August 14, 2009

A Tryst With Destiny

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge … At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
— Jawaharlal Nehru, 14 August 1947

India is big news. India is everywhere. Said Nehru on this day 62 years ago, “The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us.”

He was right about that, even if it was not quite his policies we ultimately have to thank for it. I am thrilled on this day to wish everyone …

HAPPY INDIA DAY! August 15, 1947. Jaya he!

India and America have in common national birthdays that mark independence from, technically speaking at least, the same empire. But the events are so far removed from one another in time and circumstance as to make the comparison nearly prosaic. There are a few fun facts, however, that shiver the timbers.

The Boston Tea Party, for example, took place aboard ships of the East India Company, where sacks of tea, presumably from India, were tossed into the harbor. That was in 1773, and the Company had so bulloxed its adventure in Bengal that it was nearly broke. And as we know, big companies that go broke get government bailouts. This was to be shouldered by American colonists, through the imposition of a British monopoly on tea, as well as a tax on tea. And so the resulting uproar in the American colonies was, indirectly at least, a protest against British mischief in India.

For a hundred years, Indians fought a dozen major wars with the private armies of the East India Company, and with regular British troops, until in 1858 the Company was finally dismantled and rule of India was vested directly in the British crown. The era of the “Raj” was ushered in, along with some democratic and legal reforms. The catalyst of this change was the uprising of 1857, a horrific conflict so controversial even to this day that historians haven't even agreed on a name for it. It has been called "The Mutiny" as well as the "First War of Independence," neither of which is quite accurate to my mind. But that's for another essay.

I have always been entranced by Nehru’s poetic words, delivered on the eve of Independence — Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny.

What tryst was that? Perhaps he was thinking of the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885, which launched the modern independence movement. Or is he referring to 1857. Or to the Maratha Confederacy, which fought the British until 1818. I hope he did not have in mind the crazy Tipu Sultan of Mysore, whose cruel perversions were the unfortunate defect in one who was otherwise a military genius and the first Indian ruler fully to comprehend the British "noose" that was slowly being strung around the subcontinent, while Indian rulers occupied themselves with wars among themselves.

But of course it is a transcendent speech by Nehru, open to many thoughts about freedom. “Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart.”

For my part, I have decided that Nehru’s “tryst” occurred in Boston Harbor in 1773. That is my personal indulgence. Tryst has a personal ring to it, and so I take it Nehru is allowing the listener to have his tryst wherever in consciousness he pleases.

“Destiny,” on the other hand, has in this speech a definite time and place. “The appointed day has come — the day appointed by destiny — and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent.”

Indian independence was the exemplary freedom struggle of modern times. It was the cauldron of the civil rights and the anti-imperialist movements, the world over. The sense of this worldly responsibility is not lost on Nehru.

above: old photo from the first Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi, showing Nehru and the Mountbattens. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Aravind Suthandram.