August 2001

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The Independence Day - A Historical Perspective


By Dr P Suri


It was on the 15th of August 1947 that India won freedom from foreign rule; and today, while we are being congratulated by the entire world on our Independence Day, we tend to indulge in the nostalgia that accompanies it involuntarily for most of us. The temptation to do so is great; and 54 years is a period long enough to be able to get a proper perspective of the whole phenomenon.


It is a well-known fact that India, for a long, long period had remained a centre of attraction to the invaders from Central Asia for its gold reserves which kept on multiplying because of its geographical location between the Silk Road on the North and the Spice Route on the South. Needless to say that the two commodities were in high demand in Europe as well as in the African continent; the Chinese silks catering to royalty in their life time and the spices, apart from the culinary flavours, for preserving and mummify their bodies after death. The process had been going on for centuries, and those who had the nerve and the power to exploit the resources continued to do so. There were different categories of these people, though. Some of them came, plundered to their hearts content and went back. But there were others who preferred to stay. They came, conquered, commingled with the indigenous population and settled down to be driven away by new aspirants in due course of time.


The Turkish invaders, the Muslims, broadly speaking, were different in the sense that they conquered, maintained their identity; and made India their home. They ruled the land for about 250 years, but it was never a thing that could be called a foreign domination. They had become the Indian Muslims. They belonged to India and India belonged to them. Eventually, the Mughal dominance passed in to the hands of the British who had initially come as traders in the East India Company.


The British Rule, the British administration, to be more precise was radically different. The traditional Indian economy based on agriculture and linked up with the cottage industry; was now geared up to the Colonial interest of Britain. The indigenous industry was discouraged in order to eliminate competition; the treatment meted out to the cotton industry for the promotion of Lancashire cottons is a well-known example. We all know how the weavers of the finest muslins of Decca were exterminated. We also know how the cultivation of Indigo, a cash crop ruined the fertility of the soil resulting in recurrent famines, and widespread starvation deaths. It is not possible here to go into all those details; suffice it to say that the colonial policies resulted in widespread poverty and lack of resources for the indigenous people in every possible way.


The administrative machinery of the British needed English knowing people at all levels because English had become the official language instead of Persian. It was imperative that the next generations learn it too. The schools and colleges were established to perpetuate the education policies and then came the Universities, with their degrees, the passports to lucrative government jobs.  In this process the portals of English literature, and History had been thrown open, and that became instrumental in  the exposure of the British political behaviour, their societal value system, the humanitarian attitudes and the freedom of conscience. People seemed to wake up with a rude shock. Men like Ram Mohan Roy joined the British officials in condemning the practice of female infanticide - a the practice of killing the female child at birth, and Suttee, the burning of the widow on the pyre of her husband. They launched an era of the social reform movements all over India like the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, and Arya Samaj in the Punjab. They raised voices against the evils like the child marriage, the dowry system, the disparity in the ages of the bride and the groom etc. and insisted on the education, as well as the job opportunities for women. This opened up the avenues for the self-esteem of women who started emerging as teachers, politicians and poets.


The Indian mind, now questioning and probing, wanted to know the reasons for the existing social inequalities. It has been very aptly said, “Beneath the burnished cover of British administration the mind of India was actually in ferment.” Another contributive factor for the social unrest was the use of missionaries as an additional arm of Imperialism. Their tools were the spread of literacy and benefits of medicine at grass roots level. The missionaries used the precepts of Christianity in order to convert a loyalist mass of population committed to the British rule. They were pretty successful in the southern parts of India, but could not make much headway in the North where this activity was effectively stopped by the Reformists. They explained to the largely ignorant people that the precepts of Christianity were not new, that they had been fully propounded in their own scriptures especially the Upanishads. The Indian society thus, woke up from its deep slumber with a rude shock; felt the full force of the truth and justification of the human rights, and was compelled to see that the day had actually dawned; that it had to move ahead, to be transformed if it wanted to be alive. It was this transformation, this thought process that gave birth to the idea of nationalism hitherto non-existent in the Indian political system. And it was this transformation too which triggered off the great National Movement spearheaded by the Congress party which had been started as a people’s forum by David Hume.


The spirit of questioning got directed against the discriminatory attitudes and policies of the rulers themselves. But no problems were posed just yet. The Indians loyally assisted Britain during the World War 1 against Germany. But before the war was over, the rising prices and heavy taxation started upsetting the people, and thus was triggered off the agitation for self-rule.


Britain, acting in a very high-handed manner went ahead and passed the Rowlett Acts in 1919, allowing trial by British judges without juries, and the imprisonment of agitators without trial. The Rowlett Act raised the moral issues of the justification of inequality by the government, the question of self respect and mutual trust. It stirred up a nationwide resentment. It was at this time that Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi stepped in at the scenario and started leading the campaign for self rule through non-violent action. The government, quite oblivious of the prevailing tensions went ahead with the repressive policy, and perpetrated the massacre in Amritsar, Punjab, where General Dyer fired  at a peaceful gathering in the Jallianwala Bagh. Hundreds of people were killed, thousands wounded, and the movement started, in full force, to get rid of the Imperialist Masters.


Gandhi became a powerful leader with followers like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabh Bhai Patel, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Vinoba Bhave, and hordes of other people. They defied the Imperialistic policies like the Salt tax, directed against making salt from sea-water, and courted arrest when threatened by the authorities The number of people courting arrest became a problematic issue for the government. The people had become defiant; the Civil Disobedience Movement was launched.


 On the other hand the World War II was going badly for Britain. India had refused to help and started the Quit India Movement. The British acquiesced on the condition that India help Britain in the war. Things were settled, and India started waiting patiently. It was in this period that the supply of these troops stimulated the Indian textile and steel, the cement and mica industries.


In the meantime the Pakistan movement for a separate homeland for the Muslims had been gaining momentum under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah who, before the 1935 Government of India Act was a responsible member of the Indian National Congress. The two-nation theory propounded by Jinnah found a  political expression. After the war, the Partition of India Bill was passed, in due course, by the British government and the final arrangements were carried through by Lord Mountbatten. India had got her Independence, and so had Pakistan. But while Nehru broadcast his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny” speech, and Jinnah celebrated the birth of Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted and forced to migrate from one side of the boundary line to the other on both the eastern front of Bengal and the western of the Punjab. The migrations were followed by massacres and atrocities of all kinds. It has been estimated that about five and a half million people traveled each way across the new India-Pakistan border in the Punjab. In addition around 400,000 Hindus migrated from Sindh and more than a million moved from East Pakistan to West Bengal.


The initial problems were great, but efforts made were consistent and genuine. And today after more than half a century has passed by, we can very well put all that behind us and march ahead towards the path of genuine human rights without any strings attached. - Copyright © GlobalomNet Media