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Independence brought in a renewed umeed

In the early 1940s I was studying History at St John’s College in Agra. College life was simple. I was interested in sports, particularly cricket, and in getting away from classes. But the freedom movement was growing and it pervaded each sphere of our lives. Even in college we sat and talked about the possibilities it would bring for India.

brunch Updated: Aug 12, 2012 12:03 IST
Khurshed Alam Khan

In the early 1940s I was studying History at St John’s College in Agra. College life was simple. I was interested in sports, particularly cricket, and in getting away from classes. But the freedom movement was growing and it pervaded each sphere of our lives. Even in college we sat and talked about the possibilities it would bring for India.

Although many of us supported the movement, we couldn’t be overly vocal about it. Our teachers were British. Our principal was British. Anti-India sentiment clouded the air and we feared that our support for Gandhi and his troops could get us expelled. So we did the next best thing. We secretly went to Congress rallies and group meetings. We followed Gandhiji’s instructions and did our part for the freedom struggle.

Khurshed Alam Khan: The author, a former Union minister of external affairs, was governor of Karnataka between 1991 and 1999

Gandhi, of course, had invigorated the movement. With his ideas came a new understanding that we should have the right to determine our own future – a topic that we discussed in hushed tones in college grounds. But first we had to ‘educate the people’, is what he said. ‘Tell people how to fight the British and build the nation.’ Of course, I paraphrase. We weren’t ready for freedom, and wouldn’t succeed unless people were rightly informed. We would get our assignments through the chain of command and hold demonstrations in Old Delhi.

Disaffection with the British at this time was immense, and it was only growing. Unemployment was high and people struggled for basic amenities. Education rates were dismal so they had no choice either – you couldn’t find a job unless you were educated and you couldn’t find the money for education because you couldn’t find a job. It was a vicious circle. There was a clear distinction between the well-to-do citizens and the general population. And if you were opposed to the British, it only made things worse. Pro-British businessmen made vast fortunes and big names for themselves, wearing British manufactured clothes while we took to khadi.



Although some of us were enamoured with the anti-British freedom struggle, others were not. And sometimes those others included our own family. My father was a supporter of the British Raj, so I was quite afraid of him. I had to be careful so he wouldn’t discover my covert activities in the movement. Muslims, in particular, had a rough time. Most of them weren’t so well-off and lacked basic education. So they were apprehensive about opposing the British regime and angering an administration already reeling under mass pressure.



The freedom party People throng to participate in Independence Day celebrations at Raisina Hill. Delhi, circa August 1947



In 1945 I got married and the only thing on my mind was getting a job. We would take what we could get, as employment opportunities were not ample. So I took up employment in Aurangabad while my wife stayed in Delhi with her father. At this time, my father-in-law, Dr Zakir Hussain, was setting the foundations of the now famous university, Jamia Millia Islamia. Zakir Saheb was an ardent proponent of Indian freedom. Once, when his daughter (my wife) was going to a get-together, he told her, ‘Don’t try to look special with fancy clothes. There will be richer people with better wardrobes. Instead, wear khadi and you will stand out.’ This divide was stark. High culture was available only to those with the money for it. Popular music hadn’t taken a hold in the public. Even films such as Laila Majnu were released, but for entertainment you needed money.

In 1947, my first daughter Rehana was born and with her so was a new India, a free India. I had come back to my village Kaimganj in Uttar Pradesh to visit family. I remember sitting around the radio listening to Pandit Nehru’ announcement at midnight. While the rest of the family was not so enthused, I cheered. We all cheered. India was free!

The next day, celebration filled the streets. People chanted the names of Gandhi, Nehru and countless other leaders of the struggle. But the happiness was short-lived. With independence came Partition and communalism reared its ugly head. People were mistaken that when Pakistan had been created, it would be a safe haven. But riots ensued everywhere. There was no formal government and uncertainty gripped us.

In Jamia, Zakir Saheb tried to help refugees from Pakistan. They would hear of mobs headed to the locality and would hide in school hostels. Pathans, who had migrated from the North-Western Frontier Province, would patrol the streets at night and shout to scare away the mobs from across the Yamuna.



But independence did bring with it a renewed hope, an umeed. We were now a self-determining nation. This was our land and we deserved respect. We had a long way to go but wise and able minds lit the path. All we had to do was follow.





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The author, a former Union minister of external affairs, was governor of Karnataka between 1991 and 1999

The views expressed by the author are personal
- As told to Samar Khurshid

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