Counterfactual history


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SOME of the ‘greats’ of Indian history have been gone so long that they seem to belong to political pre-history. And yet, they could very well have been with us on 15 August 1947. Some of them would have been, on that dawn, old but not yet 90 – an age many reach and now cross with ease. Some of them would have been of middle age and some, quite young.

The number fifteen is fastened to 15 August. Pandrah Agast is pandrah first and only thereafter a date in Agast and in 1947. I set down below the names of fifteen outstanding Indians who, had they been alive on that day, as they could well have been, would have been of the ages set against their names:

Rabindranath Tagore 86

Bhikaiji Cama 86

Vivekananda 84

Ashutosh Mukherjee 83

Gopal Krishna Gokhale 81

Chittaranjan Das 77

Gopabandhu Das 70

Munshi Premchand 67

M.A. Ansari 67

Subramania Bharati 65

S. Satyamurti 60

Subhas Chandra Bose 50

Chandrashekhar Azad 41

Bhagat Singh 40

Pritilata Waddedar 36

But they were all gone by that day, gained by history but lost to the nation. In 15 August’s real time, that is.

The following fifteen ‘great’, however, stood that day, at the ages shown against them:

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi 78

Vallabhbhai Patel 72

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari 69

Sarojini Naidu 68

Rajendra Prasad 64

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar 64

Abul Kalam Azad 59

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan 59

Jawaharlal Nehru 58

B.R. Ambedkar 56

Jayaprakash Narayan 45

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay 44

Sheikh Abdullah 42

E.M.S. Namboodiripad 38

Indira Gandhi 30.

I have not included in the second set of fifteen two luminous beings who were very much there that day. The sage of Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo, who was 75 on Independence Day gave a memorable message over All India Radio, Tiruchirappalli that morning. And the sage of Tiruvannamalai, Sri Ramana Maharshi, who was 68, it is said, watched members of the ashram making national flags from lengths of khadi through the night of August 14 and, on the 15th morning, raised one himself. I have not included them in the fifteen for both were one zone above everything terrestrial, even the magnetically terrestrial like the independence of India.


To go back to the first fifteen. What if those great men and women had been there, and in good health, on 15 August 1947? What if?

‘What ifs?’ are not history. They are not even history’s shadows, reflections, mirages. But there they are, darting back and forth in our thoughts and imagination again and again. Memory is populated by ‘what happened’; imagination by ‘what ifs’. Memory is a slow moving swan, imagination a restless sparrow. Memory makes for history, imagination for counterfactual history. This essay belongs, in part, to the latter genre. Be it remembered, though, that counterfactual history is not fiction. It makes its way through what could have happened, but did not. It is not a wild story of impossibilities.

And so… I will imagine those greats present there on the eve of Independence Day, 15 August 1947.

All of them, with a host of leaders and activists, meet on the morning of the 14th in the Central Hall of what is going to become the Parliament of India.

Five special seats have been placed at the podium for Tagore, Madame Cama, Vivekananda, Gokhale, Gandhi. The latter insists on more being brought there for Ashutosh Mukherjee but he declines saying a podium must have an odd number of chairs, with number three becoming the chair. And so the Swami becomes effectively, the chair.

Jawaharlal and Subhas sit side by side with the Congress leadership beside them. Jinnah and Liaquat Ali sit together just beyond an intervening aisle.

Vivekananda, at a supremely fit 84, towers over everyone else. Personifying not just India’s independence but India itself, he rises to an audible hush. Turning in flawless etiquette towards Madame Cama, he says, ‘By your leave, Madame…’ and after her startled nod, gives an electrifying message: ‘We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to give back to the nation its lost individuality and raise the masses.’ And what a message that is! And he asks the nation to hearken to Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship with this lacerating truth: ‘My old friend, Gandhi, so rightly called our Mahatma by Gurudev, has spoken of the rich seeing their wealth as being meant to be spent for others in need… But do you think the people of India are going to spend money? Oh no! They are – we are – selfishness personified.’ In words that are both celebratory and admonitory, he tells us, his fellow citizens, where we are magnificent, redemptive, emancipated and where we are puerile, servile, vile.


Bengal looms over the rest of the country. Imagine Tagore, Vivekananda, Ashutosh Mukherjee, Chittaranjan Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and Pritilata Waddedar, the heroine of the 1932 Pahartali European Club Raid, being at Red Fort or Parliament House or the future Rashtrapati Bhavan, together. Without wanting or trying to, they overshadow everything and everyone else barring the Mahatma alone.

Vivekananda invites Tagore to start the proceedings with a blessing. The Gurudev, seated, says he will not make a speech but will recite the first line of a poem of his. And then, almost singing, intones ‘Chitta jetha bhoy shunno…’ (Where the mind is without fear)…’ The Hall roars in applause. When the tumult quietens, he concludes ‘Uchcho jetha shir…’ (And the head is held high…). Several eyes go moist, including Jawaharlal’s and, startlingly, Subhas’s as well.


The Swami then invites Gokhale to speak. ‘May we hear the diamond of India, the Prince of Maharashtra…’ Gokhale speaks softly, almost inaudibly, a wracking cough interrupting his speech. ‘Friends, I am honoured… touched… Of all the great people gathered here… I am not counting myself among the great… I know Bhai Gandhi the best. He is Bhai to me. He is Mahatma to all of you. He is the Bhai I have known in South Africa… And I know Bhai Jinnah as well, now Quaid-e-Azam to the world. The Gurudev, Revered Swamiji, Bhai Gandhi remind us that we are Indians first, and Hindus, Mahomedans, Parsees, or Christians afterwards. Thanks to the international standing of these three great Indians, this fact is being realized in a steadily increasing measure, and the idea of a united and renovated India, marching onwards to a place among the nations of the world worthy of her great past, is no longer a mere idle dream of a few imaginative minds… I urge Bhai Jinnah to set aside all his misgivings and extend his hand in trust and friendship…’ Gokhale is overcome and then concludes by saying he blesses the new Indian leadership.

‘This is a meeting,’ the Swami says, ‘but all those present are welcome to interrupt and speak their minds provided, of course, they are brief… not like we generally are… prolix…’ There is a stir of happiness and many who are ready themselves to speak, interject.

India is about to become free without being partitioned. This is the biggest thought in everyone’s mind. Tagore, Vivekananda, Gokhale, Gandhi, the young Subhas Bose and younger Bhagat Singh have reassured the Muslims of India that there is no question but that India is as much their home as it is of Hindus or Sikhs and that they are as Indian as anyone else, safe and equal. Vivekananda takes the mike to say that India is not only the Muslims’ home but the venue for their self-redeeming action for the raising of all the masses of India. They must serve all of India, not just their quam, he says to them. ‘The Hindu,’ he says, ‘the Mohammedan, the Christian, all have trampled the masses underfoot.’ ‘Bilkul sahi,’ says Premchand from his seat. ‘Gharib na Hindu hai na Musalman. Gharib sirf gharib hai.’ The ascetic Utkalmani, Pandit Gopabandhu Das smiles in agreement. Tagore, Vivekananda, Subhas then join in saying they stand with Gandhi in what he has being doing heroically: resisting the break-up of India on the basis of religion. Azad and Ansari are delighted.


Subhas, freshly returned from his famous if futile flirtation with the Axis powers, offers to India the INA as a model for Hindu-Muslim-Sikh unity. ‘I have stood in the jaws of death,’ he says to prolonged cheers. ‘I have come through hunger, thirst, privation, marches, but there has been no greater pride for me, no higher honour, than to have been a soldier with other soldiers in the army of liberation.’ And then, his brow narrowing, ‘The dark uncertainty before us as to our future will vanish in no time if we achieve two things – unity among Congressmen and Hindu-Muslim settlement.’ He is cheered again and again, with Gandhi and Jawaharlal joining. The Indian National Army’s Urdu motto Ittehad, Itmad, Qurbani (Unity, Faith, Sacrifice) then rings across his electrified Delhi audience, with the entire country echoing his very own gift of Jai Hind!

These are epic transactions, achievements.

Then comes up the issue of offices.


With such a galaxy around, it is not for Gandhi to ‘name’ his preference and thereby the prime minister of India. Some other propulsion yet makes not Subhas Chandra Bose, but Jawaharlal Nehru our first prime minister. ‘Subhas is the fittest,’ Ashutosh Mukherjee says, ‘but he has burnt his boat… charred it with his own fire… marred it with his own magic.’ Those older than both Subhas and Jawaharlal find Jawaharlal’s un-charred, un-marred youthful spirit ideal for India’s journey into modern times. ‘Jawaharlal ji,’ says Satyamurti, ‘would be the most apposite…’

But not without Subhas beside him.

Tagore then formally proposes Jawaharlal, reminding everyone present that it is he, Tagore, who has called Jawaharlal ‘Ritu Raj’. And C.R. Das enthusiastically seconds this. Gandhi then asks Jawaharlal to have Subhas and Vallabhbhai, both, as his deputy prime ministers, the former with the defence and the latter with the home portfolio. Would Subhas agree to serve ‘under Nehru’? Tagore, Vivekananda and C.R. Das urge him to agree. And then Gandhi does as well. Subhas agrees saying, ‘Bapu, I have been your deviant son and you have not been always fair to me but today… you are as my Father… I cannot say no to you…’

‘What of the office of governor general?’ asks Satyamurti. There is a murmur about Lord Mountbatten continuing as governor general in his personal capacity, not as a representative of the Raj. ‘But then where is viduthalai – freedom?’, retorts Subramania Bharati, the poet. Gopabandhu Das also agrees with Bharati. The Mahatma then says in his soft but compelling voice : ‘Whilst Lord Mountbatten is dearly loved by Indians of all denominations, and Lady Mount-batten and their daughters have won our hearts, it is my bounden duty to say that Their Excellencies must not prolong their departure. They will carry with them, as they leave, not the rancour of the past but the pleasantest memories of the goodwill of the people of India. And they will leave behind faith in a new and revitalised friendship between Great Britain and Free India. As to the question of who should succeed Lord Mountbatten, I would say "No one", for indeed what is to be filled now is not a vacated office but a newly arising one. The governor general coming into office now will not be a successor but a precursor to the first president of India.’ And then Gandhi says something that astonishes all. ‘We cannot go wrong, I believe, in trusting our brother M.A. Jinnah, with that new office, the highest office, of our land, which in due course will transform itself into the office of the president of India.’ Azad is not pleased. He makes as if to protest but Ansari tells him ‘Maulana Sahib, bare maukon par dil bara pesh ana chahiye.’ The Maulana says nothing. The Mahatma continues, ‘The Quaid-e-Azam will, I doubt not, bring to that office not just the ripeness of his experience of law and of politics but more than that, his understanding of the complex affairs of our vast and varied land.’


The great leader of the Muslims of India, at all of India’s disposal, ponders the prospect. His talent, his brilliance, his capacity, unrivalled by any, of a focus that would put the sharpest magnifying glass to shame, are now undivided India’s undivided asset. Gandhi, in consultation with the deft formula-maker Rajagopalachari, further suggests that the Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan also be made a deputy prime minister with finance as his portfolio. ‘Three deputies?’ asks the gentle Rajendra Prasad, ‘Would that not be one too many?’ Rajagopalachari, ever a quick thinker, says to that, ‘Three deputies will make for one cabinet, one deputy will make for three cabinets.’ Gandhi and Rajagopalachari then look further afield and say that when the time comes for it there should be three vice presidents of India as well, one of who shall be, by statute, a Harijan or Adivasi, the second a woman, and the third a member of any one of India’s religious minorities.


And again in another leap forward of faith and imaginativeness, Gandhi proposes that after he has concluded his labours over the drafting of the Constitution of India, Dr B.R. Ambedkar should be the first of the three vice presidents of India, the other two being Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the Jesuit, Rev. Jerome De Souza. ‘But,’ a sharp-eyed points out, ‘both belong to Mangalore’. Jawaharlal scratches his forehead for a moment and then says with a mischievous smile, ‘I didn’t know that Kamaladevi belonged to anything!’

The Mahatma who has noted the Maulana’s silence then says, ‘Ah yes, there is one more thing. I suggest, subject to all of you agreeing, of course, that Maulana Azad be the chair of the Constituent Assembly.’ There is a great applause and Azad responds by a silent salaam.

What of Pritilata and Bhagat Singh? Subhas suggests that Pritilata be made minister for women’s empowerment with Jawaharlal agreeing at once. And he proposes the young scholar Bhagat Singh for education. ‘Bhagat Singh… minister for education…? But aren’t you too young?’ asks Sarojini Naidu looking at the handsome Sikh who just smiles. ‘Well,’ the prime minister-designate replies with some irritation, ‘Isn’t education itself rather young in India ? Besides, have you read anything of what he writes? He is an astonishment, no less. He is a genius with words.’ The Nightingale rises to the occasion. ‘Bulbul ko gul mubarak,’ she says ‘gul ko chaman mubarak… rangin tabiyaton ko rangin sukhan mubarak,’ whereupon Bharati demands and gets a translation from the poetess herself.

‘Will Rajen Babu, Rajaji, Sarojini Devi not be in any office?’ asks Satyamurti. ‘Surely,’ says Nehru, ‘we have not abolished the office of governor. And Satyamurti, we have not abolished you, either!’

Bhimrao Ambedkar, who has been silent, mostly, now says, ‘Is all this necessary to go into here? …this things about who is to be where and who is to do what… There is so much work to be done.’


The atmosphere lightens. Sardar Patel, who has been quiet all this while, points to V.D. Savarkar, sitting demurely by himself in a corner. ‘What is Veer Savarkar thinking?’ he asks aloud. The Maharashtrian is caught unawares but rises to the occasion. He walks all the way up to the podium and taking the mike from there, says, ‘I am thinking not of offices and jobs, but of my Goddess, Bharat Mata.’ After a moment of indecision, the Hall breaks into a loud applause. ‘This is Her hour… No one has spoken of Her.’ There is another hush. ‘I offer Her my pranam and in my mind visualise all the people of India as one person adorning Her head with the Crown of Freedom.’ Another applause.

After Savarkar returns to his seat, the irrepressible Sardar rises to say ‘Veer Savarkar said he was not thinking of offices and jobs but by saying what he said he has just appointed himself high priest to the Goddess, Bharat Mata!’ There is much merriment at this and Savarkar allows himself a wry smile. Jinnah, Liaquat Ali, Azad and Ansari are not amused.

Ambedkar rises again to say ‘Swamiji, may we disperse? There is work to be done.’

It is getting to be time to close proceedings.

Swami Vivekananda asks Madame Cama if she would like to say a word. The revolutionary rises and brings out the flag that she has designed. The flag of free India. ‘I know no God, I know no Goddess’, she says ‘but one that dwells in the flutter of this flag.’ There is applause.

‘We shall end, if we may,’ says the Swami, ‘with an incantation. I request Professor Radhakrishnan to do that for us.’ At this young E.M.S. Namboodiripad gets up and, tightening his mundu, says ‘On what may be called a point of order… May we not have a religious incantation. We are going to be a secular country. Let us not mix up religion with the procedures of the state.’

‘I endorse that,’ says Jayaprakash.

Upon which the Swami just says, ‘Professor Radhakrishnan.’ The scholar rises and walks to the podium like a flagstaff. Bringing his fingertips together in prayer and blessing, supplication and benediction he says, his eyes sparkling, ‘I will neither speak nor incant. I will just say four words in Sanskrit which mean ‘Look far ahead, be not short-sighted’ – Dirgham pashyatu, ma hrasvam.’


The foregoing may be read as counterfactual history; it may be read as wishful thinking. I only urge that it be not read as something bizarre. Nothing can be more bizarre than the politics of India seventy years after 15 August 1947. Everything that the founders of free India stood for is under attack. And not so much by the ideological opponents of those values as by our callousness.