India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1960s

Embracing non-alignment, hybrid grain and milk cooperatives.

Published : Aug 12, 2022 06:00 IST

Dr Verghese Kurien nurtured Operation Flood.

Dr Verghese Kurien nurtured Operation Flood. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

1960: FTII set up in Pune

Whenever you were in thrall of Shabana Azmi’s performances or were glued to Shatrughan Sinha’s stylish dialogue delivery, each time you were mesmerised by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s larger-than-life films or revelled in Subhash Ghai’s quintessential masala movies or Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s cerebral cinema, you can thank FTII, Pune, for it. All these alumni, and more, have played a significant role in shaping Indian cinema as we know it.

When the legendary film-maker V. Shantaram established a studio for Prabhat Films in Pune in 1933, he would not have imagined that more than 25 years later it would be the launch venue for another prabhat (dawn) in the annals of Indian film after the Indian government chose this very tract of land to set up the Film Institute of India, now known as Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), in 1960. (Prabhat Films had had a successful run for about two decades, after which it shut shop in the early 1950s and the company’s assets were auctioned off.)

Outside the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).

Outside the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). | Photo Credit: JIGNESH MISTRY

A department of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, it began organising training programmes for Doordarshan in 1971; the Television Training wing, which was earlier operating out of New Delhi, shifted to Pune in 1974. The institute formally became FTII and gained autonomous society status.

From inception the institute has been a work in progress, evolving with changing times. Students were encouraged to think differently and often had the good fortune to interact with luminaries who visited as guest faculty. Many alumni from the 1970s and 1980s went on to win laurels in both mainstream and offbeat cinema, in acting, direction, cinematography and editing, besides others, making immeasurable contributions to Indian cinema in general.

In recent decades the institute has created an outreach department to facilitate collaboration with film schools worldwide, started courses in podcasting and new media, set up the Prabhat Museum to honour the legacy of one of India’s major film production houses, and even inaugurated a campus community radio station called Radio FTII 90.4. It also runs a film appreciation course every summer.

1961: First NAM summit in Belgrade

On September 7, 1946, as vice chairman and member in charge of external affairs in the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Jawaharlal Nehru declared: “We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which have led in the past to two world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale.” It was the perfect script for independent India’s role on the global stage.

The Bandung Conference, an April 1955 meeting of Asian and African nations emerging from the yoke of their European colonial masters and refusing to ally with either of the two Cold War blocs, laid the groundwork for the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). “Despite the infighting, debates, strategic postures, and sighs of annoyance,” writes Vijay Prashad in The Darker Nations, “Bandung produced something: a belief that two-thirds of the world’s people had the right to return to their own burned cities, cherish them, and rebuild them in their own image.”

Jawaharlal Nehru with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia at the NAM Conference in Belgrade.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia at the NAM Conference in Belgrade. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In mid-July 1956, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Nehru met on the island of Brijuni in the northern Adriatic Sea to assess the impact of the Bandung Conference and discuss their vision for a non-aligned force. Brijuni was dubbed the “Third World’s Yalta”, where Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met in February 1945, just before the end of the Second World War, to consolidate “their spheres of influence”. “If Yalta presaged the division of the world, Brijuni and Belgrade augured the creation of an association that would seek more room for the darker nations,” writes Prashad.

The first official NAM summit, held in Belgrade in 1961 under the leadership of Tito, Nasser, Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Sukarno of Indonesia, drew delegates from 25 African, Asian, Latin American, and European countries. Participants at the conference were united in their emphasis on economic development and their condemnation of colonialism. Nehru’s principle of “peaceful coexistence” appealed to the new nations.

NAM remained a moral force over the next decades, refusing to intervene in Cold War tensions. In terms of the conference’s impact on the United Nations, it did draw attention to the structural disadvantages that Third World countries faced within the organisation, which eventually led to the expansion of the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council.

Today, the largely toothless NAM is the second-largest international organisation of states after the UN, with 120 members. NAM countries account for nearly two-thirds of UN members and 55 per cent of the global population.

1962: Ebrahim Alkazi helms NSD

The Sangeet Natak Akademi appointed Ebrahim Alkazi, 37, to head the newly conceived National School of Drama (NSD) in 1962. The multifaceted and charismatic Alkazi was an established name in theatre. As NSD’s first director, he would cast the mould for modern Indian theatre and shape it into an internationally recognised art.

Alkazi, who was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, was singularly responsible for creating a radically progressive syllabus and environment that would revolutionise theatre in the country. He introduced creative stagecraft and cutting-edge acting techniques and fostered rigour and professionalism in the institute. People who worked with him say he was known for his strict disciplinary style of teaching but he would also mentor in a manner that influenced students to push their boundaries.

Ebrahim Alkazi left a lasting legacy with the radically progressive syllabus that he created at NSD. Here, in a  2008 photograph.

Ebrahim Alkazi left a lasting legacy with the radically progressive syllabus that he created at NSD. Here, in a 2008 photograph. | Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

During Alkazi’s tenure, NSD built two theatres that included outdoor seating stages, a novel idea at the time. A repository company was founded, which took productions across the country and abroad. Alkazi’s vision and experience catalysed NSD and its graduates into becoming the best in their trade. Well-known actors Naseeruddin Shah, Rohini Hattangadi and the late Om Puri are alumni of the NSD. “The quality of NSD students is such that the difference between those who trained at the institute and those who did not, is stark,” says a theatre director in Mumbai.

Ram Gopal Bajaj, a former director of NSD, says: “Alkazi modernised Indian theatre. At the same time, however, he made us realise the importance of our own roots.” 

Feisal Alkazi, Alkazi’s son and a well-known director, said: “My father had a very thorough grounding in theatre. I think he took that experience and created a course that was wholistic and comprehensive. He created a syllabus where you could make a career out of theatre and acting. You can see that today. He brought a tremendous sense of discipline into the arena of theatre training and performance. He made artists responsible towards their audiences. He had an incredible visual sense and emphasised the aural on a stage.” 

“His productions went beyond the word. You see that in Tuglaq, Andha Yug and Look back in Anger. He had the ability to deftly add a few light touches and bring the production to life. I know he would spend hours choosing background noises. For instance, it was important to get the right type of cricket sound for a night scene,” Alkazi said. 

1963: First rocket launch from Thumba

India’s spaceward odyssey began on November 21, 1963, with the launch of the US Nike Apache sounding rocket from Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram. The rocket was taken to the launch site on a bullock cart; later rockets would take bicycles.

The Nike Apache weighed 715 kg and reached an altitude of 207 km with a 30-kg payload. Cut to August 2022: India’s newest rocket, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), weighs 120 tonnes, is 34 metres long, and can put 500-kg satellites into a 500 km orbit.

Nike Apache rocket being readied for launch.

Nike Apache rocket being readied for launch. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In the decades in between, Indian rocketry blazed forth, celebrating successes and learning from failures, pioneering a variety of rockets aka launch vehicles: SLV-3s, ASLVs, and PSLVs and GSLVs and their variants. With these tried and tested workhorses, no orbit—polar (altitude 700 km), geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) or low earth orbit (LEO, 250 to 500 km altitude)—is beyond India’s and ISRO’s reach.

The programme provides India with a sustained, self-reliant access to space, even deep space, fuelled by solid propellants, liquid propellants or cryogenic fluids and can place in orbit a diverse range of locally built satellites for remote-sensing/earth observation, weather-forecasting, communication, cartography, navigation, education (EDUSAT), surveillance, astronomy and ocean-monitoring. ISRO’s remote-sensing satellites are acknowledged as among the best in the world—as good as the French SPOT or the American Landsat.

One other area where India took the world by surprise is with its forays into deep space, sending science missions to the moon (2008) and Mars (launched in 2013). Putting the Chandryaan-1 spacecraft into the moon’s orbit seemed like a piece of cake for ISRO’s engineers, but the spacecraft itself did not live up to its targeted life of one year. That said, one of its payloads discovered water ice on the moon and its terrain mapping camera has sent thousands of invaluable pictures of the lunar surface. The Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan has been an unalloyed success, with a flood of data received about the Red Planet.

If today India is a self-reliant and world-class space faring nation, there are many to thank from that first launch at Thumba: the US, for the two-stage Nike Apache rocket; France, for the sodium vapour payload; the Soviet Union, whose Mi-4 helicopter gave the range clearance; and, of course, ISRO’s rocket and payload engineers.

1963: ‘Evam Indrajit’ by Badal Sircar staged

When Badal Sircar’s absurdist play Evam Indrajit was staged in 1963, it foreshadowed the angst of the Naxalite movement and created a stir in theatre circles. Sircar would later pioneer Third Theatre, which looks beyond the proscenium format and engages with the audience interactively, making them participate in the unfolding action.

The protagonist Indrajit’s frustration at his meaningless life painfully held up a mirror to the 1960s reality for India’s middle-class youth. The euphoria and hope of the early Nehruvian era was over; there was a cloud of doubt in the aftermath of the loss against China in 1962; the gulf between the rich and the poor was widening; and refugees from East Pakistan were still trickling into Sircar’s home State. It was time to introspect, and that is what Indrajit does. He finds his own life wanting, he is unhappy with his job, and his romance too fizzles out. Indrajit is left alone in embittered and relentless questioning. 

“Evam Indrajit” being performed in Chennai in May 2005.

“Evam Indrajit” being performed in Chennai in May 2005. | Photo Credit: R. RAGU

When Sircar moved from the proscenium format to what he called anganmanch or courtyard theatre, his aim was to do away with the conventional theatre paraphernalia that created an illusion of reality. In 1967 he started the theatre group Shatabdi, which performed its first anganmanch play Spartacus in 1972. .

Theatre in India in the 19th and 20th centuries was an important site of social and political questioning. Sircar enriched and reinvented that tradition in ways that would endure.

1964: Girish Karnad writes satire on Nehruvian era Tuglaq

In 1964, Girish Karnad, then a young playwright, wrote Tuglaq in Kannada as a challenge to show the theatre world that there was more to stagecraft than costume drama. Karnad apparently sent the play to Ebrahim Alkazi, who was then the Director of the National School of Drama. Alkazi’s interest in the powerful script led to the play being translated into Urdu and to its first staging as a student production at NSD.

A scene from “Tuglaq” staged at Purana Quila in Delhi.

A scene from “Tuglaq” staged at Purana Quila in Delhi. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Alkazi’s decision to set the play against the magnificent backdrop of the ruins of New Delhi’s Purana Quila in 1972 was a defining point for not just Tuglaq but for Indian theatre. Yet, it was Tuglaq’s content that set it apart. It was essentially a satire on the Nehruvian era and the politics of the 1960s told through the story of Mohammad-bin-Tuglaq, the 14th century Sultan whose dystopian reign is documented as a spectacular failure in India’s history. Karnad captures Tuglaq’s life, his insecurities, his cruel and violent nature, and the deranged thoughts that drove the king into making decisions that failed miserably. The playwright juxtaposes Tuglaq’s idealism with reality to prove his spiralling madness. The subtext was clear — Tuglaq was an allegory for a statesman who was losing his grip in post independent India. 

“It was written and staged at a time when the magic of Nehru was waning. There was clearly a historical parallel. It was an important play because of Karnad’s ability to use a historical story and contextualise it. This format had never been seen,” says Feisal Alkazi, a theatre director and Ebrahim Alkazi’s son.

Documentation from the Alkazi Foundation of Arts on the play says: “Tuglaq has unfolded as a timeless play, where an episode from history has drawn significant insights into contemporary realities. The playwright depicted the polarities of the protagonist’s characteristics and completed a full circle of the narrative, from the monarch’s rise to power to his downfall, drawing on secondary characters and leitmotifs through his dramatic interventions.”

1965: Operation Flood and the NDDB

The National Dairy Development Board was formed in 1965 to start farmer-run milk cooperatives across the country on the lines of the Kaira Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union, popular as Brand Amul, at Anand in Gujarat’s Kheda district. The Kaira union, set up in 1946, was the product of one man’s fight against traders who exploited farmers. That man, Tribhuvandas Kishibhai Patel, was instrumental in picking, in 1950, Verghese Kurien who would take forward his mission of bringing about a milk revolution in India.

The Amul trinity: Tribhuvandas Patel flanked by Verghese Kurien and H.M. Dalaya.

The Amul trinity: Tribhuvandas Patel flanked by Verghese Kurien and H.M. Dalaya. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Kurien began Operation Flood in 1970, and by the time the “milk man of India” retired as the Chairman of NDDB in 1998, India had 81,000 dairy cooperatives similar to Amul. From a position of stagnant milk production in the 1950s and 1960s, India today contributes 23 per cent of global production (global: 906 million tonnes in 2020; India: 209.96 million tonnes, 2020-21).

This stupendous achievement was made possible by institutions such as the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF). Set up in 1973, it has 3.64 producer members across 18 district cooperative milk producers’ unions; collects an average 26.3 million litres of milk a day (2021); and is the largest exporter of dairy products in India.

The experiment spread across States, and as of 2019, India had over 1,90,000 dairy coops, with brands such as Aavin, Nandini, Vijaya, and Mother Dairy.

1966: Green Revolution begins

When in 1966, a high-yielding, disease-resistant variant of wheat was shipped into Punjab from Mexico, it was an epoch-making event, ushering India into the Green Revolution that would rescue it from an impending mass famine and also over-dependence on foreign aid that hindered diplomatic independence.

This HYV wheat was the innovation of American scientist Norman Borlaug, whose accomplishments in Mexico had enticed the then Indian Minister of Food and Agriculture, C. Subramanian, and his adviser, M.S. Swaminathan. The two invited Borlaug to India in 1963 and the subsequent years saw deep collaborative efforts by American universities and Indian universities in levelling land in Punjab, the theatre of the Green Revolution.

Wheat field in Punjab.

Wheat field in Punjab. | Photo Credit: KAMAL NARANG

Punjab, which enjoyed a steady supply of water owing to the Bhakra Nangal project and the pioneering efforts of the Punjab Agricultural University in adapting the HYV seeds to local conditions, was perhaps the only State in India at that time to take advantage of the new experiment. The State government purchased 90,000 diesel pump sets, dug a record number of tube-wells, and developed new practices required to manage the produce.

In 1968, the efforts paid off brilliantly. From being a ship-to-mouth shortage economy, whose Prime Minister (Lal Bahadur Shastri) had once infamously asked Indians to miss a meal on Mondays, the country saw schools and cinema halls being shut down to make storage room for surplus foodgrains. Rice yields in India jumped from about two tonnes per hectare in the 1960s to six tonnes per hectare in the mid-1990s.

But equally, nobody anticipated the negative fallout of such an intensive planting programme: in a few decades, there was loss of soil fertility due to a focussed single crop, soil toxicity due to pesticide-dependent methods, soil erosion, and major depletion of ground water, effects that are still impacting later generations of farmers. While production of rice and wheat grew exponentially, indigenous rice varieties and millets declined, and many native crops were lost forever, impacting diet habits and decreasing natural resistance in the people.

1967: DMK becomes first regional party to form government

It was a memorable victory and it made history. In 1967, when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government rode to power in the State of Madras, it marked the very first win for a regional party in India. It was also significant because it established two strong Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, which till date have not ceded power to any national party.

The moment itself was not the result of an overwhelming belief in a Tamil identity but came on the back of four major negative developments: the Congress was weakened when C. Rajagopalachari formed the Swatantra Party and aligned with the DMK; anti-Hindi protests were peaking but an arrogant Union government was refusing to back down; scarcity of food was at alarming levels; and inflation was on the rise. The DMK announced a mummunai porattam (three-pronged agitation), and almost all opposition political parties joined it in this agitation.

Ahead of the 1967 State legislative election, the Congress had changed the face of the party and projected former Chief Minister K. Kamaraj as its leader; it also had Dravida Kazhagam ideologue Periyar E.V. Ramasamy campaigning against the DMK. But they fell to the oratory of C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, and V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, who enthralled the crowds, and to actor M.G. Ramachandran, who charmed the voters.

Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai at his home in Madras, on June 3, 1967.

Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai at his home in Madras, on June 3, 1967. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The grand coalition stitched by a deft Annadurai led the DMK to win 137 of the 174 seats it contested. The Congress, which contested 232 seats, managed to win only 51. Interestingly, Election Commission data show that the DMK received only 40.69 per cent of the votes polled, while the Congress had a larger vote share, at 41.1 per cent.

The election also settled the question of which of the two Communist parties was bigger in the State. The Communist Party of India contested 32 seats and managed to win only two seats (1.8 per cent vote share), while the “new” communist party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), managed to win 11 of the 22 seats it contested (just over 4 per cent votes polled).

This was also the year that dislodged the Congress, which has not recovered its presence in Tamil Nadu.

1967: Naxalbari movement

In May 1967, two back-to-back incidents ignited the Naxalbari movement, which would have a far-reaching impact on India’s politics, society and culture. A simmering discontent among peasants was palpable in rural north Bengal, and under the leadership of Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Mujibur Rahaman, Khokon Majumdar, Jangal Santhal and others, the peasants from Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phanshidewa were organising themselves to forcibly seize land from landowners. 

On May 24, during an operation to take over land, the police arrived to disperse a gathering of 1,000 protesting peasants in Naxalbari. During the confrontation, Inspector Sonam Wangde of the Naxalbari police station was struck by three arrows and was killed.

CPI(ML) supporters at the party’s 40th anniversary, in Kolkata’s Sahid Minar Maidan on May 25, 2007.

CPI(ML) supporters at the party’s 40th anniversary, in Kolkata’s Sahid Minar Maidan on May 25, 2007. | Photo Credit: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

On May 25, at Bengai Jot village near Naxalbari, the police opened fire on a crowd of mainly women protesters and killed eight women, two children and one young man. From that point a new chapter began in India’s post-Independence history, written in fire and blood. On June 28, 1967, Radio Peking joyfully announced: “A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India. Revolutionary peasants in Darjeeling area have risen in rebellion.”

The two incidents sparked the naxal movement, turning a peasant agitation into an armed struggle. It quickly spread from an obscure region on the Bengal-Nepal border to different parts of the country. It not only gave birth to a political movement but precipitated a cultural upheaval and encouraged a new strain of thought and idea that still haunts the imagination of the youth. Operation “Khatam” (finish off), calling for the annihilation of all class oppressors, came into being and spread to Kolkata under the leadership of young charismatic figures like Ashim Chatterjee (a.k.a. Kaka) and Dipanjan Ray Chowdhuri.

On April 22, 1969, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) was formed under the leadership of Charu Majumdar and Saroj Dutta. The party has since split into various factions. The naxal movement itself underwent many changes. At present, it is represented by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), established on September 21, 2004, through the merger of the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). Though the Maoists’ activities are limited to certain parts of the country, and the naxal ideology has now largely lost its political and practical relevance, the Naxalbari movement continues to fascinate scholars and common people alike. 

1967: Vijay Tendulkar breaks new ground with ‘Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe’

The staging of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (Silence! The Court is in Session) in 1967 is regarded as a milestone in Indian theatre for its powerful social commentary. It is a play within a play centred around exposing chauvinism and societal hypocrisy. Its first production was directed by Arvind Deshpande, with Sulbha Deshpande playing the lead character Leela Benare. Tendulkar, a towering personality in Indian theatre and cinema, was a pioneer in giving voice to social issues through his plays. The ground-breaking Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe has been translated into many languages and performed widely. It remains extremely relevant whenever it is staged, even now. 

Vijay Tendulkar.

Vijay Tendulkar. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The play was inspired by a conversation Tendulkar heard on a train. He based the story on a mock trial on infanticide, which turns into a real trial of the woman protagonist who reveals to her colleagues that she is pregnant out of wedlock. Under the pretext of acting, her male colleagues begin a brutal character assassination dialogue and intimidate her to the point that she tries to flee from the room. When the tension and attack reach a climax, the players remove their costumes and say it was all an act. By that time, the woman is reduced to a complete wreck and the audience knows that it was not an act.

The film and theatre critic Deepa Gehlot writes: “Like so many of his plays, this was an indictment of social hypocrisy and the kind of moral policing that is prevalent even today. The play is as powerful today as it was then.”

1969: Banks nationalised

On the midnight of July 19, 1969, Indira Gandhi’s government nationalised 14 banks, each with reserves of more than Rs.50 crore. An authorised history of the Reserve Bank of India calls the action “the single most important economic decision taken by any government since 1947.” It goes on to state that “not even the reforms of 1991 are comparable in their consequences — political, social and, of course, economic”.

The move was among several socialist initiatives taken by the besieged Prime Minister to shore up her popularity as she fought to strengthen her position against the “Syndicate”, a group of powerful leaders within the Congress. She also wanted to regain the ground lost by the Congress in the 1967 election. Morarji Desai, who was opposed to bank nationalisation, was divested of the Finance portfolio before the decision was announced. 

Hundreds of rickshaw pullers congratulate Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi on the nationalisation of banks, in New Delhi on July 22, 1969.

Hundreds of rickshaw pullers congratulate Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi on the nationalisation of banks, in New Delhi on July 22, 1969. | Photo Credit: PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU

The move increased the reach of banking in rural areas. The number of public sector banks was increased to 22 and these collectively held 84 per cent of the total deposits and managed 82 per cent of the bank branches in the country.

Next came another populist move to abolish the generous privy purses that were paid to princes who had acceded to India in 1947-48. Indira Gandhi did this by ensuring the passage of the 26th Constitutional Amendment in 1971 in the face of severe opposition from the erstwhile rulers and their supporters. The discontent this spawned would later add teeth to the Indian right wing.

In her third term as premier, Indira Gandhi effected a second round of bank nationalisation when six more commercial banks were brought under government control in 1980.

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