Every year the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards honours writers of books whose works offer thorough research into, and investigation of, an issue or idea on a scale that “newspaper or television channels, with their space and time limitations, cannot aspire to tackle.”
At the awards ceremony for 2019 and 2020, held on March 23, Arun Mohan Sukumar and Tripurdaman Singh were given the prizes for their respective books Midnight’s Machines (2019) and Sixteen Stormy Days (2020). Both books have been published by Penguin Random House India. Each of the winners received a cash prize of Rs 1,00,000 and a trophy.
Sixteen Stormy Days tells the story of the first amendment of the Constitution of India, passed in June 1951 in the face of tremendous opposition within and without the Parliament, and the subject of some of Independent India’s fiercest parliamentary debates. It was a pivotal moment in Indian constitutional and political history.
The first amendment broke new ground to curb the freedom of speech-public order, the interests of the security of the state and relations with foreign states; enabled caste-based reservations in education by restricting freedom against discrimination; circumscribed the right to property; validated zamindari abolition; and, finally, created a special schedule where laws could be placed to make them immune to judicial challenge even if they violated fundamental rights.
Tripurdaman Singh is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. Singh’s books include Imperial Sovereignty and Local Politics: (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Nehru: The Debates that Defined India (co-authored with Adeel Hussian, HarperCollins India, 2021).
In Midnight’s Machines, Arun Mohar Sukumar writes about lesser-known political project that began on August 15, 1947: the Indian state’s undertaking to influence what the citizens thought about technology and its place in society. Beneath its soaring rhetoric on the virtues or vices of technology, the state buried a grim reality: India’s inability to develop it at home.
The political class sent contradictory signals to the general public. On the one hand, they were asked to develop a scientific temper, on the other, to be wary of becoming enslaved to technology; to be thrilled by the spectacle of a space launch while embracing jugaad, frugal innovation, and the art of “thinking small”. To mask its failure at building computers, the Indian state decried them in the 1970s as expensive, job-guzzling machines.
When it urged citizens to welcome them the next decade, the government was, unsurprisingly, met with fierce resistance. The book unearths the reasons why India embraced or rejected new technologies, giving us a new way to understand and appreciate the individual moments that brought the country into the 21st century.
Arun Mohan Sukumar is a PhD candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. A lawyer by training, he led the Technology Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, India’s biggest think-tank, between 2015 and 2019. He was also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Digital Economy and Society from 2016 to 2019.
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