History & Culture

Freedom at midnight

C. Thomas   | Photo Credit: Saraswathy Nagarajan

N ostalgia punctuates every word as two senior citizens recall that memorable day when India won freedom on this day, 67 years ago. While C. Thomas, a young officer of the Travancore Civil Service, was in Karachi in the newly-formed Pakistan on August 15, veteran broadcaster and author Rosscote Krishna Pillai was a student in the city.

C. Thomas

(An ardent reader of The Hindu since 1930, the 98-year-old former bureaucrat was Chief Secretary of Kerala. He belongs to the first (1939) batch of the Travancore Civil Service)

The erstwhile states of Travancore and Kochi were deficit in rice and dependent on rice supplies from Burma [Myanmar]. When the Japanese overran Burma, paddy cultivation there came to a standstill, as the Tamilian labourers who worked in the fields fled to India. General Wavell who was Viceroy of India before Lord Mountbatten, has mentioned in his diaries that Travancore and Cochin were suffering difficulties with the stoppage of rice exports from Burma.

Sind was the rice bowl and had a surplus. Travancore and Cochin made arrangements with the provincial government of Sind to sell rice through Messrs. Volkart Brothers who were appointed as agents of the State government to buy rice, stock them in godowns in Karachi, and transport them by ships to Cochin. Travancore and Cochin sent officers to Karachi to supervise the work of the Volkart Brothers.

From June 1946 to September 1947, I was appointed Travancore State Rice Officer to supervise the arrangement. Cochin also had a similar arrangement. So he and I used to visit the office of the Volkart Brothers every day and supervise the arrangements.

When the shortage became severe, I was asked to go to Punjab and request for rice supplies from there also. The ICS officer who was Food Secretary was gracious enough to arrange plentiful supplies and send them by special train to Karachi for further transport to Cochin.

Jinnah used to visit Karachi even before his taking over as the Governor General of Pakistan. I remember one evening when the Cochin rice officer and I went for an evening walk, and saw Jinnah coming in a car and getting down before a fashionable shop, Beaufort. On our return from our walk, we entered the shop and asked them what Jinnah wanted. They showed us the costliest English suiting there and told us that Jinnah had ordered a suit in that material.

The next time I saw Jinnah was when he was returning in a procession with Mountbatten after taking over as Governor General of Pakistan on August 14, 1947, which is the independence day of Pakistan. They were then on their way to the Government from the Durbar Hall where the handing over took place. So I was in Karachi, the day India became Independent. I remember reading about it in The Dawn.

For me, coming back from Karachi was a nightmare as anti-India riots had started. There was no question of any rice being procured from Sind. With great difficulty I managed to get tickets in a ship sailing from Karachi to Bombay. This was possible only because I had some influence with a European company who were steamer agents and from whom I used to buy bonemeal for the Travancore Agriculture Department.

Even with all the influence, I could come back only in the first week of September 1947. By that time, life had become unbearable in Pakistan where I stayed with my wife Sara and my one-year-old son Ravi. Karachi, which was a beautiful and peaceful city, became a scene of violence and bloodshed.

When we landed in Bombay, we were welcomed by a crowd with banners ‘Welcome to refugees from Pakistan’.

Both of us had lost weight and on our return, our parents were shocked to see our condition.

Rosscote Krishna Pillai

(The 86-year-old veteran broadcaster, author and socio-cultural activist hails from the city. In 1947, the 20-year-old Krishna Pillai was a Sethu Parvathi Bayi Memorial Fellow of Science)

The erstwhile native state of Travancore was trying to choose between accession to the Indian union and an independent nation-state of Travancore.

It was a period when the fire of nationalism was burning bright in many a youngster’s heart. In 1942, as a student of junior Intermediate College, we were witness to the agitations in what is now University College. The Quit India Movement in 1942 created ripples in our college. I remember Salahudin, a student, speaking passionately on a table under the famous mango tree on the campus. The next day three students lay on the courtyard of our college on a fast unto death in support of the freedom movement. When they were arrested and removed, three other students replaced them. On the third day, if memory serves me right, the college was closed and a week’s holiday was declared. When the college reopened, each student entering the college campus had to sign a declaration that we would not participate in any kind of agitation. But the struggle for freedom had lit the fire of rebellion amongst us.

The situation was rather tense and confusing. We knew that India was throwing off the British yoke after nearly 200 years of dividing and impoverishing the country. But the then diwan of Travancore Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer had declared that Travancore might opt to be a free state and not join the Indian Union. There were agitations and protests against that. In July 1947, there was a protest at Pettah and the police opened fire. A student named Rajendran was seriously injured. For the next two or three days, every meeting featured him. But he succumbed to his injuries. In fact, the open ground at Pettah is called Rajendran Maidan in his memory.

On July 25, my friend N. Chittaranjan and I were going for a concert at the Swati Thirunal Academy when we heard a commotion and people running helter-skelter. We were told that there was an attack on CP. Later, we learnt that there was an attempt on CP’s life. Eventually, CP left the city and that put an end to all talks of a free state.

However, Independence Day celebrations were rather low key in the city as Travancore was still a native state. But the student community was on a high and we gathered in the Museum ground to listen to the live telecast from Delhi. In those days, radios were rare and most houses did not have one. So, the then Director of Government Gardens and Zoos R. Kesavan Nair had made arrangements for the public to listen to the radio at the band stand.

Melville D’ Mello was reporting on the events from Delhi and it was exhilarating to listen to the events unfolding in the Capital. His evocative extempore report still rings in my ear and then Nehru addressed the nation. It was late and we were on a high when we left the Museum grounds.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 2:09:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/freedom-at-midnight/article5022435.ece

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