India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1970s

A period of political churn.

Published : Aug 14, 2022 06:00 IST

Jayaprakash Narayan.

Jayaprakash Narayan. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

1973: Kesavananda Bharati case

In an interview a few years before his passing in 2020, Kesavananda Bharati, the pontiff of the Edneer Mutt in Kasaragod in Kerala, said that when he challenged the Kerala Land Reforms Act he never thought that the subsequent Supreme Court judgment (in Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala) would become such a landmark event in the annals of the Indian judiciary. “I approached the court not because I lost my property but due to the feeling that what the government did was not right,” he said.

Nonetheless, Bharati’s petition led to the Kesavananda judgment, which set forth the “basic structure doctrine”. The Supreme Court pronounced on April 24, 1973—by a razor-thin majority of 7:6—that although Parliament had the power to amend any part of the Constitution of India, it could not use this power to alter or destroy the “basic structure” of the Constitution. Considering the salience of the issue, the Supreme Court had constituted a 13-judge bench that heard the case continuously for almost five months to flesh out the relationship between the three conventional branches of government. The judgment meant that all constitutional amendments made henceforth would have to pass the Supreme Court’s “basic structure filter”.

Kesavananda Bharati.

Kesavananda Bharati. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

While the basic structure of the Constitution is not defined, Chief Justice S.M. Sikri identified what it constituted, according to him, in his judgment: the supremacy, secular character, and federal character of the Constitution; the republican and democratic form of government; and the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. The other judges on the bench prepared their own lists of what constituted the basic structure of the Constitution.

If one were to indulge in a counterfactual exercise, it would perhaps not be too fantastical to imagine India descending into an authoritarian form of governance with even the sanctity of the Constitution itself sacrificed at the altar of untrammelled political power if the judgment had allowed Parliament to amend any part of the Constitution.

1973: Project Tiger

Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger on April 1, 1973, from Jim Corbett National Park in Uttar Pradesh (now in Uttarakhand). At the beginning of the 20th century, India had between 20,000 and 40,000 tigers. But hunting had decimated the population until they numbered around 2,000 in the early 1970s. After Project Tiger, their population has shown a gradual rise, with the 2018 tiger census putting the number at 2,967.

Project Tiger is also about habitat conservation as the tiger is at the top of the food chain. It was initially started in nine tiger reserves, covering over 14,000 sq. km, and the objective was to create diverse ecosystems that would have enough space for all species to grow, feed, and procreate. The programme has now grown to include 51 tiger reserves, covering over 74,000 sq. km. But tiger deaths have also increased, with 106 deaths in 2020 and 127 in 2021.

Tiger cubs at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve near Nagpur in Maharashtra in 2019.

Tiger cubs at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve near Nagpur in Maharashtra in 2019. | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

The Centre funds tiger range States and in-situ conservation in some chosen reserves. The reserves have been created on a core and buffer structure, where the core is for tiger-centric activities and the buffer is for humans on the fringes of the forest. In the 13th Five Year Plan, Rs.1,027 crore was allotted for the project, which is administered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

Poaching is a big problem because of the demand for tiger parts. A GPS-based law enforcement and ecological monitoring tool, M-STrIPES (Monitoring System for Tigers- Intensive Protection and Ecological Status), launched in 2010, is helping create a database of individual tigers so that seized body parts can be traced to the tigers they belong to.

Tigers continue to be on the IUCN’s Endangered list and under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. With India accounting for 70 per cent of the world’s tigers, the onus is on Project Tiger to increase its numbers.

1973: Chipko movement starts

On April 24, 1973, the Gandhian social worker Chandi Prasad Bhatt rallied the women of Mandal in the Garhwal division of what was still part of Uttar Pradesh to stop Symonds (a company manufacturing sports products) from cutting down trees. The women embraced the trees and prevented them from being cut. The action started what has become famous as the Chipko movement.

Logging, however, continued. When, in 1974, forests affected by the Alakananda floods were once again earmarked for logging, it enraged the villagers and it was the women who drove out the contractors. The State set up a committee, and the outcome was a 10-year ban on logging, later extended for a further 10 years. The Chipko movement gained momentum.

The forests of the area, which is now in Uttarakhand, had attracted timber companies in the 1960s and the hill slopes were being decimated by commercial logging. Local people, however, were not allowed to cut trees for fuel or fodder. Then in 1970, the Alakananda flooded its banks and the already bare slopes aggravated the disaster, causing major mudslides and landslides. Yet the logging continued unabated. For the villagers, the last straw was the government’s permission to Symonds. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, well-known in the area for his cooperative organisation Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh, mobilised the people. The Symonds permit was cancelled.

Sunderlal Bahuguna, who had become synonymous with the Chipko movement, with his wife, Vimla.

Sunderlal Bahuguna, who had become synonymous with the Chipko movement, with his wife, Vimla. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Chipko was successful primarily because of the simplicity of method and the involvement of local people, for whom it was about regaining control over natural resources. Their close links with the forest provided the impetus. It was the women, who collected firewood and fodder, who were, therefore, at the forefront. The movement is often called an eco-feminist movement, but the label is an external tag. For the women, it was a matter of survival.

The movement gained power under the eco-activist Sunderlal Bahuguna, whose mission was to save the Himalayan forests. He persuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to impose a 15-year ban on tree cutting in the Garhwal-Kumaon region.

The spirit of the Chipko movement has since been assimilated into tree-saving protests around the country. One in Karnataka even took on a local name, “appiko”, meaning “embrace” in Kannada. But the first recorded instance of this novel way of saving trees comes from the nature-loving Bishnois in Rajasthan in the 18th century.

A woman called Amrita Devi rallied others to save trees in her village that were being cut by the Jodhpur ruler. Neither the women nor the trees survived, but the king, stunned by their sacrifice, issued a royal decree that trees were never to be cut in Bishnoi villages.

1973: Janam is formed

Janam, short for Jana Natya Manch or people’s theatre forum, was born at an interesting juncture in the new republic. In the early 1970s, citizens were getting disenchanted with the unmet promises of the Congress made at the time of Independence. Poverty, inflation and unemployment were high. The Indian communists were calling for reforms but were themselves at loggerheads with each other.

In 1973, hungry for change, a group of young and enthusiastic members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) in Delhi formed the cultural front Janam from the vestiges of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) of the 1940s. Safdar Hashmi was a founder member. With avowed sympathy for the workers’ cause, the group began to perform plays for trade union events, especially CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Union). In its initial five years, Janam produced large-scale performances that were attended by thousands of people. Its biggest hit during that time was a political satire called Bakri (Goat), directed by Kavita Nagpal.

Safdar Hashmi.

Safdar Hashmi. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The clampdown during the Emergency of 1975 made it difficult for the group to continue as usual. Struggling under financial and political constraints, the group began to explore the possibilities of street theatre, and thereafter produced performances only within the bounds of what its audience members — workers and farmers — could afford. The first play under this format, Machine, directed by a 24-year-old Safdar Hashmi, inaugurated a vibrant era for the group. 

However, things turned ugly when on January 1, 1989, while the group was performing Halla Bol in the Jhandapur industrial area of Sahibabad, in Ghaziabad, Delhi, the group was attacked by political goons allegedly patronised by the Congress, the then ruling party. A young Nepali migrant worker, Ram Bahadur, was shot dead, several others injured, and Safdar Hashmi violently assaulted, his skull smashed with bamboo sticks and iron rods. He died in hospital the next day.

The incident shook the nation and over 15,000 people joined the funeral procession the following morning. Hashmi’s killing drew nationwide attention to Janam and its protest theatre. And when, just 36 hours after his death, Moloyashree Hashmi, his wife, returned to Sahibabad and completed the interrupted play, it galvanised not only the artistic community but also the common person on the street.

1974: JP Movement

The 1970s were a shaky period. While the 1971 victory over Pakistan appeared glossy, the many crises it engendered soon removed the sheen: over 10 million Bangladeshi refugees; widespread food scarcity; galloping inflation; high unemployment; industrial unrest fanned by labour militancy and political obduracy in equal measure; and an unimaginable increase in corruption.

Gujarat was one of the worst-hit States, but a Congress government drunk on power—it won 140 of the 168 seats in the 1972 Assembly election—did not seem to care. Students in Ahmedabad began a protest against the increase in hostel mess fees and soon all sections of society joined in. Chimanbhai Patel, who had become Chief Minister in July 1973 replacing Ghanshyam Oza, faced their wrath. It was the start of the Nav Nirman movement, whose aim was threefold: resignation of the Chief Minister, dissolution of the Assembly, and fresh elections.

Students, under the banner of the Nav Nirman Samiti, with the support of the ABVP, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and the Congress (O), organised bandhs and strikes until Patel stepped down on February 9, 1974.

The students had a visitor two days later: freedom fighter and anti-corruption crusader Jayaprakash Narayan. He had come to support the protests and understand how students in his home State Bihar could gain from the experience. The Bihar Rajya Sangarsh Samiti, with Lalu Prasad as president and comprising the ABVP, the Samajwadi Yuva Jana Sabha (SYJS), and the Bihar Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti (BCSS), was at the vanguard of protests there, and came to be called the Bihar Movement or JP Movement, formed to fight the excesses of the Abdul Ghafoor-led Congress government.

On March 18, 1974, an important date in the JP Movement, students gheraoed the Bihar Assembly. Clashes erupted and three students died in police firing. Protests erupted across Bihar, demanding the exit of Ghafoor. When eight more students were killed in police firing on April 12, JP expanded the protests, calling for electoral reforms and probity in public life.

George Fernandes under arrest during the all India railway strike in May 1974. 

George Fernandes under arrest during the all India railway strike in May 1974.  | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Simultaneously, unrest was brewing among railway workers over demands for pay revision and eight-hour shifts. Indira Gandhi was in no mood to relent but neither were the railway unions. This agitation birthed George Fernandes, who became leader of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. When Fernandes called for an all India strike on May 8, he and other leaders were arrested, but on the day, at least 70 per cent of workers did strike, bringing the country to a standstill. The retribution was swift, with the Centre resorting to brutal repression through paramiltary forces. Draconian laws such as MISA were used against protesters. On May 28 the strike was called off, with most leaders jailed.

On June 5, JP called for Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) at a rally in Patna, where it was also decided to hold a satyagraha on the Assembly premises every day. Around 1,600 protesters were arrested, many detained under MISA. Students were asked to boycott classes and join the movement.

Meanwhile, in Gujarat, the Assembly had been dissolved after Morarji Desai went on an indefinite fast and President’s rule imposed. In June 1975, elections were held after Desai went on a fast again and they brought the first non-Congress government to power in the State. Results were announced on June 12. This was also the day when the Allahabad High Court, in a petition filed by Raj Narain, set aside Indira Gandhi’s election in the 1971 general election on the grounds of electoral malpractice. But she refused to resign her Raebareli seat.

As JP began traversing India to unite anti-Congress parties and the protests intensified, Indira imposed the Emergency on June 25, 1975, clamping down on basic freedoms for 21 months. She called elections in March 1977, which, much to her surprise, the Janata Party won. As the decade ended, the Janata experiment too ended in disarray, with the socialist stalwarts going their own ways.

1974: Operation Smiling Buddha

After China tested its first nuclear device in 1964, India was keen to prove that it was not lagging. The 1962 defeat still rankled. In fact, Homi J. Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear programme, had announced that same year that India could build a bomb. Bhabha died in a mysterious air crash in 1966. The Indian bomb went off exactly a decade after China exploded its device.

Dr. Raja Ramanna.

Dr. Raja Ramanna. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Though China provided an immediate impetus for India’s political establishment, the beginnings of India’s scientific trajectory were first laid during the Nehru years. The 1950s and the 1960s are seen as the infrastructure-building phase. The establishment of four IITs and the Indian Statistical Institute and the commissioning of India’s first nuclear reactor, Apsara, happened in the 1950s. The Institute of Mathematical Sciences was established in 1962. 

The Atomic Energy Commission aimed for self-reliance: building research reactors, plutonium separation plants, uranium mining; fuel rod manufacturing and reprocessing facilities, and developing capable manpower at all levels of operation, maintenance and management. Nehru’s nationalist view of science seemed to be accepted by two generations of exceptionally gifted, intelligent, and articulate scientists such as Meghnad Saha, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and Homi J. Bhabha. The next generation of scientists included the likes of Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan.

The D-day for the test was May 18, 1974, in Pokhran. The pointsman was Raja Ramanna, whose team extracted plutonium for the device from CIRUS (Canada – India Reactor US) research reactor. It was not a deliverable weapon, which had been a point of contention among top scientists. What was the point, Sarabhai had asked, if India did not have a delivery mechanism? Sarabhai’s concern, research scholars have noted, was because of the international fallout an explosion would entail. He was right. Pakistan accelerated its nuclear programme soon after.

1979: The first PIL petition

Public interest litigation (PIL) petitions are cases filed in a court that highlight a public cause and seek to redress for those affected. Because of two eminent Indian Supreme Court judges, V.R. Krishna Iyer and P.N. Bhagwati (both appointed to the Supreme Court in 1973), PIL petitions became the major route for redress of grievances for those who were otherwise kept out of the corridors of justice.

The introduction of PIL jurisprudence was nothing short of a revolution: Judges in High Courts and the Supreme Court overlooked procedural lacuna and liberally interpreted Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution, thereby simplifying access to justice. In short, the judiciary stepped in where the executive and the legislature had failed or had not acted with the urgency an issue commanded.

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer.

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer. | Photo Credit: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Technically, the 1979 Hussainara Khatoon vs State of Bihar (relating to the plight of undertrials languishing in jails) was the first PIL petition though Justice Krishna Iyer spoke about it in the 1976 Mumbai Kamgar case (Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs M/s Abdulbhai Faizullabhai and others (1976 (3) SCC 832)). He noted: “Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances and conceptual latitudinarianism permits taking liberties where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker.”

For the next three decades plus, the PIL petition proved to be a path to justice in many landmark cases that took on State high-handedness or in cases where justice seemed a pipe dream. This included M.C. Mehta vs Union of India (discharge of untreated sewage from Kanpur’s tanneries into the Ganges), Parmanand Katara vs Union of India (any doctor can treat medico-legal cases since saving human life is most important), Javed vs State of Haryana (coercive population control), and Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan (sexual harassment is a clear violation of fundamental rights).

On December 1, 1988, a full court made certain modifications to the PIL rule, including that no petition involving individual/personal matters shall be entertained as a PIL, with some exceptions. “Letter-petitions falling under the following categories alone will ordinarily be entertained as Public Interest Litigation:- 1) Bonded Labour matters. 2. Neglected Children. 3. Non-payment of minimum wages to workers and exploitation of casual workers and complaints of violation of Labour Laws (except in individual cases),” a court circular said. The Supreme Court made it clear that rushing to the apex court for all cases would not be tolerated.

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