This Day in History – August 15, 1947 – “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”

India’s long struggle for freedom came to its bittersweet conclusion on August 15, 1947.  The day itself was chosen by the last Viceroy to coincide with V-J Day that concluded World War II.  India’s struggle for independence was unique at the time in being largely non-violent – though the rising surge of unrest in the British Indian Army from Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army during World War II followed by the Royal Indian Navy mutinies in 1946 played an under-appreciated role in convincing the British that it was time to leave.  Ultimately British rule in India rested on a foundation of collaborationist locals – the princely states, the police and above all the army.   The mutinies in the East India Company’s army followed by the uprising in 1857 had shaken British rule to its core.  Now exhausted by war, bankrupt and surviving on American aid Britain simply lacked the means to hold on to the Jewel in the Crown.  Most British statesmen other than the delusional imperialist to the bitter end Winston Churchill understood this bitter reality.  The victory of the Labor Party in the 1945 General Elections had made Indian independence a fait accompli. Labor had promised Indian independence.  The only issue was how to grant it.

It was here that the sweetness of independence turned bitter and bloody.  The Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah insisted on a Muslim majority state – Pakistan.  While there were Muslim majorities in the provinces along British India’s western provinces and in East Bengal, about the same number of Muslims were scattered across the rest of the subcontinent.  In the North West Frontier Province many Pashtuns dreamt of eliminating the Durand Line and reuniting with Afghanistan – an issue that still creates bitter relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

Finally the decision was made – the provinces of Sindh, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier would go to Pakistan.  Punjab and Bengal would be partitioned.  The princely states would have the choice of independence but were strongly encouraged to join either India or Pakistan – only three Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir would not cooperate causing headaches after independence and in the case of Kashmir to this day.  Partition (and the departure of the Hindu Sindhi community) resulted in the displacement of 12.5 million people.  Even worse, the final boundary for Punjab was not announced until August 17 leaving its residents in limbo on independence day.  Communal violence caused the loss of life of hundreds of thousands of people.

It was in this element of uncertainty that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his famous speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly.  The video below shows the most famous lines that start the speech.

The whole speech itself is worth a read and is pasted below:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, 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, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again.

The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now.

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.

The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for anyone of them to imagine that it can live apart.

Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.

To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.

The appointed day has come – the day appointed by destiny – and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.

It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materialises. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!

We rejoice in that freedom, even though clouds surround us, and many of our people are sorrow-stricken and difficult problems encompass us. But freedom brings responsibilities and burdens and we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people.

On this day our first thoughts go to the architect of this freedom, the father of our nation, who, embodying the old spirit of India, held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us.

We have often been unworthy followers of his and have strayed from his message, but not only we but succeeding generations will remember this message and bear the imprint in their hearts of this great son of India, magnificent in his faith and strength and courage and humility. We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest.

Our next thoughts must be of the unknown volunteers and soldiers of freedom who, without praise or reward, have served India even unto death.

We think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good and ill fortune alike.

The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be.

We are citizens of a great country, on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

To the nations and peoples of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy.

And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service. Jai Hind [Victory to India].

Indian independence was the first step in the dissolution of the British Empire.  The next year Burma and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) achieved independence.  In 1948 George VI stopped styling himself Rex Imperator (King Emperor) as he was no longer Emperor of India.  He would nominally remain King of India until 1950 when the Indian constitution went into effect and India became a Republic (and became the first Republic to join the British Commonwealth).

Indian independence was not complete on August 15, 1947.  Starting October 1947 and ending November 1954 the French gradually withdrew from their few remaining enclaves comprising French India.  The Portuguese were not as cooperative and had to be forcibly expelled – from Dadra and Nagar Haveli in 1954 and Goa, Daman and Diu in 1961.  The expulsion of the Portuguese ended the 460 year presence of European states on Indian soil.

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