Freedom at Midnight

Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins


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The British were generally welcomed by the native rulers and population. Unlike the zealous Spaniards, who were conquering South America in the name of a redeeming God, the British stressed that it was in the name of another god, Mammon, that they had come to India. "Trade, not territory," the Company's officers never ceased repeating, was their policy.

Ultimately, responsibility was exercised at any given time by a little band of brothers, 2,000 members of the Indian Civil Service (the I.C.S.) and 10,000 British officers of the Indian Army. Their authority over 300 million people was sustained by 60,000 British regular soldiers and 200,000 native troops of the Indian Army.

He was not going to die in a British India, either. Ensconced in a hut on the beach-front estate of a wealthy supporter near Bombay, Gandhi slowly recovered his health. As he did, Churchill, who had not bothered to reply to his viceroy's urgent cables on India's growing famine, sent New Delhi a petulant cable. Why, he asked, hadn't Gandhi died yet?

The Mahatma had, indeed, been a difficult person for the British to deal with. Truth, to Gandhi, was the ultimate reality. Gandhi's truth, however, had two facets, the absolute and the relative. Man, as long as he was in the flesh, had only fleeting intimations of Absolute Truth. He had to deal with relative truth in his daily existence, and Gandhi liked to employ a parable to illustrate the difference between his two truths. Put your left hand in a bowl of ice-cold water, then in a bowl of lukewarm water, he would say. The lukewarm water feels hot. Then put the right hand in a bowl of hot water and into the same bowl of lukewarm water. Now the lukewarm water feels cold; yet its temperature is constant. The absolute truth is the water's constant temperature, he would observe, but the relative truth, perceived by the human hand, varied. As that parable indicated, Gandhi's relative truth was by no means rigid. It could vary as his perceptions of a problem changed. That made him a flexible man, but it also made him appear two-faced to his British interlocutors. Even one of his disciples once exclaimed to him in exasperation: "Gandhiji, I don't understand you. How can you say one thing last week, and something quite different this week?" "Ah," Gandhi replied, "because I have learned something since last week.

Whatever their political proclivities, however, the future of India's 565 ruling princes, with their average of eleven titles, 5.8 wives, 12.6 children, 9.2 elephants, 2.8 private railway cars, 3.4 Rolls-Royces and 22.9 tigers killed, posed a grave problem in the spring of 1947.

"Yes," Gandhi said bitterly in reply, "everybody is eager to garland my photos and statues. But nobody wants to follow my advice."

"No one can shorten my life by a minute," Gandhi replied. "It belongs to God."