I thought of writing this piece after I received several "Happy Independence Day" wishes from my contacts on WhatsApp and social media. What should I wish them back? August 15 is the day India became free from the colonial shackles that had made her immobile for nearly two centuries. But on that morning, she woke up from a long sleep to begin anew, to breathe fresh air, and to feel very light. India had an Indian as its head of state, and was not required to be governed by anyone else. Peace. Comfort. Pride.
Or so we thought.
During my college days, I learnt that India was granted a dominion status on August 15, 1947. What is that? According to the Oxford dictionary, a dominion is a country of the British Commonwealth having its own government. So if my India became independent in 1947, why did they still call it "a country of the Commonwealth"? The Balfour Declaration of 1926 defined dominions as autonomous communities within the British empire, united by a common allegiance to the Crown. Again, by definition, India was an autonomous community "within the British empire". If so, who made August 15 our Independence Day? I was unhappy and dull.
I further learnt that India was called "Dominion of India" from 1947 to 1950 when she finally became republic. I was not taught in my history lessons in school that India had an official king in George VI post independence. My first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came below one Louis Mountbatten in the governmental hierarchy. And this Mountbatten was below the king of India. King George was alternately called "the monarch" in a type of government system that could be called constitutional monarchy. And this monarch was under Queen Elizabeth. Oh well, that made my chachaji only the fourth powerful person in that first government of his. They wisely called him the prime minister; perhaps he was the best in King George's durbar!
I dislike Mountbatten for all that he has done to India and Indians, and I was happy to learn that he had to close his shop in India in 1948 and leave for his native place. My countryman Rajaji replaced him. But why did this King George still hang around? And even till 1950, my chachaji was only the fourth in command. By 1950, we completed writing our Constitution, and packed off this king and abolished the monarchy. India got an able Indian as its first president, and my chachaji became the second in command, as he should be, as well as the CEO of the country.
So, effectively India's independence day was January 26, 1950, the day on which she became republic, and not August 15, 1947, the day on which she was given some privileges. At least I was happy that the Britons left the country by then, and my own leaders started governing the country, protecting its people, and controlling its armed forces.
I was told that World War veterans Sirs Rob Lockhart and Roy Bucher were heading the Indian Army even after 1947. I verified the dates and was quite relieved that their allegiance to the Indian Army in official capacity had come to a close in 1947 and 1949 respectively. Yes, I reassured, January 26, 1950 was my country's independence day in real sense.
Hang on! Did I consider our Navy and Air Force leadership?
World War veterans Sirs Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman and Gerald Gibbs were heading our Air Force until 1951 and 1954 respectively. It was only in 1954 that we could see one of our own citizens, Subroto Mukherjee, at the helm of the air force affairs. Mukherjee himself was a war veteran and a graduate from the prestigious Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. But history has it that he told Mountbatten that he would need five to seven years' time to take up the charge of the Air Force. I get the point in having a transition plan. But then, how come the Army transition was over in just two years after our independence and that in the Navy took seven long years? Even Mukherjee, a winner of several decorations and awards from the mighty Queen, needed those seven years to rise to that level. He also had to undergo a course at the Imperial Defence College, London to shape himself up for the top post.
For an enslaved nation, if independence means to see off even the last British administrator from their land, then we would have to wait further until the late 1950s to celebrate independence. World War veterans Sirs Edward Parry, Charles Pizey, and Stephen Carlill were heading the Indian Navy until 1951, 1955, and 1958 respectively. That means, the navy took a very long time of 11 years for the transition of control to an Indian.
Logically, all these reveal three things: One, as a country we were not prepared enough to receive independence. Two, we were so friendly with our colonial masters that they entertained relatively very long transition times of our forces. Three, the call for poorna swaraj was of sheer folly. All these are connected; one leads to another. All the while, we thought ahimsa was the best weapon to get freedom and ended up overusing it.
If you thought the transition time was a must, imagine what would have happened if the British had wanted to leave the country in a hurry. It would be foolish to think that they were under any sort of obligation to train us to the required level and ensure a smooth handshake. In other words, the inept Congress leadership had feared they would not be able to reunite and build the country. They saw the transition as a golden hello given to them. Now, think about the struggles suffered by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in raising an army from almost nothing, procuring weapons, making a government in exile, forming a council of ministers, training the armymen, getting support from almost a dozen countries, and putting the army to fight against Britain in Imphal and Kohima in what was later adjudged the greatest battle Britain has ever fought. Bose had his armed forces in order, which had three divisions and up to six regiments and a special women regiment. When Bose was busy planning these in exile, the other national leaders were busy chewing ahimsa with water, and were waiting for someone to dole out freedom to them. They were least bothered about having armed forces, knowing the importance of having armed forces, and in fact, were clueless about setting up armed forces. Little did they realise that they had to protect the freedom they were given, through armed forces. Ironically, Bose was given a scathing attack by these leaders for proposing this idea first.
Why I blame Nehru and other leaders of that time for choosing to be under, what was an extension of the same colonial rule they fought against? In his memoirs Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, Nehru's aide MO Mathai wrote that even after India became independent, Prime Minister Nehru had to seek permissions from King George for all "humble duties of submission" by addressing himself in third person. One such letter, as Mathai recollected, had the following content:
"Jawaharlal Nehru presents his humble duty to Your Majesty and has the honour to submit, for Your Majesty's approval the proposal of Your Majesty's, Ministers in the Dominion of India that Sri Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, Governor of West Bengal, be appointed to be the Governor General of India on the demission of that Office by His Excellency Rear Admiral the Earl Mountbatten of Burma..."
He also wrote how Nehru was embarrassed when he was asked to affirm his allegiance to King George VI, the Emperor of India (a title which was changed to King of India on August 15, 1947 ). The affirmation of allegiance said he would be "faithful and bear true allegiance to the king, his heirs, and successors". The affirmation of office said he would "well and truly serve" the king. As Mathai put it, Nehru had no choice and later murmur like a child "I had not bargained for these".
No matter how passionate you are about August 15, the dark truth is that India was still a civilised slave under her colonial masters for the bulk of Nehru's rule. So, I wished my friends back "Happy Dominion Day", as that would be the greeting note best suited for the occasion. Today, Mountbatten's spirit will be laughing at the sight of Indians celebrating August 15 as their real independence day. And I can imagine how Nehru's spirit will still feel embarrassed.