India Independence Day: Mumbai freedom trail

India Independence Day: Mumbai freedom trail

For Indepedence Day this Sunday we're following the trail of Mumbai landmarks associated with the Freedom Movement that led to India's independence in 1947

Mumbai's a hotspot of freedom landmarks. Gandhi was a barrister with the High Court here, Tilak lived and died in one of its chawls. Even the last British contingent exited India from here. From Queen Victoria's Proclamation that made India a British colony to Gandhi's famous Quit India speech, it all happened right here, in the city then known as Bombay. 

Gateway of India, Colaba 

If one were to fashion a local freedom trail out of all the significant landmarks related to India's independence, you would logically begin by the water at the tip of Mumbai where the Gateway of India stands. It is perhaps ironic or fitting that an arched stone structure built to commemorate the 1911 visit of Queen Mary and King George V also saw the last of the British troops leave India, to signify the end of more than three centuries of British rule. The symbolic departure of the British took place in 1948 under the arches of the Gateway and just so you know, the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry was the last British contingent that formally departed India. Today you find horse drawn carts, local gays cruising, local and foreign tourists and photographers who pester them -- all mingling with Mumbai's well-heeled gliding in and out of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel across the road. Gateway of IndiaWaves go crazy during the monsoon at Colaba's southern most tip where the Gateway of India stands.

Asiatic Society Town Hall and Horniman Circle Gardens, Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, Fort

The bright white steps of this heritage building in Fort have been featured in many a Bollywood film. But few know that they were also the setting for the famous Queen Victoria's proclamation in 1858, which followed on the heels of the Indian Mutiny. Under the Proclamation, the East India Company was abolished, the task of administering the country was formally transferred to the Crown and India became a colony of the British Raj. The Society also kept in state an urn containing Gandhi's ashes. These days students can often be seen sitting around in groups catching up on their studies. Especially in the night when not-so-well-off youngsters from nearby chawls (perhaps encumbered by lack of physical as well as mental space) study by the streetlights here.

Next door neighbor to the Asiatic Society, Horniman Circle Gardens is one of the rarest examples in the country of a site being re-named after a British national, post Independence. Benjamin Guy Horniman was an Irishman, which may have explained his dislike for the British Imperial rulers of India. Editor of The Bombay Chronicle, he promoted the freedom movement through the newspaper and participated in movements like Satyagraha. In April 1919, Horniman was arrested and deported to London after he protested against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The garden named after him is spread over 12,081 square yards and is said to be a replica of the Park Crescent in London with its neo-classical colonnade, making it a favorite venue for open-air cultural festivals today, including music and theater events.

Asiatic Society LibraryThe Asiatic Society Library is a great example of Neoclassical architecture in South Mumbai's Fort area.

Bombay High Court, Fort

In the imposing, high-ceilinged rooms of the Bombay High Court, a young British trained barrister named Mohammad Ali Jinnah fought the case for Lokmanya Tilak in 1908, on charges of sedition. Tilak commented on the verdict of the jury: "In spite of the verdict of the Jury, I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of men and nations and it may be the will of providence that the cause which I represent may prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free." These words can be seen on the wall of Room. No 46 at Bombay High Court. Another young British trained barrister, MK Gandhi, also put in a stint of practice here before devoting himself to the cause of persuading the British to Quit India. The High Court is still true to itself, only the profile of the criminal class has changed: from freedom fighter and mutineers to underworld dons and white collar crimes today.

Khadi Bhandar, DN Road, Fort

If you want to be Indian and buy Indian, make a shopping stop at the Khadi Bhandar on DN Road, which still manages to hold on to a rather pre-independence aura, and buy some khadi cloth, the iconic symbol of the freedom movement. Indians began spinning khadi to make their own fabric and cock a snook at British textile industry imports. Khadi was used as a uniform for the first Non-Cooperation Movement. The white Gandhi cap made of khadi became a symbol of freedom. The wearing of khadi became synonymous almost with the quest for freedom. Pandit Nehru got a wedding sari made in pink khadi for his daughter Indira while he was in jail. The fabric still holds on to its popularity today and has been re-invented as a fashion fabric by contemporary Indian fashion designers.

The Bombay Docks, Colaba

If the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 gets attention from rock star-status writers to big budget Bollywood directors as the star event of the freedom movement, then the Naval Ratings Mutiny of 1946 is the one the world forgot.

As with the many events leading to August 1947, this one had its epicenter in the docks of Bombay. The mutiny started as a strike in protest against poor living conditions but soon took on other issues such as racist behavior by British Royal Navy personnel. The strike spread and the 22 ships docked at Bombay Harbour all joined in. Hundreds of strikers demonstrated for hours along what is now DN Road in Fort area. Indian sailors in the Bombay Harbour revolted by offering British officers an insolent left-hand salute. The White Ensign -- the premier British maritime flag -- was lowered from ships and mutinying ships hoisted three flags tied together:  those of the Congress, the Muslim League, and the Red Flag of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

The mutiny then spread to other parts of India like the Royal Indian Air Force as well as local police forces joined in. Some believe that it was the INA revolt and the Navy mutiny that made British realize that their time in India was up.

A letter written by PV Chuckraborty, former Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, on March 30, 1976, says: "I put it straight to him [Lord Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister responsible for India's freedom] straight like this: The Quit India Movement of Gandhi practically died out long before 1947 and there was nothing in the Indian situation at that time, which made it necessary for the British to leave India in a hurry. Why then did they do so? In reply Attlee cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the very foundation of the British Empire in India, and the RIN Mutiny which made the British realise that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British." A memorial to the mutiny and the men who took part in it stands in the busy Colaba area.Naval Dockyard fort mumbaiNavy vessels docked at the Naval Dockyard in Fort.

Watson Hotel, Kala Ghoda

From Colaba walk down to the Kala Ghoda area where the Watson Hotel -- a monument associated with discriminatory British policies, stands. A popular tale told by countless guidebooks says that JRD Tata decided to build the magnificent Taj Mahal Hotel after being thrown out of this whites-only hotel. Several historians have challenged this urban legend, but the story retains its popularity. The hotel is named after its original owner John Watson and in its heyday, this was the place to be seen. The hotel was designed by Rowland Mason Ordish, who has also worked on the single-span roof of St Pancras station in London. Its external frame was fabricated in England, then shipped to India and the hotel was constructed on site between 1860 and 1863. In July 1896, the Lumiere Brothers screened the first cinematograph show at the hotel. The U.S. writer Mark Twain has also stayed here.

It's known today as the Esplanade Mansion and sadly is registered as being in the "most dilapidated" category by the BMCs survey of dangerous structures. A 2006 article in the Sunday Times states: "To understand how power in India has changed, look no farther than the majestic Taj Mahal hotel in downtown Bombay and the now dilapidated Watson Hotel that sits in its shadow. The Taj Mahal hotel became the foundation stone of an Indian business empire that became the conglomerate Tata, which yesterday agreed a multibillion-pound takeover of the steelmaker Corus. The Watson Hotel was to become emblematic of a failing British empire."

Esplanade MansionAny monsoon now the 138-year old Esplanade Mansion, which was originally Watson's Hotel, could collapse.

Bombay Talkies, SV Road, Malad West

It was at the historical Bombay Talkies theater, created by Himanshu Rai and his beauteous wife and leading lady Devika Rani, that freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose was filmed for a historic newsreel. According to a book by Colin Pal, son of the co-founder of the studio Niranjan Pal, Netaji announced his decision to break with the Congress and launch his own party, the Forward Bloc, in these studios. Singer Lata Mageshkar got her first break at Bombay Talkies with a duet with Mukesh -- "Ek Angreji chora chala gaya" for the film "Majboor".

Elphinstone Mill, Parel

On November 17, 1921, a crowd of more that 20,000 watched as freedom activists created a huge bonfire of foreign cloth at Elphinstone Mill in Parel in what is now the domain of shiny glass offices and foreign designer brands. The protest coincided with the visit of the Prince of Wales to India.

Chowpatty beachAn overview of Chowpatty beach. Chowpatty beach, Girgaum

Next time you are tucking into hot vada-paos and mango lassi at Girgaum Chowpatty, take a good look around. In April 1919 a Black Sunday protest was held against the infamous Rowlatt Acts when Gandhi and thousands of others took a symbolic sea bath here. The beach also witnessed its own version of the Dandi March protest in 1930 when women freedom fighters like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Avantikabai Gokhale made salt at Chowpatty. Thousands turned up with vessels, taking sea water to prepare salt at home. Tilak was cremated at Chowpatty -- a statue on the beach marks the site.

Gowalia Tank Maidan, Papanas Wadi, Tardeo

In August 1942, the official Quit India Movement was launched from Gowalia Tank Maidan. The Congress Working Committee approved the resolution which declared that "the immediate ending of the British rule in India is an urgent necessity both for the sake of India and for the success of the cause of United Nations." Most Congress leaders were arrested less than 24 hours after Gandhi's Quit India speech. Recently, to commemorate this event, the ground was renamed August Kranti Maidan.

On August 16, 2008, August Kranti Maidan was the chosen venue for a massive protest rally -- the Queer Azadi March -- against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (a provision that criminalizes the non-heterosexual "carnal intercourse against the order of nature"). Some posters said "Sec 377, Quit India!"queer azadi mumbaiAt least 2,000 gays, lesbians, transsexuals and their heterosexual supporters took to the streets of Mumbai for the annual pride march only weeks after a New Delhi court overturned a British colonial era ban on sex between men.

Mani Bhavan, 19, Laburnum Road, Gamdevi

Located in a leafy lane on Laburnum Road in Gamdevi, this serene two-story building was the Mumbai home of the man who was in the center of the national freedom struggle. Mani Bhavan was Mahatma Gandhi's home from 1917 to 1934. If these walls could speak, they would talk about the many important movements against British rule that were launched from here -- the Satyagraha movement, the Swadeshi movement, meetings to launch the Civil Disobedience Movement as well as Gandhi's fasts for peace. Today it is an ode to Gandhi and to all things Gandhian. You can see photos of the freedom struggle and some of Gandhis personal life; you can hear his speeches on earphones, and read his letters, you can see Gandhis personal possessions. Mani Bhavan also houses a reading library. There are about 50,000 books in the reference library that you can freely browse through. It recently saw a new lease of life with an increase in visitors after the release of the second Munnabhai film. 

mani bhavan mumbaiMahatma Gandhi's Mumbai headquarters was the sometime setting for the most effective non-violent freedom struggle in the history of mankind. That's no small claim for this little museum.

Jinnah House, Malabar Hill

It is one of the ironies of fate that one of the most stunning pieces of real estate in an address-obsessed city should be the home of one-time Bombay resident and founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. A winding taxi ride up Malabar Hill takes you to Jinnah House, a US$60 million sea-facing bungalow with stunning views and intricate workmanship. It is now in the middle of a dispute between India, Pakistan and Jinnah's daughter Dina Wadia. Jinnah was a lover of luxury. The best Italian marble, walnut woodwork and imported workers (Italian stone masons) went into building his house. After Partition, Jinnah asked Nehru to allot his house to a foreign consulate, preferably European in the hope that the work that went into it would be appreciated and the house would be kept in good condition. In 1955, Nehru asked that the house should be gifted to the Pakistan government but this was vetoed. Since then, there have been several talks between India and Pakistan to turn it into the Pakistani consulate, but nothing came of them.

AmbedkarB.R. Ambedkar fought for the abolition of untouchability and the caste system throughout his lifetime.Ambedkar's footsteps, Parel and Dadar

The chief architect of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar would sit at the erstwhile Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda writing the document. The café has closed since then. However, you can visit Rooms 50-51 at the Bombay Improvement Trust chawls in Parel where he lived, or Damodar Hall in Parel where he worked. Or visit Dadar's Hindu colony to check out Rajgriha, the house he built (his personal library here had more than 50,000 books), and the Government High School near Elphinstone Road where he was the first "untouchable" Dalit student.

statue of Lokmanya TilakThe statue of Lokmanya Tilak at Chowpatty.Tilak's chawl, Sardar Gruha, Crawford Market

Lost in the chaos and blur of traffic in Mumbai's Crawford Market area is Sardar Gruha, a run-down, biscuit-colored chawl that at first glance seems to be another heritage structure that has seen better days. Even at a second or third glance, it is impossible to tell that this historical structure was where Lokmanya Tilak, one of the stalwarts of the freedom movement, lived and died. The chawl still houses the office of his Kesari newspaper.

Tilak introduced the idea of the Sarvajanik Ganpati festival from here. Before that, Ganpati puja was done at individual homes. There was no community celebration. The decrepit facade of the building is a sad contrast to 60 Talbot Street in London, where Tilak spent barely a few months. The house has been marked with a blue plaque, indicating its historical significance. At the commemoration ceremony, Lord Mountbatten said in his inaugural speech, "I have an uneasy feeling that most people younger than me have probably not heard of him at all and therefore the existence of Tilak Trust and this house is important.'' Unfortunately the sentiment seems to be missing from the city which the charismatic Indian considered home.

 


Anuradha Sengupta is a journalist/editor whose body of work has appeared in print and broadcast media in India and abroad.
Read more about Anuradha Sengupta
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