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Independence Day: Books to read

india Updated: Aug 14, 2012 19:13 IST

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Freedom-at-Midnight

The most readable book on India's Independence has to be Freedom at Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. What makes the book so fascinating is that the authors interviewed nearly all the characters involved in the build-up to India's Independence.

The authors were, therefore, able to give a here-an-now feel in their narrative account to an extent where the reader almost felt that he was privy to not just the words but the thoughts of the main players like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Sardar Patel and, of course, the neutral umpire in the form of the last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten. The title of the book derived from the historic speech delivered in Parliament by the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru: "At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." Which sounded nice and lyrical but wasn't quite correct since it wasn't night but evening in the city which had controlled India--London, the heart of the British Empire on which the sun would never set since it was so huge and extended over such a vast part of the world that there would always be daylight in one dominion or the other. If the book was very sympathetic to Mountbatten, it could have been because of two factors. The first was that Mountbatten was one of the main sources for Collins and Lapierre. The other factor was that, with the exception of Mountbatten, none of the other main actors in the Partition drama was around. Jinnah succumbed to cancer within months of Independence, the Mahatma was assassinated on January 30, 1948, Sardar Patel died in the 1950s and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964. It was left to Mountbatten to tell the tale and the authors made Partition look like a natural and graceful process, rather than the badly botched-up job it was with over 12 million people being virtually forced to move from one country to the other, perhaps the largest and bloodiest migration caused by one event in human history. All of which was not reflected in Mountbatten's perspective from the top deck of the ship of state, on which the authors relied on without taking note of the fact that World War Two had not just bankrupted but worn out the British to an extent where they just did not have the resources--financial, physical or mental--to hod on to the Raj which they had clung on to through a long and sustained process of dupera et impera or divide and rule.

If Freedom At Midnight was all about the Britz waltzing out of the Raj, Kuldip Nayar's "Martyr:: Bhagat Singh Experiments in Revolution" (Har Anand Publications 2000) and "Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh" (HarperCollins India 2007) tell the other and darker side of the story. There were always two streams in India's struggle for Independence. The path of non-violence or Ahimsa was orchestrated by Mahatma Gandhi. The other violent revolutionary path needed a steady stream of players--if one was sentenced to death and executed by the colonial masters, there had to be others ready to take over. The trial of Bhagat Singh was flawed because it was conducted in the absence of the accused and the entire process was expedited just for this one case. Bhagat Singh was hanged along with Sukhdev and Rajguru for the murder of Saunders, the British assistant superintendent of police (ASP), they shot in Lahore on December 17, 1928, in retribution for the elderly Lala Lajpat Rai being beaten to death by police lathis during a peaceful protest against the Simon Commission on October 30, 1928. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were surreptitiously hanged in Lahore Jail on the evening of March 23, 1931, some 16 years, four months and 23 days before Independence. However, in another sense, March 23, 1931 links up with August 15, 1947 since the legend of Bhagat Singh was one of the factors which inspired Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to escape to Germany and then move to Tokyo and Singapore where he founded the Indian National Army which marched with the Japanese all the way from Malaysia to Manipur where they were defeated by the Brits in a climactic battle at Imphal which marked the beginning of the end of World War Two. Even after the death of Netaji and the end of the war, the Brits could not rest easy because the subsequent trial of three INA officers inspired a mutiny by naval ratings in Bombay, all of which made the colonial masters realise that it was time to pack up and go. Even during the last phase of his life in the Lahore Central Jail, Bhagat Singh and his comrades kept the Brits on their toes through a series of actions like fasting to death to demand parity in treatment with the white political prisoners. Kuldip Nayar quotes others in the jail as saying that the death-sentence was suddenly carried out at 7.30 on the evening on March 23 and not the morning after, as scheduled, that the other prisoners in their cells could only hear the three shouting revolutionary slogans like Inquilab while they were being taken to the gallows, and the sudden silence thereafter indicated that the three had been hanged. If the books make fascinating reading, it is because Kuldip Nayar was also involved in writing the script for Rajkumar Santoshi's "The Legend of Bhagat Singh, March 23, 1931", which won Ajay Devgn the National Award for the best actor in a lead role.

For the same reason, Manini Chatterjee's "Do And Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34" could be linked to Independence even though the Chittagong Armoury Raid was staged on April 18, 1930. The teacher Surjiya Sen, called Masterda by his students, is one of the most inspiring revolutionaries in the history of the Independence struggle. He motivated schoolboys to attack the British armoury at a time when the older generation of Indians had accepted the colonial yoke. What makes Manini Chatterjee's book a compelling read is that she not only interviewed but lived with one of those whom Masterda motivated, Kalpana Datta who, as a teenaged Cacutta college student, would smuggle into Chittagong the chemicals the revolutionaries needed to make bombs. Even while planning the Chitttagong Armoury Raid, the revolutionaries realised that there was no question of liberating the country but that all they could achieve was to sacrifice their lives for a desperately bold act which, like the Easter Uprising in 1916 Ireland, would arouse the consciousness of a people whom the colonial masters had regarded as appropriately servile. I met Kalpana Datta at her Delhi residence in August 1982 and was fascinated by her account of how, as a young college student, she had got involved with the revolutionaries who planned and carried out the Chittagong Armoury Raid. Manini Chatterjee got to know Kalpana Datta better than most people because she married the revolutionary's son, the journalist Chand Joshi. Neither Kalpana Datta nor Chand Joshi is alive today but she will live for ever in Manini's book, based on which Ashutosh Gowariker made the movie Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, starring Deepika Padukone and Abhishek Bachchan. And I will always remember that Delhi evening in August 1982 when Kalpana Datta nee Joshi told me what had motivated a quiet college student to become a revolutionary who had to first spend months hiding in the jungles of what is now Bangladesh and then years as a prisoner of conscience. I wrote up her account for the lead story of the Independence Day issue of a magazine called Weekend Review, which ceased publication decades ago.