As we are in the month of August, the conversations in India often turn towards Independence Day coming up on August 15. We talk of the Freedom Struggle; of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and Sardar Patel; of Lord and Lady Mountbatten; and the horrors of Partition. I recently re-read ” Freedom At Night” by Dominque Lapierre & Larry Collins, which I had read decades ago. You may recall that this book was first published in 1975, less than twenty years after Independence. I re-read the same book in 2019, by which time so much had changed in the world around us. Yet, the haunting memories of Partition continued in the minds of thousands of families affected by that tumultuous event. The conflict over Kashmir which continues till today is an old wound from that time which still festers.
Lapierre and Collins need no introduction. They have written many best sellers which have stood out for their in depth research and appealing, racy writing style. In this book, they worked most with Lord Mountbatten because he was the only survivor of the events of that day when they began this project. Both Gandhi and Jinnah had died in 1948, Patel in 1950 and Nehru in 1964. It is therefore only to be expected that their writing has a slant in favour of Mountbatten. After all, he was the man hand-picked and sent out by British Prime Minister Clement Attlee to extricate an economically weak war torn Britain from the acute problems facing them in India. The British Raj was destined to come to an abrupt end. The Attlee Government agreed that India would get Independence before June 1948. Lord Mountbatten, on his arrival in Delhi, decided that speed was of the essence. He advanced the date for Independence to August 1947.
The book has vignettes which stay in one’s mind. They cover the personalities of all the main actors involved in the drama of those faraway days. Of Jinnah, who fought for a separate homeland for the Muslims though he was the antithesis of a devout Muslim. Of Gandhi with his fads on sexual abstinence and his conviction that people should follow the principle of non-violence as only he could. Of Nehru and Patel, who felt all at sea when the effects of Partition hit them. Millions of refugees criss crossed the Punjab with the Hindus and Sikhs heading South and the Muslims heading North for the refuge of their new born Islamic state. And, of course, vignettes of the many whimsical Maharajahs and Nawabs, each one more colourful than the other.
The Partition of India was one of the most tragic events of our history. Even today no one can say for sure how many died, how many left traumatized by events that followed the announcement of the new borders of the two countries. Millions were dealt a crushing blow, from which many never fully recovered, the death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 200,000 and 2,000,000. Families were broken, properties and lives destroyed, and chaos and sufferings reigned in the border areas as the new born countries began their independent existence.
Lord Mountbatten announced the borders of India and Pakistan on August 17, 1947, days after they became independent nations. This led to large scale migration of refugees on both sides, displacing million of people, dividing them on religious lines. None of the leaders expected the chaos and religious hatred that followed.
In June 1947, Lord Mountbatten had finished his meeting with all the important Indian political leaders. After those crucial meetings, it was decided that there was no alternative to Partition. Why couldn’t Lord Mountbatten have then prospectively announced the borders of the two countries on their becoming independent effective June 30, 1948? This would to a large extent have mitigated the sufferings brought about by the Partition of India.