As the great day approached, Indians thanked their varied gods and rejoiced with special prayers, poems and songs. Poetess Sarojini Naidu set the theme in a radio message: “Oh lovely dawn of freedom that breaks in gold and purple over the ancient capital o . .!”
lessing with Ashes. Even such an agnostic as Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of becoming India’s first Prime Minister, fell into the religious spirit. From Tanjore in south India came two emissaries of Sri Amblavana Desigar, head of a sannyasi order of Hindu ascetics. Sri Amblavana thought that Nehru, as first Indian head of a really Indian Government ought, like ancient Hindu kings, to receive the symbol of power and authority from Hindu holy men.
With the emissaries came south India’s most famous player of the nagasaram, a special kind of Indian flute. Like other sannyasis, who abstain from hair-cutting and hair-combing, the two emissaries wore their long hair properly matted and wound round their heads. Their naked chests and foreheads were streaked with sacred ash, blessed by Sri Amblavana. In an ancient Ford, the evening of Aug. 14, they began their slow, solemn progress to Nehru’s house. Ahead walked the flutist, stopping every 100 yards or so to sit on the road and play his flute for about 15 minutes. Another escort bore a large silver platter. On it was the pithambaram (cloth of God), a costly silk fabric with patterns of golden thread.
When at last they reached Nehru’s house, the flutist played while the sannyasis awaited an invitation from Nehru.
Then they entered the house in dignity, fanned by two boys with special fans of deer hair. One sannyasi carried a scepter of gold, five feet long, two inches thick. He sprinkled Nehru with holy water from Tanjore and drew a streak in sacred ash across Nehru’s forehead. Then he wrapped Nehru in the pithambaram and handed him the golden scepter. He also gave Nehru some cooked rice which had been offered that very morning to the dancing god Nataraja in south India, then flown by plane to Delhi.
Later that evening Nehru, and other men who would be India’s new rulers on the morrow, went to the home of Rajendra Prasad, president of the Constituent Assembly. On his back lawn four plantain trees served as pillars for a temporary miniature temple. A roof of fresh green leaves sheltered a holy fire attended by a Brahman priest. There, while several thousand women chanted hymns, the ministers-to-be and constitution-makers passed in front of the priest, who sprinkled holy water on them. The oldest woman placed dots of red powder (for luck) on each man’s forehead.
Tryst with Destiny. Thus dedicated, India’s rulers turned to the secular business of the evening. At 11 o’clock they gathered in the Constituent Assembly Hall, ablaze with the colors of India’s new tricolor flag—orange, white and green. Nehru made an inspired speech: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge. . . .At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
And as the twelfth chime of midnight died out, a conch shell, traditional herald of the dawn, sounded raucously through the chamber. Members of the Constituent Assembly rose. Together they pledged themselves “at this solemn moment . . . to the service of India and her people. . . .” Nehru and Prasad struggled through the thousands of rejoicing Indians who had gathered outside to the Viceroy’s House (now called the Governor General’s House) where Viscount Mountbatten, who that day learned he would become an earl, awaited them. There, 32 minutes after Mountbatten had ceased to be a Viceroy,* Nehru and Prasad rather timidly, almost bashfully, told Mountbatten that India’s Constituent Assembly had assumed power and would like him to be Governor General.
The people made it their day. After dawn half a million thronged the green expanse of the Grand Vista and parkways near the Government buildings of New Delhi. Wherever Lord and Lady Mountbatten went that day, their open carriage, drawn by six bay horses, was beset by happy, cheering Indians who swept aside police lines. A Briton received a popular ovation rarely given even to an Indian leader. “Mountbattenji ki jai [Victory to Mountbatten],” they roared, adding the affectionate and respectful suffix “ji” usually reserved for popular Indian leaders.
Now & then Nehru (who sometimes shows the instincts of a traffic policeman) harangued the crowd to be more orderly. Once he espied a European girl caught up in the swirl. She was Pamela Mountbatten, the Governor General’s 18-year-old daughter. Nehru literally slugged his way through the crowd to rescue her, brought her to the platform.
In the Council House the Constituent Assembly heard Mountbatten take the oath as Governor General.†”Regard me as one of yourselves,” he told them, “devoted wholly to the furtherance of India’s interests.” Then he swore in the new Indian Government. Messages of congratulation from over the world were read. The most original was a greeting in verse from Chinese Ambassador Lo Chia-luen. It read:
India be free!
Won’t that be
A Himalayan dream?
How absurd an idea,
That never occurred to me!
Freedom’s Architect. Mountbattenji drew the biggest applause of the day when he said: “At this historic moment let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi—the architect of her freedom through nonviolence. We miss his presence here today and would have him know how he is in our thoughts.”
The Mahatma, who more than any other one man had brought independence to India, was not in New Delhi on the day of days. He was in troubled Calcutta, mourning because India was still racked by communal hatred. (In the Punjab last week, even more than in Calcutta, communal warfare blazed. Nearly 300 were killed.)
Gandhiji had moved into a Moslem house in Calcutta’s Moslem quarter, which had been assailed by his fellow Hindus. He appealed to Hindus to keep peace. Angry young Hindu fanatics broke up a prayer meeting at his house. For the first time, Indians stoned Gandhi’s house. Gandhi spoke sadly to the crowd: “If you still prefer to use violence, remove me. It is —not me but my corpse that will be taken away from here.”
But on Independence Day even Calcutta’s violence turned to rejoicing. Moslems and Hindus danced together in the streets, were admitted to each others’ mosques and temples. Moslems crowded round Gandhi’s car to shake his hand, and sprinkled him with rosewater. For the disillusioned father of Indian independence, there might be some consolation in the rare cry he heard from Moslem lips: “Mahatma Gandhi Zindabad” (Long Live Gandhi).
*Inl London, the King-Emperor became plain George VI, King of Pakistan and of India (just as he is King of Canada and other dominions beyond the seas). Workmen took down the bronze plate in Whitehall, reading “India Office,” replaced it with a painted wooden sign reading “Commonwealth Relations Office.”
† Another colonial power, France, announced that the 203 square miles on India’s east coast which she still rules will be organized as the five free cities of Pondichery, Karikal, Chander-nagore, Mahe and Yanaon, with locally elected governments, within the French union.