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Panoramic view of the Maidan, Kolkata.

Government publications, periodicals, and communists at the National Library of India

Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it is still sometimes spelled), the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, was once the capital of British India. After 1912, when the capital moved to Delhi, most imperial institutions also relocated once new facilities were ready for them. The Imperial Records Department, for instance, moved from the Imperial Secretariat Building in Calcutta into its own building designed by Edwin Lutyens in the new capital. (After independence, the IRD became the National Archives of India.) But even as most institutions moved, some stayed behind, and one of these was the Imperial Library. Renamed the National Library of India (NLI) after independence, it is today the largest library in the country.

I had the privilege of spending two weeks at NLI while doing research for my dissertation in 2015. Of the three major institutions I visited for research in India (the other two were NAI and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library), the National Library was certainly the easiest to find and navigate once I was there. My Rough Guide tourbook had a listing for NLI, including details on registration requirements. The people at the India Tourism office told me how to get there, by catching the 230 bus from Esplanade. Upon registration at the library, I received a full-color orientation booklet, with details of the different buildings at the complex and what can be found in each.

The National Library of India is located south of the city center at the Belvedere Estate, a big landscaped compound with a former imperial residence in it. The Belvedere House, as the residence is known, had once been occupied by Warren Hastings and (much later) was the main library building after independence, but in 2015 it was much the worse for wear and was being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The current main library building, Bhasha Bhawan (Language Building) is in the back of the compound. It is an attractive library building, with neither the dreary institutionality of the NAI New Building nor the high-class staidness of NMML.

Belvedere House.

Belvedere House.

Main gate of Belvedere Estate.

Main gate of Belvedere Estate.

A statue of Rabindranath Tagore in front of Bhasha Bhawan.

Statue of Rabindranath Tagore in front of Bhasha Bhawan.

Registering to use the National Library is free, and foreign nationals need only to fill out some forms and hand over one’s passport for copying along with two passport-sized photos. There is no need to present a letter of recommendation or any other credentials. Getting permission to use a laptop computer in the library requires filling out an additional form.

My NLI reader card.

My NLI reader card, issued to me after registration.

I spent most of my time at NLI in the periodicals reading room in Bhasha Bhawan. The library has a huge collection of magazines and journals bound into volumes, as well as the exhaustive gazettes produced by the central and state governments.

Bhasha Bhawan is climate-controlled, but at some time in the past the periodicals I looked at had been stored in a less favorable environment. Some of the volumes were covered with black dust, and many of them had holes in the pages where bugs or worms had eaten through them.

Request slip for the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development.

Request slip for the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development.

I also spent some time in the government publications reading room in the Annexe Building. The Annexe is a forbidding early-independence period highrise, with a plaque at the entrance saying that it was dedicated by Nehru in 1961. The government publications reading room is on the second floor, and it is reached by an elevator with doors that are opened and closed by hand. The reading room is as dreary as Bhasha Bhawan is attractive, with bare concrete floors and walls painted in an institutional blue without primer. The shelves holding the government publications are in the reading room, but readers are not supposed to enter the stacks. Instead, readers can request documents by submitting a slip at the front desk.

Foundation stone of the National Library Annexe.

Foundation stone of the National Library Annexe.

Since registration and orientation at the National Library were straightforward, I was able to start research quickly and without much confusion. The main challenge I faced at NLI was when employees in certain departments would abscond from work for political reasons. West Bengal has a long history of being ruled by democratically-elected communist governments. Even though the communists have not been the ruling party for several years, they are still active and wield some power. One day, the Left Front (communists) and Bharatiya Janata Party staged a state-wide bandh (strike) to protest the results of the recent state and municipal elections; in the latter, the Trinamool Congress won a huge victory (114 seats for the TMC as opposed to 15 for the communists and seven for the BJP).

Wall-painting by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announcing a statewide strike on April 30.

Wall-painting by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announcing a statewide strike on April 30, 2015.

Despite the huge showing for the Trinamool Congress in the election, much of the city went on strike, including some workers at the library. I spent the morning of that day in the periodicals room, and I had no trouble getting the volumes I needed. But when I went over to the government publications reading room in the afternoon, a lone worker there told me that most of the staff were on strike, so I wouldn’t be able to request documents. I left the library early that day, at 2:00.

The next day was May Day, an important holiday in India’s most communist city. The staff at the library departments were back at work, but then in the evening my bus got trapped in an epic traffic jam caused by a long parade of the different trade unions on Chowringhee street.

May Day procession on Chowringhee Street.

May Day procession on Chowringhee.

Statues of Marx and Engels freshly garlanded for May Day.

Statues of Marx and Engels freshly garlanded for May Day.

A new airline for a new nation

While reading through six-decade-old issues of The Lockheed Star, the fortnightly newspaper of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, for a research project, I came across an article that had nothing to do with my topic of research, but I found it intriguing and got distracted reading it. (This is an occupational hazard for historians.)

The article, which appeared on the front page of the February 4, 1954 issue, is about the official handover of the first Lockheed Super Constellation airliner to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the national airline of Pakistan. The handover ceremony took place at Lockheed Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California). On hand to receive the Super Constellation—a sleek, attractive airliner produced by Lockheed at its Burbank factory—was Ambassador Syed Amjad Ali.

A Pakistan International Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation at London-Heathrow. (Source: RuthAS on Wikimedia Commons.)

A Pakistan International Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation at London-Heathrow. (Source: RuthAS on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.)

The Pakistani ambassador was greeted by the daughter of a Lockheed design engineer, attired in a Shirley Temple-esque stewardess (flight attendant) outfit. The Lockheed Star reported: “Six-and-one-half year-old Sharon Owen—who is exactly the same age as Pakistan, born on Aug. 14, 1947—was on hand to dramatize what a young country the dominion is.” (A picture of little Sharon shaking hands with the ambassador appears on the PIA history webpage.)

The article goes on to note that Pakistan International Airlines would start service around mid-April 1954.

In fact, at this point, Pakistan International Airlines did not exist just yet. The airline was officially established by the Pakistani government on January 10, 1955, eleven months after the handover of the first Super Constellation. On its establishment, PIA absorbed Orient Airways, a quasi-national private airline that had been founded in 1946.

National airlines played an important, if largely symbolic, role in nation-building for many countries that gained independence in the decade or two after World War II. As Jeffrey Engel notes in his book Cold War at 30,000 Feet (2007):

It is little exaggeration to say that countries established during this period [the early Cold War] required three things before they could claim true sovereignty: an army, a flag, and an airline.

Pakistan certainly needed to prove itself in the early years after independence. A nation in two parts, with the enemy India in between, Pakistan looked to its new national airline as a way to link the two wings of the country and promote connections with friendly nations in the West. PIA’s first international destination was London, by way of Cairo and Rome. The Lockheed Constellations, of course, were from the United States—a country that also began supporting the Pakistani armed forces with large amounts of military aid at this time.

The Lockheed Star reported that the deputy general manager of PIA claimed that flexible seating arrangements in the Super Constellation cabin would allow the airline to offer low-cost coach class for the country’s masses. But air travel—international or domestic—remained out of the reach of the majority of Pakistani citizens. PIA was a luxury enjoyed by the prosperous, educated, English-speaking elite. The airline’s official name is “Pakistan International Airlines” in English. The logo is simply “P-I-A” spelled out in Perso-Arabic script.

By the way, just as Pakistan established an airline after independence, Bangladesh wasted no time in setting up its own national airline after seceding from Pakistan in 1971. Biman Bangladesh Airlines began operating less than three months after independence.

San Fransisco City Hall

How a colony helped found the United Nations

Just to the east of San Francisco’s grand Civic Center, UN Plaza is an unassuming pedestrian mall that hosts farmers’ markets and handicrafts fairs. Were it not for the name of the nearby BART (San Francisco metro) station, Civic Center/UN Plaza, it would be easy to miss UN Plaza among the grander spaces and buildings nearby—Civic Center, City Hall with its gold-trimmed dome, the Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco Public Library. On either side of UN Plaza, behind the tents of the farmers’ markets, granite pillars are inscribed with the names of all member states of the United Nations, organized by the date of their entry into this global community.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza is located here because it is where the United Nations was founded. With the ratification of the UN Charter in the War Memorial Veterans Building just west of City Hall, the UN came into existence on October 24, 1945 — seventy-two years ago today.

The first pillars in UN Plaza include the names of all fifty-one founding members of the United Nations. The names of the founding members include many names that one would expect to see on the list: Australia, Canada, Denmark, United States, USSR. But there is one name that doesn’t quite seem to fit: India.

How could India have been a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 if wasn’t even its own country yet? India would be a colony of the British Empire for another two years. How could a colony join a community of sovereign states?

The answer lies in the relations forged between India and the United States in World War II.

In March 1941, the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease bill after prolonged debate, enabling the United States to ship supposedly surplus arms to the embattled British Empire, which had been at war with Germany since 1939. At this point, the United States was still officially neutral—and would be until Pearl Harbor nine months later—but the Nazis’ blitzkrieg across Europe had led many American leaders to rethink their traditional stance of isolationism. American industry started to retool for arms production. (Much of the lend-lease aid was actually newly-produced, not surplus.)

As part of the British Empire, India qualified for lend-lease aid. The colony would serve as a staging-ground for the Allied war effort in the China-Burma-India theater. To coordinate aid shipments, the colonial Government of India set up a front office in New York, the India Purchasing Mission, in July 1941. It was the first official, government-to-government link between India and the United States. In 1942, the office was moved to Washington, DC and renamed India Supply Mission (ISM). Throughout the war, ISM coordinated aid from the United States and Canada to India.

When it came time for the United Nations Conference just after the war, India Supply Mission served as the official representative of India in San Francisco. The delegates from ISM would be colonial subjects for a little while longer, but they represented their country in the community of sovereign states.1

India Supply Mission continued to exist after the Indian Embassy was set up in Washington in 1946. After independence, ISM coordinated a different type of aid: development aid. From their office at 2342 Massachusetts Avenue NW, the bureaucrats of India Supply Mission saw to it that their country received the parts, equipment, and loan payments that industrialization demanded.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

  1. India had earlier signed the “Declaration by the United Nations,” on January 1, 1942. During the war, the name “United Nations” referred to the Allied powers. After the San Francisco conference, the name acquired its modern meaning. []

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