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India@75

India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1940s

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1940s

India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, delivers his famous "Tryst with Destiny" speech on August 15, 1947 at Parliament House in New Delhi.

India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, delivers his famous "Tryst with Destiny" speech on August 15, 1947 at Parliament House in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: AFP Photo

The birth of independent India and its immediate aftermath.

1947: Maharaja Hari Singh signs Instrument of Accession

On October 26, 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession with India, thereby ending the intense angling for that princely state by rival players India and Pakistan. The prelude to it was an intricate maze of bureaucratic jostling, uncertainty, simulation of friendship by vested parties, indecision, and finally a tribal raid. Karan Singh, the Maharaja’s son and then the heir apparent of J&K, framed it thus: “Death and destruction were fast approaching Srinagar, our smug world had collapsed around us....”

After the British left the Indian subcontinent on August 14, 1947, the princely state of J&K had remained independent for 73 days. Maharaja Hari Singh was already in the thick of internal disturbances, with multiple uprisings against his Dogra reign, most notably in 1865, 1924, and 1931. He also faced a formidable challenger in Sheikh Abdullah of the National Conference. The National Conference, earlier called the Muslim Conference, was influenced by the Reading Room Party of 1931, an anti-Dogra group of left-wing Muslim intellectuals.

The Muslim majority in the princely state found the Maharaja’s reign authoritarian. In the words of Kashmiri author P.N. Bazaz, “Dogra rule has been a Hindu Raj.” Maharaja Hari Singh thought of independence because, according to American Indologist William Norman Brown, “He disliked becoming part of India, which was being democratised, or Pakistan, which was Muslim....”

Jawaharlal Nehru with Maharaja Hari Singh during his visit to Srinagar in May 1948.
Jawaharlal Nehru with Maharaja Hari Singh during his visit to Srinagar in May 1948. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

On August 12, 1947, J&K petitioned India and Pakistan for a standstill agreement, which Pakistan signed but India refused, asking the Maharaja to send a representative for discussions. With every passing day, the Maharaja’s position became more precarious. As early as June 1947, about 60,000 ex-army men (mostly from Poonch) had started a no-tax campaign against the Maharaja. On August 14-15, Muslims in Poonch hoisted Pakistani flags, provoking the imposition of martial law and further angering Muslim subjects. Pakistan was sending warning notes to the Maharaja, one on August 24 reading: “Should Kashmir fail to join Pakistan, the gravest possible trouble will inevitably ensue.”

The worst fears of the Dogra ruler came true when on October 22, Pakistan launched Operation Gulmarg by mobilising tribals from the North-West Frontier Province. About 2,000 tribesmen, armed with modern weaponry, raided Muzaffarabad. By the evening of October 23 they had captured Domel. Garhi and Chinari fell over the next two days. Then their main column proceeded towards Uri, and then, along the Jhelum river towards Baramulla, the entry point to Srinagar.

On October 24, Maharaja Hari Singh appealed to India for military aid to flush out the raiders. India obliged but not before the Instrument of Accession was signed on October 26. It limited India’s powers over the Valley to matters of defence, communications, and foreign affairs.

1947: Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act passed

Within two months of Independence, the Madras Presidency passed the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act, known as the Devadasi Abolition Act, 1947. Former colonists and the Indian elite saw the system as immoral, a social evil. The legislation’s goal was to prevent young girls from being exploited by being dedicated to temples and to help older Devadasis integrate into mainstream society. The community, however, strongly opposed the legislation, saying they were respectable and learned artistes and that laws such as these would put them out of work as well as give a negative connotation to their profession.

As the dance of the traditional practitioners was sanitised, the modern version of Bharatanatyam was born—a dance suited to a newly independent nation anxious about its morals. Rukmini Devi Arundale (along with E. Krishna Iyer) was credited with removing the eroticism from Sadir and making it “respectable”.

A group of Devadasis dressed in white pose in front of a marquee before a performance in Madras in the early 20th century.
A group of Devadasis dressed in white pose in front of a marquee before a performance in Madras in the early 20th century. | Photo Credit: Vintage Vignettes

As dance became acceptable for upper-caste maidens to practise, Bharatanatyam became hugely popular. In parallel, the original dancers lost their craft and were forced to seek alternative means to support themselves. Between the anti-nautch movement of the early 1900s and the Devadasi Abolition Act, the community was crushed. And, as some scholars have pointed out, the Act spelt the death knell for a host of knowledge systems of music and dance, equivalent to the shutting down of several universities.

Balasaraswati, who came from a family of traditional artistes, is widely regarded as the greatest exponent of Bharatanatyam in post-Independence India. Although the Act prevented public performances, Balasaraswati took advantage of the revivalist movement to perform and teach Bharatanatyam in its pure form for nearly five decades.

The Madras Act paved the way for the Andhra Pradesh Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication Act) in 1947, the Karnataka Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act in 1982, and the Maharashtra System Abolition Act, 2005. In spite of the laws and rehabilitation schemes in place, reports filed as recently as 2016 with the National Commission for Women and media reports indicate that there are numerous cases of former Devadasis who have become destitute and, worse, that the practice continues in a tragically exploitative form.

1948: Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi

India had not been independent for even six months and was still in the midst of vicious communal violence following Partition when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. Godse was a radical Hindu who blamed him for his “constant and consistent pandering of Muslims”. Godse, a Brahmin from Poona (now Pune) and a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, stated later that he was also provoked by Gandhi’s “last pro-Muslim fast”, [which] “at last goaded me to the conclusion that the existence of Gandhi should be brought to an end immediately”. Gandhi undertook this fast on January 13, 1948, insisting that the newly formed Government of India release the money owed to Pakistan. He ended it on January 18.

The funeral procession of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Delhi.
The funeral procession of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Delhi. | Photo Credit: MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE/GETTY IMAGES

According to a report in The Hindu announcing Gandhi’s death, the “Father of the Nation” was shot at 5:12 p.m. and he died 15 minutes later. Gandhi was at Birla House (subsequently converted into a museum) in Delhi and was on his way to his scheduled prayer meeting which was slated to begin at 5 p.m. Gandhi walked to the prayer mandap leaning on the shoulders of Ava Gandhi and Manu Gandhi, his grand daughter-in-law and grandniece, respectively, Godse walked up to him, bowed his head and said, “You are late today for prayer.” Gandhi replied, “Yes, I am.” At that moment Godse pumped three bullets into the frail body of the 79-year-old leader, considered almost a saint by millions of followers.

Gandhi, who had survived five assassination attempts prior to Godse’s fatal action, had said two days earlier: “If I’m to die by the bullet of a mad man, I must do so smiling. God must be in my heart and on my lips. And if anything happens, you are not to shed a single tear.” After the assassination, an overwhelmed Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the nation by radio: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more.”

Nathuram Godse was hanged to death along with his accomplice Narayan Apte while six others were sentenced to life imprisonment. After Gandhi’s death, India lost a certain pact with tolerance, truth and non-violence that he had coaxed it to accept.

1948: Damodar Valley Corporation established

In a sense, “the noble mansion of free India”, as Jawaharlal Nehru described it in his “A Tryst with Destiny” speech, was built in steel and cement too. The Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC), established on July 7, 1948 by an Act of Parliament and the first of the “multipurpose projects”, was envisioned as one of the institutions that would lay the groundwork for modern India.

The Damodar river flowing through Jharkhand (previously part of Bihar) and West Bengal frequently caused floods. A catastrophic flood in 1943 prompted the Bengal government to appoint the Damodar Flood Enquiry Committee, which proposed the formation of an authority similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the US and the construction of dams and reservoirs.

The upstream face of the Tilaiya dam, the DVC’s first dam, which was built in 1953.
The upstream face of the Tilaiya dam, the DVC’s first dam, which was built in 1953. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

DVC has a network of four dams—Tilaiya and Maithon on the Barakar, Panchet on the Damodar, and Konar on the Konar—and the Durgapur barrage. The first dam on the Barakar was built in 1953.

According to its 2020–21 annual report, DVC’s command area is 24,235 sq. km, and its total installed capacity from thermal, hydel, and solar power is 7,107.2 MW. It provides power to eight States, with transmission lines extending to 8,390 circuit kilometres. In terms of water management, DVC has 2,494 km of canals and a flood reserve capacity of 1,172 million cubic metres and an irrigation potential of 3.64 lakh hectares.

“Temples of modern India” such as these, as Nehru called them in his speech at the inauguration of the Bhakra Nangal dam on the border of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in 1954, may have been central to nation-building in the early days of Independence to “leap across the mighty moat of poverty”, but many were sacrificed at the altar of development. Budhni Mejhan represents them.

On December 6, 1959, at the inauguration of DVC’s fourth dam (Panchet), Nehru asked a worker on the site, the 15-year-old Budhni, to press the button to signal the start of operations. She also garlanded him, for which act she was excommunicated from her village, for in their eyes she had effectively married Nehru. In 1962, she also lost her job at DVC. The displacement and impoverishment of tribal populations such as Budhni’s has largely gone unnoticed. Was Nehru, as is widely assumed, an ardent supporter of large projects? Actually, he critically evaluated the impact of modern engineering structures on river valleys and later labelled them “a disease of gigantism”.

1948: Films Division of India formed

The Films Division of India was independent and pre-television India’s window on itself. The successor to the Film Advisory Board (1940), Films Division made documentaries, newsreels, shorts and animation films that recorded the steps the fledgling nation was taking.

Its archives are a treasure trove of the initial decades of independence when there was no other agency recording these. Its short films and newsreels used to be shown at movie halls before the film started playing.

Vasant Sathe, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, switching on a camera to mark the inauguration of Eastern Regional Centre of Films Division in Calcutta on January 4, 1982.
Vasant Sathe, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, switching on a camera to mark the inauguration of Eastern Regional Centre of Films Division in Calcutta on January 4, 1982. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Although Films Division was primarily a propaganda machine, its animated shorts such as Ek Chidiya, Anek Chidiyan were classics. It also produced several extraordinary documentaries such as Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari and M.F. Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter.

On March 30, 2022, the government announced the merger of India’s four film media units into the National Film Development Corporation. Now, Films Division, Directorate of Film Festivals, National Film Archive of India, and Children’s Film Society of India are all under one umbrella, causing some concerns about quality and invisible censorship.

1949: Constituent Assembly adopts Constitution of India

Constitution is not a mere lawyers’ document, it is a vehicle of Life, and its spirit is always the spirit of Age.”― Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

“We the people of India”.... “in our Constituent Assembly this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.” That is what the Preamble to the Constitution says and it is a testament to the foresight and wisdom of the Constitution framers that they provided the nation with a document that guarantees the rights of every citizen and upholds the democratic principles of human dignity, equality, and freedom. When many other constitutions have disappeared, the Indian one has stood the test of time and even served as a model for many others.

In many ways, India’s Constitution is unique. When voting rights were being debated in many other countries, one provision of the Constitution was almost unanimously approved: the right to vote for all adult citizens, regardless of religion, caste, education, gender, or income. Set against the backdrop of Partition’s violence, the document also demonstrates the framers’ intention to create a country where not only minorities would be safe, but religious identity would have no bearing on citizenship rights.

Jawaharlal Nehru signs the Constitution at the final session of the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950.
Jawaharlal Nehru signs the Constitution at the final session of the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The Constitution was drafted over a period of 2 years, 11 months, and 17 days from December 9, 1946. Members of Parliament signed it on January 24, 1950, and it came into force on January 26, 1950.

The Constituent Assembly had established a Drafting Committee led by Dr B.R. Ambedkar on August 29, 1947. In October 1947, Sir B.N. Rau finished the first draft. Almost every clause included marginal notes citing similar provisions in other constitutions or the Government of India Act, 1935.

On February 21, 1948, the Drafting Committee delivered a Revised Draft Constitution to Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly, following discussion of each article in Rau’s original draft. A Special Committee examined the text and the Drafting Committee reconvened in October to evaluate it. Ambedkar then presented a new report to the President of the Assembly.

Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India, February 1948, New Delhi: (Sitting, from left) N. Madhava Rao; Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla; Dr. B.R. Ambedkar; Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and Sir B.N. Rao (Standing, from left) S.N. Mukerjee, Jugal Kishore Khanna and Kewal Krishan.
Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India, February 1948, New Delhi: (Sitting, from left) N. Madhava Rao; Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla; Dr. B.R. Ambedkar; Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and Sir B.N. Rao (Standing, from left) S.N. Mukerjee, Jugal Kishore Khanna and Kewal Krishan. | Photo Credit: KRISHNAN VV

On November 4, 1948, the Assembly received the Draft Constitution. The debate on it went on for over a year before the document was adopted on November 26, 1949.

It is interesting to note that India’s Constitution is the longest in the world, with 448 Articles in 25 Parts and 12 Schedules now. Nehru commissioned Prem Behari Narain Raizada, a calligrapher, to write the first copy by hand and Shantiniketan artists decorated it.

1949: Lata Mangeshkar arrives as the voice of India

In a cavernous mansion on a still, dark night, a lady in white hauntingly sings Aayega, aayega, aayega/ Aayega aanewala, aayega .... (He who must come will come). Madhubala’s beauty is as poignant as Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. Although Mangeshkar had sung for movies before, it was Mahal that gave her instant stardom and made her the “Nightingale of India”, a title that remains hers even after her passing earlier this year. Reportedly, female playback singers were acknowledged in a film’s credits only after Lata was first given this honour in Mahal. Following Mahal, Lata Mangeshkar would become the most sought-after playback singer in Bollywood, winning top honours like the Dadasaheb Phalke Award and the Bharat Ratna, besides several Filmfare Awards.

Lata Mangeshkar.
Lata Mangeshkar. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Yet success did not come easy. Before Mahal, Mangeshkar had been rejected by several music directors, who considered her voice too thin compared with the throaty nasal timbre of Noor Jehan, Mubarak Begum or Shamshad Begum, who were the reigning queens of female playback at that time. But Aayega aanewala changed all that, creating a voice that embodied chastity and pliant youth, virtues that the Indian male desired in the perfect woman. As some scholars claim, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice represented “clean performative femininity,” devoid of any dangerous sexuality. Sensuality and mischief were not considered womanly qualities. Hindi film music had found its perfect female icon.

Lyricists would later compose songs with Mangeshkar’s perfectly high voice in mind. She sang in over 1,000 films and recorded an estimated 30,000 songs in 18 Indian languages. In the early 1980s, the Guinness World Records listed her as the most recorded voice in the world.

In later interviews, Mangeshkar said Aayega aanewaala was a technically difficult song based on the swar sadhana technique, which she had mastered with practice. In the opening lines, the voice seems to come be coming from a distance; it gets louder gradually. To create this effect at a time when technology was still basic, Mangeshkar reportedly placed the mic at the centre of the recording room, started singing at a remove and walked towards it till she reached the plaintive crescendo. The result was unforgettable.