BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1947: India gains independence
The biggest democracy the world had ever seen came into being at midnight on 14/ 15 August 1947, when India became independent after a long struggle.
The independence movement had its roots in the Congress, a meeting of middle-class Indians called in 1885 by Allan Hume who was a former worker in the Indian Civil Service. They felt it wrong that Indian lawyers and other professionals who were administering the colony for Britain had no say in the country’s government. The British were not opposed to a measure of selfgovernment, which was granted at local level in 1884, provincial in 1909 and in regional government in 1935. What the British would not do was just grant national independence and leave.
Many in Britain were reluctant to lose the empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’. People such as Winston Churchill, a marked imperialist who had served in India, argued that the nation was not ready for self-government: there were too many conflicting interests such as different religions. He also argued that the condition of women and of the outcaste ‘untouchables’ would suffer under native control.
Congress was transformed from being a middle-class movement by the campaigning ascetic Gandhi, sometimes referred to by the honorific Hindu title Mahatma. He offered the Indian masses tales of a simple, villagebased lifestyle in the new India that was to be established, like that described in the Hindu holy text the Ramayana. An independence movement of the elite was now that of the masses, and thereby became unstoppable.
Loyal nationalists boycotted British goods and committed acts of civil disobedience that resulted in the jailing of thousands. These included Western-educated professionals such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed that a modern democracy could be created out of the patchwork of languages, religions and ethnicities that made up the subcontinent.
However, religious factions were not so sure. Muslims in particular had long been suspicious of Congress as a vehicle for Hindu nationalism, and there was some justice in that: the top leaders were often secular nationalists, but lower down the ranks were religious zealots.
The Muslims were led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who felt that only a separate
THE DATE FOR INDEPENDENCE WAS TOO SOON FOR MANY EXPERTS, BUT CIVIL WAR THREATENED
Muslim state would satisfy his aspirations and protect his people. The new nation was to be called Pakistan, an acronym that combined the names of the Punjab, Afghan province, Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan. If a united independent India was impossible, British negotiators felt obliged to accept a separate Muslim state. India had supplied the largest volunteer army the world had ever seen in support of Britain in the Second World War, and many of these volunteers were Muslims, so their demand for their own country should be respected like that of Congress. However, one problem the nationalists faced was that the British did not directly control all of India: two-fifths was under the rule of local rajas and maharajahs. The British could leave, but that alone did not hand the nation over to Indian politicians. It helped the transition that the viceroy appointed to oversee it, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was a brilliant diplomat. He and his wife Edwina worked to smooth the way between various factions. He succeeded in solving the problem of the rajas: most of them were bought off with offers of a large pension for retiring from rule, and permission to keep their royal titles.
It was Mountbatten who decided the August date for independence. It was too soon for many experts, but unrest was worsening in many parts of India and civil war threatened. There were insufficient British forces to maintain order.
The day after the independence declaration the details of the Partition of India were revealed. The British settlement carved out the Muslim majority areas, which were to the west and east of the large Hindumajority nation of India. Some predicted trouble in the future: East and West Pakistan had their faith in common, but they were ethnically and culturally different.
The biggest transfer of populations in history led to horrific massacres in the Punjab and Bengal. The reluctance of the Maharajah of Hyderabad to cede his kingdom to the new nation meant India’s army moved in to enforce the takeover. The allegiance of Kashmir was disputed between India and Pakistan, and continues to this day to be a point of conflict between them.
India adopted a constitution with universal suffrage and equal citizenship. Your forebears, many of whom had affectionate memories of living in India, welcomed the new nation.
A harsh winter
The British press did not dwell on the massacres of Partition, and your forebears paid little attention to it: there had been too much suffering in Europe, and life was hard at home. The lingering effects of the war and continuing austerity measures had compounded the misery of the worst winter since the 1880s.
From 21 January a series of cold spells brought drifts of snow covering first the south and south-east, then the whole country. In Essex the temperature reached –20°C. As the freeze persisted into another month, the coal
stocks froze at the depots. Even when coal could be accessed, it could not be moved on roads or railways where the routes had become impassable. The Army and German prisoners of war were put to work clearing snow from the railways. Coal-carrying ships struggled through ice floes to reach power stations, but still the low levels of fuel meant they had to close or decrease their output.
Your relatives alive at the time experienced power cuts and unemployment – more than two million factory workers were temporarily laid off because there was not enough power for them, and offices also had to close. Cooking a simple meal at home took hours because electric current was weak and gas pressure ran low. Food was in short supply because root crops froze in the ground and animal herds froze in fields and barns, or starved to death because feed could not get to them. In Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Yorkshire the Royal Air Force dropped food supplies for stranded villagers and their livestock.
Television was cancelled, radio transmissions reduced, newspapers dropped pages, and food rations were cut in economy measures that damaged morale without producing appreciable benefits. People carried on by candlelight, often cursing their Government.
A shortage of coal was blamed on the nationalisation of the industry which had happened in January. Although the true cause was excessive demand and the difficulty of moving the coal that was available, the minister of fuel and power Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Shinwell was blamed to the extent that he received death threats and had to be placed under police guard.
It was not until mid-March that warmer weather thawed out the country, but with that there were devastating floods. The Severn broke its banks, and in London part of the underground had to be closed. Flooding in the Fens destroyed crops, and drowned poultry and cattle.
One result of the winter you might see in family records is emigration. A record number of people felt that they had had enough of bad weather, and set sail for Australia.
To lighten the atmosphere in these days of austerity, the first international arts festival in Britain was launched in Edinburgh in August. The flags were out in the Scottish capital for 800 artists from 20 countries performing music and drama. The Vienna Philharmonic, the Hallé Orchestra and Sadler’s Wells Ballet were to the taste of some of your forebears.
However, others criticised the emphasis on highbrow entertainment as bourgeois, and launched their own festival. Eight theatre companies that had not been invited to take part decided to come and perform anyway, including the left-wing Glasgow Unity Theatre. Thus Edinburgh ended up with two concurrent annual events, the International Festival and the Fringe.
Entertainment on the Light
The most common entertainment for all was the radio, with such favourites on the BBC Light Programme (now Radio 2) as
Dick Barton – Special Agent with 15-minute episodes each weekday evening in which former commando captain Richard Barton solved crimes and saved the nation. The recently launched Woman’s Hour was presented at first by Alan Ivimey, a journalist and former officer in the Royal Air Force who “specialised in writing for and talking to women”, according to the Radio Times. Early programmes covered housekeeping and child care, but the series progressed to more political and personal topics.
Another offering was Radio Forfeits with ‘quiz inquizitor’ Michael Miles, future host of
Take Your Pick!, inviting guests to be silly in games such as ‘ The Yes/No Interlude’.
Citizens in Calcutta celebrate India’s independence from British rule
Lord Mountbatten declares India’s independence from Britain in Delhi’s Constituent Assembly
This train took 20 hours to travel to Euston Station from Wolverhampton because of the weather
Mahatma Gandhi campaigned for independence