A short history of millennial India21 min read . Updated: 01 Jan 2020, 12:46 AM IST
Growing up as digital natives with exposure to a diversity of ideas, millennials are a generation with the hustle and the hunger to do more
Millennials, the generation of Indians born between 1981 and 1996, came of age in a country that was opened up, not just in terms of the economy and markets, but also to ideas, cultural influences and innovation. Growing up as digital natives with exposure to a diversity of ideas, millennials are a generation with the hustle and the hunger to do more. Here’s a quick look at some of the social, cultural and political events that shaped them.
As the 1980s begin, so does the beginning of the end of licence raj
In the 1980s, GDP growth had touched 5.6% and BSE Sensex was just beginning to take off. This was the era when the idea of liberalization began to take root. From the 1960s, price controls and licences ruled policy, but through the 1980s, various committees that were appointed began to examine the need for deregulation and industrial reforms. The sixth Five-year Plan (1980-85) aimed to undertake a string of measures to boost competitiveness. This meant the removal of price controls, initiation of fiscal reforms, a revamp of the public sector, reductions in import duties, and de-licensing of domestic industry—in essence, ending the licence raj. The government’s attitude towards business, if not markets, gently moved from hostile to supportive.
Life on television gets some colour, and a dose of entertainment
In 1982, television broadcasting went from black-and-white to colour ahead of the Asian Games. Until then, TV programming was confined to a few cities and was largely informative and educational in nature. Telecasting began in India in 1959, and daily transmission in 1965. But it was only in the 1980s that TV sets found their way into homes across the country. Sponsored programmes began in the 1980s, and shows like Malgudi Days, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and Buniyaad became a reason for the family to sit together once a week to catch the latest episode—very different from individual binge-watching sessions that millennials thrive on today. TV advertising also spurred the beginning of consumer demand and aspiration in a generation.
Dev’s Devils take India into seventh heaven with first World Cup win
No one—probably not many within the Indian cricket team—imagined India would win the World Cup in 1983 at Lords in the UK. The team, captained by Kapil Dev, beat the formidable West Indies by 43 runs. Members of the team, from Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar and Kris Srikkanth to Syed Kirmani, Ravi Shastri and Mohindar Amarnath, became stars overnight, and gave the country much to be proud of. Dev scored a personal record as well during the tournament, with an innings of 175 not out against Zimbabwe (not televised or recorded in that era so few Indians witnessed it), and held the record for the highest World Cup score at the time as well as the highest score in One-Day International cricket.
Indians get on the road to mass consumption—in a small car
In 1983, the first Maruti car rolled off an assembly line in what was then Gurgaon. It was a project that started with controversy but gave birth to one of India’s most iconic brands. A project for an affordable small car was conceptualized by then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay, but so ridden with flaws that the government finally signed a joint venture with Japan’s Suzuki to produce the vehicle. It was a real people’s car—fuel-efficient, affordable and easy to drive, a far cry from the clunky cars Indians were used to till then. The Maruti 800 and the demand for it signalled the rise of a new Indian middle class. It would take 20 years for a similar revolution to disrupt aviation, courtesy Air Deccan.
Network over cash: One of the earliest hostile takeover bids in India foiled
As the government relaxed capital markets in 1982-83 to get more foreign money, particularly from non-resident Indians, London-based Lord Swraj Paul acquired significant shares from the open market in chemical manufacturing company DCM Shriram and engineering group Escorts (makers of the iconic Rajdoot motorcycles, among others). The promoters’ families had small holdings, but their influence in circles that mattered was large. At that time, government-owned banks held a substantial take in all companies. The families, Bharat Ram of Shriram and Nandas of Escorts, began hectic lobbying. After some anxious months, their deep networks paid off, and they managed to stave off the hostile takeover.
The killing of a prime minister and a blot on the nation’s conscience
On 31 October 1984, then PM Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards, months after Operation Blue Star when the army stormed the Golden Temple complex where militants had taken refuge. For the next three days, mobs murdered and raped Sikhs, and looted businesses and gurudwaras. The attacks were concentrated in Delhi, but there was violence, arson and killings in other northern parts as well. Eyewitnesses say the mobs had voter lists, allowing them to identify Sikh-owned homes and businesses. Official documents put the number of dead at around 3,000 but independent estimates put the figure at over 8,000. Cases relating to the riots have continued until this decade.
World’s worst industrial accident with victims still awaiting justice
More than 30 years later, the local population is still feeling the effects of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, and are awaiting justice. On the night of 2-3 December 1984, at least 40 tonnes of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a plant run by US-based Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemicals), killing at least 4,000 people in the immediate aftermath and permanently disabling thousands more. The then chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, managed to flee India under controversial circumstances. The victims received a pittance in damages, the water and soil remain contaminated, and generations that followed were born with disabilities.
India’s youngest prime minister came as a symbol of hope but his aura faded
Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister after his mother Indira was assassinated in October 1984. He was 40 then, represented youth and aspiration, and had an image of a reformer. The 1985-86 budget lowered direct taxes for companies and raised exemption limits for income tax. Gandhi is widely credited with ushering in the information technology and telecom revolutions. Politically, though, he played by the old rules, and made many questionable decisions. Controversies that dogged him include his handling of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Bofors scandal, the Shah Bano case, the Bhopal disaster and involving India in the Sri Lankan civil war. He lost the 1989 elections and was assassinated by the LTTE in 1991.
Private banking, ATMs, EMIs and a new telecom policy
After nationalization of banks in 1969, no new banks were set up in India, until 1993 when RBI laid down the guidelines for the establishment of private banks. With this came ATMs, credit cards and the EMI culture. Payment in equated monthly instalments put everything, from cars and washing machines to houses and holidays, within reach for the middle class. After banking, telecom was the sector where reforms transformed lives. The New Telecom Policy, 1999, opened up the market to private operators, allowed for cellular networks, established a regulatory mechanism and helped the sector become one of the world’s fastest growing, and eventually put a cellphone in most Indians’ hands.
From HoTMaiL on clunky computers to Gmail on phones
That is not a typo. That was the name Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith had decided on for their Web-based email service provider (notice how the letters HTML stand out?) launched in 1996. The company was purchased by Microsoft the next year and changed online conversations forever. Hotmail’s users only needed a computer, a Web browser and an internet connection, and no longer needed to install a paid software to communicate with anyone in the world. The fiercest competition for Hotmail came only in 2004, when Google launched its own email service. Hotmail has since been discontinued, and all old accounts were migrated to a new platform, Outlook, in 2013.
The 1992 stock market scam: the rise and fall of Harshad Mehta
Soon after liberalization when the markets opened up, Indians began investing in the stock market to make a quick buck as well as compensate for falling savings rates. In April 1992, the stock market scam broke, and it came to light that stockbroker Harshad Mehta had been using the government bond market to fund his purchases. Suddenly, Indians were inundated with details about his fleet of foreign cars, his posh bungalow on Mumbai’s Worli Sea Face, and his flamboyant lifestyle—the start of saturation news coverage dissecting every aspect of a person’s life. Mehta died in 2001. The scam was pegged at ₹4,025 crore, and led to the rise of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) as it exists today and the formation of the National Stock Exchange of India (NSE). This and subsequent scandals led regulators to bring more transparency, and use technology to eventually reform Indian markets.
When the Indian economy was living on borrowed time
By the end of the 1980s, India’s balance of payments was dire owing to unsustainable borrowing, high expenditure, and imports overtaking exports. The breakup of the Soviet Union (as terms of trade changed) and the rise in crude oil prices due to the Gulf War contributed, and in March 1991, India’s credit rating was downgraded. The balance of payments situation reached crisis point in May 1991 largely because current account deficits were financed by borrowing from abroad. The immediate solution was to take conditional loans from the International Monetary Fund, and pledge gold to avoid defaulting on external payments.
In crisis mode, the Rao-Singh combo takes the country in a new direction
The Narasimha Rao-led government, with Manmohan Singh as finance minister, took over on 21 June 1991 and launched a raft of economic reforms. On 1 July 1991, the Reserve Bank of India devalued the rupee by 9% and then by 11% two days later. The economy was facing its worst crisis and foreign exchange reserves could pay for only three weeks of imports. Subsidies on fertilizers and sugar were reduced and the system of quota and licensing was dismantled. The economy was opened for private markets, foreign investment and trade. The year’s events were to influence an entire generation of millennials who grew up with memories of socialist India and came of age in a liberalized, market-oriented economy.
Bollywood shoots for the globalized Indian audience
Pitching films that would appeal to non-resident Indians (NRIs) emerged as a major theme in Bollywood in the 1990s. Big stars, extravagant romance, affluent lifestyles, international locations and characters who travelled abroad on a whim became the norm in storylines. Filmmakers had focused on the diaspora before—Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim (1970) and Dev Anand’s Des Pardes (1978), for instance—but the theme of NRIs returning to roots caught the imagination of audiences. Filmmakers such as Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar made films, like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which reflected sensibilities of mobility and globalization.
Y2K, the millennium bug, gives Indians a taste of the American dream
As the countdown to 2000 began, global businesses feared computer chaos from Y2K, or the millennium bug, and the inability of computers to differentiate between the years 1900 and 2000. India—and specifically companies such as Infosys, TCS and Satyam—provided the thousands of engineers needed to perform the tedious task of trawling through millions of lines of code to upgrade systems to store the year as a four-digit number. Indian techies packed up and flew abroad on a day’s notice as the US issued thousands of H-1B visas. Ultimately, though, the American dream collapsed with the 2008 financial crisis, and many software firms built on the outsourcing boom stagnated.
Digital upstarts drive the national startup fever
Over the past decade, startups have mushroomed as entrepreneurs experiment with ideas in digital payments, online retail, on-demand delivery, education, software and more, making India the third largest startup ecosystem in the world—and it’s largely driven by millennials who both build these products/services as well as consume them. India is home to 8,900-9,300 tech startups, with 1,300 of these founded in 2019, according to a Nasscom report. The industry body also estimates startups created about 60,000 direct jobs and 130,000-180,000 indirect jobs. About $4.4 billion in investment flowed to Indian startups until September this year, up 5% from a year earlier.
Kargil, Parliament attack, Mumbai siege bring conflict to the doorstep
The Kargil War of 1999 is probably most millennials’ first memory of active conflict. Militancy in Kashmir and the North-East made news, but it was Kargil that stirred emotions and gave rise to a new kind of nationalism. In December that year, Indian Airlines’ flight 814 was hijacked to Kandahar and India was forced to release terrorists who would go on to plan the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai—the start of a string of events that brought millennials face to face with international terrorism. First was the terrorist attack on Parliament in 2001, which killed at least nine people and ratcheted up Indo-Pak tensions. Then in 2008, terrorists from Pakistan laid siege to Mumbai for four days, targeting average Indians in restaurants and railway stations.
The world’s Muggles take Harry Potter and friends to heart
An instant hit around the world, the Harry Potter series got children and teenagers hooked to reading about fantasy and launched J.K. Rowling into the millionaires list. With over 500 million copies sold, the franchise is still churning out movies, plays and more. The series also encouraged a generation to dabble in fan fiction and a magical universe, leading to more books being published in the fantasy genre. Indian millennials began queuing up outside bookstores to be the first to get their hands on copies of her books (as they released in instalments)—much to the bafflement of an earlier generation that had to line up for essentials like rice, kerosene, pulses and petrol.
The rise of Flipkart and its journey to the unicorn club—and beyond
Founded in 2007 as an online bookstore, Flipkart quickly grew into India’s biggest homegrown e-commerce marketplace. Founders Sachin and Binny Bansal were poster boys for the ecosystem. In Silicon Valley style, the Bansals—former IIT-Delhi alumni and colleagues at Amazon—started the company in a two-room apartment in Bengaluru’s Koramangala. They received their first tranche of funding of $1 million in 2009, and crossed a valuation of $1 billion in 2014. In 2018, US retailer Walmart valued it at over $21 billion and bought a 77% stake, after which both Bansals exited—Sachin as soon as the acquisition was through and Binny a few months later when a Walmart probe found “serious personal misconduct".
Mandal, Babri Masjid, lynchings and the rise of polarized opinions
In 2019, the Supreme Court finally settled the Babri Masjid case, the fallout of an event that took place more than 25 years ago. In 1992, after a Rath Yatra by BJP’s L.K. Advani, kar sevaks demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The 1993 Bombay riots followed, both incidents that have shaped the political ideas of millennials. These followed the protests against reservation in government jobs after the recommendations of the Mandal Commission report were implemented in the 1990s. In 2002, the horrific Godhra riots polarized communities further. The effect of all this has prompted more millennials to take sides—some opting for a more jingoistic nationalism, some choosing a path that foregrounds Constitutional values. For many millennials, these events, and the more recent lynchings of people suspected of eating beef, were a wake-up call, getting them to engage more closely with politics and social issues.
NEFT, Paytm, UPI, digital payments and demonetization
With NEFT, introduced in 2005, allowing limitless fund transfers to bank accounts, India was on the path to digital payments. The launch of digital mobile payment companies followed, including Paytm founded by Vijay Shekhar Sharma in 2010. In 2016, National Payments Corporation of India introduced UPI (unified payments interface), a real-time system that brings multiple bank accounts into a single mobile application and merges many banking features. The government has also been making a push for a cashless economy—be it via the controversial 2016 demonetization exercise, or the recent announcement that NEFT will be available round the clock.
Android comes to India in 2009 and Jio in 2016, connecting Bharat
What would you stream your music on if it wasn’t for smartphones? But the smartphone was never called that till Android came to India in 2009. South Korean giant Samsung used Android to take the Indian market away from Nokia, while startups started growing around the features these phones provided. The early adopters were millennials, and after Jio launched in 2016, practically every Indian could afford an internet-enabled smartphone. India, today, is the world’s second largest smartphone market behind China, and reports suggest it soon might become the largest, thanks to saturation in the Chinese market. With an app for everything and a government bent on making a “digital" India, smartphones play a vital role.
IPL changes the face of cricket, as well as Indian sports fans’ lives
The cricket-mad nation saw a massive change in the sport with the launch of the Indian Premier League, or IPL, in 2008. Currently comprising eight teams, the brand value of IPL has been estimated at ₹47,500 crore by consultancy firm Duff & Phelps. IPL also meant that cricket could be watched in summer without clashes with existing tournaments in any of the major cricket-playing nations, and more international sports stars could be roped in. Add to that the glamour, thrill and liberal dashes of controversy, and IPL has left an indelible mark on the world of cricket. It has also influenced other sports with badminton and kabaddi following the format and giving a new lease of life to the games.
The Bharatiya Janata Party wins it big in 2014 with a majority on its own
In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance swept the Lok Sabha elections, winning 336 of 543 seats on the back of a campaign that accused the Congress of corruption, entitlement and policy paralysis, and promised development and economic growth. The BJP itself had a comfortable majority of 282 seats on its own. It was the biggest majority since the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress won 414 seats in 1984. It was also the first time that a non-Congress party had won a simple majority on its own. Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister. The election signalled a change in the way Indians, especially millennials, viewed politics, growth, development and nationalism.
Isro aims for the stars with Chandrayaan, multiple launches
A technical glitch put a spoke in the wheel of India’s plan to land a rover on the Moon and explore its south pole, but the Chandrayaan-2 mission was one of 2019’s most exciting space missions. It has been a decade of high-profile launches for the Indian Space Research Organisation, which has been indigenously building low-cost satellites since its founding in 1969. In October 2008, Isro detected the presence of water on the Moon via Chandrayaan-1, and in 2013-14, placed an orbiter in Mars’ orbit. Mangalyaan made India the first country to succeed in its maiden attempt to reach the red planet. In February 2017, Isro launched 104 satellites on a single rocket, a world record.
Repeal of Article 370, a prolonged internet shutdown, a state is split
Included in the Indian Constitution in 1949, Article 370 permitted Jammu and Kashmir to draft its own Constitution. It restricted Parliament’s legislative powers to make laws for the state. Broadly, the provision was a constitutional guarantee of reasonable autonomy to a state that joined the Indian Union under unique circumstances. Similar provisions are in place in the North-East states. In August 2019, the ruling BJP revoked the constitutional provision and simultaneously converted J&K into two new Union territories. Autonomy is a touchy, emotive issue in the Kashmir valley and it remains under a prolonged internet shutdown, even as the constitutional validity of the government’s move awaits its test at the Supreme Court.
Writing down Section 377 and decriminalizing homosexuality
Section 377, a colonial-era law, essentially criminalized sexual activities “against the order of nature". In practice, LGBTQIA+ activists have long held that such laws are used by the police to persecute citizens based on their sexuality. The legal and constitutional challenge against the law dates all the way back to 2001, and was built on the premise that consenting gay and lesbian couples are entitled to a private life. The Supreme Court finally struck down Section 377 in 2018, terming the law “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary". With India legalizing homosexuality, over 70% of humanity now lives in a country where sexual preference, in itself, is not a crime.
Shared autos to cabs on call—the rise of the sharing economy
Commuters in Indian metros heaved a sigh of relief when cab aggregator Ola launched operations in India in 2010, around the same time as Uber rolled out services in San Francisco before coming to India in 2013. Their growth coincided with the rise of the sharing economy and on-demand services in India—shared hosting, co-working and co-living spaces, grocery and food delivery, furniture and equipment rental, and more. Subscription-based services for everything from food and streaming to wellness have kicked off a new economy and way of consumption. By 2014-15 both Ola and Uber had expanded, including auto-rickshaws, pooled rides, outstation car hire and food delivery. Being on the road is less of a hassle—no worries about parking, car maintenance or EMIs—prompting finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to say that millennials’ preference for Ola and Uber was affecting the auto sector.
Oh captain, my captain—Dhoni, Kohli and a new-look Indian team
In the past decade, we’ve had cricket captains who transformed the game. Who can forget the look on M.S. Dhoni’s face as he hit the tournament-winning six in the 2011 World Cup? But it isn’t just his helicopter shots, on point wicket-keeping, or calm demeanour that won him fans among millennials and Gen-Xers. Dhoni put small-town India on the map, took risky decisions of benching known names and built a fierce fielding team. Virat Kohli, who played with him and went on to be captain, ushered in the age of fearless cricket. If Dhoni was captain cool, Kohli was aggression personified. He stressed fitness, and as an ‘influencer’, has motivated hundreds of fans to take up an active lifestyle.
Nirbhaya, India Against Corruption, student protests and citizen activism
Citizens shed their apathy in the past decade and took part in protests, led largely by millennials, to demand gender and social justice, probity in public life and protection of constitutional values. The India Against Corruption rallies and serial hunger strikes in 2011 moved thousands, and led to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party. The next year, young people turned out in droves seeking justice for Nirbhaya, who was brutally gangraped and left to die in December 2012. The crime and subsequent protests led to legal amendments and greater awareness of women’s safety. 2019 ended with huge countrywide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and police crackdowns on peaceful protestors.
From P.T. Usha to Mary Kom and P.V. Sindhu—women make a mark
In the 1980s, P.T. Usha set the track on fire and placed fourth in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In the past decade, more women have made their way to the podium and won the hearts of millennials. There’s Mary Kom who’s an Olympian and the only boxer (male or female) to have won eight World Championship medals. The Phogat sisters have made their mark in wrestling and Deepika Kumari in archery, while Dutee Chand (100m), Hima Das (400m) and Swapna Barman (heptathlon) have blazed a trail in athletics. In badminton, it’s P.V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, while gymnast Dipa Karmakar made headlines with her Produnova vault.
The very last telegram, HMT and the desire for keepsakes and nostalgia
Over 160 years of history ended in June 2013 when BSNL shuttered its telegram service as email and WhatApp made it obsolete. It was set up in 1850, when India’s first telegraph line was set up between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour, and opened up to the public in 1854. Since then, it was used to announce births, deaths, send greetings and call people for job interviews. Even Jawaharlal Nehru once sent a telegram to the UK’s Clement Attlee, requesting help when Pakistani troops invaded Kashmir. When the closure was announced, millennials, many of whom had never sent or received a telegram, queued up to send them as keepsakes—much like they clamoured to buy HMT watches when the old watchmaker went out of business in 2016.
Greta Thunberg becomes a climate icon for a generation
Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg stirred a hornet’s nest in 2018 when, at the age of 15, she spent her days outside the Swedish Parliament calling for stronger action to counter global warming. This soon snowballed into a global school climate strike movement. Every week, school students held peaceful strikes and protests after she spoke at the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference. Surveys reveal that millennials consider climate change a key issue that requires immediate attention. The youngest person to be named Time Person of the Year, Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in 2019 and was also nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.