On August 15, 1947, India, one of the oldest and most populated nations in the world, gained independence from Great Britain. The British East India Company controlled India, from the 1700s until the Indian rebellion of 1857. After the suppression of the revolt, the British Crown took control of the region from the Company. In the years after 1857 and during British rule of the region, calls for reform and Indian self-rule grew. But it wasn’t until 1947, after years of growing movements, the rise of Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience movement, the “Quit India” movement of the Indian National Congress Party, and after revolts and mass strikes, that India gained its independence. After 90 years of fighting against British Raj (British Rule) and calls for Indian Self-Rule, the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was signed.
Students, professors, and other members of the IU community were certainly aware of the struggles of Indians well before the 1940s. One faculty member, Cecilia Hennel Hendricks, Associate Professor of English, wrote to her family members about a lecture regarding India that she attended at IU in 1931. In her letter, Cecilia describes meeting a man who had met Gandhi and learned why he opposed British rule:
“He told of some conversations he had with Ghandi, and said when he asked Ghandi why he opposed the British rule, Ghandi answered that after all India was the country of the Indians, who had owned and ruled it for centuries before England ever existed, and that there were thousands of Indian people as well educated and trained as any English people, and fully able to manage their own government.”
Letter from Cecilia, 1931, Cecilia Hennel Hendricks family papers, Collection C413, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.
Independence Day is now one of only three national holidays in India. It’s celebrated on August 15 and is commemorated with a speech from the Prime Minister, references to the Indian Independence Movement, and celebration through cultural events. Flag hoisting events and kite flying in some areas are also hosted around India as a part of the celebration. Around the world, Indian emigrants celebrate with parades and events of their own, sometimes referring to the day as ‘India Day.’
At Indiana University, Indian Independence was celebrated as early as 1948. Indian student Ramnarase Panday was particularly active while attending Indiana University. He and another student, Raghubir Bhatia, organized that first Indian Independence Day celebration at IU. They asked President Wells to speak at the event at Alumni Hall, and invited others from around campus, including President Emeritus William Lowe Bryan, to attend the celebration.
Panday was from Beharr, India and attended the College of Arts and Sciences at IU. He earned his A.B. in Government in 1950 and his M.A. in History in 1952. He was a very active member of the college community. As an undergraduate, Panday was in the Cosmopolitan Club, a student organization for international students and cultures, and once in graduate school, he joined Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity.
The celebration of India’s first Independence Day at IU must have been a momentous occasion for everyone who attended. While we have been unable to find further records documenting the event or information on additional students who assisted with the celebration, we suspect that Panday and Bhatia were likely the only two students organizing the event.
President Herman B Wells spoke at the inaugural celebration in Alumni Hall:
“Birthdays are happy occasions whether they mark the passing of a year in the life of an individual or a nation. We are met tonight to celebrate an unusually significant birthday which marks the end of the first year of independence for one of the world’s oldest and largest nations – a nation rich in physical resources, in manpower, and in cultural acheivement. It is a privilege therefore to join with you in extending our congratulations and good wishes to the Indiana University students from India and through them to the great nation which they so ably represent.”
This celebration marking India’s independence was significant and marked the growing diversity of the university.