Independent India will turn 75 on Sunday, under the helm of an Adivasi President and a Gujarati Prime Minister, who, in their addresses to the nation (as yet undelivered as I write these words), will give voice to the extraordinary civilisational ethos of our country that they themselves personify. It is a very special moment in the history of this ancient land, one we are all privileged to be living through.
A rare privilege
My mind turns this week, though, to another very special moment 75 years ago — the moment of India’s celebrated “freedom at midnight”. I am privileged to have seen a remarkable document, a letter written on August 27, 1947 by a young American woman, Mildred Talbot, who had the rare privilege of being present at the Independence ceremonies of both India and Pakistan. Mildred, the wife of the admirable journalist, diplomat and Indophile, Phillips Talbot, died in 2004 at the age of 89. But she had agreed that I could share with others her first-hand impressions of the day, and I do so in homage to the occasion whose anniversary we all commemorate today.
Mildred’s seven-page, single-spaced typed letter is a personal reminiscence of the sights, sounds and encounters, not a political analysis (she left that to her husband, who was covering events for the Chicago Daily News). In sending me her “simple, unsophisticated account”, she mentioned that she had put her impressions down while they were still fresh “to get them out of [her] system” — only then, she wrote, did sleep become possible again. (It is striking that someone who, by nationality, had no direct emotional stake in the events she witnessed still found them so exciting that thoughts of what she had seen kept her awake for two weeks.)
From Karachi to Delhi
I shall skip past her account of the Karachi ceremony — which took place on August 13-14 within eyeshot of a bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi in a nearby circle — though some of her irreverent comments are worth quoting even now (“Jinnah, whose smile muscles seem to be permanently out of order...”). Karachi was still a Hindu-majority city, and large sections of the population were understandably subdued at Partition. Delhi’s mood was altogether more joyous. The Talbots arrived at the Constituent Assembly just in time after a hair-raising journey from Pakistan on the afternoon of August 14. Mildred describes Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “Tryst with destiny” speech, recounts the now-forgotten exuberance of a delegate who marred the decorum of the occasion by shouting a cheer for the Mahatma, and then tells a story I have not come across elsewhere:
“At the moment when the clock was chiming the [midnight] hour there was a rude interruption which startled everyone. A conch shell was blown long and loudly from the rear of the hall. Involuntarily every head turned... It was revealing to witness the [...] relief [...] when they saw that it was one of the most highly respected members of the Assembly, a devout Hindu, simply invoking the gods to witness this ceremony... I happened to spot Nehru just as he was turning away, trying to hide a smile by covering his mouth with his hand.” The first harbinger of a Hindutva renaissance, or a simple reaffirmation of an ancient culture?
Mildred describes the pressure of the throngs outside the Assembly clamouring for a glimpse of their idol, Nehru, whom the police obliged “to slip out by a back entrance”. (As an American democrat, she was struck by the fact that when the crowds got out of hand, it was the VIP who changed his plans. As an Indian three-quarters of a century later, I know it would be the other way around today.)
There are numerous fascinating vignettes in her letter of the next morning’s Independence Day events: of Nehru’s horror at seeing a horse fall (he only turned his attention back to the ceremony when he saw the horse rise again and move); of the U.S. Ambassador’s irritation that U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s cable of congratulations had been omitted when other leaders’ greetings were read (it turned out that it had been misplaced); of Louis Mountbatten’s demeanour of “sincere pleasure”, a sharp contrast with his stiffness in Karachi (“Here he was relaxed and at home among friendly companions... his good wishes were obviously heartfelt.”) Mildred’s harrowing account of the evening’s ceremony, ruined by rain and by 5,00,000 people turning out for an event planned for 25,000, is too long to summarise here, but for one detail: amidst the chaos, Indira Gandhi looked “woebegone and bedraggled. Her sari was torn, her hair straggling, her fingernails ruined. And she was one of the dignitaries!”
When the flag was raised
But the highlight of Mildred’s account is of the morning of August 15, 1947 when the national flag was raised over the Council Hall: “The multitudes had gathered as far as the eye could see in the two-mile-long parkway approach to the Secretariat, on tops of buildings, in windows, on cornices, in trees, perched everywhere like so many birds. The raising of that first flag was the single most thrilling experience of the entire celebration.... The first who spotted it pointed like eager children; others... looked up and tried to push their way to a vantage point so they too could see this miracle. For a few minutes there was almost a subdued hush over the whole crowd; then a soft bass undertone slowly swelled until, perhaps when the flag reached the top... there was a breathtaking roar of cheering, shouting, and excited cries which others said penetrated to the hall inside and made their spines tingle. While I was being stirred by the sheer power and grandeur of the spectacle... the Indians either stood mute, immersed in their own overwhelming thoughts, or were shouting almost uncontrollably. It was a grand emotional experience that left most of us with shaky voices or complete inability to speak.”
These are the words not of an Indian nationalist but of a young American woman. Mildred wrote to an American friend two weeks after witnessing that first flag-raising: “The memory of the feelings that surged up within us as we watched their [i.e. the Indian masses’] excitement and awe still brings tears to my eyes.” Seventy-five years later, the memories of that first Independence Day have faded in all but a minuscule percentage of our population. But the power of that magical moment when India became free, and the hopes raised of what we would make of that freedom, must never be forgotten.
India at 75 | India, democracy and the promised republic
Today we contemplate a different India, when the hopes of that midnight moment are sought to be transmuted by rising intolerance and increasingly belligerent majoritarianism, to a very different idea of what this land is all about. And yet, re-reading Mildred’s letter makes August 15, for me, a day to remember that original moment, and to rededicate ourselves to its promise. It is the promise of an inclusive, pluralist, democratic and just India — the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free. As the nation celebrates the sweet nectar of an “Amrit Mahotsav”, let us not forget that original vision. It is one that every Indian can still do his or her own part to fulfil.
Shashi Tharoor is the Sahitya Akademi award-winning author of 22 books, including most recently ‘Pride, Prejudice and Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor’. He is the third-term Lok Sabha MP for Thiruvananthapuram