India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1950s

Frontline | Aug 12, 2022

1950: India gets first IIT in Kharagpur

The Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur was India’s first IIT. Set up in May 1950, it started functioning from an address in Calcutta but shifted to Hijli in West Bengal’s Medinipur district in September that year. The setting up of a world-class institution for the imparting of technological education was part of the Nehruvian vision of making India self-sufficient in knowledge acquisition.

Trying to recover from 200 years of colonial rule that did not significantly nurture domestic industry or enterprise, newly independent India needed to industrialise. Technology and technologists naturally had an important role to play in this journey. Also, India had a Prime Minister who was, in Ramachandra Guha’s words, “fascinated by modern science”. Fostering scientific temper and harnessing science to alleviate poverty and increase productivity were important objectives of his government. This was what led to the establishment of the first IIT. Five more were inaugurated between 1954 and 1964. India’s IITs have now become a byword for engineering excellence. Like the new research laboratories that were set up under Nehru’s watch, not as part of existing universities but independently, the IITs were meant to foster the country’s indigenous technical and scientific capabilities. This stress on scientific and technological research was reflected in India’s gross national product (GNP). Just 0.1 per cent of the GNP was spent on scientific research at the time of Independence. Within a decade, this rose to 0.5 per cent and later exceeded 1 per cent.

IIT Kharagpur functioned from the Hijli Detention Camp, which had been set up in 1930 to detain those participating in the freedom struggle. The first session started in August 1951 with 224 students and 42 teachers. The formal inauguration, by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, happened on August 18, 1951. Nehru laid the foundation stone for the new building in March 1952. In September 1956, Parliament passed the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) Act, which declared IIT Kharagpur an institute of national importance.

1950: Freedom of the press

Two cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1950, Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras and Brij Bhushan vs State of Delhi, helped define the rights of the press and also prompted the first amendment to the Constitution.

The Madras government had banned the Cross Roads magazine under the Madras Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1949. Romesh Thapar, the editor, argued that it violated Article 19 of the Constitution (right to free speech and expression).

The court found: “Unless a law restricting freedom of speech and expression is directed solely against the undermining of the security of the state or the overthrow of it, such law cannot fall within the reservation under Clause (2) of Article 19 [on reasonable restrictions]….”

In Brij Bhushan, the Chief Commissioner of Delhi issued a “pre-censorship order” on Organiser on March 2, 1950. Brij Bhushan, its printer and publisher, petitioned the Supreme Court, which overturned the Chief Commissioner’s order, and ruled that imposing pre-censorship on a journal constituted a restriction on press freedom.

Vallabhbhai Patel in a letter to Nehru on July 3, 1950, wrote: “I drew your attention to the Supreme Court decision in Cross Roads and Organiser cases. That knocks the bottom out of most of our penal laws for the control and regulation of the press. The views which they have expressed… make it doubtful whether we can do anything not only about the speeches of Syama Prasad Mookerjee [incendiary speeches against the backdrop of the Nehru-Liaquat pact] but also those of the more extremist type. … My own feeling is that very soon we shall have to sit down and consider constitutional amendments.”

Sure enough, in June 1951, the Constitution (First Amendment) Bill amended Article 19(2) to include three new restrictions on the right to free speech. These were “public order”, “friendly relations with foreign states”, and “incitement to an offence”.

1951: First Asian Games held in New Delhi

In March 1951, India played host to the first Asian Games. It was a remarkable achievement for a country that had won its freedom from colonial rule less than three years ago and was still recovering from the violence and horror that accompanied the country’s partition. Not only did India successfully host what is considered the second-largest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympics, it also performed admirably in the sporting events, coming second in the overall medal tally.President Rajendra Prasad inaugurated the Games in New Delhi. President Rajendra Prasad inaugurated the Games in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The Games were originally scheduled to take place in 1950, but were postponed by a year. On March 4, 1951, President Rajendra Prasad opened the Asian Games at the Dhyan Chand National Stadium in Delhi. A total of 489 athletes representing 11 nations took part in 57 events across eight sports. Japan topped the medals tally, winning 60 medals, including 24 gold, while India came second with 51 medals, including 15 gold and 20 bronze. This is the highest ranking India has ever achieved in the Asian Games. The closest it came again was in the 1962 Games at Jakarta, when it came third in the overall medal tally.

The idea of a sporting event for Asian countries was first discussed at the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947, just before Independence. The following year, the International Olympic Committee proposed to revive the Far Eastern Championship Games, a biennial event that been held between 1913 and 1934. Guru Dutt Sondhi, the Indian International Olympic Committee (IOC) representative, suggested a more inclusive Games.

The Asian Games Federation was established on February 13, 1949, and continued until 1981, when it was replaced by the Olympic Council of Asia. An Organising Committee was formed under the leadership of Yadavindra Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of Patiala and president of the Indian Olympic Association. The secretary was Anthony Stanislaus de Mello, one of the founders of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

The logo for the first Asian Games was a red sun with a white circle in the middle; 11 rings, one for each participating nation, formed a semicircle under the sun.

1953: ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ spurs New Wave in Indian cinema

When Bimal Roy made Do Bigha Zamin, he was a relative newcomer to the Bombay film industry. It was an unusual film to make in Bombay. It told the story of a poor man eking out a living on the city streets. There were no opulent settings, dream sequences, middle-class moral point nor any fairy-tale features. In the first Indian Filmfare awards in 1954, Do Bigha Zamin bagged prizes for best picture and best director. It also became the first Indian film to win the Prix Internationale in the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. The New Wave in cinema was launched.A still from “Do Bigha Zamin” featuring Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy.A still from “Do Bigha Zamin” featuring Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Like Satyajit Ray, another New Wave luminary, Bimal Roy was influenced by Italian Neorealism and fascinated by Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 film, Bicycle Thieves. His attempt was to capture everyday realities faithfully through the camera. Do Bigha Zamin was followed by Ray’s Pather Panchali in 1955, Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara in 1960; Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome in 1969, and in their wake Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, Mani Kaul, Balu Mahendra, and several others, together creating a formidable body of Indian New Wave cinema.

1953: ‘Andha Yug’ by Dharamvir Bharati, and Theatre of Roots

In Dharamvir Bharati’s pathbreaking Hindi play, Andha Yug (1953), the story of the Kurukshetra war echoes the horrors of Partition, both encapsulated in the cry, “What is this peace you have given us, god”. Andha Yug achieved iconic status: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru watched a production directed by Ibrahim Alkazi against the backdrop of the ruins of Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla in 1963. Combining Western dramatic traditions with an Indian epic, Andha Yug is an early example of the Theatre of Roots movement, which gained momentum in the 1960s and 70s, spearheaded by the likes of Ratan Thiyam, Girish Karnad, K.N. Panikar, Habib Tanvir, among others.A production of Andha Yug organised by Sahitya Kala Parishad and Delhi government in 2011. A production of Andha Yug organised by Sahitya Kala Parishad and Delhi government in 2011. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

These playwrights attempted to decolonise Indian drama not by discarding Western models altogether but by synthesising them with folk traditions and Sanskrit aesthetic theory as codified in Natyashastra. The epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with their simple grandeur, also served as guides. Girish Karnad’s play, Hayavadana (1971), is based on both Kathasaritsagara and Thomas Mann’s novella, The Transposed Heads. It opens with the sutradhar addressing the audience, in a nod to Natyashastra, and yet its theme of loss and search for identity is universal.

The stress of Theatre of Roots on the local rather than the global resulted in the foregrounding of regional language theatre. Karnad wrote his plays in Kannada and translated them into English himself. The plays of Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar were translated into other Indian languages as well as in English, creating a national theatre movement. The establishment of Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953 helped matters as its troupes took folk performances to Delhi and the other metropolises.

C.N. Sreekantan Nair coined the term thanathunatakavedi, meaning ‘one’s own theatre’, to describe the phenomenon. The influence of Brecht is palpable, as is the presence of indigenous theatre forms, which tend to use non-linear narratives and a multiplicity of voices to look at a particular story from different perspectives. There’s a stress on spectacles, which break the illusion of realism. Another feature is the preference for closed and open spaces over proscenium theatre, so that actors are in close contact with the audience. The movement shaped Indian theatre as we know it today.

1953: Air India nationalised

The story of Air India is about how a Tata founded an airline, only to have the government take it over, and how another government returned it to the Tatas after struggling to run it for nearly 70 years.

The Indian government nationalised the private airline in 1953, ran it with taxpayer money, repeatedly underwrote losses after 2007, put it up for sale, and finally handed it to one of the bidders, the Tata group.

When Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata set up India’s first private commercial airline in 1932, it was viewed with wonder. On October 15 that year, he piloted Tata Air Services’ first flight, from Karachi to Mumbai, and thus began the story of commercial aviation 15 years before Independence.October 15, 1962: JRD Tata stands near the Leopard Moth in which he made his 30th anniversary commemorative Karachi-Bombay flight. October 15, 1962: JRD Tata stands near the Leopard Moth in which he made his 30th anniversary commemorative Karachi-Bombay flight. | Photo Credit: PTI

In 1938, JRD Tata named the company Tata Airlines, and later Air India. In June 1948, it started a service to London. Four years later, the Planning Commission recommended to the government that the airlines be nationalised.

In 1953, Parliament passed the Air Corporations Act, enabling the merger of all airlines into two corporations owned and operated by the government. Nine airlines operated in India then: Air India, Air Services of India, Airways (India), Bharat Airways, Deccan Airways, Himalayan Aviation, Indian National Airways, Kalinga Airlines and Air India International. The result was a monopoly for Indian Airlines and Air India. JRD Tata was chairman of the government venture. He held the post for over two decades, despite a few unpleasant incidents with politicians.

When the airline was finally picked up again by the Tata group last year, it marked the biggest disinvestment of a government-owned asset.

1953: Andhra State created

Four days after the death of Potti Sreeramulu, Nehru announced the decision to create Andhra. Sreeramulu had fought hard for a separate State for Telugu speaking people. And on October 1, 1953, Nehru inaugurated the Andhra State.Potti Sreeramulu.Potti Sreeramulu.

Soon, several movements for linguistic States cropped up. In 1953, the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) was announced to examine the question “objectively and dispassionately”. The final decision for linguistic reorganisation was taken on popular demands despite fears that it could lead to fissiparous tendencies.

The SRC was mindful of the Indian Statutory Commission’s views that “it is neither possible nor desirable to reorganise States on a single test of either language or culture”, and it postulated a balanced approach. It submitted its report in 1955 and the States Reorganisation Act was passed in 1956.

The report categorised the States into three parts. Part A was 216 states constituted as provinces; Part B was 61 States constituted into centrally administered units; Part C was 275 States integrated to form special administrative units named. Hyderabad, Mysore, and Jammu and Kashmir were left out of the process.

In 1956, the seventh Amendment to the Constitution collapsed these various parts into part A (States) and part B (Union Territories), and 14 States and six UTs were formed.

1954: The three Akademis established

Just before Independence, the Royal Asiatic Society in Bengal had proposed the formation of a National Cultural Trust to preserve and promote India’s artistic heritage. “After freedom, the proposal was pursued by the Government of India, who convened a series of conferences to work out the details. Consensus emerged in favour of establishing three National Academies: one of letters, another of visual arts, and a third of dance, drama and music,” says a Sahitya Akademi document.

In the 50s, painters, dancers, singers, and actors began to persuade governing leaders to institutionally support the country’s traditional and modern cultures.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) was the first of the three to be established in 1953, followed shortly by Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA), and Sahitya Akademi (SA).An artwork at the first Triennale, 1968.An artwork at the first Triennale, 1968. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Against the backdrop of the ongoing cultural renaissance of those years, the role of the Akademis was and still is to revive, preserve, and patronise Indian art, dance, music, and literature. Awards given by each academy continue to be the highest recognition for an artist in India.

SNA supports India’s rich legacy of performing arts that goes back many centuries. It remains an important centre for music, dance, and drama.

Over time, SNA set up several State centres. Its archives, which includes music, films, and costumes, is considered the most comprehensive collection of material on the Indian performing arts.

LKA, also known as the National Academy of Art, was established in 1954. Its objectives include providing space for exhibitions, fellowships, awards, and taking art shows to foreign shores. LKA used to have the interesting task of buying art for the country’s collection, and almost every well-known Indian artist has been associated with LKA at some point in their career. LKA’s ambitious Triennale, which debuted in 1968, established India as an art destination.

The SA’s primary role is to keep alive and support the country’s literary traditions and works in 24 languages. Its centres consistently host seminars, dialogues, and reading across the country. Involved in translations and publications, SA has published 6,000 books since its inception.

1956: Free meal scheme for schoolchildren in Tamil Nadu introduced

When Chief Minister K. Kamaraj brought in a free meal scheme to all panchayat and government-run primary schools in Tamil Nadu in 1956-57, he was reforging an earlier idea. On November 17, 1920, The Hindu reported that the Chennai Corporation council had unanimously decided to provide ‘tiffin’ to a local school in Chennai. The rationale was that the students were poor and it was not expensive (one anna for a student) to feed them. Shortly, the school noticed an increase in student attendance.

Kamaraj’s scheme was aided partly by the US voluntary organisation, CARE. The government contributed an anna and a half for each student; the rest came from CARE and local people. This modest mid-day meal scheme would soon grow into a game-changer for school attendance and children’s nutrition across India. And would become a working model for many countries to emulate.K. Kamaraj serving gruel at a school in Sri Devalai’s agricultural farm at Katpadi on October 29, 1954. He introduced free meals in all panchayat and government-run primary schools in Tamil Nadu in 1956-57.K. Kamaraj serving gruel at a school in Sri Devalai’s agricultural farm at Katpadi on October 29, 1954. He introduced free meals in all panchayat and government-run primary schools in Tamil Nadu in 1956-57. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In 1982, M.G. Ramachandran, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, included anganwadi children as well to the scheme in addition to primary school students. And two years later, the government extended it to all schoolchildren across the State.

A controversy arose in the 1980s when the scheme was named after M.G. Ramachandran, with Congress workers protesting because Kamaraj had pioneered the scheme and they wanted it to bear his name. But MGR’s party, Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, did not budge.

Later Chief Ministers, including M. Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa and M.K. Stalin, tried to incorporate extra nutrition into the meal to improve the scheme. In July 2022, Stalin introduced a breakfast scheme as well for students across the State. While in neighbouring Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated a scheme earlier this month on August 1, 2022, to provide milk and eggs two days a week to preschool children in State anganwadis in the State.

In India, where State governments draw up and implement welfare programmes, the nutritious noon meal project is unique. It was thought up at the local level, implemented at the State level, and later scaled up to the national level.

According to the Union government’s school education website: “Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman, earlier known as the National Programme of Mid-Day Meal in Schools, is one of the foremost rights-based Centrally Sponsored Schemes under the National Food Security Act, 2013. The primary objective of the scheme is to improve the nutritional status of children studying in classes I-VIII in eligible schools.”

1956: AIR becomes Akashvani

“ Yeh Akashvani hai.” Right from its signature tune to its news bulletins, talk shows, phone-ins, radio plays, farm shows, sports commentary, and late night Indian classical music, Akashvani evokes a universal emotion. It was in 1956 that All India Radio (AIR), established in 1936, became Akashvani.

Rabindranath Tagore had reportedly written a poem titled “Akashvani” for the launch of Calcutta’s short wave service; Akashvani in Sanskrit means “voice from the sky”. Akashvani was also the name of a small radio station that began broadcasting from the home of a retired professor, M.V. Gopalaswami, in Mysore on September 10, 1935.Akashvani Bhavan in New Delhi.Akashvani Bhavan in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: S. Arneja

Broadcasting in India predates AIR by nearly a decade, in the shape of the Indian State Broadcasting Service, which was taken over by the government on June 8, 1936, and renamed All India Radio. AIR had only six stations in 1947 (Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Tiruchirapalli, and Lucknow), covering 11 per cent of the population and 2.5 per cent of the country’s area.

When AIR became Akashvani, thanks to transistor technology, radios had become commonplace by then. In 1957, the Vividh Bharati Service was launched, featuring film music programmes besides classical concerts. Today, Akashvani is one of the world’s largest networks. Its programmes from the External Services Division are broadcast in 11 Indian and 16 foreign languages, reaching more than 100 countries.

Its 470 broadcasting centres cater to 99.19 per cent of the population and cover nearly 92 per cent of the country. The radio service is now used for storm warnings and crop cultivation techniques, dispelling rumours in conflict zones, assisting immunisation drives, and simply to provide entertainment. Its News Services Division broadcasts 647 bulletins daily for 56 hours in 90 languages/dialects in its Home, Regional, External, and DTH Services.

If any technological advancement transformed India truly into a “global village”, it was Akashvani.

1959: Doordarshan launched

Long before news was a “product” and the viewer a “customer”, there was Doordarshan. A generation still sighs with nostalgia over those black-and-white and, later, colour pictures that changed with the vagaries of the weather, wavy at times and grainy at others; the antenna that the entire family helped fix; news readers; Chitrahaar; and serials such as Hum Log and Buniyaad.

On September 15, 1959, Doordarshan (or “a glimpse of all afar”, as the Prasar Bharati website describes it) was launched in Delhi using equipment from West Germany. In 1965, it began broadcasting to homes in and around New Delhi. Mumbai and Amritsar had access to the services by 1972, and seven additional cities were added three years later.The logo of Doordarshan.The logo of Doordarshan.

Satellite launches made it possible to broadcast on a national scale. Midway through the 1970s, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment helped develop programmes that provided entertainment in the form of dance, music, drama, and folk and rural art forms as well as information on agriculture, health, and family planning.

On April 1976, Doordarshan, until then a part of All India Radio (AIR), became a separate Department of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Currently, along with Akashvani, it is one of Prasar Bharati’s divisions.

The coverage of the Ninth Asian Games in Delhi, which were held from November 19 to December 4, 1982, was a turning point in Indian television history. For the first time, Doordarshan offered nationwide coverage in colour via INSAT 1A. The Republic Day parade at Janpath, the thrill of a sporting event, scenes from far-off battlefields, and summit venues kept viewers glued to their seats in the years that followed. Sunday evenings were movie time.

The airing of Ramayan in 1987 followed by Mahabharat was another watershed moment in Doordarshan’s history. According to critics, these serials laid the groundwork for a political juggernaut to begin rolling.

From a single studio at AIR, Doordarshan has now grown to 66 studios across the country and operates 34 satellite channels in addition to providing a free-to-air DTH service.

After liberalisation, when the logic of the marketplace entered the “signal area”, TV access was no longer free. India is now a hub for numerous channels and programmes produced by both domestic and international companies. But one can still find the mandatory Doordarshan channels in various languages on broadcaster bouquets. In memory of simpler times, some people grab that piece of history while channel-surfing.

1959: Habib Tanvir establishes Naya Theatre

When Habib Tanvir established Naya Theatre in 1959 with his wife, Moneeka Misra, the group went on to redefine modern Indian stagecraft. He sang, wrote poems, directed plays, scripted dialogues, composed music, acted, and managed his theatre group, all with equal aplomb. His vast body of work in newly independent India revolved around issues such as nation, identity and democracy. He imbued the ideas of secularism, modernity and justice in everything he did. Habib Tanvir, a 2007 photograph.Habib Tanvir, a 2007 photograph. | Photo Credit: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Tanvir was born in Raipur in 1923. Most of his plays under the Naya Theatre banner were performed by actors from Chhattisgarh who were largely trained in the local performative tradition of the Nacha. An oral tradition, Nacha combines dance, music, acrobatics and improvised dialogues to tell a story. Tanvir ruptured the conventional modes of doing theatre and ushered in a new era in public culture.

In his formative years, Tanvir reviewed films in English, wrote poems in Urdu and was exposed to touring Parsi theatre and all-night Nacha performances in Chhattisgarh. He joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) as an actor and director in Mumbai. He was influenced by Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble during his training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Bristol Old Vic and the British Drama League in the UK. He set up Hindustani Theatre along with Qudsia Zaidi and M.S. Sathyu before establishing Naya Theatre, for which he scripted plays in English, Hindi and Urdu.

In 1970, he revived his play Agra Bazaar, earlier staged with students of Jamia Millia and villagers of Okhla. Based on the life of the Urdu poet Nazir Akbarabadi, the remake was enacted by actors from Chhattisgarh. Charandas Chor (1975), a satire, became his biggest hit, drawing full houses for nearly three decades across Europe and India. A film version was directed by Shyam Benegal while the play was still in production. Tanvir continued to tour with his group well into his 80s and took an active interest in the matters of the day until he died in 2009. He was rewarded in India and abroad with several accolades, including a Padma Shree, a Padma Bhushan and a nomination to the Rajya Sabha.

1959: Panchayati Raj begins in Nagaur, Rajasthan

Inaugurating the Nagaur panchayat in Rajasthan on October 2, 1959, which was the 90th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “We are going to lay the foundations of democracy or panchayati raj in our country…. It is a historic event. It is fitting that the programme of panchayati raj should be inaugurated on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday…. The progress of our country is bound up with the progress in our villages.”

The launch of the Nagaur panchayat laid the basis for political decentralisation in India, which was later instrumental in strengthening people’s participation in democracy at the local level. It brought accountability at the grass roots, and the assurance of systematic service delivery.Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurating the scheme of democratic decentralisation in Rajasthan at Nagaur on October 2, 1959. Under the new scheme some of the powers of development and administration would be transferred to the newly constituted Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurating the scheme of democratic decentralisation in Rajasthan at Nagaur on October 2, 1959. Under the new scheme some of the powers of development and administration would be transferred to the newly constituted Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Village-level bodies such as the panchayat date back to ancient India. During the struggle for independence, Mahatma Gandhi had articulated his idea of village swaraj, but there was no consensus on the issue when the Constitution was being framed. So it was included only in the Directive Principles of State Policy and there were no legislated local bodies.

The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee appointed in 1957 recommended the establishment of three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), and they were set up in several States. Even though West Bengal and later Kerala and Karnataka robustly developed PRIs, it was clear that these bodies were not playing an effective role in rural development in many parts of the country. This led to the passage of the historic 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in 1992. These mandated the creation of local government institutions at the level of the village, taluk, and district, with a similar structure established for towns and cities. As part of these landmark pieces of legislation, one-third of the seats were reserved for women and reservation was also provided for persons belonging to the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes.