, harbour and business places were all illuminated. Every type of vehicle, ranging from “luxurious private vehicles to outmoded automobiles to heavy handcarts to bullock carts,” was washed and decorated.
The celebration, as pointed out by this newspaper 65 years ago, had a special significance for the city as it was here that the British power first established itself in the country.
When the transfer of power took place at New Delhi, thousands of Chennai’s citizens were glued to community radio sets, listening to the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly. “Hundreds marched on roads with torches and tricolour, with drum and music, keeping up an unending refrain of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’.”
The festive mood was not just confined to certain sections of the society. This newspaper, in its issue on August 17, recorded that “the scenes presented in the slums and hutments of ‘Harijans’ (the term then used for Dalits or members of the Scheduled Castes) were unprecedented. Long-accumulated filth and dirt had been removed overnight and the un-metalled “roads” swept clean of dust and dung.”
The paper also said: “Muslim residents of the city cooperated freely in making the celebrations quite successful.”
On August 15, which was a Friday, the swearing-in of Governor Archibald Nye and the Prime Minister (which was how the position of Chief Minister was known then) O.P. Ramaswami Reddiar took place in the Cabinet Room at Fort St. George. The then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court Frederick Gentle administered the oath of allegiance to the Governor, who later swore in the Ministers. The Governor hoisted the national flag on the Island Grounds.
Mr Reddiar unfurled the flag at the Ripon Buildings, the headquarters of the Chennai Corporation.
The advent of freedom was not without a political controversy. The Dravidar Kazhagam founder E.V. Ramaswami had called upon his followers to disassociate themselves from “the ceremonies and inspired jubilations.”
Notwithstanding this aspect, in the end the city celebrated the day with vigour and colour.