India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1980s

Sporting glory and the start of mandir-masjid politics.

Published : Aug 17, 2022 19:21 IST

1980: Prakash Padukone wins All England Championship

India is today a big name in international badminton, with four men and one woman in the top 20 of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings. In the last seven years India produced two world number ones, Saina Nehwal (2015) and Kidambi Srikanth (2018); and India ranks fifth in the world in the sport with three medals at the Olympics, 25 at the Commonwealth Games and 10 each in the Asian Games and the BWF World Championships. These achievements would not have been possible without the heroics of Prakash Padukone in the badminton court: the first Indian to win the prestigious All England Championship, in 1980, and climb to the top of the world rankings.

Prakash Padukone with the All England trophy he won after beating Liem Swie King of Indonesia 15-3, 15-10 on March 23, 1980.

Prakash Padukone with the All England trophy he won after beating Liem Swie King of Indonesia 15-3, 15-10 on March 23, 1980. | Photo Credit: AP

At a time when badminton was dominated by Denmark, China and Indonesia, Prakash Padukone single-handedly carved out a space for India in the international arena. Born on June 10, 1955, in Bangalore, he was introduced to the game at an early age by his father, Ramesh Padukone, who was the secretary of the Mysore Badminton Association. He dominated the sport, winning the national championships eight times in a row (1971-79), and in 1978, he won his first international title, the gold at the Commonwealth Games in Canada.

The year 1980 turned out to be the turning point for both Padukone and Indian sports. He beat the legendary Morten Frost - “Mr Badminton” – in the Denmark Open; and then made history by winning the All England Championship, defeating the two-time defending champion, the Indonesian superstar Liem Swie King. It would be 21 years before another Indian, Pullela Gopichand, would win the All England again, in 2001. Padukone’s magnificent streak in 1980 continued as he went on to claim the Swedish Open title, defeating Rudy Hartono, the Indonesian legend and a record eight-time winner of the All England Championship. The same year he became World No 1 in the BWF rankings.

Padukone retired in 1991, but continued to serve Indian badminton through his Prakash Padukone Academy, which has produced champions and stars like P. Gopichand, Aparna Popat, Anup Sridhar, Arvind Bhat, Trupti Murgunde, Aditi Mutatkar, Sayali Gokhale, Ashwini Ponnappa and Lakshya Sen. India has produced a number of international stars in badminton over the years and it was Padukone who first opened the door for them in 1980.

1982: Festival of India

In 1978, Britain had proposed a large-scale exhibition of Indian antiques, something that had been done only once before, in 1947-48, immediately after Independence. After her post-Emergency re-election in 1980, Indira Gandhi, as recommended by her cultural adviser Pupul Jayakar, widened the scope, wanting to showcase “modern” India’s artistic achievements as well. The “Festival of India” (FoI) was thus born.

Conceptualised as a galaxy of events that would include art, sculpture, dance, music, poetry, cinema, theatre, science, crafts, food and more, the first FoI was held in Britain in 1982, followed by editions in subsequent years in the US and France (1985-86), the erstwhile Soviet Union (1987-88), Japan (1988), Germany, Sweden, and China.

Festival of India in Colombo, 2015.

Festival of India in Colombo, 2015. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The festivals were designed to not just exhibit India’s past in the form of sculptures and manuscripts but also its achievements in the contemporary age, thus creating a rich smorgasbord of experiences. There were scientific and technological shows, literary symposiums, and educational programmes. Shops, local communities, restaurants, and cultural centres participated. Radio and TV shows featured the festival. Schools and universities attended in large groups.

The FoIs were organised under broad heads such as Design, Craft, Textiles, Photography, and Cinema, and were planned by a National Advisory Committee headed by the Prime Minister, with eminent personalities representing their respective fields. They were executed by a special cell set up under the Culture Ministry.

As much as the FoIs have been criticised for being pointless pageantry besides incorporating ‘culture as an arm of diplomacy’, they did serve two ends: first, they gave one of the first global platforms to some of India’s best and brightest; and second, they were the first attempts to present India through Indian eyes, an important enterprise for a nation freshly emerged from colonisation.

1983: India wins cricket World Cup

June 25, 1983, was a day that forever changed the course of Indian sports. India won the 1983 Prudential World Cup, beating Clive Lloyd’s mighty West Indies team, arguably the greatest team in the history of the game. From that day onward, cricket rose from being just a popular sport to a national obsession, and became one of the biggest money-spinners in the country.

Kapil Dev lifts the trophy on the balcony of the pavillion at Lords on June 23, 1983, after the 1983 Prudential World Cup victory against the West Indies.

Kapil Dev lifts the trophy on the balcony of the pavillion at Lords on June 23, 1983, after the 1983 Prudential World Cup victory against the West Indies. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

When India entered the tournament, it was beyond anyone’s imagination that it would eventually end up as champions. Yet Kapil Dev and his immortals defied all expectations and predictions, as they secured victories against all the teams in their group, and then proceeded to defeat two dangerous teams in succession—Australia and England—on its route to the final at Lords. Even as the world stood surprised that India could make it so far, most considered the final with the West Indies to be a foregone conclusion.

West Indies had won both the previous World Cups with embarrassing ease, and its batting line-up (Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes , Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, Larry Gomes and Faoud Bacchus), and bowling attack (Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Joel Garner) struck terror in the hearts of every cricket team in the world.

So when India was bundled out for a meagre 183, spectators were already making plans for the rest of the afternoon. What neither West Indies nor the spectators expected was the cunning strategy India came up with in its bowling attack. The formidable Windies, expecting a cakewalk, fell for just 140 runs. Mohinder Amarnath picked up his second consecutive Man of the Match award.

It was a watershed moment in India that transcended sports. An editorial from a daily newspaper ranked the World Cup win among the finest achievements in Independent India. The victory propelled India’s rise as one of the strongest cricketing nations, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BBCI) became the richest governing body of cricket in the world, with a reported net worth of Rs.18,000 crore.

1983: First Maruti 800 car rolls out

When Harpal Singh of Delhi, an Indian Airlines employee, received the keys to the first Maruti 800 car from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on December 14, 1983, it was a giant leap for the collective aspirations of the Indian middle class.

Car ownership was no longer the preserve of the rich and famous once the first Maruti rolled out from the company’s Gurgaon factory. It cost Rs.47,500 then, and there was no stopping the middle-class Indian from aiming to acquire it: the company actually received orders for more than 1.35 lakh units in just two months.

For 31 years, until January 18, 2014, when the last unit rolled out of the assembly, the Maruti 800 nurtured the desires of a changing society and launched a car revolution in the country.

Maruti 800 cars at the company’s Gurgaon factory, in December 2008.

Maruti 800 cars at the company’s Gurgaon factory, in December 2008. | Photo Credit: PRAKASH SINGH

Today the auto enthusiast is spoilt for choice and the landscape is littered with dozens of models and variants. But much before terms like hatchback, sedan and SUV became commonplace, the only term known to Indians was car, and that usually meant either the Ambassador or the Fiat. Overnight, the Maruti 800 threw out those two workhorses.

During its long and eventful lifespan, the car sold over 26 lakh units in India alone and thousands of units were exported to nearby countries and even to Europe.

The first car for millions of Indian families, it was their first affordable chance to transition from two-wheelers to four-wheeled comfort.

Started as a collaboration with Suzuki of Japan, Maruti’s journey can actually be traced to the early 1970s when Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi started a venture with the dream of building a small car, but it was soon mired in controversy amid allegations of favouritism. After Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she handpicked the bureaucrat V. Krishnamurthy to revive the project and build a “people’s car”. His efforts paid off and on Sanjay’s birth anniversary in 1983, the first Maruti was handed over.

Maruti did not just transform the Indian auto industry: it unlocked the country’s manufacturing potential and introduced world-class best practices in production and quality control. Maruti Suzuki India Ltd was sold to Suzuki Motor Corporation in 2003, but for those first three decades, the Maruti 800 was a symbol of pride for a people who could finally believe that it was possible to make in India, not just for India but for the world.

1984: P.T. Usha misses Olympic medal by a whisker

Sometimes in sports a loss can be as much a source of inspiration as a victory. P T Usha’s historic run in the 400 m hurdles final in the 1984 Olympics is one such loss. Usha may have lost the bronze by one-hundredth of a second, but she galvanised an entire generation to take to track and field to be the next P.T. Usha and achieve that which she missed so narrowly.

Usha was India’s brightest hope for a medal in the 1984 Olympics. She had already made history on the road to the 400m hurdles final by becoming the first Indian athlete to win in an Olympic semifinal. She beat the US champion Judi Brown and clocked 55.54 seconds. Carrying the expectations of an entire nation on her shoulders, Usha ran a magnificent race in the final, clocking 55.42 seconds, but lost the bronze to Cristina Cojacoru of Romania by the narrowest of margins. Nevertheless, she had the distinction of being the first Indian woman to reach an Olympic final.

Born on June 27, 1964, in Kuttali, Kerala, Pilavullakandi Thekkeraparambil Usha was the first and biggest woman superstar in Indian athletics. She did not allow the disappointment of the Olympic loss to impede her on her road to greatness. In the 1985 Asian Championships in Indonesia she won six medals (5 gold and one bronze) – a feat not yet matched by any Indian athlete. In the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, the ‘Payyoli Express’ as she was nicknamed, won four golds and a silver. In the 1989 Asian Championships, Usha had a six-medal haul – four gold and two silver.

In a career spanning nearly two decades, Usha won four gold medals, and seven silver at the Asian Games, and 23 medals at the Asian Championship, including 14 gold medals. In her day, she was the undisputed “Queen of Indian Track and Field”. After her retirement she opened the Usha School of Athletics, where she grooms budding athletes to fulfill her dream of “seeing an Indian sprinter standing on the Olympic podium.”

1984: Hanging of Maqbool Bhat

On February 11, 1984, the Indira Gandhi government green-signalled the hanging of Kashmiri separatist Maqbool Bhat inside Tihar jail. The hanging was carried out abruptly, five days after the killing of an Indian diplomat, Ravindra Mhatre, in the UK by an affiliate of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which had inflamed public sentiments. Bhat’s body was not returned to his family, which sparked widespread fury in Kashmir and bolstered anti-India sentiments.

Bhat had been convicted and sentenced to death as early as in 1966 for murdering a CID official. However, in December 1968, he had escaped to Pakistan. After he was recaptured by Indian forces in 1976 when he came into to J&K again, the Supreme Court in 1978 upheld his death sentence. When he was hanged in 1984, it stirred the imagination of the Kashmiri masses and Bhat became a symbol of resistance that would linger.

A grafffiti of Maqbool Bhat near the General Post Office in Srinagar in 2015.

A grafffiti of Maqbool Bhat near the General Post Office in Srinagar in 2015. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

By 1987, the atmosphere in the Valley was tense, aggravated by the allegedly rigged elections earlier that year. Despite overwhelming popularity, several candidates of the Muslim United Front, a coalition of Islamic Kashmiri political parties and challenger to the National Conference-Congress combine, were declared defeated, including Mohammad Yousuf Shah, who would eventually escape to Pakistan, take the alias Syed Salahuddin, and form the United Jehad Council.

Besides this growing anti-India feeling, other factors contributed at this time to the eventual eruption of militancy in Kashmir in January 1990. Chief among these was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89, which led to large numbers of Kashmiri youths romanticising the idea of armed rebellion against what they considered an occupying force.

The JKLF was at the forefront of this armed uprising. In December 1989, JKLF guerrillas kidnapped Dr Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of then Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, a Kashmiri. The government later secured her release by releasing five JKLF terrorists. For many observers, this is seen as the defining moment that would go on to trigger full-scale militancy in the Kashmir Valley and the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandit community.

1984: First TV soap ‘Hum Log’ aired

The first Indian soap opera, Hum Log, was aired on July 7, 1984, on Doordarshan, the only television channel of the time, forever changing the way Indians would consume mass media. From 70 mm cinema screens to the wooden cabinet enclosed television sets, the entry of television serials into people’s drawing rooms transformed the way information and entertainment would be disseminated.

Hum Log was the story of a middle-class family’s struggles and aspirations. Within a short span of time, Badki, Nanhe, Chutki, and Lajwanti became household names to whom people could easily relate. The serial dealt deftly with issues that were prevalent at the time. The makers of the serial handled delicately issues such as alcoholism, gender discrimination, poverty, superstition, and career prospects. Indians identified with the alcoholic Basesar and the aspiring cricketer Nanhe. Every house had a Lajwanti suppressed by a patriarchal system. At the end of each episode, popular film actor Ashok Kumar appeared on screen to artfully analyse the day’s topic. He enthralled audiences with his witticisms, insights, and sage advice.

The cast of ‘Hum Log’.

The cast of ‘Hum Log’. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Conceptualised by Vasant Sathe, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, Hum Log was developed in collaboration with writer Manohar Shyam Joshi and director P. Kumar Vasudev. It was influenced by a Mexican drama.

The serial buoyed the golden era of Indian television with socially sensitive and mature content catering to an upwardly mobile, yet struggling middle-class mass audience. It was soon followed by Buniyaad in 1986 that dealt with Partition, Fauji, which is best known as the launching pad for Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, comedy show Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Vikram Betal and Malgudi Days.

Although India had gained independence from the British rule in 1947, the process of nation-building was far from over. In a country divided by language, region, caste, class, and religion, among other things, a common identity and value system was difficult to achieve. Television serials, vastly contributed to this project of cultural assimilation. The entry of private channels in the 1990s, with regional and international channels being available at the click of a remote control button, provided further impetus to this process. Tara, aired in 1995, identified with the contemporary urban woman, and Hasratein tackled the subject of extramarital affairs.

As the economy was liberalised in the 1990s, television shows reflected the growing aspirations of the youth with reality and talent hunt shows such as Boogie Woogie, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, and finally Kaun Banega Crorepati, hosted by none other than the Badshah of Indian cinema, Amitabh Bachchan. A prolific list of TV serials came during this time.

1984: Kanshi Ram launches Bahujan Samaj Party

Although B.R. Ambedkar had formed the Independent Labour Party in 1936, the Dalit cause did not really become a political movement in north India until Kanshi Ram in 1984 established the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which went on to dominate electoral politics in Uttar Pradesh and won significant gains. Kanshi Ram’s biggest success was in creating the bahujan identity that united various marginalised castes—SCs, STs, and OBCs—into one fighting unit.

Kanshi Ram, affectionately called Saheb, was born in a Chamar family. He had got a government job through reservation but quit to become an activist. One of his first moves was to establish the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) through which he encouraged Dalits to fight against discrimination in the workplace. He asked members to educate, consolidate, struggle.

Kanshi Ram.

Kanshi Ram. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In 1972, Namdeo Dhasal had founded the Dalit Panthers in Mumbai, a radical organisation inspired by the African-American Black Panther movement. Its focus on militant methods went against Ambedkar’s insistence on democratic struggle, but it became fiercely admired among the oppressed castes. Kanshi Ram, however, realised early that political power was the route to freedom for Dalits and nurtured the BSP for that role.

In 1994, the BSP garnered enough success to form a coalition government with the Samajwadi Party in UP. It was also around this time that Kanshi Ram began to groom Mayawati as his successor, who would then become India’s first Scheduled Caste Chief Minister.

Although the BSP has been losing steam in UP since the arrival of the BJP, Kanshi Ram made a significant impact on the political evolution of Dalits in north India and made possible the emergence of a younger crop of Dalit leaders such as Chandrashekhar Azad and Jignesh Mevani.

1985: Narmada Bachao Andolan

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) was a mass movement that began in 1985 to protest against the lack of an appropriate resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) policy for the more than 250,000 people who faced submergence during the construction of big dams along the Narmada river. Originally named Narmada Dharangrast Samiti or Committee for Narmada Dam-affected people, the movement was renamed NBA in 1989.

The Narmada Valley project was conceived in 1946, but work on it started only in 1978 after the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) gave its final orders including plans for R&R. The plan was to build 30 large dams, 135 medium dams, and 3,000 small dams along 1,312 km of the Narmada from Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat. Except for the Sardar Sarovar, all the dams were in Madhya Pradesh. Its 138.68-metre-high wall would submerge 38,000 hectares of land, and displace 244 villages and 250,000 people.

In 1985, the dam faced its first legal challenge when 35-year-old Medha Patkar petitioned the Supreme Court against the project, citing poor R&R. The court stayed work but vacated it in 1998 on condition that permission would be granted after a review of the affected areas. In 2000, the court allowed construction on condition of supervised R&R. By 2004 it stood at 110.64 metres and by 2006 it had permission to rise to 121.92 metres.

Medha Patkar (right) sitting in protest against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project.

Medha Patkar (right) sitting in protest against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Patkar’s legal battle continued because the R&R regulations were being violated. Regulations say people should be resettled six months prior to submergence. The NWDT also said that no area should be submerged until all payments were made. Both these fundamental rules were betrayed.

Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, and 17 days later, he granted permission to raise the Sardar Sarovar to its full height and install sluice gates at the top. Modi dedicated the dam in September 2018. This, while about 21,000 families awaited R&R.

Dam supporters see its construction as their victory, but the NBA too has had many successes along the way. The organisation’s biggest triumph was in 1993, when the World Bank withdrew its Narmada loan and also published an independent review of the project. Patkar’s strengths lay in mobilising and educating the oustees, attracting a group of committed activists, strategising plans of action, and interacting with people across the board from district collectors to international leaders. The Andolan brought the national spotlight on environmental and rehabilitation issues raised by big dam projects, raising awareness of tribal and underprivileged people most affected by such projects.

Even now the NBA continues to try and get R&R justice. Most oustees have been forced to accept new terms for their lives. Since villages were not settled en masse, their centuries old social fabric was ripped. Compensatory agricultural land often turned out to be a rocky and barren. Many families moved to cities and made their homes in slums. They are the invisible masses over whose shattered lives the project of greater good was built.

1985: Assam Accord signed

The Assam Accord, a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS), signed in the early hours of August 15, 1985, by the Union government, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad ended the six-year bloody agitation (1979-1985) to detect, disenfranchise and deport “illegal” residents from the State. It also altered the nature and perception of India’s federal characteristics and left an indelible imprint on the issue of citizenship in the country. 

At the core of the Assam Accord was the “Foreigners Issue” in Clause 5 of the MoS. It states that all persons who came to Assam prior to 1.1.1966 shall be regularised. Those who came between 1.1.1966 and March 24, 1971, shall be detected in accordance with the relevant laws and removed from the electoral rolls for 10 years. On the expiry of 10 years, the names of all such persons shall be restored in the electoral rolls. The subsection 8 of Clause 5 states: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law. Immediate and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners. Integral to Clause 5, Clause 6 of the Accord assures Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

The signing of the Assam Accord.

The signing of the Assam Accord. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

On February 2, 1980, after a year of violent agitation, the AASU in a memorandum to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conveyed its “profound sense of apprehensions” regarding the continuing influx of foreign nationals into Assam and its impact upon the political, social, cultural and economic life of the State. Thus began the process of dialogue, culminating with the signing of the Accord under Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership. 

The Assam Accord also brought certain key federal issues to the fore. By acknowledging the demand of the sons of the soil, the Centre established that while India remained a quasi federation with a strong unitary bias, States could nevertheless demand and secure a limited amount of sovereignty to preserve their own sub-nationalist identity. The Assam Accord changed the law of citizenship in Assam, which in turn theoretically challenges the idea of any uniform citizenship law in the country.

The flare-up in Assam after the announcement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 is a case in point. While the CAA makes a distinction along religious lines, the Assam Accord does not make this differentiation. The CAA thus raises the fear that Assam may again have to see more influx from Hindu asylum seekers from neighbouring countries. A committee set up to examine Clause 6 of the Assam Accord submitted its report in 2020, but it lies unimplemented.

1985: Shah Bano case

The 1985 Shah Bano judgment was a landmark in India’s constitutional history, with vexed questions flaring up about the role of a secular state in matters of religion, the disorderly intersection of religious principles and individual rights as enshrined in a liberal democracy, and the gendered perspective on the need for reform in Muslim personal law.

Shah Bano in April 1978 filed a petition in a court in Indore, demanding maintenance from her divorced husband Mohammed Ahmad Khan, a well-known lawyer. The two had married in 1932 and had five children—three sons and two daughters. Shah Bano’s claim was premised under Section 123 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which stipulates that a man will have to provide for his wife during the marriage and after divorce if she cannot sustain herself financially on her own.

Shah Bano.

Shah Bano. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

However, Khan contested the claim on the grounds that the Muslim Personal Law limited the payment of maintenance till only the period of iddat. Iddat is a period, usually of three months, which a woman must observe after the death of her husband or a divorce before she can remarry.

In April 1985, the Supreme Court of India upheld the decision of the High Court that ordered the payment of maintenance to Shah Bano. The then Chief Justice Y.V. Chandrachud said that the moral edict of Section 125 was to provide a quick and summary remedy to a class of persons who are unable to maintain themselves and that morality cannot be clubbed with religion.

However, caught between the protesting Muslim clergy, who were backed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, and the Hindu right wing that had leaped on the verdict to push for a uniform civil code, the then Rajiv Gandhi government passed the Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce) Act, 1986, essentially overturning the Supreme Court verdict. Counted as one of Rajiv Gandhi’s most misguided decisions, the Shah Bano moment deeply antagonised the Indian middle class and powered the Hindu right wing’s subsequent attempts to pillory and erode the ideals of Nehruvian secularism.

1986: Babri Masjid unlocked

The Rajiv Gandhi government’s overturning of the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case had not only riled the Indian middle class and the intelligentsia but also given a boost to the Hindu right wing and its majoritarian playbook. The Congress appeared to be siding with the Muslim orthodoxy with its own minister, Ziaur Rahman Ansari, had frowning on the Supreme Court judgment while addressing Parliament during the thick of the controversy.

At this tumultuous political juncture, Rajiv Gandhi took his second most injudicious decision: he green-signalled the opening of the Babri Masjid locks. The mosque had been locked by the Jawaharlal Nehru government in 1949 after idols of Ram appeared on the premises under mysterious circumstances on the heels of a campaign that sought to prove that the masjid stood at the exact birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.

In a move most experts believe was made at the prompting of the government at New Delhi to divert attention from the Shah Bano controversy, representatives of the local administration in Ayodhya personally appeared before the District Court in Faizabad and stated that removing the lock from the main gate of the disputed structure would not create any law and order problem. The locks were eventually opened in February 1986.

At Ayodhya in November 1989, consecrated bricks brought from various parts of the country as part of the shilanyas exercise.

At Ayodhya in November 1989, consecrated bricks brought from various parts of the country as part of the shilanyas exercise. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

However, if Rajiv Gandhi had calculated that this balancing act would placate the fundamentalist elements in both the Hindu and Muslim communities, he was terribly mistaken. It was a time when otherwise disparate Hindu religious sentiments had found a rallying point around Ram, thanks to the enormously popular soap opera, Ramayan, running on Doordarshan.

In such a charged-up atmosphere, the unlocking of the mosque relayed the message that the claims of a temple pre-existing there could be legitimate. It generated a political energy that eventually culminated in L.K. Advani’s nation-wide rath yatra, the communal riots it triggered, and the ultimate destruction of the mosque.

With the Rajiv Gandhi government’s subsequent decision to also allow the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to perform shilanyas at the site, the Muslim community defected to the Janata Dal, pioneering the Congress’ humiliating defeat in two major States, undivided Bihar in 1990 and undivided Uttar Pradesh in 1989.

The BJP, on the other hand, was able to hitch the themes of Hindu revivalism and Hindu hegemony into a commanding national narrative that transformed it from a “baniya party” to the nearly sole representative of the Hindu savarnas or upper castes, eroding the Congress’ electoral monopoly of four decades.

1987: Airing of ‘Ramayan’

As television began to dominate living rooms of middle-class Indians in the 1980s, a serial based on the epic Ramayana was broadcast on the State-run Doordarshan channel. It became so popular that entire neighbourhoods would gather in front of one television screen in the area, people would drop errands and rush home in time to view the show, and the streets were deserted when the show aired. By some estimates, one in eight Indians watched the show, and advertisers rushed to fill in the slots. It broke viewership records both in north and south India.

The maker of the serial, Ramanand Sagar, took inspiration from Valmiki’s Ramayan, but let his imagination run riot. The serial was often melodramatic and over-the-top in its aesthetics, but the serialised epic held viewers’ attention week after week.

Arun Govil and Deepika Chikhalia as Ram and Sita.

Arun Govil and Deepika Chikhalia as Ram and Sita. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

While the serial was conceptualised and put on air by the Congress government hoping to capitalise on the Hindu vote, it ended up benefiting the Sangh Parivar, which at that time was busy campaigning for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan laid the foundation for Hindu nationalism and reshaped the public sphere in India irrevocably. It contributed to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement by acting as a magnet for scores of young recruits for the Bajrang Dal.

It brought the epic closer to everyday life and introduced an idea of Ram’s birthplace that was in sync with the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. While harking back to a prehistoric golden era, the serial changed the character of Hindu nationalism forever in the public imagination.

The actual campaign for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was done through the Hindi language print medium, but television provided the perfect catapult for it. Ramayan was followed by Mahabharat the next year, setting the tone for Hindutva in pop culture.

1989: Binaca Geetmala

Binaca Geetmala, the legendary radio countdown of Hindi films songs, ran from 1952 to 1994. It was, however, only in 1989 that it moved from Radio Ceylon to AIR’s Vividh Bharati. The story of Binaca Geetmala’s success is the story of the triumphant march of Hindi film music and of the Indian people’s embrace of “popular” culture in defiance of attempts to impose a state-sponsored idea of high-brow classicism.

Ameen Sayani, who became a household name through his anchoring of the Binaca Geetmala programme. A 2007 photograph.

Ameen Sayani, who became a household name through his anchoring of the Binaca Geetmala programme. A 2007 photograph. | Photo Credit: K.V. SRINIVASAN

Put off by Union Information and Broadcasting Minister B.V. Keskar’s disparaging attitude towards film songs and his attempts to censor the songs to be aired on AIR, Hindi film music in the early 1950s found a willing broadcaster in Radio Ceylon (which was, incidentally, Asia’s first broadcasting station). That is how Binaca Geetmala came to be broadcast by Radio Ceylon in 1952. The programme was recorded in Bombay, and the tapes travelled to Colombo by air. 

Ameen Sayani, the college student who anchored the countdown programme, had presented some episodes of a similar programme, Lipton ke Sitaare, on Radio Ceylon. But it was Binaca Geetmala that made him a household name. People dropped everything to hear his voice on the programme on Wednesday evenings, 8 p.m. Thousands of letters started pouring in from listeners, who began to organise themselves into various clubs.

Gradually, AIR was forced to shed its high-brow attitude and popular film music was accommodated in its airwaves. But the Geetmala remained with Radio Ceylon until 1988. In 1989, it was moved to Vividh Bharati and it continued to run until 1994.

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