At the stroke of the midnight hour: The story of India's independence

  • Saudamini Jain, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 11, 2015 14:09 IST

On August 15, 1947, we were finally free. British rule had ended. And so we begin at the end: from the front page of the Hindustan Times, which had been an influential voice of nationalism through the decades, on the first Independence Day.
The front page of the Hindustan Times, on Independence Day, 15 August, 1947. (Photo: Brunch archives)

After you’ve looked at the paper – just like thousands of people on that historic morning of August 15 – we’ll take you back in time. We’ll tell you the story of freedom through objects, photographs and archival material that have remained to tell the tale. We’ll begin with 1857 – and take you through the next 90 years. This isn’t the full story – there aren’t enough pages in the magazine to do justice to the Independence movement. But we bring you some highlights.

And we urge you to spend the next week, until Independence Day on Saturday, to read books, watch documentaries and old clips, visit some museums, look at photographs and hum patriotic songs. Remember, to always remember. And not let anyone take away – or deprive you of – our shared history, and the fight that led to the glory at midnight.

The First Cry For Independence

The British called it a sepoy mutiny. Two months after its outbreak, Karl Marx described it as “not a military mutiny, but a national revolt”. But it really was the First War of Independence.

In the mid-19th century, even before the British Crown sank its claws in, the East India Company was carrying out its own brand of colonial oppression in India.

To be in the service of the Company was considered prestigious. But there were rumours that the religion of the Indians was being threatened. This suspicion was confirmed towards the end of 1856 with the introduction of the new Enfield rifle. Its cartridges were reportedly greased with beef and pork fat and had to be bitten off before loading. Hindus and Muslims alike felt this was an attack on their religion. Troops began to refuse using the cartidges, and were disbanded.

On March 29, 1857 Mangal Pandey, a young sepoy of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry in Meerut, fired at his Sergeant Major. He was executed. Over the next month, more sepoys rebelled. And on May 10, the mutiny began in Meerut.

The next morning, 300 sepoys from Meerut rode into Delhi – with few arms and supplies – and declared the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader. Zafar was more poet than warrior. He was a pensioner of the Company – he, reluctantly, agreed to lead the rebellion.

The sword of Bahadur Shah Zafar: The emperor had agreed to lead the 1857 Revolt – but he was captured, his weapons confiscated, his sons killed and he was banished to Burma by the British. (Photos: Raj K Raj; Location: Swatantrata Sangram Sanghralaya, Red Fort, Delhi)

The British considered the Revolt a “Muslim conspiracy”. But, writes William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal, “The Mughal court was still regarded across northern India not as some sort of foreign Muslim imposition – as some, especially on the Hindu right wing, look upon the Mughals today – but instead as the principal source of political legitimacy, and therefore the natural centre of resistance against British colonial rule”.

Within a month, the Revolt spread. At Kanpur, it was led by Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the exiled Maratha Peshwa, Baji Rao II. The Company had refused the pension due to him. At Jhansi, it was Rani Lakshmibai and in central India, Tantia Tope led the revolt.

At first, every available British soldier was sent to Delhi. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart, a 19-year-old British officer. Zafar, who took refuge in Humayun’s tomb, was captured, tried and deported to Burma. For more than a year, the rebels carried on their struggle.

The Rani of Jhansi died fighting in 1858. Nana Sahib refused to give in and finally escaped to Nepal in the beginning of 1859, hoping to renew the struggle.

There were many reasons why the Revolt failed. British historian John Lawrence confessed that “had a single leader of ability arisen among them, we must have been lost beyond redemption”.

A photograph showing two sepoys of the 31st Native Infantry, hanged in Lucknow in 1857. Some estimates say that 1,00,000 Indians were slaughtered in the Revolt and its aftermath. But many historians peg the number much higher. (Photo: Felice Beato, 1857/Public Domain)

The British extracted bloodthirsty retribution. Some estimates say that 1,00,000 Indians were killed, but many historians peg the number much higher. The revolt resulted in the transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown.

Blood Stains Over Indigo

This model of an indigo factory is nearly two metres long, and features 100 clay figures involved in making the indigo dye – from the arrival of the indigo plants from the field on an ox-drawn cart, to the drying of the indigo dye cakes. A European figure supervises the work. The model was made for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, which was held in London to “stimulate commerce and strengthen the bonds of union now existing in every portion of her Majesty’s Empire”.

This indigo factory replica has 95 clay figures of Indian workers, four oxen and an English sahib. If you look carefully, it depicts harsh working conditions. On a label in the inner edge, is the name Rakhal Chunder Pal of Krishnagar (near Calcutta) who presumably made the model for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886. (Photo: A Paul Little/Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Indigo is used to make blue dye. During the 19th century, this dye was very much in demand. So the European planters in India forced Indian farmers to grow indigo in Bengal and Bihar. If they refused, the planters would resort to flogging, attacking women and children, or burning their houses. In the factories, they meted out harsh treatment to the labourers, who worked in terrible conditions. Later, a report noted, “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood”.

In 1859, Bengal’s countryside exploded – farmers gave up indigo cultivation. They attacked the factories, and defended their villages. They used all kinds of weapons: spears, lathis, bows and arrows, bricks – women even threw earthen pots. This continued till the planters could no longer withstand such a united resistance – and began shutting their factories.

In a book on the rebellion, Ananda Bhattacharya, assistant director of the West Bengal state archives, argues that the Indigo Rebellion was the first form of resistance of the countryside against the British. Half a decade later, Gandhi’s first Satyagraha was for peasants of an indigo plantation in Bihar – against renewed exploitation. Historians have argued that the Indigo Rebellion was a forerunner of the non-violent passive resistance adopted by Gandhi.

Indian National Congress Comes Into Being

At 12 noon, on December 28, 1885, the Indian National Congress met for the first time in the hall of Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College in Bombay.

The first session of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. The founder, AO Hume, a retired English civil servant, sits in the middle (third row from the front). To his right is Dadabhai Naoroji, the co-founder of the Congress; to his left are barrister WC Bonnerjee, lawyer Pherozeshah Mehta, and reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Seventy two delegates represented the Indian provinces. (Photo: Public Domain)

It was founded by AO Hume, a retired English civil servant, with the aim that educated Indians get a larger role in government, through dialogue with the Raj. It was attended by 72 political workers – and for the first time, nationalism was formally represented on a pan-India scale.

Barrister WC Bonnerjee presided over the session on December 28-30. The British first perceived it as a safety valve to assuage Indian aspirations for independence, but the party went on to lead the freedom struggle.

The Swadeshi Storm In Bengal

As an extension of the colonial Divide and Rule policy – dividing Hindus and Muslims to ensure they don’t unite in opposition – the British decided to partition Bengal, dividing its largely Muslim eastern population and the largely Hindu western population. This was met with strong opposition.

At one of the protest movements in Calcutta, people took a pledge to boycott foreign goods. The Swadeshi Movement had until this point been spontaneous; but on 7 August 1905, the leaders of Bengal formally adopted it at the Calcutta Town Hall. Bengal was partitioned on October 16 into two provinces: Eastern Bengal and Assam; and the rest of Bengal, which included Bihar and Orissa. There were protests in both parts.

It was in this environment that Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, painted Bharat Mata (left). Until now, Mother India was conceptualised as a fierce protector of her children. But here, dressed like a sadhvi, she seemed like she was in need of protection. The painting was enlarged and transferred to a silk banner by a Japanese artist and carried in fundraising Swadeshi processions.

In 1905, the Indian National Congress also adopted the Swadeshi Movement. The movement, which had begun in Bengal, spread to the rest of the country.

Shops selling foreign goods were picketed, foreign cloth was publicly burnt. Dhobis refused to wash foreign-made cloth – and priests refused offerings made of foreign sugar. This led to a mushrooming of swadeshi textile mills, factories and tanneries. Women, for the first time, joined in the protest.

(Photo Courtesy: Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata)


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