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The 1990s | The ‘open’ decade

The 1990s | The ‘open’ decade
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First Published: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 02 30 PM IST

Mobsfor merit: Students protesting caste reservations in Delhi in 1990. Robert Nickelsberg/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Mobsfor merit: Students protesting caste reservations in Delhi in 1990. Robert Nickelsberg/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Updated: Sun, Aug 14 2011. 05 43 PM IST
Freedom was invisible in 1990. Violence wasn’t.
Thousands of students in Delhi were on the streets, not in classrooms and canteens. They went on a rampage and attempted self- immolation. They were protesting against then prime minister V.P. Singh’s decision to revive the 10-year-old Mandal Commission report to enforce new government employment opportunities and reservation for backward classes. We want opportunities based on merit, they demanded. It was as if thousands of years of our collective history as a nation, where caste oppression has been not only acceptable but validated, became redundant. It was a violent case for individual merit by the nation’s young.
Two years later, Hindu goons congregated at Ayodhya, the mythical birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, and destroyed a mosque, claiming it was the seat of a Ram temple. On that spot, a Muslim mosque had stood since the 16th century. A secular nation is bound to be slurred forever after a day like this.
Mobsfor merit: Students protesting caste reservations in Delhi in 1990. Robert Nickelsberg/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
As a nation, every aspect of our lives had been under government control for decades before 1990. When, between these two momentous episodes in our history, prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh decided to liberate the Indian economy from overwhelming government control, new kinds of freedom were upon us: freedom to earn money and comfort, freedom for growth and power to define ourselves primarily as individuals and consumers. Ideological umbrellas began disappearing fast from our lives.
Economic reforms continued through the decade and the “free” globalized Indian became a reality. The arts reflected the dichotomies of a new Indian society, wedged between tradition and modernity.
It was a character-altering decade for independent India, and yet the most unchronicled. Works of contemporary history are scarce in our country. Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi ends with the Emergency. Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India predominantly traces late colonial and early post-independence Indian history. Gurcharan Das’ India Unbound, on the other hand, is a one-sided narrative, an unequivocal paean to liberalized India.
So the 1990s remain largely unexamined. Was economic freedom a panacea for all ills? How does an open capitalist economy retain the principles of a welfare state?
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It has been 20 years since globalization opened our horizons. In this special Independence Day issue of Lounge, we revisit this momentous decade to understand its merits, its chaos and what we could not see then. Enjoy reading.
Sanjukta Sharma
Issue editor
Flashback | The 1980s list
The Premier Padmini, Doordarshan Sridevi impossible on-screen feats (read more)
After 20 years, we can’t go it alone
Indian entrepreneurship and inventiveness, in combination with astute management of the economy, played a central part in the remarkable economic expansion since 1991. This succeeded in planting a necessary self-belief and optimism across Indian society—a vital, positive force in shaping the horizon of possibility (read more)
Leander, 1996, and the teary game
Covering the sporting 1990s was often like a tired investigation into mediocrity (read more)
Economy | Open sesame
It is silly to deny the achievements of economic reforms. But the open economy hasn’t had a smooth sail, and the future will present a set of tough challenges (read more)
Money | The make-a-stash philosphy
It was the ‘Genie’ generation when Laxmi was society’s muse and we for the first time believed in money without shame, guilt or hypocrisy (read more)
Reforms | March of the elephant
PV Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh uncaged a tiger. But despite worsening inequalities, the economy’s dynamism changed old rules and the pecking order of India’s leading companies changed (read more)
Career | Employee No. 2,482
In 1995, Param Arunachalam joined a little-known company called Infosys Technologies against vehement opposition from his family. It was a career transformation that is symbolic of the change open markets and new industries brougt into our offices and factories (read more)
Infosys | More than tech savvy
What started as a small ‘equal opportunity employer’ company set many new standards in the 1990s including corporate philanthropy (read more)
Urban Change | How Bangalore saw the big picture
If you live in an Indian city, you live with rebuilding and renaming. But Bangalore, one of the world’s fastest growing cities between 1981 and 2004, urged you to think beyond physical change (read more)
Chess | Star of the Orient
His rise in the world of chess through the 1990s not only established his own genius, but also spawned a generation of players in India (read more)
Politics | The reformer
He was the connection between the ideaof economic reform and its execution (read more)
Art | Subodh Gupta | The Damien Hirst of Delhi
He made art statements of symbols of middle-class India, and became the international face of Indian contemporary art and an icon of the 1990s (read more)
Homosexuality | The start of a revolution
The Indian gay community found space in Mumbai’s Voodoo pub and Delhi’s Pegs n Pints, ‘Bombay Dost’ was born and Penguin published a gay anthology (read more)
Nuclear tests | It wasn’t just rocket science
After 1947 was rooted in the ethos of socialism, until nationalistic and military motivations guided the Pokhran explosions in 1998 (read more)
First Person | Talking ’bout my generation
When camera attendants became cameramen, machine operators became editors— an insider’s view of what made TV18 one of the biggest success stories (read more)
Music | I want my MTV
With Remo Fernandes, Pentagram, Rock Machine and others, indie music got a shot in the arm from satellite tv But then lost its way. But rock n’ roll never died (read more)
Cinema | Mumbai ka king kaun
The highest ever Hindi film grosser was made in 1994, so was SRK, the brand-soaked, ‘Hindustani’ hero globalized world. The best was known to the West and when the best came to Mumbai, it created a template for the 2000s 9 (read more)
Television | The daily theatre in our lives
It was a decade that established TV at the epicentre of indian capitalism but it was also the death of thoughtful, critical programming (read more)
Literature | The internationalists
There was glamour in the world of Indian writingin english. Writers produced a global literature and at home, they became cultural explainers and celebrities (read more)
Society | The ‘States’ fixation
As Bangalore transformed from a boulevard-dotted ‘Garden City’ to a glitzy torchbearer of change, the city’s great exodus to the US was a symbol of liberation (read more)
Money | The make-a-stash philosphy
It was the ‘Genie’ generation when Laxmi was society’s muse and we for the first time believed in money without shame, guilt or hypocrisy (read more)
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First Published: Fri, Aug 12 2011. 02 30 PM IST