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This article was one of the first attempts to analyse the ceremonies of decolonization. It was inspired by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s edited collection The Invention of Tradition, with its accounts of how apparently ancient ceremonies were often much more recent than they seemed; and how they were designed to deliver certain symbolic messages concerning the concentration and stability of power, often despite the realities. I also used some of the theoretical insights of anthropology and sociology concerning the uses of ritual and ceremony. The ceremonials of colonial independence had not previously been considered in this light, but they seemed very well suited to this sort of analysis.

The article examined the design of the ceremonies in India and Pakistan in August 1947, and tried to explain the sorts of impressions they were intended to deliver. There was no technical need for a ceremony. The transfer of power, in the legal sense, occurred in London with the Royal Assent to the Indian Independence Act. But the ceremonial was vital to convey the meaning of the Act. The partition of India was a violent, traumatic event in which millions died or were made refugees. The impression given on independence day, however, was one of an orderly and long expected ‘transfer of power’. This was the consequence of conscious planning of ceremonial on the part of the political leaders.

For the British, independence had come more quickly than they had expected, and on terms that were very unsatisfactory. It was expected that when the partition border was announced the localised communal rioting already underway would become widespread. For this reason it was decided not to make the announcement of the border until the day after the ceremonials. The Labour Government also feared a domestic backlash against independence and partition, and therefore gratefully accepted the plans devised by Mountbatten (the last Viceroy) for ceremonies that gave a very different impression. These ceremonies were devised to give a strong sense of British control, and to avoid at all costs the suggestion of a dishonourable ‘scuttle’ from imperial responsibilities.

For example, although similar ceremonies later incorporated the hauling down of the ‘union jack’, for example, the India ceremonies ones did not, on the grounds that it was too symbolically unacceptable. Instead, no flags were flown on independence day until the new independence flags were raised.

The purpose of ceremonial for the new government is to stamp their authority on the new state. For them, the ceremonial therefore both to show continuity of state power, but also to build on the symbolic aspects of their struggle. Indeed, symbolic action, as used on the ‘salt march’ in 1930, had been an important part of the Indian struggle for independence. It was especially effective in a society in which political education and literacy were at low levels. Congress had, where possible, celebrated its own ‘independence day’ each 26 January throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. Where it held provincial office after 1937, it had raised the Congress flag over government buildings

This made Congress leaders very unwilling to accept Mountbatten’s proposal that the union flag should be incorporated into the flag of free India, something that British provincial Governors had made a condition of their willingness to remain in office after independence. Their own contribution to the ceremonial involved a second flag-raising ceremony, held at the Red Fort, a symbolically important as the site of resistance in 1857 and of the politically controversial trials of members of the Indian National Army in 1945.

However, the Congress and Muslim League leaders shared the worry of British officials that independence day would lead to general rioting. They therefore favoured low-key local ceremonies, without inflammatory speeches, especially where communal conflict was fiercest. In the Punjab, especially, the ceremonies were either not held, or failed to serve their purpose. Amritsar and Lahore were burning, and streams of thousands refugees crossed the countryside. Little of this was visible in Delhi, where the ceremonies proceeded very differently.

Dissent is almost always a possibility at ceremonies, which is why they are both attempts to stabilise and control, and also fragile occasions. Participants might refuse to do what was expected of them. They might boycott the ceremony or oppose it by the ‘anti-ritual’ of ‘black flag’ demonstration or flag-burnings. In India, the mass occupation of Government House in Calcutta on the night of independence day, provides an important example. So also does the place of Gandhi. Gandhi spent independence day away from the public ceremonies, engaged in prayer, fasting and hand-spinning. The Indian princes too, who had been at the heart of the imperial durbar of 1877, 1903 and 1911, were uninvolved in the independence celebrations. Their future under Congress rule was too uncertain. Who is not at a ceremony is as important as who is present.

The Indian model was applied elsewhere in the empire during the era of decolonisation. Among its main elements were (1) the use of elements from earlier imperial ceremonies, such as durbars, investitures and troop parades, both as a demonstration of continuity and a show of force; (2) the deployment of large crowds (for to attend a ceremony as almost always, in some sense, to assent to it); (3) the involvement of representatives of the ‘white’ dominions and associated new members of the Commonwealth; (4) the presentation of a Speaker’s Chair, or a mace, or some dispatch boxes to indicate the persistence of parliamentary government; (5) extensive media coverage, increasingly involving television; and (6) the co-option of the Royal Family. Indeed, the ‘first dance’ at the Independence Day Ball, in which the visiting Princess and the new Prime Minister danced together was meant to symbolise the harmonious and close relationship which the British hoped would follow the granting of ‘flag independence’ to their colonies.

The imagery of the orderly, consensual transfer of power, hazily promoted through ceremonial, so often at odds with the violence and trauma of independence struggles, entered British public consciousness and has arguably played its part in securing the widely held view in Britain that the end of the British empire was a peaceful, dignified process.



The article was published in the journal of the Institute of Contemporary British History, Contemporary Record, as Nicholas Owen, ‘”More than a transfer of power”: Independence day ceremonies in India, 15 August 1947′, Contemporary Record, 6 (3) 1992, 415-451. You can find it here.