10 historical turning points for modern India

Historian Yasmin Khan explores the milestones that defined the post-independence state of India…

Two men carrying old woman as they migrate, following the Partition of India in 1947
1

1947: India is partitioned to create Pakistan

As the day ended on 14 August 1947, the new states of India and Pakistan achieved freedom from British rule. Yet this was also one of the darkest moments in the subcontinent’s history. Partition drove at least 12 million refugees – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus – across the new boundaries of divided Punjab. The exact numbers of men, women and children who were killed in violent massacres is not known, but certainly hundreds of thousands died.

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2

1948: Gandhi is assassinated

Less than six months after India achieved independence, Gandhi was shot dead while en route to a prayer meeting in Delhi on 30 January 1948. The killing of the Mahatma (‘Great Soul’) stunned the nation. The assassin was linked to an extremist Hindu group angry at Gandhi’s conciliatory approach to Pakistan and Indian Muslims in the aftermath of partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, was to become even more determined to make India a secular state.

3

1950: India adopts its first constitution

The written constitution, agreed by leading politicians in a constituent assembly in the years following independence, was adopted on 26 January 1950, when India was declared a sovereign democratic republic. The day remains a public holiday, marked with military parades in New Delhi. It is the longest national constitution in the world, amended many times over the years and subject to countless debates over its meanings. The constitution remains a blueprint for upholding India’s secular and democratic basis.

4

1962: India and China clash at the borders

A dangerous high-altitude border war between India and China was fought in the mountains that formed the border between the countries. The clash was partly a legacy of historic territorial disputes but also stemmed from other tensions including India’s role in sheltering Tibetans exiled after the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation in 1959. India was rapidly defeated as Chinese troops entered Indian territory, though a ceasefire was agreed after a month and the Chinese withdrew (albeit retaining more territory than before the war). India’s defeat was a blow to those seeking regional co-operation, and encouraged more military spending and realpolitik in foreign policy.

5

1975 : Sholay redefines Bollywood cinema

The best Bollywood film of all time – or so many would argue – Sholay is a classic story of two angry young men who struggle against a corrupt state. It stars Amitabh Bachhan, India’s greatest leading man, who has dominated Bollywood for over four decades, appearing in more than 185 films. Sholay mixes themes from cowboy westerns, catchy tunes and witty Hindi-dialogue into a definitive ‘masala’ mix.

6

1983: Maruti launches mass-market cars

Since independence, India’s car industry had been dominated by the stately but expensive Hindustan Ambassador, based on the Morris Oxford. But in 1983 Maruti, a subsidiary of the Japanese company Suzuki, began producing the Maruti 800 hatchback – India’s first mass-market car. Over the following decade, India welcomed a million new Maruti cars and vans – smaller, cheaper and more modern than ever before. Now, many middle-class people could afford a car for work, travel and leisure.

7

1984: Toxic gas engulfs the city of Bhopal

During the night of 2/3 December 1984, toxic gases leaked from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh – the worst industrial accident in history. More than 2,000 people were killed immediately, mainly in the surrounding shanty towns. Many thousands more died or were affected by illness and disablement over the following years. Though the majority owner of the factory, the American company Union Carbide, made a compensation payment in 1989, activists continue to campaign for adequate compensation and for Union Carbide’s owners to take responsibility.

8

1984: Indira Gandhi is shot by her guards

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her own bodyguards on 31 October 1984 – just one of several tragic deaths in the Nehru-Gandhi family. The assassination was linked to Indira Gandhi’s attempts to quell Sikh separatism in Punjab, a situation that claimed many lives in the 1980s. She had recently sent troops into the Golden Temple (the most sacred site of Sikhism) to kill militants sheltering inside.

9

1991: India’s economy opens up

After years of a closed, protected economy, from 1991 India started to open up to global investment and trade. Cities boomed and India’s own silicon valley in Bangalore took off. Critics, though, decry vast inequalities of wealth and the failure of the state to provide a safety net for its very poorest, especially in the rural villages of the north and east.

10

2000: India’s population tops 1 billion

India’s population has tripled since independence to more than 1.2 billion, and is projected to surpass China’s during the next decade, making it the most populous state in the world. Unlike China, India has never seriously attempted to control its population. Census statistics demonstrate a continued bias towards male children; the phenomenon of ‘India’s missing daughters’ is a controversial issue, claimed to be caused by selective terminations of female foetuses and better treatment of boys.

Yasmin Khan is associate professor in British history at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, specialising in the history of the British in India

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This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in December 2016