Lessons from India’s long journey to gaining the right to fly

30 April 2021
Dum Dum Airport workshop in Calcutta, circa 1940-1970. Archival records hint at a rich history, marked by all sorts of players, from air exhibitions to those offering aerial rides, including at the flying club in Dum Dum.
Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty Images
Dum Dum Airport workshop in Calcutta, circa 1940-1970. Archival records hint at a rich history, marked by all sorts of players, from air exhibitions to those offering aerial rides, including at the flying club in Dum Dum.
Pictorial Parade / Archive Photos / Getty Images

When British rule of south Asia ended in 1947, a patchwork of 565 princely states representing about 40 percent of the region’s land area remained out of India and Pakistan’s fold. The fledgling Indian state had less than three years to incorporate this vast region into a unitary post-colonial nation while simultaneously managing the brutality of partition, ensuring the handing over of governance from British and writing a constitution. Without the use of aviation it would have been impossible for the civil servant VP Menon and the first deputy prime minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, to get instruments of accession signed by nearly every princely state. Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel and Menon, flew the length of the sub-continent countless times, negotiating feverishly with the British in Shimla and in princely states as far flung as Travancore and Jammu and Kashmir, knitting together the state territorially, at a speed permissible only by air.

Nehru’s preference for aviation survived the heady initial years of the republic. During the first general elections held in 1951, Nehru travelled more than 18,000 miles by air, covering the country along with rail, road and boat rides in nine weeks. Nehru’s penchant for flying across the country came up in parliamentary discussion. In 1952, VG Deshpande, the general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, asked, “Why was an aeroplane of the Government of India placed at the Prime Minister’s disposal, in which he travelled all over the country? … I know how ministers misused their power.” Nehru declined to comment.

Nehru’s, often uncompromising, fascination with flying might not have yielded the best results for the Indian polity at large. Unlike the access to most rights, which saw progressive growth following decolonisation, the access to flight saw a further restriction in the Nehru years. In British India, despite flight being largely monopolised by a narrow elite, strides were often made towards further democratisation. A broader historiography of Indian aviation might help illustrate this.

The national archives of India, have hundreds of yellowing records about aviation in this period, which I studied. From its inception in the early 1900s, access to flight, both domestically and internationally has gotten progressively more democratic. However, when governments attempted to facilitate air travel only for a few, arbitarily—as Nehru did in the 1950s—it ironically often had the opposite effect. The historical record shows that both access to fly and the right to fly abroad were gained by individual attempts to combat state control. The record also sheds light on how centralised control and lack of emphasis on meeting technical requirements are the main threats to these rights.

Before there were pilots and passengers, there were airmen, airwomen and airships. With the introduction of powered aircraft in the early twentieth century, the skies too became a medium of movement. To fly, to be part of the air in those machines, was a privilege, a claim to the loftier. It was claimed imperially first by the Indian princes, who had both the wealth and the interest to purchase these early flying machines. As early as 1911, in Hyderabad, Pierre de Caters, a Belgian adventurer and aviator, made flying exhibition shows the rage. This was a good stand at making money too. The Times later described Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, the ruler of Hyderabad, as the wealthiest man in the world, and thus an ideal client for Caters. Most of Caters flights were joy rides, for the elite of Hyderabad a century ago, who were willing to pay vast sums for the thrill of being in the air.

Priya Mirza teaches at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.

Keywords: ministry of communications Indian history civil aviation Ministry of Civil Aviation Princely States
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