Jinnnah with Lord and Lady Mountbatten at the Viceregal Lodge in New Delhi on April 5, 1947
“Mercury!” The cry went out and we rushed to the roadside prancing and cavorting about, as the black Mercury car glided by, with Liaquat Ali Khan in the backseat looking the other way trying hard to avoid our pantomime.
The ‘we’ were a mixed group of mainly Hindu, some Muslim, and a few Christian and Sikh students in our early teens from St Columbus High School (the name was later changed to St Columba’s) in New Delhi. We played cricket most evenings and weekends on the spreading lawns of India Gate, the New Delhi landmark. We all lived nearby with our parents in a housing complex of 50-odd houses for upper grade government officers.
This was early 1947, Lord Mountbatten had taken over as Viceroy of India, and the tempo for Indian independence had accelerated. There was a constant flow of politicians’ cars on the way to or coming from the Viceroy’s House nearby. We had come to recognise most and ‘greeted’ each with silly antics as they went by — the occupants would of course react differently.
A multireligious group from St Columbus School in New Delhi had its daily routine interrupted by politicians such as Jinnah and Nehru
Jinnah, in the backseat of his yellow Packard, would not turn aside but look straight at us with his finger softly tapping his lips, the frolicking would cease and we would respectfully stand still. Nehru in his car would give us stern looks which, however, would not entirely conceal his amusement.
We greeted Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar by standing in line and twirling our imaginary moustaches. He would get angry but sometimes, probably when returning from a good meeting, he would smile and begin to twirl his own moustache. We opted to ignore Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel whom we would spot in the backseat with his forehead painted like a warrior’s. Our presence and antics appeared not to register with him — there was no reaction, which made us feel small.
Our next encounter with Sardar Patel was in Lodhi Gardens, through which my Hindu friend and I cycled every morning on our way to school. Around the same time, Sardar Patel would be out for his morning walk with a group of associates, all in regulation dhotis and with foreheads duly marked with colour. Our paths would cross almost at the same point every morning. After a while we began to receive looks of recognition and subdued smiles from some in the group.
All this changed, however, when one morning I cycled past the group with the Muslim League flag fluttering on the handlebar of my bicycle. The looks of recognition and subdued smiles disappeared. I mentioned this to my Hindu friend who puckishly suggested we do something more to rile the group.
Next morning, and on purpose talking and laughing effusively, we cycled past the Patel group with a Muslim League flag on my bike, and the Congress flag on my Hindu friend’s bike. A deathly silence descended on the group, and from then on we ceased to exist for them.
St Columbus was run by Irish clerics. Our class teacher was Brother Clancy, who firmly believed the British would be doing India a great disservice by leaving. For him, the Indians were not made for self-governance, and there would be mayhem if the British left.
Brother Clancy regarded all Indian politicians as ignoramuses. He would proclaim that except for World War II — which England won from Hitler’s Germany but in the process was severely damaged — England would have ruled India for another 200 years.
If India became free, he would say, it would have no one but ‘Mahatma Hitler’ to thank for it. The students were more interested in cricket and too busy following the ongoing Test matches with the visiting Australian team led by Lindsay Hasset to be bothered with Brother Clancy’s racist declamations.
Brother Clancy was a stickler for attendance.He made absences a rarity by requiring any absence to be made up with extra classes on Saturdays, which would wreck the students’ weekend. One day when Jinnah was to visit the Viceroy’s House for a meeting, I made up my mind to bunk school after getting marked present in class.
This was not easy. I would have to raise my hand in class to be excused to go to the toilet, sneak out to the bicycle stand and pedal off to the Viceroy’s House, which was not far. My Sikh friend insisted on joining me in the escapade, and we made it to the Viceroy’s House minutes before Jinnah’s car pulled up.
One day when Jinnah was to visit the Viceroy’s House for a meeting, I made up my mind to bunk school after getting marked present in class. My Sikh friend insisted on joining me in the escapade, and we made it to the Viceroy’s house minutes before Jinnah’s car pulled up.
There were 50-odd Muslims gathered from the offices close by and were baffled to see a Sikh lad join them, jumping the highest and shouting ‘zindabad’ the loudest. But that is how it was: Muslim students were staunchly for Pakistan and euphoric at its emergence; Hindu students were no less euphoric for their country’s impending freedom but this did not hinder the bonding of St Columbus School’s religiously and ethnically mixed group.
In school we were used to top positions in class being bagged by Hindu students, with Muslim students dominant in sports and other outdoor school activities. We grew up with the malformed notion that since Muslims were ‘soldiers’, and Hindus were ‘baniyas’, the Hindus needed to be better at schoolwork.
However, with Jinnah’s June 3, 1947 speech announcing the emergence of Pakistan, learning to be ‘baniyas’ became a grave necessity in Muslim students’ minds, for in Pakistan they would have to be both ‘soldiers’ and ‘baniyas’. There was an immediate subliminal upsurge in the merit of schoolwork of Muslim students which made Brother Clancy often remark “I feel Pakistan will do alright,” when he had all along doubted its emergence, and even less its survival.
There was considerable remorse in the group at its inevitable splitting and pledges to remain in touch. We lived at ‘No 10, King Georges Avenue’, now ‘No 10, Janpath’, where Sonia Gandhi currently resides. This was a prime New Delhi neighbourhood housing senior government functionaries including General Auchinleck.
Some days after our arrival in Karachi, I received my Hindu friend’s letter saying Muslim houses in New Delhi had been marked with white signs at the gate. He wrote our house had also been marked, adding that his parents, who were family friends, wept with relief at our timely departure.
The writer is former corporate executive and can be reached at husainsk1933[at]gmail.com