When South Asia Celebrated Its First Independence Day: Just How Happy Were We?

When South Asia Celebrated Its First Independence Day: Just How Happy Were We?
Each year nations all around the globe celebrate their freedom with happiness, commemorating the sacrifices, offering gratitude and thanking their founding fathers. In my country, Pakistan, Independence Day comes up with a blandly clichéd series of official celebrations, entangling debates in media and social media dragging us to revisit the foundational concept of making this country. However, before one reaches any conclusion, the day is already over and this whole debate is hushed up until next year.

Nevertheless, it might be interesting to know about the maiden Independence Day of the two neighbouring countries, which gained formal independence within one day of each other. The purpose of harking back to the first day of both the countries and collating the events is to allow ourselves to think differently about this time.

For India to assume sovereignty at the exact moment, the legislative assembly session was convened late night on the 14th of August. At the stroke of the midnight hour, the assembly passed the resolution enunciating the independence of India and inviting Lord Mountbatten to become its first Governor-General. Late at night, huge masses all over the roads delayed the arrival of Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru at Mountbatten’s residence, where a formal invitation was given to the former Viceroy to become the Governor-General of India for the interim period. Next day on 15 August 1947, the state entrance of Mountbatten like his predecessors was summoned by trumpets into a jam-packed Durbar Hall. As he took oath, rich red velvet canopies were lit by hidden lights. A state procession started, which soon after was engulfed by a huge crowd and Mountbatten was almost lifted off the ground by the merry-making throngs. Speeches were made by Indian leaders and Mountbatten in the council hall, where the situation at first place became ugly when a large ecstatic crowd broke into the council house and Nehru with other leaders had to intervene to calm them down. Thus, all kinds of events filled with euphoric fervour stretched the official celebrations till night.
Jinnah was relieved upon returning, as he had managed to bring back Mountbatten alive given the bomb threats. By midday, Mountbatten paid his last farewell and more of a decorous than ecstatic round of ceremonies finally came to an end

Apart from these protracted official ceremonies, there were some more indelible events - which are hard to be overlooked. An article in Time magazine titled “Oh Lovely Dawn” dated 25 August 1947 unearthed more facts. Delhi was animated with orange, white and green colors. Bullocks’ horns and horses’ legs were painted with the new national colours. Silk merchants sold tri-colored saris for Independence Day festivals. Blazing lights were everywhere: even the ‘untouchables’ had candles and oil lamps could be seen flickering artificial lights in those quarters for the first time. All political prisoners including communists were set free as the Government intended maximum participation at this historic moment. All death sentences in India were commuted to life imprisonments. Animals, too, were allowed to be happy at the birth of free India, therefore slaughterhouses remained closed across the country. At dawn, half a million people got out of their homes to gather around Government buildings and historic sites. 300,000 countrymen irrupted into the Princess Park where the arrangements were meant to be for only 30,000. Next day on 16 August 1947, Prime Minister Nehru gave a public speech to a mammoth crowd at the Red Fort in Delhi. Despite losing part of united India, this is how India proclaimed its glory on the first day.

After a sneak peek at the congenial details of India’s celebrations, let us peer into Pakistan’s celebration. Mountbatten arrived at Karachi on 13 August 1947 and headed for a dinner where he was welcomed by Ms. Jinnah and Mr. Jinnah. In Mission with Mountbatten, Alan Campbell-Johnson writes that the hall was so well decorated that it looked like some Hollywood stage where short speeches were made by both the leaders. Surprisingly, the ADC of Quaid-e-Azam noticed three chairs at the podium were still vacant as some distinguished guests had yet not made for the dinner. Feverish rearrangements were made to settle this dilemma while both the leaders were engaged in their pre-prandial talks. Dinner was concluded with light music and soft drinks. At 11.59pm on 13 August, Radio Pakistan made the monumental announcement of the independence of Pakistan from its Peshawar and Lahore centers. Next day on 14 August 1947, after Mountbatten, Mr. Jinnah delivered speech at the Constituent Assembly. Mr. Jinnah himself put forward his name as the Governor-General, thereafter, applying for powers under the 9th schedule, conferring almost unassailable authority to his own self. Then the state procession kicked off with grandeur. Though it was welcomed by enthused teens, the public pouring into this procession from the metropolis of Karachi was not reported. Jinnah was relieved upon returning, as he had managed to bring back Mountbatten alive given the bomb threats. By midday, Mountbatten paid his last farewell and more of a decorous than ecstatic round of ceremonies finally came to an end.

However, the question is: other than these official proceedings, do we know as to how the newly born nation of Pakistan celebrated its independence in 1947 after the overwhelming happenings of seven years?

To this day, we are used to seeing footage of anxiety-stricken, tired immigrants with uncertainty in their eyes, attired in rags, being carried by carts or getting down from jam-packed roofs of trains. These gloomy scenes stir curiosity: how did we celebrate our first day of freedom?

Were those sensational speeches by our victorious leaders charging up crowds and actually instilling hope into a nascent nation?

As the other state was also observing its first Freedom Day, what were the optics and gestures made by our state to express its felicity?

Imparting these exhilarating accounts to the next generations may ignite the sentiments of nationalism. But either we aren’t told about the exuberant festivities of that historic moment, or we were not greatly feeling that moment of freedom to celebrate it with the same effervescence. We are accustomed to listening to the tragic tales of hardship of our migrating elders, horrors of communal riots and recollecting dourly about our loved ones and properties left behind.

To be sure: one can’t be inhumane or callous to the afflictions of the brutalised immigrants or the unprecedented scale of the tragedy that they lived through. And no amount of warm fuzzy events on their first day of Independence could lessen the sufferings even momentarily.

The lack of accounts of any ostensible freedom gala of 1947 leaves the narrative of Pakistan, an ideological state, with a query: after winning both independence and land out of united India, were we not happy?