Two independent images — the lowering of the Union Jack, and Jawaharlal Nehru hoisting the tricolour and addressing the crowd at the Red Fort facing the Jama Masjid — are put together to make a perfect nationalist collage.
Interestingly, this narrative is factually wrong. The Independence Day ceremony did not take place at Red Fort on 15 August 1947, and the Britishers were not treated as enemies of India.
But the symbolism of the image is powerful because it reminds us of a simple story of our political success. Replacing the Union Jack with the tricolour conveys a strong nationalist impression that Indians actually defeated the mighty British empire. The figure of Nehru at Red Fort, on the other hand, symbolises the triumph of Indian nationalism in the rediscovery of India.
No anti-British sentiments
But the official documents such as the Report of the Last Viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, and the personal memories of his daughter, Pamela Mountbatten, offer us a very different perspective to the events that took place on 15 and 16 August 1947.
Louis Mountbatten came back from Karachi on 14 August after attending the Independence Day ceremony in Pakistan. He was informed by the Indian leaders that they wanted him to accept the post of interim Governor General of India for a brief period. This proposal was formally presented during the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly on 14 August, and was accepted unanimously. Soon after, Nehru delivered his famous Tryst with Destiny speech and hoisted the Indian flag for the first time. (Mountbatten Papers, British Library, BL/IOR: L/PO/6/123).
However, Rajendra Prasad made the most interesting observation that day. He said,
‘….while our achievement is in no small measure due to our own sufferings, and sacrifices, it is also…the consummation and fulfillment of the historic traditions and democratic ideals of the British race … We are happy to have in our midst as a representative of that race Viscount Mountbatten of Burma …The period of domination by Britain over India ends today and our relationship with Britain is henceforward going to rest on a basis of equality, of mutual goodwill and mutual profit.’
This positive attitude towards the British should not be seen as a compromise between the British and the Indian elites. That the British must be given a memorable farewell was a popular sentiment among the Indian leaders.
Pamela Mountbatten’s diary entry of 15 August 1947 captures this aspect. She writes: ‘After the ceremony (in the Assembly Building) they could not get out of the doors for some time as the crowd were still so thick. They clapped and shouted… ‘Pandit Mountbatten ki jai, Lady Mountbatten ki jai…some even recognised me and shouted ‘Mountbatten Miss Sahib’. (Pamela Mountbatten, India Remembered, London: Pavilion, p. 143)
The big day began with the swearing-in ceremony of Mountbatten in the Durbar Hall in the Viceroy House (which was later renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan). After this brief event, the newly appointed Governor General and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru went to meet about 5,000 children and their parents who had gathered at the Roshanara Bagh in old Delhi.
Although emotions were running high, the ceremony as planned by the Indian leaders was much more solemn. The main event was to be organised at the Princess Park near the India Gate. It was initially decided that the Union Jack would be lowered and the Prime Minister would hoist the tricolour. This was to be followed by a small parade. However, the programme was changed at the last moment.
Mountbatten has given a detailed account of what transpired. He noted:
‘At 6 p.m. the great event of the day was to take place – the salutation of the new Dominion flag. This programme had originally included a ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack but when I discussed this with Nehru he entirely agreed that this was a day they wanted everybody to be happy, and if the lowering of the Union Jack in any way offended British susceptibilities, he would certainly see that it did not take place’. (Mountbatten Papers, British Library, BL/IOR: L/PO/6/123).
It seems that the Union Jack was not at all an issue for anyone. Rather, the organisers were more concerned about the crowd. Pamela Mountbatten noted in her diary that the grandstands were buried under the sea of people and the only sign of the parade was a row of bright pagdis somewhere in the centre at the Princess Park. It became very difficult even for Nehru and Mountbatten to reach the dais for the ceremony. Finally, Nehru unfurled the national flag, which was followed by the singing of the national anthem and the 31-gun salute.
Nehru at the Red Fort
The next morning on 16 August, Nehru hoisted the tricolour again. This time, the venue was the historic Red Fort. Nehru then delivered his first Independence Day speech, in which he called himself the Pratham Sewak of India.
The events surrounding India’s independence make it very clear that the leaders of the country’s freedom movement did not envisage the end result as a reactionary phenomenon. They were clear that the colonial rule did not entirely mean rule by the British race. They opposed the British system but not the British people, keeping the racial and religious factors separate from their struggle.
One hopes India will be able to revive this political maturity to reclaim our legacy of non-reactionary, humane, and humble nationalism.
The author is associate professor at CSDS, and author of the new book titled Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India. Views are personal.