Independent India at 60
Recalling the historic midnight scene
August 15, 1947: The scene at Raisina Hill in New Delhi.
THE midnight hour of the 14th-15th August 1947, was, without doubt, a most momentous event in the history of our country. In fact, it marked the birth of a free India and, thus, the culmination of the hopes, the dreams of many dedicated people, some of whom had laid down their lives in the cause of freedom. But the hour combined not merely the solemnity of a historic occasion, but the bizarre contradictions in our society; the surge for daring thinking as well as subservie
nce to superstition, a sense of high integrity as well as a capacity for corruption, intensive individuality as well as a feeling for co-operative adventure, in fact, the whole spectrum of our national personality.
The British Government had decided that the transfer of power to India, as represented by the Constituent Assembly should take place on the 15th of August. The British do not consult astrologers when they take political decisions, but there were quite a few eminent personages in Delhi who believed (many of them still do) in the effect of stellar combinations on human affairs and some of them began consulting astrologers as to whether the 15th was an auspicious day for the occasion. The advice was that it was not; a far more auspicious day was the 14th. But this was the day fixed for the renunciation of British authority over Pakistan and in fact, Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy, was in Karachi that morning formally to announce the transfer of power to that country and he flew back to Delhi the same afternoon. A solution for the problem was discovered, to the best of my recollection, by the agile brain of Sardar K. M. Panikkar, a brilliant writer of history in the English language, a scholar in Malayalam, also a deep student of the more recondite features of Hindu religion, and withal a great wit. He said he had discovered a formula which would appease the stars as well as make it unnecessary for the British government to change the date which had been announced in Parliament. The members of the Constituent Assembly would meet on the 14th, about half-an-hour or so before midnight; this would propitiate the stars. They would, however, take the oath of allegiance to Free India after the stroke of midnight which, according to British recognition, would be the 15th. Everybody seemed satisfied and arrangements were made accordingly.
Concern and surprise
I was the Secretary pro-tem of the Constituent Assembly. Several months previously I had been Secretary of the Department of Planning and Development of the old Government of India. I woke up one morning to read in the newspapers that the Governor-General had been pleased to abolish the Department. I went across after breakfast to see my Member, Sir Akbar Hydari, and expressed both concern, at the fact that my job had been abolished, and surprise that this had been done without any previous intimation to me. Sir Akbar said he was sorry, but events had been moving rather fast. Mr. Jinnah had seen the then Viceroy, Lord Wavell, and asked him whether the Department of Planning and Development had been planning for one country or two. If it was for the former, that would amount, in his view, to prejudicing the whole issue of Pakistan and he would break off all further negotiations with the British authorities. Lord Wavell had decided that the simplest solution would be to abolish the Department altogether. Sir Akbar stated that it would take a couple of days to settle on a new job for me; and he informed me, after two or three days, that an office had been set up to make arrangements for the inauguration of the Constituent Assembly which would both frame, a new Constitution and function as a legislative body till such a Constitution was enacted. I was to be in charge of all the administrative, arrangements.
There would be a separate Constitutional Adviser who would prepare the necessary constitutional groundwork. For this latter post Sir B. N. Rau was appointed — a distinguished jurist, shy and retiring and completely dedicated to his work. The Assembly was to be completely free to appoint its own staff, but somebody had to take the necessary preparatory steps, and so both Sir B.N. Rau and I were pro-tem.
The midnight session was held in the Chamber which is now the Lok Sabha and the question arose as to how to accommodate the thousands of persons who were anxious to be present on so momentous an occasion.
The accommodation in the galleries was very limited and could not, at the best, accommodate more than a few hundred people. It was decided by me, in consultation with Dr. Rajendra Prasad who was the President of the Assembly, as well as Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel that an invitation would be issued to each member for one relative of his choice. Dr. Rajendra Prasad strictly adhered to this formula. Pandit Nehru asked for just one ticket for Indira Gandhi; and Sardar Patel similarly asked for just one ticket for his daughter, Maniben. I know that dozens of people begged all of them to “put in a word” with me, but they refused. One member of the Cabinet sent his wife to see me; and I recall her walking out in a huff because I refused to oblige her husband by issuing more than one pass. A distinguished journalist also called on me and asked for half-a-dozen passes. 1 similarly refused; and I well recall his meeting me in the corridor a few days later to tell me he had “Fixed things up” at lower levels in my office. “I realise,” I remember his saying, “that it is a mistake sometimes to go to the top for favours, particularly when the top consists of rigid bureaucrats like yourself.”
There were a few diplomatic missions in Delhi at the time and the heads of these missions were invited for a cup of coffee at 11-30 p.m. I remember an I.C.S. officer who was working in the External Affairs Ministry arriving for the function wearing a dinner jacket with black bow tie. Some eyebrows were raised at this but, next day, I met the same officer wearing our national dress at a formal function. He subsequently held various diplomatic posts and turned out to be a dedicated officer of free India who enjoyed the confidence of Pandit Nehru.
We had a special clock which I had checked personally for accuracy, and exactly at midnight it chimed twelve beats. I went up to the microphone and started calling up names, I forget in what order. The whole ceremony was broadcast and some of my friends in far off Bombay and Madras told me subsequently that there was an emotional tremor in my voice when I called the names of some of the leaders who had led the fight for independence.
It was, indeed, an emotional moment, as I discovered when I came out with Pandit Nehru and Dr. Rajendra Prasad. They were both to go to Government House — in a millionth fraction of a second the Viceroy’s House had been metamorphosed by Destiny to the Governor-General’s House, for one of the first acts of the new government was to request Lord Mountbatten to become the first Governor-General of India. The procedure had been laid down in advance, and he was waiting to receive them. But there was delay because there was an enormous crowd outside Parliament House, so enormous that all police arrangements broke down and it took quite a while to fetch the car to take the two leaders to Government House. The moment of Destiny had arrived, with a tremendous crowd jostling in good humour and enthusiastic indiscipline, and with Pandit Nehru as the Prime Minister of India symbolically offering the hand of friendship to a representative of the British Crown which had imprisoned him for several long years. This gesture was due, in part, to the manner in which Lord Mountbatten conducted the operation of withdrawal of British power; but it was largely due to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi who had repeatedly stated that he had nothing but affection for the British people as human beings although he hated their regime in India. It was significant that this great messenger of compassion was absent from the great ceremony for which he had fought over the years. One of the main reasons, in fact, the main reason for his absence was that he thought partition was wrong and disastrous. And who, looking back with the advantage of hindsight, over this strife-torn quarter of a century, would deny that there was something in what he said? For although Pakistan was born at an astrologically auspicious moment, it has been torn into two separate pieces, and with this tearing apart has been shattered the theory of two nations on which the whole concept of Pakistan was based.
— from The Hindu, August 15, 1972.
H.V.R. Iengar, ICS, was Secretary to the Constituent Assembly, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.
Independent India at 60