A tryst with destiny

Freedom and Fragmentation:
Images of Independence, Decolonisation and Partition at Cambridge University

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, delivering his Tryst with Destiny speech on the eve of independence. It is considered to be one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.

Jawaharlal Nehru, delivering his Tryst with Destiny speech.

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance...

...The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but so long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over. And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world."
An excerpt from Jawaharlal Nehru's Tryst of Destiny speech, August 15, 1947

At the stroke of midnight

Three figures stand next to an early border post between new nation-states of India and Pakistan: The geographical challenges of the border between India and Pakistan – which runs across vast expanses of desert, mountain, glacier and forest – are extreme. To this day, it remains the most militarised border in the world.

Two figures stand next to an early border post between new nation-states of India and Pakistan: To this day, it remains the most militarised border in the world.

On August 15, 1947, at the stroke of midnight, India and Pakistan achieved independence from British rule – signalling the beginning of the end of the largest empire in history.

Their freedom had been hard fought and came at a huge cost. Contrary to legend, the British had not been keen to devolve power gradually. This struggle for sovereignty took many forms: violent and non-violent, elite and popular, religious and secular, plural and separatist.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Independence, Cambridge’s Centre of South Asian Studies is staging a unique exhibition over four floors of the Alison Richard Building – drawing on the Centre’s unparalleled collection of more than 100,000 photographs, 600 written collections, 900 maps and thousands of hours of film footage.

While the exhibition’s primary focus is on partition and independence, the collection covers more than 200 years of life under The Raj and the early decades of post-colonial India.

Featuring first-hand photographs of Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah – and highlighting female assassins, refugees and the personal stories of those affected by the British withdrawal, Freedom and Fragmentation: Images of Independence, Decolonisation and Partition runs until October 27, 2017.

Co-curator Dr Edward Anderson, Smuts Research Fellow in Commonwealth Studies, said: “Partition was a painful, traumatic experience for tens of millions of people. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives and up to 14 million people were displaced in the single largest migration in human history.

“We are not saying this is the definitive story of partition and independence – it’s the one drawn from our collections. We want people to learn more about the way in which India and Pakistan gained their freedom – and the colonial state from which they achieved it.

“Everyone knows about Gandhi, but there was lots of violence and revolutionary movements with competing images of what an independent India should be like. Each floor of the exhibition explores one of four themes: Repression and Resistance, Ideas of Independence, Partition, and The Raj.”

Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies Professor Joya Chaterji said: “This exhibition explores what freedom meant to people on the ground as power was transferred not to one, but to two nations – India and Pakistan – and euphoria mingled with the agony of refugees, and relief with horror at the brutality of partition.

“We need to be conscious that our archive is an elite archive, primarily seen through the eyes of elite, white men which can obscure and silence many other versions of what was happening at that point. That’s what archives do, not just this one. Despite this caveat, we believe that the images and texts on display provide a rare insight into a pivotal moment in history.”

Repression & Resistance

Gandhi on hunger strike: An intimate portrait of the Mahatma by Reverend Stait, during one of his hunger strikes. Fasting was an instrument in Gandhi’s armoury of political protest: his violence against his own body captured the public imagination and generated considerable press coverage. British officials were always anxious when Gandhi went on these uncompromising fasts, particularly by the potential for widespread civil unrest if he died.

Gandhi on hunger strike. An intimate portrait of the Mahatma by Reverend Stait, during one of his hunger strikes. Fasting was an instrument in Gandhi’s armoury of political protest: his violence against his own body captured the public imagination and generated considerable press coverage. British officials were always anxious when Gandhi went on these uncompromising fasts, particularly by the potential for widespread civil unrest if he died.

In its last decades, British rule in India faced resistance on many fronts, and in many forms.

Despite Gandhi’s global renown, in India his advocacy of non-violent non-cooperation did not persuade everyone. Some Indians responded to imperial repression by establishing revolutionary societies which tried to force the British out of India by violence.

Most such societies bound members by Hindu oaths, denying membership to Muslims. Mainstream political parties largely distanced themselves from ‘extremists’, insisting on non-violent anti-colonial campaigns based on unity between Muslims and Hindus.

Gandhi’s campaigns to boycott imported goods and alcohol, to ‘uplift’ villages, and break unjust laws sat alongside liberal efforts to reform the Raj by constitutional means. But at the time, and in the years since, the militant revolutionaries have maintained a powerful hold on the popular imagination.

The era was one of intellectual ferment, in which a variety of ideologies vied for support. Several men and women who shaped visions for independent India and Pakistan were educated at Cambridge, but their dreams for the country did not always align.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who studied natural sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, aspired to socialist, secular, and democratic India, while Muhammed Iqbal, also an alumnus of Trinity, saw Pakistan as a crucible for Islam’s global rejuvenation.

Sarojini Naidu, the poetess who studied at Girton, sought a grand pact between India’s Hindus and Muslims. This was later orchestrated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1916, then a Congress-minded nationalist and liberal.

Jinnah (not a Cambridge graduate) would later go on to become Pakistan’s ‘Quaid-i-Azam’, or great leader, and founding Governor General. 

Aurobindo Ghose of King’s College led the Jugantar revolutionary society, and Subhas Chandra Bose of Fitzwilliam College forged alliances with Britain’s opponents in World War II.

Choudhary Rahmat Ali, educated at Emmanuel College Cambridge, envisioned of a federation of Muslim states of Pakistan.

Ali (1897–1951) was one of the earliest proponents of the creation of the state of Pakistan. He is credited with creating the name "Pakistan" for a confederation of Muslim homelands in South Asia.

Rahmat Ali taught at the elite Aitchison College in Lahore before graduating from Emmanuel in 1931. He is best known as the author of a famous 1933 pamphlet titled Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish Forever in which he coined the word ‘Pakstan’ for the first time.

The final partition of India disillusioned him profoundly, on account of the mass killings and migrations it generated. He was also dissatisfied with the territories awarded to Pakistan, which bore little relation to his maps and plans.

Ali died in 1951 of pneumonia in Cambridge at the age of 53. The Master of Emmanuel, Edward Welbourne, who had been Rahmat Ali’s tutor during his student days, covered his hospital and funeral costs. He is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery.

The High Commissioner for Pakistan later repaid these expenses. In 2004, Tariq Azim, the Minister for Overseas Pakistanis, visited the grave with a view to his remains being sent to Pakistan, but this idea was never followed through.

Ideas of Independence

Mohammed Ali Jinnah reading The Dawn: Founded by Jinnah in 1941, The Dawn was the official mouthpiece of the All India Muslim League. Mohammad Ali ‘Jinnahbhai’ was born in 1876 and travelled to England in 1892. It was there that politics began to consume him. On his return to India he joined the Indian National Congress, quickly making a mark in nationalist circles in Bombay. He famously refused to back down after a speech on indentured Indian labour in Natal, which he denounced as ‘harsh and cruel’, despite objections from the Viceroy, Lord Minto.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah reading The Dawn: Founded by Jinnah in 1941, The Dawn was the official mouthpiece of the All India Muslim League. Mohammad Ali ‘Jinnahbhai’ was born in 1876 and travelled to England in 1892. It was there that politics began to consume him. On his return to India he joined the Indian National Congress, quickly making a mark in nationalist circles in Bombay. He famously refused to back down after a speech on indentured Indian labour in Natal, which he denounced as ‘harsh and cruel’, despite objections from the Viceroy, Lord Minto.

Tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs began to escalate in the mid-1920s, amid widespread popular unrest and post-war hardship.

The ‘Lucknow Pact’ between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League – the cause of much optimism in 1916 – gradually unravelled. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the architect of the 1916 Pact – broke with the Congress by 1935 and revived the All-India Muslim League.

In 1940, soon after the beginning of World War II, the League’s ambiguous Lahore Resolution pressed for the creation of not one, but several, sovereign Muslim-majority states, when the British quit India.

In 1945, at the end of the war, Clement Atlee’s Labour government came to power with a novel policy for India. Whereas Churchill had insisted that he would not preside over the dismemberment of the British Empire, Atlee concluded that in the context of the huge challenges of domestic post-war reconstruction, Britain’s grip on India was too weak to be sustained. An ‘escape from empire’ had to be contrived.

The ‘Transfer of Power’ negotiations included leaders of the Muslim League, the Congress, and representatives of the British Cabinet (pictured here with Gandhi).

After months of efforts to reach a rapprochement between the Congress and the League, it became clear that the Congress was not willing to recognise the League as the representative of India’s Muslims or grant the safeguards it demanded on their behalf.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, sent out to oversee the handover of power, decided that instead of taking two years to organise the partition process, as was originally envisaged, he would wrap it up in under six months.

On 14 and 15 August 1947, India and Pakistan – which together had been the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire – became independent nations.

By the late 1960s, most of Britain’s empire around the world had been dismantled. In 1971, after a brief but brutal Liberation War, East Pakistan declared its independence as Bangladesh.

Partition

Pakistan and India flags raised at the border: National flags – among the most powerful and recognisable symbols of nationalism – were hoisted at the border post of Wagah, separating the two parts of divided Punjab. The daily lowering of Indian and Pakistani flags at Wagah – one of the main crossing points between the two nations – has become an extraordinary, theatrical, and highly charged spectacle, attracting audiences from far and wide. It represents a curious mix of aggressive jingoism and practical cooperation.

Pakistan and India flags raised at the border: National flags – among the most powerful and recognisable symbols of nationalism – were hoisted at the border post of Wagah, separating the two parts of divided Punjab. The daily lowering of Indian and Pakistani flags at Wagah – one of the main crossing points between the two nations – has become an extraordinary, theatrical, and highly charged spectacle, attracting audiences from far and wide. It represents a curious mix of aggressive jingoism and practical cooperation.

These silent films, from the Centre's collections, show refugees moving between the new borders of India and Pakistan. The footage was taken on both sides of Punjab's border during 1947.

These silent films, from the Centre's collections, show refugees moving between the new borders of India and Pakistan. The footage was taken on both sides of Punjab's border during 1947.

Partition – rushed through in under three months – was accompanied by widespread violence, particularly in the province of Punjab.

About 750,000 people are thought to have died and more than 14 million people crossed the borders between India and Pakistan, in the single largest mass migration in human history.

Millions more fled their homes, seeking shelter in neighbouring regions where their co-religionists were clustered.

The new borders between India and Pakistan were not published until after partition, and so many did not know whether their district was now in India or in Pakistan; and the uncertainty aggravated the chaos and panic.

The governments of India and Pakistan assisted, as far as they were able, with the rehabilitation of the refugees from the Punjab and other areas deemed exceptionally ‘disturbed’.

But all other refugees had to rebuild their lives using their own networks of connections, and their meagre personal resources. Some did so with remarkable success.

However, the poorest among them, as well as unaccompanied widows and girls, fared less well, living for years in very basic camps.

Some of these camps still exist in India and remain home to refugee orphans and widows, particularly in divided Bengal, where refugees continue to flow across borders to the present day.

The Raj

Colonel and Mrs Showers (with dog), Jaipur, 1910: This formal portrait of Colonel and Mrs Herbert Lionel Showers was taken while Colonel Showers was Officiating Resident of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Colonel Showers (1862-1916) was part of a long family line of officers in the British Indian Army from the late eighteenth century onwards. Mrs Showers, seen in this picture, first travelled to India in 1902, attended the Delhi Durbar in December that year, and married Herbert Lionel Showers – then in the Political Service in Nainital – the following year.

Colonel Showers (with dog), Jaipur, 1910: This formal portrait of Colonel and Mrs Herbert Lionel Showers was taken while Colonel Showers was Officiating Resident of Jaipur in Rajasthan. Colonel Showers (1862-1916) was part of a long family line of officers in the British Indian Army from the late eighteenth century onwards. Mrs Showers, seen in this picture, first travelled to India in 1902, attended the Delhi Durbar in December that year, and married Herbert Lionel Showers – then in the Political Service in Nainital – the following year.

The British sought to maintain a careful distance from most Indians, sheltering in ‘white towns’, clubs and cantonments. The wives of British officers ran households full of Indian servants, each with assigned tasks, and socialised only with other Britons of equal rank.

The richest collections in the archive at the Centre of South Asian Studies relate to the professional and social lives of Britons in colonial India. These materials reveal much about how power was exercised at different levels of government.

The Centre's documents and images throw light on the relationships imperial officers developed with influential Indians to help them rule on the ground, aided by mapping and census surveys. Princes, landlords, and chiefs were seen as bulwarks of British rule in this era, and the British carefully cultivated their loyalty.

British colonial power represented itself through theatrical rituals of power such as the durbar, and grandiose monuments of Lutyens’ Delhi, with its syncretic blend of Mughal and neo-classical architectural styles.

But in reality, the closest that most Indians got to the colonial state – particularly in rural regions (which, in 1947, were home to over 80% of the population) – was perhaps a post-box and the occasional visit of a district collector. How deeply colonial policies transformed the subcontinent is a subject that historians continue to debate.

Added Anderson: "We want people to learn more about the way in which India and Pakistan gained their freedom - and the colonial state from which they achieved it.

"Although Gandhi is still revered as a central figure, it is undeniably the case that at the time - and to this day - it's often the militant revolutionaries who have held the firmest grip on the imagination of the population.

"One simple reason is that the stories are captivating: people dressing up in disguises, smuggling themselves and weapons, and operating in secret.

"Gandhi's non-violent approach was not necessarily subscribed to by the entire population. Even today, there is a lasting iconography around figures like (revolutionary) Chandra Shekhar Azad who many saw as striking back at a colonial state that subjugated Indians both physically and psychologically.

"Our exhibition, using the remarkable and unique archives of the Centre of South Asian Studies, is a window on one of the defining and most tumultuous moments of the 20th century."

Freedom and Fragmentation: Images of Independence, Decolonisation and Partition runs until October 27, 2017 at the Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge.

Credits:

Words: Stuart Roberts, Edward Anderson, Joya Chatterji

Film: Kevin Greenbank

Images: Centre of South Asian Studies, and the Partition Museum, Amritsar

Story design: Stuart Roberts