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Spirit of freedom

It was the Indian independence movement that inspired other colonies to secure their freedom from imperialistic powers.

india Updated: Aug 14, 2006 17:36 IST

In his "tryst with destiny" speech at midnight on August 14/15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru used the phrase "not wholly or in full measure" to describe India's attainment of freedom.

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny," said the first prime minister of India, "and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge - not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.

At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom."

Evidently, to Mahatma Gandhi's first lieutenant and one of the main architects of the freedom movement, the divided India, which the departing British had bequeathed to their successors, was a betrayal of the dream of the nationalists.

Even a year earlier, virtually none of them and a vast majority in what is today three nations - India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - could have imagined that the Indian subcontinent will not remain united.

Nor could the British if only because they felt that the main achievement of their imperial mission was to unite India as never before since the time of the Mauryan empire in the pre-Christian era.

Although their critics believed that the partition of India was the inevitable consequence of the traditional "divide and rule" policy of the British, this sinister strategy was not reflected in the speech of Prime Minister Clement Atlee during the House of Commons debate on the Indian Independence Bill.

"For myself", he said, "I earnestly hope that this severance may not endure and that the two new Dominions ... may, in course of time, come together again to form one great member state of the British Commonwealth of Nations."

Harold Macmillan, the leader of the opposition, echoed this opinion: "We must hope ... that in this partition are also the seeds of some form of future unity."

Nehru too was "convinced that our present decision (on partition) is the right one ... it may be that in this way we shall reach that united India sooner than otherwise and then she will have a stronger and more secure foundation".

And the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had articulated his hope a few years earlier in these words: "Let us, therefore, live as good neighbours; let the Hindus guard the south and western India and let the Muslims guard the north-west and eastern frontiers.

We will then stand together and say to the world: Hands off India, India for the Indians."

As these unrequited hopes and fervent expectations show, the independence of India was not quite the joyous event because of the end of colonial rule as the later generations have come to believe, but one marked by uncertainty and sadness.

The reason is that partition negated the very concept of India, as described in the Vishnu Purana of the Vedic Age: "Uttaram yat samudrasya/Himadreschaiva daskshinam,/Varsham tad Bharatam nama/Bharati yatra santatih."

(The country that lies north of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is called Bharata; for there dwell the descendants of Bharata.)

Rajendra Prasad, who was to be India's first president, reflected this idea of India when he said: "India, which was made by god and nature to be one, which culture and tradition and history of millenniums have made one, is divided today ... Let us hope and pray that the day will come when even those who have insisted upon and brought about this division will realise India's essential oneness and we shall be united once again."

Little wonder, therefore, that Mahatma Gandhi stayed away from the official celebrations in New Delhi and spent the day fasting and praying in a Calcutta (now Kolkata) suburb that was still recovering from Hindu-Muslim riots, which had devastated the city.

And even after winning the biggest prize of his political career, Jinnah described the state he had created as "moth-eaten".

But even if the leaders of the two new countries felt that the real fruits of victory they wanted from the long struggle for freedom had eluded them, the significance of the day lay in the fact that it heralded the beginning of the end of centuries of colonial exploitation in Asia and Africa.

After India and Pakistan, both Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma (now Myanmar) won their independence in 1948, followed by Indonesia in 1949 and Malaysia in 1957.

In Africa too, the "winds of change", as mentioned by then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1960, had started blowing.

While South Africa had to wait till the 1990s for the end of apartheid, Ghana became independent in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, Uganda in 1962, Kenya in 1963 and Tanganyika nd Zanzibar (now Tanzania) in 1964.

In the West Indies, Jamaica as well as Trinidad and Tobago became independent in 1962.

Undeniably, it is the Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru that had inspired people in all the other colonies to fight for and secure their freedom from their European overlords.

As a British historian noted, "more than any other single individual, Gandhi brought about the fall of the British Empire".

In South Africa, the African National Congress took its name from the Indian National Congress though not the latter's policy of non-violence because, as Nelson Mandela said, "In India, Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and farsighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaners in South Africa."

Martin Luther King, however, adopted the Gandhian method to oppose racial prejudice in the US.

Inspired by Gandhi's words - "through our pain we will make them see their injustice" - Martin Luther King launched his non-violent civil rights movement, saying that from his background "I gained my Christian ideals: from Gandhi I learned my operational technique".

India can be proud, therefore, that it acted as an agent of monumental historical change in the last century.

Now, its multicultural democracy can act as a similar source of inspiration to all as a model of governance.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst)

First Published: Aug 14, 2006 17:16 IST