How to Be More: 70 defining moments in Indian history

Seventy moments that defined the journey of the world’s largest democracy.

Written by Seema Chishti | Updated: August 13, 2017 3:14 pm
Acting President BD Jatti administering the oath of office to Morarji Desai as Prime Minister of India at Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi on March 24, 1977

In 1948, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination sent shock waves across newly independent India. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was banned by Sardar Patel, the then Home Minister and a committed Gandhian, who called it a “cult of violence”.

India’s central banking institution, the Reserve Bank of India, was nationalised in 1949.In 1950, India became a republic upon the enactment of the Constitution and guaranteed universal adult suffrage to all its citizens.

The Planning Commission was set up on March 15, 1950, and the first Five Year Plan, the bedrock of how development was to be planned, pushed and executed in the country, got underway.

From 1951-59, the first Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in Kharagpur, Chennai, Powai and Kanpur were set up. This enshrined the idea that technical education was not a luxury, but a necessity for a newly independent, even if poor country, like India.

India started work on what Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, called the “temples of modern India” — large hydro-electric projects such as the Bhakra Nangal Dam (completed in 1963), Hirakud Dam (completed in 1957) among others.

The first democratically elected Communist government in the world assumed office in Kerala in 1957. It was dismissed by the Centre in two years, but it made history, nonetheless.

K Asif’s magnum-opus Mughal-e-Azam released in August 1960. Asif, apparently, came upon the idea in 1944, after reading a play and had to wait for a long time to get financiers for the film.

Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta, became the first IIM to be set up on November 13, 1961. Like in the case of the IITs, the idea that the state could subsidise higher education was an audacious one.

The 1962 India-China War over Aksai-chin led to a defeat for India and had serious internal consequences. Nehru’s health took a beating, never to recover, and the non-Left Opposition in the country gained ground. Thousands of Communist members and supporters were arrested.

Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre was set up in 1963.

Another war with Pakistan a year after Nehru’s death in 1964 kept the country on tenterhooks. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Prime Minister, mindful of the food crisis as well as the mood of the country, coined the slogan, ‘Jai jawan jai kisan’.

1966 saw the then PM Indira Gandhi devalue the Indian rupee by one-third. The move came under heavy criticism, but it was done in the context of a very shaky balance of payments situation and food insufficiency. Droughts that year resulted in massive food shortage and India had to shop for food in the international world market. The move was criticised heavily, but the devaluation managed to reduce the astronomical fiscal deficit at the time.

Dr Reita Faria became the first Asian woman to win the Miss World pageant in 1966. It would be nearly three decades later that Sushmita Sen would win another beauty pageant in 1994.

The Green Revolution was ushered in in the early Sixties, with the introduction of high-yield variety of crops, eventually leading India to food self-sufficiency.

India won its first Test cricket series in New Zealand in 1968.

Banks were nationalised in 1969 by Indira Gandhi. This was a landmark moment in Indian economics and politics and earned Gandhi her spurs as a pro-poor Leader, which reaped results in the 1971 elections.

India won its first World Cup in 1983; Rakesh Sharma was the first Indian to travel in space in 1984; Jyoti Basu with Harkishan Singh Surjeet. Basu was the longest-serving chief minister of an elected Communist government lll

Dr V Kurien launched a cooperative milk revolution, the White Revolution, in Gujarat in 1970, enabling women to share the economic prosperity ushered in by their efforts. It was memorialised in the Shyam Benegal film, Manthan (1976). In 1988, the World Bank published an audit which “revealed that of the Rs 200 crore the World Bank invested in Operation Flood (Kurien’s project), the net return on India’s rural economy was a massive Rs 24,000 crore each year over a period of 10 years, to which no other dairy programme has ever matched.”

In 1970, the Department of Electronics (DoE) was set up to “promote the rapid growth of electronics and computers”. Between 1971 and 1978, a company called the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) was set up to lay emphasis on the indigenous design and development of computers, using primarily India-made components. ECIL made the TDC 312 and TDC 316 computers.

Bangladesh was carved out of East Pakistan after a civil war, in which India sided with the Mukti Bahinis of Bangladesh. The Simla Agreement was signed after the conclusion of the India-Pakistan war in 1971, laying the basis of peace with Pakistan for nearly three decades.

Project Tiger was launched in 1973. Its main objective was to ensure a viable population of tigers in India and to preserve areas of biological importance as a “natural heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people”.

The Kesavanand Bharati case was heard before the Supreme Court in 1973. It gave birth to the crucial “basic structure” doctrine of the Constitution. If it did not tamper with India’s “basic structure”, any law could be legislated and could pass muster.

Pokharan nuclear test in 1974 led to the formation of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group internationally to try and restrict India after its show of strength.

Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, was launched in 1975. Built by ISRO, it was launched from Kapustin Yar in the then-USSR. RBI kept the image of Aryabhata on the reverse of the Rs 2 note from 1976 to 1997.

Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay was released in1975, a landmark multi-starrer that became the benchmark for decades to come. Four of the top stars — Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Jaya Bhaduri and Hema Malini – went onto become Members of Parliament. The film launched Amjad Khan as the very impressive villain, Gabbar Singh.

The Constitution was amended very significantly in 1976 and the words “secular” and “socialist” added to the Preamble.

The first non-Congress government was formed at the Centre in 1977. Several parties came together as the Janata Party to fight Emergency. Jayaprakash Narayan was the central figure and leader of this anti-Congress formation. Morarji Desai was sworn in as Prime Minister after the electoral win.

Jyoti Basu became the chief minister of West Bengal in 1977 and helmed the longest-serving elected Communist government in the world.

On April 23, 1977, World Health Organisations’s International Smallpox Assessment Commission declared India to be free of small pox.

India won its last hockey gold at the Olympics in 1980.

In 1982, the concept of a low power transmitter (LPT) gained ground and television broadcast became possible to the remotest parts of India. Colour telecast and the reach of television became truly broad-based.

In 1983, India won the Cricket World Cup under Kapil Dev.

On April 2, 1984, Rakesh Sharma became the first and only Indian to travel in space aboard the Soyuz T-11. When asked by PM Indira Gandhi about what he thought of India from space, he famously replied, “Saare jahan se achha.”

India moved into Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world, in 1984. This is a disputed glacier in Kashmir and while a ceasefire was declared in 2003, it remains a battleground to date.

Operation Blue Star, a campaign by the Indian Army against separatists demanding Khalistan under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, attacked the spiritual nerve of the Sikh community — the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. The extensive damage caused to the shrine, shattered Sikhs, mostly not sympathetic to the Khalistan cause.

In July 1984, India’s first soap opera, Hum Log, scripted by well-known Hindi writer Manohar Shyam Joshi started being telecast on Doordarshan. This was said to have been inspired by a Mexican soap but its portrayals of a middle-class Indian family remain memorable.

Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her security guards in 1984, as revenge for Operation Blue Star. What was shameful for independent India was the organised anti-Sikh pogroms that followed. In 2005, then PM Manmohan Singh would apologise to the nation for the “the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution”.

In 1986, Harsha Chawda became the first Indian test-tube baby. She made Dr Indira Hinduja, an in-vitro fertilisation expert, a star at the time. Chawda, incidentally, became a mother last year.

In 1987, the Parliament enacted a special law to reverse a Supreme Court order around maintenance for a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano, to restore what was the primacy of Muslim Personal Law over the lives of Muslim citizens. This gave the Hindu right wing a loud campaign message.

After two decades of conflict between the Mizos and the Indian state, in June, 1986, the Mizoram Accord was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and Laldenga. This had a very significant bearing on peace in the north-eastern states.

1989 saw Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses banned in India. It was the first country to do so, but several others followed suit. It eventually led to a fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie. This was a dark moment and an indication how plural democracies would not commit to freedom of expression.

In the early Nineties, the situation in Kashmir deteriorated with Kashmiri Pandits being forced to leave the Valley as murderous attacks on them made their stay impossible.

The Mandal Commission, arguing for the need for special quotas for Other Backward Classes in government jobs, was submitted to the government in 1980, but was gathering dust till VP Singh decided to implement it in August 1990. The move was to result in a huge tumult, especially in north India. First, anti-Mandal protests and then pro-Mandal protests erupted across the country. Leaders who made a mark in the anti-Mandal and pro-Mandal protests would go on to dominate Indian politics for the next three decades.

In Kerala, the total literacy movement was first initiated in Ernakulam district and Kottayam municipality in the late ’80s. On 4th of February 1990, the then Prime Minister Shri VP Singh declared Ernakulam as the first totally literate district in India.

Economic liberalisation was kicked off formally by then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the first budget after the Congress returned to power in 1991. It was a move that transformed India’s economy, politics and society.

Former PM Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, while on campaign in Sriperumbudur. It would go on to change the course of Indian politics.

Panchayat elections became mandatory in 1992, kicking off a silent revolution as elected leadership at local levels provided a basis for deepening democracy in the years to come.

Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was pulled down by a mob, mobilised over months in 1992. It opened up a communal fault line that continues to divide Indian politics.

Satyajit Ray, the legendary Bengali filmmaker, was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1992 for Lifetime Achievement by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 1995, Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was released both in India and internationally. It would establish Shah Rukh Khan as an enduring star.

After 1948, Leander Paes won the first individual medal for India in Olympics in 1996.

The cellphone came to India in 1996. West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu held the first mobile phone conversation in the country.

In 1999, following massive cross-border infiltration, India and Pakistan would face off at Kargil. Pakistan was led by General Pervez Musharraf, who went on to become President of Pakistan.

The hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane flying into Delhi from Kathmandu by the Taliban in 1999 remains one of India’s most dramatic stories of a negotiation gone wrong. Eventually, three terrorists in Indian jails had to be released in exchange for the safe passage of passengers aboard the ill-fated IC 814.

In the late Nineties, Cable TV connected India in a way few things have done. BBC, CNN were all bold and beautiful and put India, slowly but surely, on a path of irreversible information and media integration.

After the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the biggest military build-up along the border with Pakistan took place, an “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation, as India held Pakistan repsonsible for the assault on the Parliament complex. This was termed Operation Parakram. It finally ended in 2004, with PM Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan in January and the start of a cross-LoC bus.

In 2002, RSS flew the tricolour for the first time at its headquarters in Nagpur. Till then, it had not recognised the national flag.

Nearly 2,000 people died in the 2002 Gujarat riots, triggered by the burning of a train in Godhra, killing kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya. Retaliatory anger and an administration, either unable to control the situation or complicit in it, watched as Muslims were killed in mob attacks.

India became free of leprosy in December 2005.

India’s space programme came of age as the first unmanned space mission Chandrayaan-1 reached the moon on November 8, 2008. It included a lunar orbiter and an impactor launched by a modified version of the PSLV on October 22, 2008.

The Right to Information Act and NREGA (now, MNREGA) were enacted in 2005 and 2006 respectively. MNREGA and RTI are among the world’s most progressive laws and are recognised by the United Nations as such. Right to Education became a universal right in 2010 and India became one of the 135 countries to adopt it.

India-US Nuclear Accord between Manmohan Singh and George Bush in 2006 broke the nuclear apartheid in place after Pokharan 2 and allowed (at least, in principle) access to crucial civilian and military technology. This came at a price in domestic politics as the Left parties withdrew support to UPA and led to series of unintended consequences politically.

In 2006, Maqbool Fida Husain, among the greatest painters in the world, was forced into exile until his death in London for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiment through his paintings. The Supreme Court though, in the end, defended artistic expression, in a much-discussed verdict.

In 2008, 10 gunmen travelled to Mumbai in a dinghy and killed nearly 200 persons across south Mumbai in one of the worst terror attacks on India.

India won its second cricket World Cup in 2011 under MS Dhoni.

India Against Corruption, a movement launched by a group of citizens, NGOs and other anti-Congress groups in 2011, was able to force issues with the elected government of the day and score vital political points.

On March 27, 2014, India was declared polio-free.

Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister in 2014 after the most expensive campaign in Indian political history. He became the first chief minister to directly campaign as a PM-candidate and make it.

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