Poornima Koonath on why despite seven decades of Independence, 15 August stills sparks feelings of pride, nostalgia and fascination
August 15 is a red-letter day in the annals of Indian history and of great importance to very Indian. Growing up in India, 15 August was more than just a date, and the bravery, selflessness and sacrifices made by ordinary men and women who rose to the stature of heroes was something that I found difficult to comprehend.
The history of Indian Independence is laced with the struggle and sacrifice of many leaders and revolutionaries. Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan, Rani Laxmi Bai, and Yashwant Rao Holkar are amongst the royalty who stood up against the British and laid down their lives in the process. In fact, Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, whose sword sits at the Wallace Collection in London, was one of the first Indian kings to be martyred defending his kingdom against colonial rule.
Yashwant Rao Holkar was considered the biggest threat to the empire and was called the ‘Napoleon of India’. He initiated the unification of the Indian kings against the British and prevented them from signing treaties that would enable the British to annex their kingdoms in the name of peace. And then there were patriots like Mangal Pandey, Chandrashekar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev who died defending a cause and an ideology. They did not want the British in India. Free India stands on the foundation of innumerable sacrificed lives, people who died believing in the cause they were fighting for. The first war of independence waged in 1857 has so many glorious and heroic tales to tell. It is one of the most fascinating periods in pre-independent India. While most historians called it the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, a careful study of history shows that for the first time a vast section of Indian society including nobles and peasants took part in a struggle that was the first step towards a free India.
“The only difference is that I now have two countries to call my own. It is a bit like a young bride who goes to her in-law’s house. She does not give up on her parents but learns to extend her love and respect to her in-laws as well. I still love India but Australia is my adopted home” — Sunipa Herbert
15 August, an Indian national holiday is marked by flag-hoisting ceremonies, cultural events, and parades and held in various parts of the country. People fly kites epitomising freedom and the skies are speckled with kites in all colours and shapes flown from rooftops and fields. While the President of India delivers the ‘”Address to the Nation” on the eve of Independence Day, the Prime Minister addresses the nation on the day. For me the most significant part of 15 August is the hoisting of the Tricolour from the ramparts of the Red Fort. It is this hoisting in 1947 that heralded to the world that India was free from foreign rule after centuries of oppression and suppression. The national flag is a symbol of great pride and fluttering Tricolour is a joyful sight for every Indian. “I love the Indian national anthem and the flag for what it symbolises today. It still evokes the same feelings for me. I treasure the fact that I was born in India,” says Patricia Tims. Many years ago, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India I was there on the ramparts to witness the unfurling of the flag and the feeling of euphoria I experienced then still rings fresh in my memory.
There is something about the Red Fort, something sinister, something mysterious and something very pious—it is as though every brick has a saga to tell. Born and raised in India and having studied Indian history all through my schooling, I understand and recognise the struggle that was the freedom movement. And I would like to believe that there is a patriot in every Indian. Indians have seen a few wars waged post-independence too. The skirmishes near the borders, the sacrifices made by the soldiers even today, is a reminder to all that this freedom that is a gift to us by our patriots is threatened every day by forces without and within.
Well, has the significance of 15 August changed for migrant Indians? “Not at all,” says Sunipa Herbert. “The only difference is that I now have two countries to call my own. It is a bit like a young bride who goes to her in-law’s house. She does not give up on her parents but learns to extend her love and respect to her in-laws as well. I still love India but Australia is my adopted home.”
Patricia says, “Independence Day will always be for me a time for togetherness and reflection. With a hope that the continued fighting at the borders stop, so no more lives are lost and no more families are destroyed forever.” As most first generation Indian Australians I spoke to, both Patricia and Sunipa believe it is a time for the community to come together as fellow countrymen. While Sunipa says that we should just not join hands and celebrate amongst ourselves but must extend this celebration to other communities as well, Patricia remarks it is “a time to build bridges and integrate. It should not be based on religion as that is what tore our beautiful nation apart.”
Children from Indian families who are born and raised in Australia or those who have completed most of their education in Australia, unfortunately will never get to understand the real significance of 15 August. Indian Australian parents worry that their children are forgetting the cultural traditions or not learning the native language, but according to me the biggest loss is not understanding what India as a country symbolises and her journey through the eons of time. Different Indian languages are today a part of the Australian curriculum, but considering the number of students with Indian heritage studying in Australian schools, I would like to see more of Indian history as topics of study for students who choose History or History Extension as part of their HSC. In a world where children are being radicalised to kill in the name of religion, stories of heroism of peoples of all faiths fighting side by side for the freedom of their country comes like a breath of fresh air. Jai Hind!