The legacy of midnight, marked in Britain, Pakistan and India

Indian independence 50 years on: Border party may soothe the wounds of partition
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The Independent Online
If the authorities permit it to go ahead, the most pregnant image to come out of India's celebration of 50 years of freedom could be an unprecedented demonstration of Indo-Pakistani brotherhood on the border between the two perennially warring countries.

For the second year running, an organisation called Citizens for Democracy plans to bus large numbers of fraternally-inclined Indians - the organisers predict about 2,500 people will turn up - to Wagah, some eight hours from Delhi, the only land crossing to Pakistan. Organisers on the Pakistan side, it is planned, will be doing the same thing. (Last year, due to a mix-up, no Pakistanis showed up.)

Stages will be constructed a few dozen metres from the crossing point, and participants from both sides will enjoy a programme of classical music and dance. Around midnight, if the guards allow it, a small contingent will be permitted to cross over and embrace those on the other side. It will be a symbolic way to assuage the wounds of Partition.

Meanwhile the commemoration in the capital will follow a more traditional course. Delhi is filling up with the impedimenti of a major public event: barriers, floodlights, marquees, chairs. But it is symptomatic of the apparently desperate haste with which the celebration has been organised that as recently as last week the event organiser which won the tender to stage the main show was bickering publicly with the sponsors, Delhi City Government, over the payment schedule, and declaring that unless it received more money up front it would be unable to import the required high-tech equipment from the UK.

Once the final wrinkles have been ironed out, however, Delhi should enjoy a grandstand seat at a celebration which will combine elements of the familiar, the spectacular and the emotional.

It will kick off at 9pm today with a "March of the Nation" along the main axis of Lutyens's New Delhi, from Nehru Stadium in the east to the park at the threshold of the Presidential Palace in the west, a distance of nearly two miles. Delhi City Government's Accounts Department allowing, the march will culminate in a spectacular show for an audience of some 7,000 (plus several hundred million more on television), with music and dance, fireworks and a laser show.

Shortly before midnight, the action shifts to the Central Hall of Parliament for the grave, profoundly traditional portion of the celebration where, in the presence of parliamentarians, ambassadors and the chief guest of honour, Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a recording of Nehru's famous "Freedom at Midnight" speech will be played.

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge," those rarefied Harrovian vowels will enunciate once more. "...At the stroke of midnight, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom

It was originally intended that Ms Boothroyd would speak during the ceremony, but the idea was scrapped after an MP of the Hindu nationalist BJP denounced it as "preposterously idiotic" to have a Briton speaking on what was "a quintessentially Indian night".

The following morning's main event is also comfortably familiar: at the Red Fort, the grandest monument of pre-Lutyens Delhi, the Indian white, green and beige tricolour will be hoisted and the prime minister, Mr I K Gujral, will make a speech. Later tomorrow, at 3.30pm, yet another traditional anniversary item is scheduled. Richard Attenborough's pious Gandhi will be screened once more, this year preceded by an hour-long documentary on the making of the film.

Earlier in the day, however, Gandhi's name will be invoked with a different resonance when 150 slum children gather at the Gandhi Memorial in central Delhi, holding placards berating the government for failing to make good the promises of the freedom fighters of 50 years ago; to eliminate illiteracy, poverty and child labour.

`Bandit Queen' threatens self-immolation

Phoolan Devi, the low caste "bandit queen" in the film of that name who last year became an MP, is threatening to disrupt India's Independence Day celebrations by setting herself on fire at the Parliament House.

Ms Devi is upset because a political enemy has decided to revive 55 cases pending against her, including charges of mass murder, which could bring to an end her new and comfortable life as a politician.

With her fine sense of theatre, Ms Devi has now seized the initiative with her threat to end it all. "Forgive me or kill me", she told a press conference in Delhi, "but do not humiliate me like this."

It is thought unlikely that Ms Devi will carry out her threat. But if she were to succeed in getting arrested in Delhi, it would keep her out of the grasp of the and give her a breathing space. Her bandit cunning has deserted her.