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The critical masses

Phillips Talbot, an American in India recalls the joys of the first Independence Day.

india Updated: Aug 15, 2007 00:05 IST
Phillips Talbot

Naturally, the 15th was a busy day, and I was not surprised when the taxi that carried me from the Cecil Hotel at 7.30 in the morning was still moving me around town at 1 o’clock the next morning. The driver could probably buy a new engine for the fare he charged....

....In the afternoon, when the day’s big story had been filed, Mildred and I made our way to what was to be a military parade and flag-raising by Nehru for the public. The arrangements committee.... had planned for a crowd of 25,000 people in the spacious Kingsway plaza at Princes’ Park. From the time we left Old Delhi, 7 miles away, however, we passed people trooping to the display in overcrowded buses, trucks and horse tongas or on foot. The four-lane road was choked several blocks before we reached Kingsway, and as we walked closer to the flagstand the streets were blotted out by humans.

As a monsoon storm seemed about to break, we hung back for a while. But soon, holding the neat blue cards showing our specific reserved seat numbers, we plunged into the sea of bodies. At first it was no worse than trying to get into a college stadium at the moment a football crowd is leaving it. Then the crowd thickened. When we reached the reserved seat section, we found two and three people standing on a single chair. Everyone held everyone else up, so that the pressure was towards the aisle along which we were trying to make our way. At one place two young men were straddling the aisle, with a toe on a chair on either side. Still we pressed ahead, as I hoped we could find a free place near the flagpole.

We bucked a stream of people who were already trying to break through the crowd to the rear. Finally we stalled. It was impossible to push farther ahead yet the crowd behind us prevented our returning. A little boy near by cried with fright. His father tried to protect him. Three women, apparently dizzy, strove to find an open space for themselves. There was no fresh air. From behind, people pushed forward, while in the front police and officials tried to push the crowd back. Nehru himself, in his accustomed tempestuous manner, plunged into the struggling mob in an effort to make the front ranks sit down. He penetrated for some distance, led Pamela Mountbatten, who had been caught in the crush, out by the hand, and then had to be rescued himself. Lord Mountbatten picked up a child who seemed in danger of being overrun. Fainting women were brought to the flagstand to recuperate. Extra hazards were provided by a few intoxicated fellows who were throwing their weight around.

While straining against that tide to keep from being overrun, our main concern was possible panic. As part of the amazing mass change of heart, there was not the slightest indication of ugly moods. There were no other white faces in sight. Yet neighbours helping to brace me smiled encouragingly and tried to make an extra inch of space for Mildred. And as individuals were thrust past us by the human pressure from behind, they apologised for the bumps.

If there was ceremony to be hoisting of the flag, I missed it. Fearing an incipient police thrust to control the mob, I was just then trying to lead Mildred out across the chairs between aisles. The colours, I believe, were run up in a hurry to help break the tension. Just as they flapped free, a rainbow appeared in the sky, and when Lord Mountbatten pointed to it, the crowd went happily wild. Then the exodus began. (I never did find out what happened to the military parade. All we saw were the aircraft that crossed in formation.)....

....The mass excitement and joy and cordiality failed to wipe out all the unpleasant realities of Indian life today, of course. Though Hindus and Muslims celebrated together in Delhi, news of serious riots filtered through from the Punjab. I was most sobered, however, by my own taxi driver, who steered me through celebrating crowds for most of 18 hours that busy day. He was a Muslim, recently released from the army. While he worked in Delhi, his wife and two children, aged 7 and 11/2, lived in the state of Alwar which is south of Delhi on the edge of Rajputana. Just a week earlier the driver had suddenly been called to Alwar where, according to his story, state troops of the Hindu principality were looting Muslim villages and killing their residents. He had succeeded in rescuing his wife from the reign of terror.

“And your children?” I asked, already sensing the answer. As usual we were driving in a merry-making crowd that paid little heed to motor cars, so the driver had to concentrate on his work. He barely whispered the word, “Gone." This is the tragedy of India today. It is a sick country. The new government takes over a crippled administration, a blood-stained heritage of the recent past, and only the slimmest resources to re-establish decent civiliSed order. Yet events might help. The June 3 announcement of quick independence probably forestalled a real civil war. The arrival of independence itself might turn the tide.

Despite incidents in critical border areas, there is evidence to sustain hope that the general situation in the country may improve. I’ve already mentioned the joint celebrations in Delhi and in Calcutta, an even worse plague spot during the last catastrophic year. In Bombay, it was the same.

None of the top national leaders was in Bombay for the independence celebrations. Yet the town went wild. As befitted a big city, it put on much more elaborate illumination than Karachi and Delhi. Crowds from the mill districts spread through the city in the thousands. They roared around in crammed-full trucks and climbed in dozens to the tops of streetcars. So far as I know, the souvenir collecting that nearly stripped the Calcutta Government House... was not repeated in Bombay, though one group did try to go through the Taj Mahal Hotel. As in Delhi, the crowds were big and boisterous, but I was surprised to learn later that many fearful British and American residents holed themselves up at home during the celebrations. Those who did go out had the soul-satisfying experience of readily proffered friendliness.

And when the Mountbattens arrived on the 17th to see the troops off, Delhi scenes were nearly repeated. A member of the Governor General’s staff reported that the Admiral shouted “Jai Hinds” the length of Marine Drive in response to Indian cheers. Her Excellency waved an Indian national flag the whole way. A British police officer estimated the crowd lining the route of that drive as half a million. I was more interested, though, in his comments on the celebrations during the preceding days in the mill districts of bazaar areas where for a year curfews, extra police precautions and all the other measures that could be devised had failed to stop communal stabbings and shootings.

“In 34 years in India I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It was wonderful. They all mixed together — Hindus, Muslims, everybody. I can’t describe it. Words fail me.” He was right, too. Words did fail him. When I pressed for details about the celebrations, all he could say was, “It was wonderful.” But I got the idea.

Thus, then, independence came to India.

This is an edited extract from An American Witness to India’s Partition (Sage) to be published later this month.

Phillips Talbot is President Emeritus, The Asia Society, US. He was the India correspondent of the Chicago Daily News in 1946 and
received the Padma Shri in 2002.