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On This Day: India Gains Independence from Britain

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On Aug. 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the nation with a new Declaration of Independence and became the first prime minister of India.

A Celebration of Independence

On June 15, 1947, the British House of Commons passed the Indian Independence Act, or Mountbatten Plan, which divided India into two dominions, India and Pakistan. It called for each dominion to be granted its independence by Aug. 15 of that year.

On the night of Aug. 14, thousands of Indians gathered near government buildings in Delhi for the official ceremony celebrating independence. Jawaharlal Nehru, who would become the first prime minister of India, addressed the crowd an hour before midnight.

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially,” he said. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

When the clock struck midnight, India began its first Independence Day celebration and its first day free of the British Empire. “The formal ceremonies, carefully rehearsed, had to be abandoned; in their place was a spontaneous exhibition of joy and happiness which made August 15 an unforgettable day,” wrote Indian newspaper Fauji Akhbar.

“Delhi's thousands rejoiced,” wrote Time. “The town was gay, with orange, white and green. Bullocks' horns and horses' legs were painted in the new national colors, and silk merchants sold tri-colored saris.”

Missing from the festivities, however, was Mohandas Gandhi, leader of the independence movement. Gandhi opposed the partition of India and Pakistan, and was in the midst of a fast that he hoped would bring an end to the violence between the Hindus of India and the Muslims of Pakistan.

Lord Mountbatten, viceroy of India, “drew the biggest applause of the day,” according to Time, when he declared, “At this historic moment let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi—the architect of her freedom through nonviolence. We miss his presence here today and would have him know how he is in our thoughts.”

A U.S. newsreel announcing India's independence aired on Aug. 15, 1947, and shows Nehru delivering his famous “Tryst With Destiny” speech.

Background: Road to Independence

Sources in this Story

  • The Guardian: A Tryst with Destiny
  • Dadi Nani Foundation: First Independence Day in Delhi by Fauji Akhbar
  • Time: Oh Lovely Dawn
  • The BBC: From Empire to Independence: The British Raj in India
  • The Washington Post (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia): Country Guides: India
  • PBS: NewsHour: India and Pakistan
  • Jawaharlal Nehru Biography
  • The BBC: Mohandas Gandhi (1869 - 1948)
  • Time: Gandhi & Nehru

India had been under British control since the 18th century, when the East India Company took control of the country. Following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British government officially assumed control of the country, instituting a government known as the “Raj.”

In 1919, in response to civil unrest over the outbreak of World War I and widespread crop failures, Britain passed the Rowlatt Act, which allowed the Raj to intern Indians suspected of sedition without trial. In protest of the act, Mohandas Gandhi declared a “satyagraha,” meaning “devotion to truth,” against the Raj, launching a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience.

Over the next 25 years, Gandhi would be the face of the Indian independence movement. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s protege, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, would also play prominent roles in opposing British rule.

Britain gradually ceded control to Indian leaders, passing the Government of India Act in 1935, which allowed for the creation of provincial governments. In 1942, Britain offered India dominion status in exchange for its support in World War II, but Indian leaders turned it down.

Instead, Gandhi led the “Quit India” movement, ordering the British out of the country. The British responded by arresting all the leaders of the movement and over 60,000 other protestors. Following World War II, with India becoming ungovernable, the British decided it was time to grant it independence.

Lord Mountbatten was named viceroy of India with the goal of brokering independence. Unable to determine how power between Hindu and Muslim leaders could be shared, Mountbatten determined that India should partitioned into the dominions of India and Pakistan. The hastily drawn border led to religious violence and a dispute over the region of Kashmir that has served as the center of the more than 60 years of conflict between the two countries.

Key Players: Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi

India owed much of its newfound freedom to the formidable partnership between Nehru and Gandhi. While they disagreed on tactics and religious matters, they shared a deep idealism and commitment to nonviolence, says former United Nations Under Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor.

“While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence and war in the 20th century, Gandhi taught the virtues of truth, nonviolence and peace,” wrote Tharoor in Time magazine. “The principal pillars of Nehru's legacy—democratic institution-building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of nonalignment--were all integral to a vision of Indianness that sustained the nation for decades.”

Jawaharlal Nehru
Nehru was educated in Britain and studied law before returning to India in 1912. He did legal work before becoming interested in politics and the teachings of Gandhi. He later became a prominent figure in Gandhi's nationalist movement, serving as the president of Congress several times. He would spend a total of nine years in jail for civil disobedience.

During his tenure as prime minister, his government successfully dealt with significant challenges, such as the mass movement of minorities across the Indian-Pakistani border. He also succeeded in creating the political and administrative infrastructure for a parliamentary democracy and integrating some 500 states into the Indian Union, in addition to framing a new constitution.

He served as prime minister until his death in 1964. Two years later, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, became the prime minister. His grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, would also serve as prime minister.

Mohandas Gandhi
Gandhi was India’s pre-eminent nationalist leader. Born in Gujarat in 1869, he studied law in London and fought for the civil and human rights of Indian peoples both in South Africa.

He developed non-violent political strategies influenced “primarily by Hinduism, but also by elements of Jainism and Christianity, as well as writers including Tolstoy and Thoreau,” according to the BBC. Upon his return to India, Gandhi applied these tactics, called “satyagraha” or “devotion to truth,” to the colonial independence movement.

He organized several campaigns working toward a free India and became a unifying figure in the diverse nationalist movement and a prominent member of the National Congress. British colonial authorities in India arrested him in March 1922 for sedition. In 1930, he went on his famous 200-mile march to extract salt from the sea in protest of the government's salt tax.

He was assassinated in 1948 by an man upset about his opposition to the British partition plan.

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