Bombay’s freedom trail: When colonialism bid goodbye
‘In Bombay, which in a sense had been the nerve centre of nationalism, celebrations of Indian independence had begun even before Jawaharlal Nehru finished his speech’IndependenceDay2017 Updated: Aug 10, 2017 17:29 IST
The last strains of the “Tryst with Destiny” speech from the Parliament House in New Delhi had faded out from radios. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, after making that memorable speech, must have begun to grapple with the enormity of governing a fractured India with friends, allies and foes.
In Bombay, which in a sense had been the nerve centre of nationalism, celebrations of Indian independence had begun even before Nehru finished his speech. BG Kher, the chief minister of the erstwhile Bombay State would unfurl the Indian flag atop the Bombay Civil Secretariat in the morning of August 15; his assertion – “ Citizens of Free India, you are now free” – was lost in the hullabaloo of the festivities underway.
People had poured out into streets at midnight, shouted slogans that had become popular during the freedom movement, greeted one another, sang and danced in groups, hooted and honked on streets, lit firecrackers and distributed sweets, and packed themselves into trucks decorated with festoons and flowers to drive across the city in victory rallies, according to newspaper reports.
Schools and colleges had declared a holiday or had empty classrooms. Those that had students saw impromptu plays and songs enacted, and sweets distributed. The markets and mills of Bombay which had supported the freedom movement in different ways too marked the momentous occasion. Important government buildings had been lit up and the lights stayed on the following three nights. The government had declared public transport – buses, trams and trains – free on August 15. Bombay was jubilant, as historians have recorded.
Bombay’s first Indian police commissioner, the legendary JS Bharucha, had taken charge from his predecessor Commissioner AE Caffin that historic day. Bharucha would continue to steer the city through rough weather till May 1949. The bifurcation of the Royal Indian Navy, headquartered in Bombay from its early days of occupying India, into navies of India and newly-formed Pakistan had begun. The Indian contingent would continue to be called the Royal Indian Navy till 1950 when India became a republic and ceased to be a British dominion.
Among the earliest first-person stories I heard of the Independence Day was from my father, then a boy of not yet 10, living barely a kilometre away from the historic Gowalia Tank Maidan, his grandmother deeply involved with the freedom movement. There was so much pomp and pageantry on the streets around Tardeo, Gowalia Tank Maidan, and Chowpatty that the significance of the day could not be missed, he reminisced. The day has remained imprinted in his memory.
Another story is from the late Dr Usha Mehta, the petite and feisty freedom fighter who had been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi enough to give up her studies and join the movement. She had co-founded and run the secret Congress Radio during the Quit India agitation in 1942 and had been jailed for four years. On August 15, 1947, however, she was unable to join the celebration as she was laid up in bed with fever, she told me during an interview when she was president of the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya.
“But I felt the joy in my bones, I had tears in my eyes,” recalled the Padma Vibhushan awardee. Dr Mehta shared how a few Bombayites had begun collecting funds to erect Gandhi’s statue at a public site those days. The budget was Rs10 lakh. Gandhi, she said, was annoyed and had remarked that the money would be better spent on some public utility.
Two days later, the first refugees had arrived at Azad Maidan while at the Bombay harbour, the anchor of SS Georgic was lifted. The ship, packed to capacity with the first batch of British troops to leave India, had bid goodbye. Fittingly, it had the Indian tri-colour flying alongside the Union Jack.