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Seal of freedom

The author talks about being perhaps the last Indian to use the Great Seal of the Secretary of State for India in Whitehall

Seal of freedom

I was perhaps the last Indian to use the Great Seal of the Secretary of State for India in Whitehall. In fact, I am certain I was the last since I operated the seal at 5 pm on Thursday, August 14, 1947, a day before Independence day, after which there was no secretary of state for India.

I was a student in London at the time and also doubled as a journalist, writing occasionally for an Indian paper back home. Some of us were invited to tea by Lord Listowell, who was deputy to the Secretary of State for India on August 14, that is, independence day eve, and the tea was to be held in the India Office.

India Office, the place from which Britain governed its empire in India for years, was a gloomy old building - like most buildings in London - a stone's throw from the prime minister's office in 10 Downing Street. In fact, we were escorted to India Office through a portal right in front of 10 Downing Street, along some alleyways possibly designed by Charles Dickens. We were first taken to a large hall called Durbar Court, shielded from the English rain by a large glass roof, with a ceramic blue frieze running along its four walls, and riches on which marble busts of previous secretaries of state and viceroys were perched including Curzon, Chelmsford, Irwin (of Gandhi-Irwin pact) and, of course, Willingdon, whose wife had carted away tons of precious stones from Gwalior and Jaipur.

There were also some oil paintings including a huge one of that rogue, Robert Clive, the real founder of the British empire in India, and surprisingly Ranjit Singh, the last ruler of Punjab. There was also a small museum, housing, among other things, a sword of Tipu Sultan and the bejeweled headgear of the last Peshwa whom the British had defeated in 1818.

We were served tea in dainty pottery, totally out of sync with the burly Robert Clive and Lawrence Brothers staring at us from the walls. There were, of course, biscuits and cucumber sandwiches, which, for some reason, even the queen serves its guests in the Buckingham Palace. There was nothing very Indian about India Office whose very design was intimidating, just like the British rule in India.

Among the men who served us tea and biscuits was an old liveried gentleman, who said that he had served Irwin in Delhi in the thirties and had served tea to Mahatma Gandhi. He was also in charge of the Great Seal of the Secretary of State which appeared in all important documents and was the ultimate rubric of the empire. Would he care to operate the seal for us, possibly for the last time? Of course, he would. Just then, Lord Listowell appeared beside us and said he would show how it worked. He took out a piece of paper from his table and pressed the seal on it.

Nothing happened. So I pressed it again with some force, and lo and behold, it worked. That was the last time the seal was put to use, for a couple of hours later in Delhi, while the world slept, as Nehru said, India would awake to freedom, and the Seal of the Secretary of State for India, in fact, the secretary himself, would pass into limbo, and the Durbar Court would go back to pigeons and sparrows, who, as we sipped tea, were gathering on the glass roof. With the tea party over, we emerged into Whitehall, now gloomier than ever, and proceeded towards Trafalgar Square, yet another imperial landmark. But India would no more be a part of it from tomorrow, and we would walk down Whitehall free men, cocking a snook at Robert Clive in Durbar Hall, just a few feet away.