“Everyone rallied in my room, I didn’t have a radio, but someone else brought one, and there we sat, a group of 10 boys around a radio waiting to discover our fate,” explains Mr Balram Puri.
Mr Puri, who is now 92 years-old, recounts the events of January 26, 1950, when India gained independence from the British Empire. At the time, he was 21 and in his last year at Lucknow University in the south of India, where things were relatively calm.
However, in the capital, Delhi, where he was brought up and his immediate family still lived, there was rioting and civil disorder. And in Punjab, in the north of India, where he was born, people were dying in skirmishes between rival factions as the proposed border between Pakistan and India ripped mercilessly through the heart of the region.
Saturday, January 26, 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of when India truly gained full freedom becoming a republic, a second major milestone in the nation-building process.
It is essential to understand the significance between independence and Republic Day. India may have gained independence from British rule in 1947, but it still followed the British constitution and acknowledged the British monarch (King George VI) as its head of state.
It wasn’t until January 26 that India became a republic when the written constitution of the country was adopted and applied.
Gaining independence was not an easy battle to win. It was only after WW2 that the British empire was fragile enough for the newly elected Labour government in England to let India free of their reign.
“Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is known as the father of the nation. The word Mahatma means in Hindi ‘Great Soul’.”
Before this happened, many significant figures such as Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru shaped Indian history fighting for freedom. Mahatma Gandhi, whose full name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is known as the father of the nation. The word Mahatma means in Hindi ‘Great Soul’. He campaigned and fought for Indian independence from British rule and the rights of the poor. His example of non-violent protest is still honoured throughout the world today.
It was with the adoption of the constitution, and the birth of the republic, that India achieved ethic of equality among all Indians irrespective of religion, region or community. This ethic of justice and freedom coincided with the liberty that independence gave India. Unlike the law we have in England, the constitution in India overrides any supreme court up to the present day.
It wasn’t until Republic Day in 1950 that India was utterly free of any British rule. India became an independent nation at midnight on August 14, 1947, when the British government of the country officially ended. Republic Day is celebrated on January 26th every year as India’s constitution came into practice on this day even though the Constituent Assembly adopted it on November 26, 1949.
In 1947, the agreement to divide colonial India into two separate states concluded that there would be one state with a Muslim majority, which is now known as Pakistan, and second state would have a Hindu majority, which is now known as India. However, Pakistan was split into two halves, one in the east of colonial India which was formerly known as East Bengal, and today is known as Bangladesh and the other 1,700 kilometres away on the western side in the borders of Punjab which we still know as Pakistan today.
The harmony and unity of freedom between the whole country soon demolished when Hindu lives in Pakistan and Muslim lives in India were threatened by radical groups trying to make pure Muslim and Hindu states on either side of the border.
Thousands of people were killed, murdered and many women committed suicide after being raped. During the riots and as people were fleeing borders in the pitch black of the night, many lost everything and had to set up home in refugee camps, surviving on the bare minimums of life. Many more died because of malnourishment, starvation and poor conditions.
“My father decided that my two brothers would marry refugee girls. We were fortunate that we had a lot of money, so we covered the costs of the wedding and housed the girl’s families. I was lucky that my father thought I was too young to be married. It wasn’t only my family who did this, but many families took the initiative to help those who were in need,” explains Mr Puri.
He vividly recalls the events of that day, 70 years ago. “When Gandhi was alive listening to him on the radio, hearing about his fasts after the utmost violence on either side of the border was scary. Lucknow compared to other parts of the country was a safe place for me at the time. However, my father made me stay to get my degree because nowhere was safe in the country.”
“I remember I went to the barber’s shop near my university and on the radio, there was an imminent announcement on the radio that I clearly remember to this day which said ‘deadly massacre on the Hind Express as thousands of Hindus have been murdered by Muslims.’
“This was the first time I feared for my life.”
“As the announcement played on the radio, my neck was in the hands literally of my Muslim barber as he gave me a haircut, and all I wanted to do was run. This was the first time I feared for my life as I chanted the name of my god in my head “RAM, RAM, RAM” he finished my haircut, and I paid him and got set free,” Puri tells us.
“As I walked out, I said to myself never again was I going to be so naïve, I was one of the lucky few who was still alive. I mean a Hindu boy in a prominently Muslim city I was very fortunate,” he concludes.
Republic day is a day to remember with honour and gratitude the efforts of the fallen. A day to remember the sacrifices of those who gave their blood, sweat, and tears into creating India. Moreover, above all cherish the pronounced freedom that citizens of India have been given.
The celebrations which commenced over the weekend included a parade ceremony which began at Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate where Prime Minister Narendra Modi lead the celebrations in paying homage to the martyrs by laying a wreath.
“I feel blessed that I can tell people the truth of what I saw through my own eyes.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had been invited by the prime minister to join him as the chief guest at celebrations in Delhi. The parade included the Indian air forces showcasing the latest military aircraft, showing the world how resilient they are today. The main event saw a spectacular display of cultural heritage and diversity of 17 tableaux from different states and six from the ministries that had been shortlisted under the theme “Gandhi.”
The theme to the celebrations for Republic Day was hugely significant, because not only is Gandhi seen as a figure who helped India gain independence but last October marked the 150th birthday of Gandhi.
For men like Balram Puri, it is important to be able to pass down his accounts of such instrumental events which happened in his motherland. “People understand what happened by reading books and watching documentaries, but they either heighten what happened or undermine such things. I feel blessed that I can tell people the truth of what I saw through my own eyes.”
Featured image by Ishant Mishra via Unsplash