21 Milestones For India In The 21st Century So Far
As we stand at the gates of 2020, few would have foreseen the India of today at the beginning of the millennium. Here are the 21 most important events of India’s journey so far this century.
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” said Julian Barnes, English author, in his book The Sense of an Ending, for which he won the Man Booker prize.
One way to address this shortcoming is to document contemporary history — events which are not too old to research and not too recent to bemoan or celebrate.
Reflecting on the two decades gone by of the twenty-first century, there are several such events that took place impacting India’s destiny which merits a recall.
It is common to underestimate the impact of events that have happened long back while overestimating the impact of fresh events. Recency effect is one of the most common psychological biases.
However, a two-decade window to reflect upon impactful events is quite ideal — not too long, not too short.
Here is the list of 21events from the twenty-first century that have shaped and influenced India the most.
The Vajpayee-Musharraf Agra Summit (July 2001)
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government attempted to normalise India’s relationship with Pakistan. The process began when Vajpayee called General Musharraf, then Pakistan’s supreme leader on 2 February.
On 24 May, a formal offer was extended to Musharraf to visit India, which he accepted, and the summit date was announced on 18 June.
The Agra Summit lasted from 14 to 16 July and ended without an agreement on Kashmir. India was left disappointed with General Musharraf’s grandstanding.
Could the Line of Control (LoC) have been accepted by the two countries as the effective national boundary? India felt slighted and Pakistan followed up with what it has always done — a sponsored terror attack on Indian soil, in this case, bombing several government offices in Srinagar, killing 38 people.
The boldest and the closest attempt yet to resolve Kashmir via talks had failed. Pakistan’s duplicity in using terror as an instrument of state policy had been exposed yet again.
Parliament Attack (December 2001)
On 13 December, five gunmen made their way to the poorly-guarded Indian Parliament attempting a suicide attack. The terrorists came in a car with Home Ministry and Parliament access labels.
Although at the time of the attack, several leaders from various political parties were in the Parliament, there was no political casualty.
This safety came at the cost of the lives of nine security personnel. All five gunmen, allegedly belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed were neutralised. The mastermind of the attack, Ghazi Baba, was killed in an encounter in Kashmir in 2003.
Meanwhile, after a year-long trial, four Jaish activists were convicted. Afzal Guru, one of the key actors, was sentenced to death and hanged only in February 2013 after a protracted legal process.
The temple of Indian democracy was attacked, and the Indian state took a decade to bring the case to closure. The Indian state did not attack Pakistan despite mobilising more than half a million troops in Kashmir.
India’s security vulnerability and foreign policy limitations were exposed at the highest level.
Godhra Train Fire (February 2002)
On 27 February, 59 individuals were charred to death in the Sabarmati Express at the Godhra station. This happened after a mob of more than 2,000 rioters attacked the train. Among those who died were 27 women and 10 children.
Most of the passengers in the ill-fated train were returning from Ayodhya after the kar seva at the Ram Janmabhoomi site.
The Godhra incident led to a flash of communal riots in Gujarat and in other parts of India. These riots brought tremendous pressure on the then Gujarat chief minister (CM), Narendra Modi and his key minister, Amit Shah.
Both Modi and Shah spent several years with accusations of direct involvement in Gujarat riots. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government conducted a strict judicial process against both. Neither of them was implicated in any case.
Meanwhile, Modi scripted a dream comeback for Gujarat in his 13-year CM stint, leading the state towards industrialisation and administrative reforms.
The taint of 2002 did not stick, overruled by his work as the CM and he eventually rose to become India’s Prime Minister (PM) in 2014. Amit Shah has led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as president since 2014 and now serves as India’s Home Minister.
Roads Revolution — Mumbai-Pune Expressway Launch (April 2002)
At the turn of the last century, India had started focusing on creating a good quality inter-state and inter-city road infrastructure. The Vajpayee government had planned the Golden Quadrilateral, which was launched in 1999.
The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana was launched in 2000 with an ambition to connect all Indian villages with an all-weather road. This was India’s own “New Deal”.
The first differentiating realisation of this road infrastructure focus, however, came from the state of Maharashtra. The Mumbai-Pune Expressway was inaugurated in April 2002, after trials started in 2000.
This 95-kilometre, six-lane expressway still supports the connectivity and commerce between India’s largest and eighth-largest city economies.
Planned through the 1990s, the expressway construction started under the chief ministership of Manohar Joshi with Nitin Gadkari at the helm of the Public Works Department.
The Golden Quadrilateral took another decade to complete, linking the five big metros of India — Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata.
In the last two decades, government capital expenditure on roads has become a closely tracked item, serving as a proxy of Indian economic health.
Metro Rail Revolution — Delhi Launch (December 2002)
Most of the large cities in the world have had metro rail networks for the better part of the last 100 years.
Indian cities had faced permanent and perennial infrastructure deficit since Independence. Mass rapid transportation had been the biggest casualty, with almost no big investments in new means.
Delhi led the way with the launch of an ambitious metro rail programme in 1998. The first section — Shahdara to Tees Hazari — opened on 24 December 2002 with a Red Line label.
The central governments under Vajpayee and later Manmohan Singh kept the focus on the Delhi Metro, along with great local political leadership by the then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit.
The Delhi Metro System has now grown to 391 kilometres, with 285 stations, being served by 310 trains and a daily ridership of 6 million.
Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, who served as the managing director of Delhi Metro from 1995 to 2012, truly emerged as the ‘Metro Man’ of India.
India today has 13 operational metro systems covering 18 cities. New cities are getting added on the metro map rapidly and existing metros are seeing expansion.
Private players are now exporting metro coaches globally from local facilities — an unimaginable thought at the turn of this century.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s Silver Medal At Athens Olympics (August 2004)
India has never had a great record at the Olympics, barring the medals won in hockey. It was only in 2004 that India won its first-ever individual silver medal at the Olympics.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a silver medal at the Athens game in the double trap event of the shooting discipline. Rathore had earlier won a gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, which had propelled him to national fame.
Rathore, who retired as a Colonel in the Indian Army, was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award for 2004-05 and a Padma Shri in 2005. He was also the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and the 2008 Olympics.
After Rathore’s accomplishment, India has seen a steady rise in Olympics performance. In 2008, Abhinav Bindra won a gold. In 2012, Vijay Kumar and Sushil Kumar won silver medals. In 2016, P V Sindhu won a silver medal.
TCS Public Listing (August 2004)
Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has been India’s premier technology services firm since its inception in 1968. Leading India’s information technology (IT) enabled services revolution, TCS is now a major global player in the business.
While Indian technology firms had been raising capital in the past, TCS getting publicly listed was a big event, given its market leadership. The stock was listed on exchanges on 25 August 2004.
The first 10 years of TCS stock trading resulted in 27 per cent compounded annualised returns. In June 2019, TCS crossed IBM on market capitalisation. This was significant as IBM was the undisputed sector leader when TCS was founded in 1968.
However, with the ups and downs of Indian rupees, TCS’ market capitalisation has not constantly stayed over that of IBM.
However, the TCS listing heralded a new era on Indian stock markets, where a home-grown new-economy firm took on the best of the world and outshone them by its financial and operational performance.
Global wealth creation by an Indian firm was a great inflection point in building business confidence and self-assurance.
Ballistic Missile Defence Programme (November 2006)
During and in the aftermath of the Kargil War in 1999 with Pakistan two things came to fore — a nuclear threat from Pakistan escalated and limitations of India acquiring the latest weapons from other countries got exposed.
It was then that India started focusing on the development of its own ballistic missiles.
The programme focused on developing sea and land-based interceptor missiles. India started working on a two-tier interception programme for high and low altitudes. The Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) catered to the former and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) to the latter objective.
The PAD Exercise (PADE) was conducted in November 2006, where the system intercepted a Prithvi-II missile at an altitude of 50 km.
This programme has moved from strength to strength since. The March 2019 Ant-Satellite Missile Test (ASAT) was the logical progression of the ballistic missile defence programme.
The Indian Premier League Launch (April 2008)
India has always been a big cricket economy. But the advent of T20 cricket took the commercialisation of the sport and the monetary benefits accruing to the system, including hitherto fringe players, to another level.
The Indian Premier League (IPL) was launched in April 2008 by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) as a response to splinter leagues challenging the hegemony of the BCCI in managing cricket in the country.
The cash-rich eight-team T20 league created its own window in the international cricket calendar. Several lesser-known players, who could not make it to the national team, played shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in cricket for two months in India.
Twelve editions later the IPL is still going strong. Several state-level cricket leagues have also cropped up since then. The concept has been replicated to football, hockey, badminton, tennis, table tennis and kabaddi since then.
IPL has become the new home ground for talent hunting. Many Indian sportspersons across sports have become more financially secure with the leagues catching on.
Chandrayaan-1 Launch (October 2008)
With an intent to boost India’s space programme and to leapfrog the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as a global giant, Prime Minister Vajpayee announced India’s mission to the moon on Independence Day 2003.
The programme development continued with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh taking over in May 2004.
ISRO spent Rs 386 crore to develop a lunar probe named Chandrayaan-1. The National Lunar Task Force had already been working since 2000 to develop technology capability on India approaching the moon.
The probe was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre using ISRO’s four-stage PSLV C11 launch platform.
On 12 November 2008, the probe entered the lunar orbit 100 km above the lunar surface. The probe operated until 28 August 2009 — a total of 312 days as against the originally planned two-year timeframe.
The terrain mapping camera of the probe sent back 70,000 three-dimensional images of the moon during this period. The mission also led to the lunar water and lunar caves discovery.
Chandrayaan-1 was the first step in India’s plan to send a manned mission to the moon. The programme made India a serious player in the space research field.
Mumbai Attacks (November 2008)
Ten Pakistani terrorists equipped with arms and ammunition and a jihadi brain strolled into Mumbai and brought the city to its knees, chatting with their handlers in Pakistan for several hours.
Around 166 lives were lost. Five-star hotels, a busy railway station, chic cafes and a Jewish prayer centre were targeted. It was one of the most audacious terror attacks anywhere in the world.
Tukaram Omble, a Mumbai police officer, helped catch one of the terrorists — Ajmal Amir Kasab, alive. He took 40 rounds in his stomach from Kasab’s weapon while reinforcements arrived to nab Kasab.
Vishnu Zende, the railway announcer at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus guided hundreds of commuters to safety. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan was shot dead by the terrorists while rescuing the hostages in the Taj Hotel.
Ordinary Indians were the heroes on an otherwise pathetic day for India and Indian self-esteem.
The Indian state condemned the attack, sent dossiers to Pakistan, but nothing much happened. Kasab himself was hanged to death in Pune after a trial.
The details of the government lapses were shocking. The allegations that this was an internal hit job — including those by members of the ruling Congress party — were even more shocking.
India was bruised, dented and on the mat. But a whole generation of Indians saw three days of live Indian helplessness. It was perhaps the time many more Indians had their first tryst with irreversible nationalism, which would impact the politics of the years to come.
Aadhaar Launch (January 2009)
A 12-digit unique identification number for each Indian along with biometric identification — what would be the probability that a developing country pulled off such an ambitious technology-led project?
Nandan Nilekani, the ex-boss of Infosys, appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for this task, pulled it off. Aadhaar is the largest biometric identification programme in the world.
Aadhaar has since been used for delivering government benefits, creating a direct debit infrastructure around various programmes. Aadhaar is used for quick enrolment in various services — private and government.
The legal backing to the Aadhaar system was provided by the government only in 2017. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar was constitutionally valid.
After a decade of its existence, with near-complete enrolment of all Indian citizens, all hurdles were removed for the use of Aadhaar.
From World Bank to Bill Gates, Aadhaar has many admirers.
Alleged 2G Scam (November 2010)
On 8 November, Vinod Rai, then Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, submitted a report to the President of India that the Congress-led government had undercharged the winners of the 2G spectrum auctions. The amount undercharged was said to be Rs 1.76 lakh crore.
This CAG report created a furore, leading to judicial investigations and the Supreme Court cancelling all 122 licences awarded under the watch of the then telecom minister, A Raja.
This was the first big accusation of corruption to hit the Manmohan Singh-led government in its second term.
The alleged 2G scam became the focal point of opposition rallying against the government, supplemented with allegations of irregularities in coal auctions, Adarsh housing society construction and Commonwealth Games contracts.
In 2017, long after political points were scored in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Supreme Court acquitted A Raja and Kanimozhi, two Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leaders, and prime accused in the case.
Investigation agencies filed appeals soon after. While the judicial process continues, the political import of the alleged scam was huge.
Anna Movement (April 2011)
The 2011 Jan Lokpal movement launched by social activist Anna Hazare became the focal point of anti-corruption protests in the country. For weeks on end, thousands of people would stage sit-ins protesting against ‘political corruption’ in the country.
Led by Hazare from the village of Ralegaon-Siddhi in Maharashtra, the movement spread like a wildfire across the country. People from all walks of life, seemingly without any organised nudge, would go to protest sites in their cities and sit for hours.
Political newbies like Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Kumar Vishvas came to be recognised as key associates of Anna Hazare. Arvind Kejriwal later created the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which briefly came to power in Delhi in 2013 and then swept the state election in 2015.
After the Mandal and Mandir movements of the late-1980s and early-1990s, this was the biggest socio-political movement in India. There were seemingly no organisers, which made it even more significant.
While the Indian Parliament hurriedly enacted The Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013 to blunt the Anna agitation, the political ramifications for the Manmohan Singh government were severe.
The government image took a beating, facilitating the rise of Narendra Modi as a national leader.
Twitter Blockade (August 2012)
Social media came to Indian politics in 2012. This was the time when India was witnessing a proliferation of mobile telephony. Twitter and Facebook were spreading their wings at a rapid rate.
In August 2012, the government of India ordered the blocking of several individual Twitter accounts. These accounts were accused of spreading fear of violence against people from North East India.
This was the first time a serious debate on freedom of expression, right to freedom considering technology expansion and politics of social media came to fore.
Twitter trended #GOIBlocks for days together. Fast-rising nationally, Narendra Modi led the protests by putting a black Twitter display picture on his profile.
The government enacted the IT Act in the aftermath of this event. However, parts of it could not muster necessary scrutiny and were made defunct later.
The role of technology in politics has since been on an upward trajectory. The 2014 Lok Sabha election became India’s first Twitter-driven election.
Modi Wave (May 2014)
After 1989, India had reconciled to an era of coalition governments at the centre. It was almost assumed that no party can ever win a majority of its own. This changed in May 2014, when Narendra Modi led the BJP to win the Lok Sabha election.
Winning 282 seats, the highest BJP tally ever, Modi won his party the biggest majority since 1984. His high-octane, 24x7 political campaign stunned Congress, which could only win 44 seats.
Modi used social media to reach out to voters, always being ahead of the opposition in his campaign, in making promises, in explaining issues and in raising accusations against the Manmohan Singh government. The opposition was far too lethargic to react.
Modi himself contested from Varanasi, the premier and holiest site of the Sanatan Dharma, heralding a new era of politics based on nationalism, development and assertive identity.
He also made politics presidential, a style used by several state leaders of his party as well as the opponents routinely since then.
The politics and the political idiom of Delhi changed in 2014. The change accelerated in 2019 when Modi returned to power winning an increased tally of 303 seats for the BJP.
India’s Change Of Foreign Policy Against Pakistan — Surgical Strikes (September 2016)
On 18 September, four Pakistan backed terrorists from Jaish-e-Muhammed launched a fidayeen attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir. Nineteen Indian soldiers were killed.
This was not new —Pakistan had perpetrated its ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy on India for years. India had responded with some bluster but mostly coming back to new rounds of talks to form confidence-building measures.
This changed on 29 September 2016. On this day, India launched surgical strikes on suspected Pakistan-backed terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK).
India eliminated up to a hundred terrorists in four different raids. The cross-border strike teams went as deep as three to four kilometres into PoJK.
India announced these raids on television through the army. The External Affairs Ministry deftly managed global communication.
India had changed its response style and magnitude towards Pakistan’s misadventures. India had also called out Pakistan’s bluff that any cross-border Indian action would lead to a nuclear escalation.
In 2008, Modi, as the Gujarat chief minister, had criticised Manmohan Singh for his ham-handed response to the Mumbai attack. In 2016, Modi as the Indian Prime Minister, led the alternative.
Demonetisation (November 2016)
At 8 pm, 8 November 2016 — a nation was glued to the television and mobile screens as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a special address.
India was going to eliminate its stock of high-value currency notes — 86 per cent of all currency under circulation was to be extinguished by the government.
Demonetisation was a seminal event, undertaken to curb the menace of black money in the economy. The government struggled through the remonetisation process, with all kinds of logistics challenges.
With a chunk of Indian economy still being cash-based, economic activity took a hit. But people generally praised the exercise for finally something was being done to curb black money.
Despite the day-to-day hardships, the measure remained popular. The BJP won the Uttar Pradesh state election in March 2017 despite the issues people faced.
Demonetisation led to almost all the cash in the system coming back to the banks, though the initial expectation was that some part of the currency in circulation will have to be extinguished by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).
The government doubled down on digital payments — the UPI system and the BHIM app — have since scaled manifold.
Goods And Services Tax Launch (July 2017)
With its central and state list of subjects, the Indian federal governance system is quite complex. Indirect tax was one such area, where dozens of taxes, levies and cess were imposed by the central and the state governments.
The Modi government launched the goods and services tax (GST) on the midnight of 1 July 2017 in Parliament. India had become a tax union, with free movement of goods and services across the state borders.
Several states used to have border posts for charging tax on goods being transported. This process got eliminated with the introduction of the GST. Logistics for businesses became more centralised, with no need to maintain warehouses across many states to avoid taxation complications.
The GST design, as well as the supporting IT infrastructure, has come under question. The government continues to work on both aspects regularly. All decisions for GST slabs and design are made in a council of states jointly, which meets on a periodic basis.
The GST is just beginning to be adopted by small businesses. The data collection through its system and the possibility of invoice matching on an automated basis holds great promise in the years to come.
The system can lead to both — the prevention of revenue leakage for the government as well as better and cheaper flow-based credit for businesses.
Removal Of Special Status For Jammu And Kashmir (August 2019)
“Ek desh mein do vidhan, do pradhan, do nishan, nahin challenge” — Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the tallest leader of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh said this in its first-ever convention in Kanpur in 1953.
Jammu and Kashmir had acceded to India in 1948. But a Pakistan-sponsored army of tribesmen had taken control of a part of the state, territory which Pakistan still holds on to as PoJK.
India agreed to enacting Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave special rights to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, including having its own Constitution, flag and legislative system.
This was further complicated by the enactment of Article 35A, which led to severe discrimination against migrants to the state after the 1947 Partition as well as against the women of the state who married outside.
Removal of Article 370, and an implied removal of Article 35A, had been Jan Sangh’s core demand since inception. The BJP carried this demand forward since 1980, when the party was formed.
Syama Prasad Mukherjee, in fact, died in Srinagar in 1953 while fighting to have Indian Constitution being applied to the state. For the BJP, Sardar Patel’s epic effort to unify India’s princely states had always been incomplete without these articles being removed for J&K.
On 5 August 2019, Amit Shah, the Home Minister of India, introduced the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill in Parliament. The twin draconian articles had been removed.
The state was bifurcated into two union territories, giving wings to the aspirations of people of Ladakh. One of the oldest political issues in India had been put to rest.
Ram Janmabhoomi Verdict (November 2019)
Construction of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya had been another core demand for the BJP since the late-1980s. In fact, the party rose to political relevance with its top leader, L K Advani, taking out a rath yatra across India.
The legal and emotional battle for Ram Janmabhoomi, however, had been centuries old, much before politics caught up with it. Ayodhya has always been recognised as the birthplace for Lord Ram.
In 1528, Mir Baqi, Babur’s general, is said to have demolished the temple and constructed a mosque on top of it.
Historical records since 1520s, through until 1870s, had mentioned in various ways that a temple existed at the disputed location. The first litigation to claim the site started in 1885.
In 1949, idols of Lord Ram and Ma Seeta were installed at the site. In 1988, the then Rajiv Gandhi government allowed a shilanyas at the temple site.
In 1992, the Babri mosque was demolished towards the end of an agitation led by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP.
It was only in 2019 that a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India decided that the said site was indeed to be given to the Hindu side for the construction of a temple through a trust formed by the central government.
A 491-year-old battle came to a logical conclusion.
Two decades is not a long time in the history and the destiny of a country.
Especially for a civilisational state like India, where 72 years of modern nation-state existence are still being reconciled with the thousands of years of a journey leading up to the current form.
However, as the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once remarked — “not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child.
“If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.”
Recognising contemporary history and its impact is both easier and more acceptable.
The 21 most important events of the twenty-first century can be different for different people; that we can reflect upon them together with a mix of pride, solemnity, anxiety and hope is a worthy common cause to pursue.
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