Celebrating India 50 years on

Jubilee party fills the streets with pride
Click to follow
The Independent Online
As they laboriously criss-cross New Delhi's vast boulevards and endless triumphal vistas, many visitors must have asked themselves: what on earth is it all for? Last night the answer was provided: for events like this.

As the Golden Jubilee of India's independence got under way with a huge March of the Nation last night, the ceremonial heart of Lutyens's imperium was transformed into a sea of celebrating people.

Eight stages have been erected, punctuating the lawns that flank Rajpath, formerly Kingsway, Delhi's gigantic answer to London's Mall. Twenty- eight teams of dancers from different parts of the country did their stuff during the early evening as the crowds began to build.

Then at 9pm prompt the March of the Nation was flagged off from the east end of the boulevard. Hundreds of freedom fighters, veterans of the struggle against Britain who are now in their 80s and 90s, have been brought to Delhi for the celebration. To the shame of the government, many have been accommodated in the most primitive lodgings, without beds and sharing two lavatories among 70 people.

But last night that typically Indian failure was forgotten as 74 Indian- made jeeps bore the freedom fighters in the van of the procession, leading some 15,000 people representing all regions and religions of the country towards the grand climax, a show of music, lasers and fireworks in front of the Presidential Palace.

In the far north-east of the country, at a place called Silanibar in Assam, seven people were killed when a bomb planted by secessionists exploded under a train. Nobody claimed responsibility, but militant members of the Bodo tribe, one of a number of ethnic groups in the North-east fighting to break away from India, have called for strikes and boycotts to mark the 50th anniversary of India's own independence.

In Pakistan, too, the celebrations were marred by violence. A violent riot erupted in Karachi after police fired on surging crowds celebrating Pakistan's 50th anniversary, and two young men were killed.

Thousands of people had gathered outside the tomb of the nation's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, in a colourful ceremony that quickly turned from jubilant to violent. Soon after a speech by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which he appealed to Pakistan's people to put an end to violence racking the nation, police moved in with batons to disperse the crowd. Enraged, several people took off their shoes and began throwing them at police guards. One officer sprayed bullets into the crowd.

Mr Sharif used a flag-raising ceremony in Islamabad to issue a fresh call for peace with India and a solution to the 50-year-old Kashmir dispute, one of the legacies of partition. "I hope that India would also respond with the same sincerity by withdrawing its forces from occupied Kashmir and putting an end to atrocities there and hence pave the way for establishment of lasting peace in the region," he declared.

The Indian government, in a reminder of the divide between the two nations, accused Pakistan of developing nuclear warheads for medium-range missiles. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947; hundreds of thousands died in the aftermath of partition, and millions were uprooted.

Just before midnight last night, MPs and other dignitaries were to gather for a nationally televised re-enactment of the historic sitting of India's constituent assembly on 14 August 1947. They were to hear a recording of the famous "tryst with destiny" speech delivered by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in which he called for an end to "poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity."

Yesterday in Delhi, on a balmy night cooled by heavy rain the day before, the dominant mood was serenity and pride. The city centre has been filled with flags and strings of marigolds and greenery, and all the prominent buildings have been thrown into brilliant silhouette by banks of lightbulbs.

For one evening the nation's problems are forgotten. "This is really the first such event in our history," a spectator at Rajpath said. "We are so happy, we really do not know what to do. We just want to rejoice, it's just like when you get married."

Fate in one man's hands

WH Auden had largely abandoned political verse after the Second World War, but he returned to it in the aftermath of Indian and Pakistani independence. His 1948 poem on partition comments on the decisions taken by British officials in the name of political expediency, which were followed by hundreds of thousands of deaths.


By W H Auden

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission.

Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

With their different diets and incompatible gods.

`Time', they had briefed him in London, `is short. It's too late

For mutual reconciliation or rational debate;

The only solution now lies in separation.

The Viceroy thinks, as you see from his letter,

That the less you are seen in his company the better.

So we've arranged to provide you with other accommodation.

We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,

To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.'

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day

Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate

Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date

And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect.

But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect

Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot.

And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,

A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not.

Afraid, as he told his Club that he might get shot.