How was 15th August decided as the Indian Independence Day?
With the end of the Second World War and decline in British military and economic strength it was clear that the British Raj could not continue to rule India - the greatest colony and imperial triumph in the history of mankind. The Prime Minister Clement Atlee had agreed that the Raj must end by June 1948 - one way or another, that it was no longer physically possible to control the empire with the failing strength of the British.
Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India was sent to India with special powers to settle matters which were going out of hand with every passing day and with a seemingly impossible deadline. He had a clear mandate that the British were to leave at the earliest and with the minimum political turmoil. This task was however a very complex one for even the very best of diplomats and statesmen.
Mountbatten had a vision though he did not know how to deliver it -
- an India that would stay in the Commonwealth, if he could
- that meant an India with no reason to take offense at the deal that Britain offered her
- ideally, a united India, with Hindus and Muslims sharing power
- but if he couldn’t get that, then what he wanted was as peaceful a division as possible.
In order to gain the confidence and trust of the Indian leaders, he held 133 interviews in the first two months of his visit and always with the same frankness and willingness to accommodate and understand their viewpoints. He travelled extensively to the different parts of India and even to the tribal north-west frontier. In the end, though, only four men really counted:
- Mountbatten himself
- Mohammed Ali Jinnah
Mountbatten found that the biggest and most ominous threat to a united India after independence was Jinnah, the leader of the Indian Muslim League. Jinnah would listen to no logic, no negotiation. He had his mind set on a separate Muslim nation – Pakistan and he would have it. All he wanted to do was keep talking and push the British towards the deadline. It became clear in some time that a united country was not possible no matter what Mahatma Gandhi had to say. Mountbatten however did not know that Jinnah was suffering from tuberculosis and only had a few months to live. Had he known this fact, the history of the world could have been written in a different way.
With every passing day, the British control over the vast expanses of the Indian subcontinent was falling apart - the British Indian Army was disentegrating , the police found themselves less and less able to keep order, British officials were slipping away, knowing their time was just about up. The Raj couldn’t last even till mid-1948.
Time was running away from India and from Mountbatten. If India was to be saved from utter destruction of a civil war and indiscriminate communal violence, a deal had to be made immediately. Mountbatten proposed the creation of two independent dominions – India and Pakistan. The Sind and Baluchistan were Muslim, and would become Western Pakistan. The Punjab and Bengal would be split up - the Muslim dominated areas going to Pakistan and the Hindu dominated areas going to India. The Muslim dominated regions of Bengal would become East Pakistan separated from the country’s seat of power in West Pakistan by thousands of kilometers of the Indian heartland in between. Princely states would have the option of joining either of the new dominions. Whatever assets British India had - army, treasury, stamps in the Post Office - would be split up fairly. Both Congress and the Muslim League accepted the settlement, and Mountbatten announced the final day: August 15th, 1947.
The reason behind choosing 15th August as India’s Independence Day - a fateful day in the history of the world when two nations would see their first dawns was chosen by Lord Mountbatten on a whim. Mountbatten had forgotten to consult the astrologers, who had great clout in India, and they were furious. Fridays were bad days in general, and this one was so bad, they warned, that rather than accept it, the people of India should accept British rule. Under some calculations, August 15th lay under the Zodiac sign for Capricorn. That sign was known for its hostility to all centrifugal – pulling-apart – forces. Therefore, it was the worst possible day to do a partition. And on that day, India would be passing through the influence of Saturn, a very unlucky and unfriendly planet.
In the book Freedom at Midnight written by Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre, the former Viceroy says: “The date I chose came out of the blue. I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was master of the whole event. When they asked had we set a date, I knew it had to be soon. I hadn’t worked it out exactly then — I thought it had to be about August or September and I then went out to the 15th August. Why? Because it was the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender.”