SIMPLY PUT: What happened before India got Freedom@Midnight
East India Companyis the world’s first company to issue equity shares – kickstarted a reign of evil in India. Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, came to ensure smooth transfer of power from the crown to India.
- His predecessor hands him over a job which has been nicknamed ‘
The history of the British Raj in India is so vast and so full of life that no movie – be it the action-heavy RRR, a gamified Lagaan or even the many passionate Bhagat Singh movies – could scratch the surface of it.
But an American and a Frenchman paired up to achieve this in their book ‘Freedom at Midnight’. It’s the story of India that many Indians know little about. For years, I have regaled many with the unbelievable anecdotes from the book, which is soon to be made into a web series.
As we complete 75 years of independence, I believe a brief summary of this epic is in order for we all need to know the history of how we got here today, breathing free in a country we can call our own.
A century and a half after Vasco da Gama discovered India, most of Europe had given up bland meals, and now pepper mills are on every dinner table. But India remained a free country only until the 1600s. That’s when Dutch traders decided to raise the rates of a pound of pepper by five shillings — a move that made a cartel of Englishmen receive an official sanction from Queen Elizabeth I to exclusively trade in all countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope.
The company, called East India Company (EIC), also the world’s first company to issue equity shares – kickstarted a reign of evil, by a race which believed was ‘destined to govern and subdue’, according to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s classic Freedom at Midnight.
Freedom At Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre Amazon.com
The wolf of this yet to be formed Wall Street was Captain William Hawkins, a seaman who was more of a pirate than an explorer. He soon found himself in the court of Jahangir, in an empire so vast and wealthy that his own Queen would have appeared to be the ruler of a provincial hamlet in contrast.
Queen, Kipling and memsahibs
EIC’s coffers filled but India, with its numerous territories and squabbles, would not let him hold on to their policy of ‘trade not territory’. But white supremacy is to prevail amongst ‘lesser breeds without law’ as Jungle Book writer Rudyard Kipling puts it. Even the British born writer believed that the right to rule Indians was placed on British soldiers by “the inscrutable decree of the providence”.
The British shouldered it and region after region was lured by treasures if not treachery, weak and powerful kings won with weak enemies. The great Maratha Shivaji himself was known to have admired the British who fought for their honour, as he laid siege on Surat.
Droves of young English men arrived in this strange land – with men in sagging dhotis and bare-armed women in sarees, and travelled the length and breadth of the country into villages with rations and letters that proclaimed their rights. And, they were all taught one principle - The English ran the country but they dwell apart.
Memsahibs in India started running a very large version of Downton Abbey – with dinner parties that boasted of a servant per guest. They also set the tone for the Victorian era social seclusion – probably to keep their men away from the exotic temptations of the state. But it also made the British much different from many rulers that made India their home. Also, they were sending away taxes they collected from them back to the crown, as Indians starved.
AdvertisementThe British in India lived it up, served by coolies, and none were ‘better than Gunga Din’, a poetic character that saves an Englishman. They hunted tigers and killed ‘almost all’ cheetahs, the smallest of the big cats - which are now extinct in India, thanks to the Raj. They were having champagne in silver buckets and golfing, in style – golf arrived in India 30 years before New York. They also built the world’s highest golf course at 11,000 feet on the Himalayas.
Almost a century after India became a British colony directly under the Queen’s rule, after the devastating Second World War, the country’s parliament voted to ‘leave the country’. George VI was sad that he had let go of a country he always wanted to visit but couldn’t.
To ensure there was a smooth transfer of power that didn't lead to anarchy, he chose his handsome cousin, who was known as much for his charm as his military prowess. The former trait would serve Louis Mountbatten more than the latter, as he became the lord and the last viceroy of India, as he took over what his predecessor called, ‘Operation Madhouse’.
Louis MountbattenWikimedia commons The new-age Buddha and Christ
Elsewhere in another continent and another British colony, a young lawyer who was an utter failure in Bombay, landed in South Africa and to his own surprise found success. He profusely read Henry Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy and the Gujarati brain of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was working in wonderful ways.
Mohandas Karamchand GandhiBCCLWhen the British government irked him by closing Transvaal borders to India, he led a movement of Thoreau’s civil disobedience with over 2,000 people that included women and children. He added his own twist – non-violence and he brought it back to India.
Now called Gandhigiri, his principles continue to inspire generations across continents. The man who took a vow of poverty, had held on to his Ingersoll watch for years until it was stolen when he was travelling in a train. He was moved to tears as he told this story with child-like pain to Lord Mountbatten, but his loss was short-lived. The man who stole it, returned it and begged his forgiveness – which was given with a hug and a chuckle.
Gandhigiri had taken over India at the time of Mountbatten’s arrival. Mountbatten knew that this man who Winston Churchill sneered at, ‘as a half-naked fakir’ was not to be taken lightly. After all, Gandhi had already sent back Sir Richard Cripps without a deal, refusing UK’s offer during the war to rule India as a British dominion.
Goat curd and surgical precision
Mountbatten called it Operation Seduction and while he forged a great friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi was another soul altogether. He insisted on eating his own goat curd at the Viceroy House, took prayer breaks and insisted that India should remain one – keep the baby alive instead of cutting it into two.
Jinnah, however, was all vanity, which was deeply hurt when he received fewer seats during the 1937 provincial elections. He demanded a Muslim state. India would be divided with surgical precision, he promised Mountbatten.
The King’s cousin, the book says, dealt with him like a sailor rather than a statesman but Mountbatten knew that he could not move the unmoved, and most of Congress were in favour of two nations.
Rooms full of rubies and a pen pistol
But it took India’s iron man, Vallabhai Patel, to keep the rest of India intact and convince over 500 rajas, princes, nawabs and nizams as they called themselves to shift their allegiance from the crown to the nation. Stronger than the unity statue built in his honour, Patel continued summing up a case for the jury even after he was handed a note saying that his wife passed away.
The Statue Of Unity BCCLPatel and the career bureaucrat, V.P. Menon, executed their operation seduction to gain control over men who were already seduced by sex, sport and the worst of all maladies - boredom.
Most of them amused themselves with Lancaster pistols made of solid gold, rubies the size of pigeon eggs and working train sets on silver rails. The Jeff Bezos of that time, known to be the world’s richest, was the Nizam of Hyderabad, who had rooms full of precious stones eaten away by rats as the miser spent nothing and resorted to smoking the leftover cigarette butts of his departed guests!
AdvertisementMost of the eccentric rajas sided with India – even Hari Singh of Kashmir, who wanted to be independent, was worn down by logic that a landlocked state would forever remain in a state of war. But the young Maharaja of Jodhpur, certain that his lavish life wouldn’t be approved by the Congress socialists, tried to go over to Jinnah’s side. But Menon’s watchful spies got wind of it, cornered him, and the Maharaja held a pen-pistol to the bureaucrat's forehead until Mountbatten confiscated it – and used it later to liven parties back home.
Cursed by the stars
Mountbatten was warned by the most popular astrologist of the time that August 15, 1947 was a ‘day cursed by stars’. He, however, chose sentiment over astrology – the date was the anniversary of the day Burma won against Japan, a war he was part of.
It wasn’t just the viceroy, even Nehru and Jinnah did not see the bloodbath that followed. What stopped them from seeing what was to come was their own tolerance and atheism. Communal passions ran so high and so deep that right after the Union Jack came off the Viceroy house, Punjab and Bengal fell into a riotous rage – something a wily Gandhi always knew. That’s why the 78-year-old spent the midnight far away from the celebrations, spinning and lamenting the night India became independent, 75 years back.
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