Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy

By Judith M. Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
India in the 1940s: A Great Divide?

Indian public life in the 1940s was dominated by the Second World War, which affected the subcontinent far more closely and deeply than that of 1914-18, and by the escalation of communal hostilities which cost thousands of lives and resulted in the country's partition when the British withdrew in August 1947. Obviously a case can be made out that the decade was a great dividing line in the Indian experience, and that 1947 marked the end of an era. That year saw the end of the raj and the coming of 'the political independence India's politicians had demanded for over half a century. This had major domestic consequences, but also far-reaching international effects. It heralded the obvious decline of British world influence and the contraction of the British empire, particularly in Africa where colonies lost much of their significance once they were no longer needed as guarantees of the routes to India. India's independence was also a powerful symbol and a practical example to other colonial nationalist movements in the empires of various European nations. 1947 also seems at first sight to be an obvious dividing-line because of the subcontinent's partition into India and a curious two-winged Pakistan in the north-western and north-eastern parts of the former empire; and because of the demolition of the princely order which was older than the raj itself and had been so cosseted by the British in their need for allies. Undoubtedly, too, 1947 was a symbol of a brave new world for some Indians. Gandhi was burdened with despair at the shattering of his vision for a new India; but Nehru's famous speech at independence was passionately hopeful, claiming the end had come of 'a period of ill fortune' and that India was about to rediscover her true self.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem out pledge. . . . 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 the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people And to the still larger cause of humanity. 1

Yet this very speech was made at midnight because independence had to occur on an auspicious day for Hindus, and the British had not considered

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