It was August 14, 1947 — just 24 hours away from the day when the British would transfer power to the Constituent Assembly under the Indian Independence Act, which it had passed in July 1947.
As the countdown to Independence Day began, the Capital wore a festive look: roads had been cleaned and festooned with tri-colours, and arches erected over many of them. In the Walled City, loudspeakers were fixed on to electricity poles and the balconies of homes and offices.
By afternoon, festivities in the city were in full swing. Media from all over the world had arrived to cover the birth of a sovereign nation. All roads leading to the Constituent Assembly were crammed with people eagerly waiting for Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at midnight. “Outside the Assembly building… it was Times Square on New Year’s eve,” is how Philips Talbot, then South Asia correspondent for Chicago Daily, described the scene in a letter to a friend in New York .
In the evening, a special ceremony was organised at Dr Rajendra Prasad’s house from where Nehru and other leaders were to head for the Assembly to attend its midnight session. Priests from Tanjore sprinkled holy water on leaders, and women marked their foreheads with tilak (holy vermillion) as they proceeded to the Constituent Assembly.
By 10pm, the crowd gathered outside the Assembly building had grown larger despite a strong spell of monsoon showers. As the leaders arrived at the Constituent Assembly, they were greeted with loud cheers. Inside the Assembly, the guest galleries overflowed with members’ families, diplomats, officials and media persons.
Dr Rajendra Prasad chaired the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly. The session began at 11pm with the singing of Vande Mataram by Sucheta Kripalani. Shortly before midnight, Nehru stood up to make his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech, which evocatively captured the feelings and sentiments of millions of Indians. His speech ‘Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny… At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom’, moved millions across the country, who listened to it on the All India Radio and BBC, which broadcast it live.
The thousands who had gathered outside the Assembly building cheered and wept in joy. Nehru’s speech, a highly inspired performance, had achieved what writers and historians described as an incredible fusion of ‘man, mood and moment’.
In the morning, at 8.30 am, the swearing-in of the new Cabinet took place at the Durbar Hall in the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). First, new Chief Justice HJ Kania sworn-in Lord Mountbatten as the first governor-general of India. Mountbatten then sworn-in the members of the new Cabinet one by one, beginning with Pandit Nehru. After the ceremony, the gates of the Viceroy’s house were thrown open for the thousands who had gathered outside.
At around 10am, Lord Mountbatten and Indian leaders proceeded for a flag hoisting ceremony at the Assembly building. Half an hour later, Mountbatten signalled for the tri-colour to be flown over the dome of the building amid a salvo of 31-minute gun salute. Lord Mountbatten looked up, cheerfully waved to Nehru and saluted the flag.
The highlight of the day was a flag salutation parade organised in the evening at the Prince’s Park. Around half a million people — who came on foot, bicycles and cars — had gathered to witness the event. All roads leading to Prince’s Park were packed with people. As Talbot wrote, “From the time we left Old Delhi, seven miles away, we passed people trooping to the display in overcrowded buses, trucks, horse tongas or on foot. The four-lane road was choked several blocks before Kingsway, and as we walked closer to the flagstand, the streets were blotted out by humans.”
As Mountbatten left the Viceroy’s House at 6pm in a state carriage, he was cheered by people shouting ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Pandit Mountbatten ki jai’. Ultimately, however, the scheduled parade post flag salutation had to be cancelled because of the surging crowds.
“The programme had been arranged weeks beforehand; grandstands had been built…but no one anticipated the enthusiasm of the crowds…. The grandstands were buried under a sea of people… There was no room to put a foot down… In fact it was raining babies! Lots of women had brought their babies with them and they were being crushed, so they threw them up in the air in despair and you just sort of caught a baby as it came down. And some people had come with bicycles. There was no question of putting the bicycles down: they were being passed round and round overhead…,” wrote Pamela Mountbatten, Lord Mountbatten’s daughter, in the book India Remembered, a personal account of the Mountbattens during the transfer of power, published in 2007. She was 17 then, and accompanied her parents to most of the ceremonies.
The police tried in vain to control the surging crowds, but soon decided to let people have their way. Many guests, including ministers and diplomats had to return after trying to reach the flagpole. When the national flag was hoisted in Prince’s Park amid all this chaos, it started drizzling and a rainbow flashed across the sky, which was seen as an auspicious omen.
As darkness descended on the King’s Way (now Rajpath), all prominent buildings at Raisina, including the Memorial Arch I India Gate, were illuminated, and there was a fireworks display near the Secretariat buildings. Later that evening the viceroy organised a dinner party and reception at the Mughal Gardens. Across the city, people lit up their homes, offices, markets and shops, making August 15 a truly unforgettable day in the history of the city.