Looking to the Stars: How India's Independence Day Was Decided Upon

Archival records indicate how arbitrariness on the one hand, and dependence on the alignment of heavenly bodies on the other, shaped the decision to grant/attain “freedom at midnight”.

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Last week, Amrit Mahotsav celebrations began across the country to commemorate the day India wrested back its freedom from more than two-centuries-long colonial subjugation. The erstwhile British administrators and chroniclers called it “transfer of power”. This difference in perspective colours the historiography of the times even now.

Seventy-five years later, memory of how the date and time of the historic event were chosen has faded. This piece is my tiny contribution to remind readers of some key events which formed part of this decision-making process. I am placing in the public domain some information I came across while rummaging through archival records at Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML).

This subject may appear very academic and pointless to most readers, but it goes to the very heart of the recent debate over efforts to introduce arcane subjects like “astrology” into mainstream university education. Archival records indicate how arbitrariness on the one hand, and dependence on the alignment of heavenly bodies on the other, shaped the decision to grant/attain “freedom at midnight”.

The choice of date

Alan Campbell-Johnson, initially commissioned as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during the height of the Second World War, kept a comprehensive record of not only the official duties he performed but also what he heard and saw, as a member of the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten. First, he was posted to the Combined Operations Headquarters of the South East Asian Command where Lord Mountbatten served as Supreme Commander. Later, he was handpicked to serve as Lord Mountbatten’s press attaché during his brief but historic tenure as the last Viceroy of India. In both roles, Johnson was privy to many matters – including some recorded as ‘official secrets’ at that time.

Campbell-Johnson might have been one of the earliest persons to know that Prime Minister Clement Attlee had approached Lord Mountbatten to take over from Lord Wavell as India’s viceroy. In his semi-eulogistic, semi-documental account of his service in India, modestly titled Mission with Mountbatten, he recounts a meeting with Mountbatten on a cold December day of 1946 in London, where he learnt of the assignment which the great-grandson of Queen Victoria was initially reluctant to accept in order to save his career in the Royal Navy after the Second World War. This conversation took place two months before Mountbatten’s appointment was confirmed and announced by the British government.

An excerpt from the Campbell-Johnson’s record of the proceedings of the House of Commons on February 20, 1947 indicates, June 1948 as the date set by the British government to exit India:

“The new Viceroy was given a very wide mandate. If there was no likelihood of a unitary constitution emerging from a fully representative Constituent Assembly by June 1948, then, said Mr. Attlee, the British Government would have to consider to whom the powers of the Central Government in British India should be handed over, on the due date, whether as a whole to some form of Central Government for British India, or in some areas to the existing Provincial Governments, or in such other way as may seem most reasonable and in the best interests of the Indian people…

 Churchill [whose government had been voted out after the Second World War ended] at once jumped out to ask a number of barbed questions about the reasons for Wavell’s removal… The time limit also came as a considerable jolt to the Conservative Opposition. What threatened to be a major show-down, however, petered out through the House of Commons’ time-honoured technique of passing on to other business.” (Emphasis added)

That morning, Campbell-Johnson had already conveyed to Mountbatten his willingness to serve as his press attaché in New Delhi. So, June 1948 was the deadline against which the new viceroy and his administration were required to work to build a consensus among the representatives of the people of India – chiefly the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Muslim League (ML) – about the manner of relinquishing power.

However, at a press conference held in Delhi on June 4, 1947, Lord Mountbatten inexplicably brought forward by 10 months the deadline for the transfer of power – to not “a government” but two successor governments, in India and Pakistan. The new dominions were to be carved out laboriously on paper. The physical Partition, on the other hand, turned out to be an unprecedentedly sanguinary one.

Also read: How – and Why – ‘Jana Gana Mana’ Became India’s National Anthem

Campbell-Johnson and his team had mobilised an audience of more than 300 journalists including representatives of the media from the USSR, USA, China and parts of Europe that continued to publish newspapers at the end of the Second World War, to report the unveiling of the Partition Plan which representatives of the INC and ML had approved the previous day. In his book, Campbell-Johnson does not record anything more than the fact that this was the first time ever that the stipulated date for the transfer of power was formally announced to the public.

The Partition Plan was put together, in record time, between May and June 1947, by the redoubtable V.P. Menon, secretary in the Ministry of States. He too does not give details of this historic presser in his sanitised account of the knitting together of the more than 500 princely states and the provinces of the British Raj into the Indian dominion in The Story of the Integration of the Indian States.

In their hugely popular book Freedom at Midnight, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins document at considerable length what inspired the choice of the exact date for the ‘transfer of power’. At the Delhi press conference, Mountbatten gave a comprehensive overview of the Partition Plan. His opening speech did not contain a mention of the actual date of relinquishment of power by the British Raj. That bit of information came out in response to a question from an unnamed Indian journalist. Lapierre and Collins narrate that exchange and what apparently prompted the choice of August 15 as the date, in the following words:

Suddenly, when the long barrage of questions began to trickle out, the anonymous voice of an Indian newsman cut across the chamber. His was the last question awaiting an answer. It was the last square left for Mountbatten to fill in in the puzzle he’d been assigned six months before.

Sir,’ the voice said, ‘if all agree that there is most urgent need for speed between today and the Transfer of Power, surely you should have a date in mind?’

‘Yes, indeed,’ replied Mountbatten.

‘And if you have chosen a date, Sir, what then is that date?’ pressed the questioner.

A number of rapid calculations went whirring through the Viceroy’s mind as he listened to those questions. He had not, in fact, picked a date. But he was convinced it had to be very soon.

‘I had to force the pace,’ he recalled later. ‘I knew I had to force Parliament to get the bill through before their summer recess to hold the thing together. We were sitting on the edge of a volcano, on a fused bomb, and we didn’t know when the fuse would go off.’ Like the blurred images of a horror film, the charred corpses of Kahuta flashed across Louis Mountbatten’s mind. If an outburst of similar tragedies was not to drag all India into an apocalypse, he had to go fast. After 3000 years of history, 200 of Pax Britannica, only a few weeks remained, the Viceroy believed, between India and chaos.

He stared at the packed assembly hall. Every face in the room was turned to his. A hushed, expectant silence broken only by the whirr of the wooden blades of the fans revolving overhead stilled the room. ‘I was determined to show I was the master of the whole event,’ he would remember.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have selected a date for the Transfer of Power.’ As he was uttering those words, the possible dates were still whizzing through his mind like the numbers on a spinning roulette wheel. Early September? Mid-September? Mid-August? Suddenly the wheel stopped with a jar and the little ball popped into a slot so overwhelmingly appropriate that Mountbatten’s decision was instantaneous. It was a date linked in his memory to the most triumphant hours of his own existence, the day in which his long crusade through the jungles of Burma had ended with the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Empire. What more appropriate date for the birth of the new democratic Asia than the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender?

His voice constricted with sudden emotion, the victor of the jungles of Burma about to become the liberator of India announced:

‘The final Transfer of Power to Indian hands will take place on 15 August 1947.’…

Louis Mountbatten’s spontaneous decision to announce the date of Indian independence on his own initiative was a bombshell. In the corridors of the House of Commons, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, no one had suspected Mountbatten was ready to ring the curtain down so precipitously on Britain’s Indian adventure. In Delhi, the Viceroy’s most intimate collaborators had no inkling of what Mountbatten was going to do. Not even the Indian leaders with whom he had spent so many hours had received a hint that he would act with such decisive haste.”

Lapierre and Collins mention at the end of their book that the reconstruction of events narrated above is based on the transcript of that historic press conference and personal interviews with Lord Mountbatten and Campbell-Johnson. So, there is little reason to disbelieve that arbitrariness coloured the choice of the date that was set for the exit of the British Raj, not the considered views of the representatives of India’s movement for independence.

Had the date been chosen in a more rational manner, allowing for more time to draw the geographical boundaries and make the necessary administrative arrangements for a peaceful transition, perhaps the macabre dance of death that followed on both sides of the border could have been avoided. Despite not wanting such gory mayhem to follow, Lord Mountbatten’s hasty announcement of the date without consulting anybody else ended up bursting the very tinderbox that he had dreaded all along.

The choice of timing

Soon after the announcement of the date, Indian leaders appear to have been under pressure from astrologers who began calculating the impending movements of the stars and planets to foretell what destiny awaited India from the date that Lord Mountbatten had announced so abruptly. At least one amongst them is known to have written to the viceroy directly, begging that the date be shifted for being inauspicious.

Lapierre and Collins refer to a letter from an astrologer based in Calcutta (now Kolkata) who implored the Viceroy in the following words:

“For the love of God… do not give India her independence on 15 August. If floods, drought, famine and massacres follow, it will be because free India was born on a day cursed by the stars.”

The authors cite interviews with Lord Mountbatten and M.O. Mathai, the private secretary to Jawaharlal Nehru, as the source of this information. They also claim to have seen a copy of the letter written by the astrologer to Lord Mountbatten.

Also read: Syud Hossain: A Fascinating Footnote from India’s Freedom Struggle

The astrologer’s letter to the viceroy is not available in the microfilmed archives of the Lord Mountbatten Papers at NMML. However, this author was able to locate an admission of the viceroy’s discomfiture caused by the disproportionately heavy influence that astrologers were exerting on Indian leaders about the timing of the ‘transfer of power’. In his 16th personal report to the king about the state of affairs in India, dated August 8, 1947, Lord Mountbatten notes as follows:

“22. The astrologers are being rather tiresome since both the 13th and the 15th have been declared inauspicious days, whereas the 14th is auspicious. I was not warned that I ought to consult the astrologers before fixing the day for the transfer of power, but luckily, this has been got over by the Constituent Assembly deciding to meet before midnight on the auspicious 14th and take over power as midnight strikes which is apparently still an auspicious moment.

 23. They propose to send a delegation to Viceroy’s House (which a few minutes previously will have become Government House) to invite me to accept the Governor-Generalship of India. The fact that the King will already have legally appointed me has been overlooked, but a formula has been found to overcome this and I gather the resolution will merely be to endorse what has already been done.

24. One or two of the more superstitious members of the Cabinet wished to have all the ceremony done at midnight in the Durbar Hall, but as fortunately, the older members of the Cabinet usually go to bed at 9 o’clock, sleep won the swearing-in battle over superstition; and we are now going to have the swearing-in ceremony in the presence of 500 people at 8.30 on the morning of the 15th after which we will all process [sic] to the Constituent Assembly which I am to address in their new capacity as the Legislative Assembly for India.”

Pages 1 and 5 from Lord Mountbatten’s 16th personal report.

The viceroy’s note ends with an appendix containing the list of cabinet ministers submitted by Nehru. Thirteen names are listed, without mentioning their portfolios (they were finalised a few days later). Readers might like to identify which of these illustrious leaders Lord Mountbatten might have found to be superstitious.

The list of cabinet ministers.

While Lord Mountbatten does not seem to have agonised over his abrupt announcement of the date, without consulting anybody, his reaction to the pressure mounted by astrologers to alter the timing of the ‘transfer of power’ is amusing, to say the very least. Ironically, the astrologers’ predictions also proved wrong. The heavenly bodies were mute witness to the massacre of an estimated one million innocent men, women and children on both sides of the newly carved out border and the displacement of between 15-20 million people on the subcontinent. Neither have the correct figures been determined, nor were the masterminds and perpetrators of Partition-related violence brought to book.

End note

There is much more in Lord Mountbatten’s routine reports to the King of Great Britain which must be taken seriously to question some of the myth-making that vested interests have indulged in recent decades to tarnish the image of some leaders of India’s freedom movement. For example, it is now commonplace to blame Gandhi and Nehru for everything that has gone wrong in India since 1947. They are portrayed as villains who gave their blessings to the Partition Plan without much protestation. Similarly, the Congress is portrayed as a power-hungry party that seized power by sacrificing the administrative and emotional integrity of the subcontinent. While historians will debate these points till the cows come home and beyond, Lord Mountbatten’s report cited above contains some interesting views about Gandhi’s presence and role:

“20. Gandhi’s absence from the celebrations in Delhi on the 15th of August is, of course, intentional. He has never given the 3rd June plan his unqualified blessing and his position might be difficult. He also realises that it would not be possible to fit him into the programme in the way to which he would feel himself entitled…”

The next paragraph is quizzical, hinting at soured relations between Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel:

“21. Gandhi has announced his decision to spend the rest of his life in Pakistan looking after the minorities. This will infuriate Jinnah, but will be a great relief to Congress for, as I have said before, his influence is largely negative or even destructive and directed against the only man who has his feet firmly on the ground, Vallabhbhai Patel.”

The Sardar’s relationship with the Mahatma has not been subjected to as much scrutiny as his disagreement with Nehru on several policy and administrative matters. Perhaps future historians will delve into this issue and explain the basis for Lord Mountbatten’s assessment of the tense relationship between the two leading lights from Gujarat.

In the same personal report, the composition of the first cabinet under Nehru’s leadership comes in for critical appreciation from Lord Mountbatten. Extracts are given below:

“49. Nehru has now sent me his proposed list of Cabinet Ministers… he has taken my advice (which I outlined in paragraphs 36 to 39 of my last Report) so far as new members of the Cabinet are concerned, having changed four of them since I spoke” [with Nehru]. “I understand that Gandhi has written to Maulana Azad asking him as a gesture to Congress to make way for a younger man; but the old Maulana has not yet taken the hint and they cannot drop him until he does. Gandhi’s Secretary, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur is a delightful person, included as Gandhi’s insistence. She is earmarked for Health. She admits, she knows nothing about health, and I rather doubt her competence as a Minister….

50. Of the new members, Sir Shanmukham Chetty is a man of great administrative experience… I did not expect Ambedkar would find a place and his selection has given me great satisfaction. Gadgil is a Congressman and a student of economics, and people think highly of his abilities. Rafi Ahmed Kidwai is now a Minister in the United Provinces…

 51. The Cabinet is still far from being an ideal selection but the requirements of party politics could not entirely be done away with. On the whole, it must be conceded that Congress have been very generous and have included a large proportion of non-Congressmen as one could possibly expect. Sir Shanmukham Chetty in particular has been a bitter critic of the Congress for a long time…

Also read: In the Shadow of the Sardar – V.P. Menon, the Unsung Hero of Modern India

Mountbatten admired the fact that the Congress had reached out to the Hindu Mahasabha for sending a candidate to the cabinet. Cryptically, he recorded his assessment of Dr Shyama Prasad Mukerji as follows:

“48. It is of course admirable that they [the Congress] should have got an important member of the Hindu Mahasabha to join the Government and Mukerji is an intelligent man (who they wanted to remove from Bengal)…”

Pages 12 and 13 from Lord Mountbatten’s 16th personal report.

The remaining part of this paragraph contains a personal assessment of Dr Mukerji given to Mountbatten by Sir Frederick Burrows, the then governor of undivided Bengal, which is too offensive to be reproduced here.

What is important to note is that the first cabinet was drawn up to include several members who were not Congress members. Choosing an ideal cabinet was not an easy task, as Mountbatten notes in his personal report to the king sent a week earlier (i.e., on August 1, 1947). An extract of his conversation with Nehru on the process of cabinet formation is reproduced below:

“36. Rumours in the press and private sources of information had indicated to me that Nehru was about to submit to me an unimaginative Cabinet of old-time Congressites. I was convinced that such a Cabinet would be disastrous. I therefore made a great point of discussing the composition of the new Cabinet with him” [Pandit Nehru] “I began by admitting that as Constitutional Governor General, I would have to accept any names he put to me, but I hope that as a friend he would allow me to give him some advice. He said that he would always look to me for advice in these matters.

37. I then said that I had no idea who the new Members would be, but I was convinced that unless he got a really sound Cabinet in which young, talented and keen members predominated, he would lose a great opportunity of gripping the imagination of the country. I told him that his greatest weakness was his personal loyalty towards old friends and colleagues and that unless he got rid of a lot of top-weight like Rajagopalachari” [who later took over as Governor General of India from Lord Mountbatten] “and Maulana Azad, he would find himself greatly hampered… and that in general it was essential that he should get a crowd of really good young men…

38. Nehru agreed in principle, but said that there was a remarkable dearth of good young men, between the ages of 30 and 45, but that it was his intention to pick fairly unknown young men and put them in as Deputy or Parliamentary Secretaries to get experience. I told him that this was a serious matter for India, and I sincerely trusted the he would give it his closest attention.

39. Although Nehru listened to me attentively, he gave no indication of what his reactions were and I felt that I had probably failed to convince him. I now hear that he went straight back and summoned a meeting of his Congress colleagues, at which he tore up the list of the Cabinet that they were proposing to submit to me and said that it was vital for the future of India that they should produce a more imaginative Cabinet and that they should start thinking again. Sensation!! [sic] Patel came down heavily on “my” side and they are now sitting night and day trying to produce a better Cabinet. I sincerely trust that they will succeed for otherwise I fear Congress really will be finished within a year.” (emphasis added)

Also read: Independent India and the Secret UK-US Deal That Changed It All

Pages 1, 8 and 9 of Lord Mountbatten’s August 1, 1947 personal report.

Nehru’s admission about the dearth of younger people in the Congress, if true, is indicative of the lack of adequate efforts made to groom the next generation of leadership within the party, even as its stalwarts were advancing in years. Today’s opposition parties, at the national and regional level, could do themselves a huge favour by paying attention to this important lesson from not so long ago, about the necessity of grooming the younger generation to take on leadership roles, if they intend to remain relevant in electoral politics for long.

Venkatesh Nayak is an RTI activist and a history researcher working out of New Delhi and Bengaluru.