Freedom's Footsteps

57 key moments in India's journey to its 70th Independence Day

Team RD Updated: Dec 5, 2018 10:51:46 IST
Freedom's Footsteps Illustration By Keshav Kapil


1. The Revolt of 1857, (often called the First War of Independence) started in Barrackpore and was joined by some princely states. The unorganized rebellion ended the rule of the East India Company and transferred power to the British Crown in 1858. Modern ideas of freedom and democracy were born amongst Indians with the English Education Act, 1835, the introduction of railways, telegram service, road transportation and the Indian postal service.

2. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885. Some historians saw it as a 'safety valve', others as the culmination of 19th century political awakening. The Swadeshi movement was INC's first major mass mobilization against Lord Curzon's 1905 partition of Bengal.

3.  In 1906 the All India Muslim league was set up with British help, exploiting the issue of inadequate representation. The Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 introduced separate electorates for Muslims.

4. Gandhi arrived in India in 1915 and introduced satyagraha as a new form of protest, and started his lifelong campaign for the rights of the downtrodden. From Champaran (1917), Kheda (1918) to the Khilafat movement (1920), his peaceful, non-cooperation struggle gained momentum. The British retaliated by introducing the Rowlatt Act, 1919, curtailing civil liberties in the name of curbing violence. The shocking Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the retaliatory Chauri Chaura incident marred the peaceful nature of this movement.

5. The 1920s saw a surge of revolutionaries like Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, who adopted violent methods against the British government.

6. Gandhi's Dandi march in 1930 kicked off the civil disobedience movement against British mono-poly on salt and heavy taxation. He fasted to protest the Communal Award in 1932, under which the Depressed Classes would receive separate electorates, further dividing the Hindus.

7. The Congress won eight of the 11 elections held in British Indian provinces between 1936 and 1937. This was a signpost for freedom.

8. The British government nationalized radio, creating the Indian State Broadcasting Service (April 1930). It was renamed All India Radio six years later, which later became a major platform of information.




9. The Cripps Mission in March 1942 promised dominion status, but its failure led to the Quit India movement in August 1942. Gandhi raised the slogan, "Do or die".

10. 'Netaji' Subhash Chandra Bose influenced thousands of young Indians to join the Indian National Army after its launch in September 1942. In March-April 1944 the INA entered India, captured large parts of Manipur and raised the tricolour. But with the defeat of Japan and Germany in World War II, they were forced to retreat.

11. Provincial elections in 1945-46 exposed communal divisions: Lord Wavell, Governor-General of India, invited Jawaharlal Nehru to form an interim government in September 1946. Unhappy about Muslim representation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah called on Muslims to take "direct action" for an independent Muslim state. The Cabinet Mission was sent to discuss the eventual transfer of power.

12. Independence came on 15 August 1947. Nehru took oath as the first Prime Minister at a midnight session of Parliament. But freedom came at a price -- between 2,00,000 and 20,00,000 people lost their lives in the violence that followed Partition. Also, Gandhi was assassinated by an RSS worker in 1948.

13. The Self-Respect movement against Brahmanism, which had been launched in 1925 by 'Periyar', became the Dravida Kazhagam in 1944. In 1947, temples in southern India opened their doors to 'harijans'. Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram addressed devotees in the temple mandapam.

14. The first Indo-Pak war over Kashmir broke out in October 1947. On Nehru's request, the UN intervened. India and Pakistan signed the Karachi Agreement, establishing a ceasefire in January 1949. Kashmir should be solved through arbitration, it was suggested.

15. The Indian People's Theatre Association was established in May 1943 in Bombay, bringing together writers, artists and performers for "building a brave new world of freedom and social justice".



16. On 26 January 1950, the Indian Constitution was ratified and India became a republic, with B. R. Ambedkar as its chief architect. This was a major leap towards progressive values -- liberty, equality and fraternity -- and democratic institutions. With equal voting rights for all citizens, the villagers of Chini in Himachal Pradesh became the first to cast votes in India's first general elections in 1951. There were 18,000 candidates and 4,500 seats. And 176 million Indians, 85 per cent of whom could not read or write, formed the electorate. The Congress, led by Nehru, swept into power, winning 364 of 489 seats. 

17. Travancore-Cochin was the first to give voting rights to women in 1920, but only if they were married, educated and owned property. Other women had to wait until after Independence. Further constitutional amendments reserved 33 per cent of elective seats in panchayats and municipal bodies. However, lawmakers have failed to push through the women's reservation bill in Parliament and legislatures.

18. The first instance of the Supreme Court interpreting fundamental rights was the preventive detention of communist leader A. K. Gopalan in 1950. The court took a narrow view of Article 21, and refused to acknowledge that procedure is valid only if it complied with the principles of natural justice. Hindu law was modernized through a series of acts, reforming laws on marriage, succession, guardianship and adoption. The minimum age for marriage of women was fixed at 15. These laws and amendments paved the way for women's rights in a notoriously patriarchal society.

19. On the cultural front, the wave of neorealist cinema defined the decade with Do Bigha Zamin, Shree 420, Mother India, Pyaasa, Jagte Raho and Pather Panchali. Full of idealism, conscience and empathy for the downtrodden, '50s cinema touched audiences in India and abroad.



20. India reeled from its 1962 defeat at the hands of China despite earlier efforts at cordial relations. It is believed that China's perception of India as a threat to the Chinese occupation of Tibet led to the war in Aksai Chin. 

21. The anti-Hindi movement, led by C. N. Annadurai and others, had been simmering in the south. With the move to make it the official language, the year 1965 saw massive protests across Tamil Nadu threatening the country's unity, forcing Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to step back.

22. When Kanu Sanyal and Charu Mazumdar, the architects of the Naxalite movement, called for an armed peasants' revolt in 1967, students responded overwhelmingly. Mazumdar formed the CPI (ML) in April 1969, creating the foundation of a movement whose ripples are felt even today.

23.  An Area of Darkness by Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul was banned for its portrayal of India in 1964. Doordarshan started spreading its wings the following year, with daily five-minute news bulletins as part of All India Radio. The Hindi film industry saw the birth of big-budget cinema with the iconic Mughal-e-Azam that took 15 years to make.



24. The Lok Sabha elections took place in 1971, with Indira Gandhi riding the 'garibi hatao' wave. The third Indo-Pakistan war saw the birth of Bangladesh and the signing of the Simla Agreement between Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto the following year. 

25. The Supreme Court in a 1973 judgement clarified that Parliament could amend the Constitution, provided it did not alter its "the basic structure and essential features". This was the culmination of a State and judiciary battle, after Indira Gandhi introduced amendments that empowered Parliament to alter or abolish even fundamental rights. 

26. Indira Gandhi declared Emergency, muzzling civil liberties, after Allahabad High Court found her guilty of electoral malpractice. Press freedom was suspended and mass arrests marked the 21-month period. A series of forced sterilizations ensued. She paid the price in 1977 -- a non-Congress party came to power for the first time. 

27. Gandhian and socialist thinker Jayaprakash Narayan called for a 'total revolution' as thousands joined him against corruption. What began as students' protests in Gujarat and Bihar, turned into the first socialist people's movement that eventually raised the battle cry against Emergency. 

28. Kissaa Kursee Kaa, a political satire on the Gandhis, was destroyed in 1977, but released a year later, albeit with 25 cuts. The parallel cinema movement with directors such as Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopala-krishnan swept the culture scene. 

29. The Supreme Court passed two landmark judgements. Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India protected the right to life and personal liberty, safeguarding fundamental rights of citizens. In Nandini Satpathy v. P. L. Dani an individual's rights in police custody were upheld.



30. Simmering tensions between the local Assamese population and Bangladeshi immigrants triggered the Nellie massacre in February 1983. Mobs surrounded 14 villages, including Nellie, and killed about 3,000 people. 

31. The demand for Khalistan and the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale ended in President's Rule in Punjab in 1983. Bhindranwale was killed in Operation Bluestar, but its revenge was Indira Gandhi's assassination (1984). In the pogrom that followed, violent mobs, often led by Congress politicians, targeted Sikhs. The authoritarian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985, to counter Punjab militancy placed the burden of proof on the accused. It was extended to the rest of India in 1987.

32. The Supreme Court's 1986 judgement was a milestone in environmental protection, fixing liability on industries that could damage health and life. This was also the year that public interest litigation, a judicial tool for the people, was introduced by chief justice P. N. Bhagwati. It could bring to book corrupt politicians and corporations alike.

33. Gender justice reached a new nadir in 1987 when Roop Kanwar became a 'sati' on her husband's pyre. Villagers cheered, ignoring her cries for help.

34. The murder of playwright Safdar Hashmi in 1989, while performing the play Halla Bol on the streets of Ghaziabad, and the protests that followed became emblematic of the campaign for freedom of expression at the time.

35. Kashmir, in the late '80s, witnessed a surge in insurgency with separatist groups like Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and Hizb-ul Mujahideen, gaining influence in the Valley. Marked by violence, there were several high-profile kidnappings and assassinations. With continued strife in Kashmir through the 1990s, the Indian government responded with harsh counter-measures, triggering concerns of human rights violations.

36. Kottayam, in Kerala, became the first town in India to achieve complete literacy; a leap in strengthening our democracy.

37. Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian peacekeeping forces to help the Sri Lankan government decimate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. (Gandhi was later assassinated in May 1991 at the hands of an LTTE suicide bomber.) Rajiv Gandhi's Mr Clean image was tarnished with the Bofors scandal (an alleged corruption charge in an arms deal). The 1989 elections ejected him from power and brought in V. P. Singh's National Front government.

38. While Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was banned in 1988, new wave cinema triumphed, with auteurs like Govind Nihalani, Mrinal Sen and Ketan Mehta depicting oppression and injustice.



39. The Mandal Commission report was tabled by Prime Minister V. P. Singh in August 1990. The definition of 'other backward classes', and recommendations for 27 per cent reservation were accepted for implementation. While some welcomed it, it was marked by widespread student protests.

40. The economic crisis due to the balance of payments situation was a tough challenge for the new government with P. V. Narasimha Rao as PM. The New Industrial Policy of 1991 unveiled liberalization of industry, trade and foreign investments under finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Cable television entered India with Star TV and Zee TV coming in by 1992. Internet service was made available to the public by the state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited in 1995. All this ushered in a new era of openness. 

41. Babri Masjid, a 464-year-old monument in Ayodhya, was demolished by a mob led by the Vishva Hindu Parishad in December 1992. Senior BJP leaders who were present at the site were later acquitted. Many lives were lost in the ensuing communal violence. The 1993 Bombay blasts followed. 

42. In 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that Article 356, which empowered the President and the Centre to dissolve elected state governments, could be imposed only with parliamentary approval. In another landmark case, defamation and the right to privacy, as covered under Article 21, were explained.

43. The artist M. F. Husain was targeted by Hindu groups for his depiction of deities. Though the criminal cases against him were dismissed and freedom of expression was upheld by law, Husain chose to live in exile until his death.

44. The Vishaka guidelines were laid down for a safer working environment for women by the Rajasthan High Court in 1997. Sexual harassment at the workplace was also defined. The Act against sexual harassment of women at the workplace in 2013 superseded these guidelines, safeguarding women's rights with redressal procedures.

45. Unrest in Kashmir continued, leading to the Kargil war in 1999, an armed conflict between the two nuclear powers India and Pakistan, over alleged Pakistani intrusion in Kashmir.




46. Irom Sharmila, from Manipur, embarked on the world's longest fast (16 years) in November 2000 after the Malom massacre, demanding a repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

47. The Information Techno-logy Act, 2000, was aimed at regulating cyberspace and bolstering digital transactions. The amended version imposed penalties on 'offensive messages' and was seen as a violation of the right to free speech. This was quashed in 2015.

48. On 13 December 2001, a squad of militant suicide bombers stormed Parliament House. Major Indian cities were to witness similar acts of terror over the next decade. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, was passed soon after. With discretionary powers provided to investigative agencies, several instances of abuse were reported once enforced. It was repealed in 2004.

49. A conflict that started in Godhra, with the death of 59 kar sevaks in 2002, escalated into the Gujarat riots. Hindu mobs unleashed terror on the minority population. The BJP state government was accused of complicity in the pogrom.

50.  Right to education as a fundamental right for children of 6 to 14 years of age was enshrined in 2002. The Right to Information Act, 2005, empowered citizens and became a tool in transparency, accountability and democracy. The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005, granted women equal rights to inherit ancestral property.

51. India launched the largest social security programme in 2005, called MGNREGA, which guaranteed 100 days of wage employment to a rural household that volunteered to do unskilled manual work. The Act promised the right to work, government accountability and an unemployment allowance.

52. The Delhi High Court repealed Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2009. The colonial law criminalizing intercourse between adults of the same sex was seen by the court as violation of fundamental rights. However, the Supreme Court set aside this verdict in 2013, seen as a setback for freedom.



53. In October 2010, Delhi Police registered a sedition case against writer Arundhati Roy for making "anti-India" speeches. Among the others charged with sedition was Dr Binayak Sen (2010). Later in 2016, JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar and his mates were jailed for raising "anti-India" slogans. This triggered a nationwide debate on nationalism, sedition and free speech. 

54.  Anna Hazare's 'fast unto death', demanding action on the Jan Lokpal Bill, galvanized an anti-corruption movement in 2011. The outcome was the Lokpal Act of 2014, which is yet to be notified.

55.  The 'Nirbhaya' case in December 2012 changed the way sexual assaults were treated in India. As a consequence of the widespread outrage, the government passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. This also led to the passage of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, which allows for children between 16 and 18 years to be tried as adults for heinous crimes.

56. A 2014 Supreme Court judgement identified transgender people as the 'third gender', granting them reservation in schools and jobs, and allowing them the right to self-identify as male, female or third gender.

57. The growing climate of communal intolerance heightened by the lynching of 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015 drove over 35 writers to return government-bestowed awards. A spate of killings in 2017 -- including 15-year-old Junaid Khan and 55-year-old Pehlu Khan -- in some cases by mobs in the name of cow protection, led to outrage and anguish amongst liberals. On 28 June 2017, the 'Not in My Name' marches across 10 Indian cities established that resistance against communalism and campaigns for justice and equality continue in free India.


--Suchismita Ukil with Chitra Subramanyam, Gagan Dhillon, Naorem Anuja, Swareena Gurung and Ayushi Thapliyal

Sources and references: Constitution of India; India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha; India's Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, K. N. Panikkar; India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee; From Plassey to Partition by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay; India Today;;; Judgment Information System, Supreme Court

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