When Setting the Clock Divided the Subcontinent

If you lived in Bombay before Independence, keeping a dinner engagement was sometimes tricky. Your invitation might have oddly said ‘8.21’ pm, when your hosts actually meant ‘9 pm’. No doubt, they were making an important political statement. You see, their clocks were on ‘Bombay Time’ and they were resisting the adoption of Indian Standard Time, which the British had sought to ‘impose’.

It was very complicated.

From the 1880s until the 1950s, Bombay was a war zone that witnessed a battle of the clocks. It was a battle that revealed where you stood vis-à-vis the colonial divide. In other words, every time you set your watch, you were taking a political stand. Were you swearing allegiance to the great city of Bombay or had you capitulated to the British?

The citizens of Bombay took the battle of the clocks so seriously that the Bombay Municipal Corporation switched to IST only in the 1950s, well after 1st September 1947, the date when India officially joined the world in adopting Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

What Is Solar Time?

Let’s turn the clock back a little further, to a time when everyone in the subcontinent followed solar time. It was the 18th century, and the rhythm of life was more or less in sync with the movement of the sun. But at the turn of the 19th century, trade and commerce were growing, and life was becoming complex. The British figured it would be much simpler if the country followed one single time standard.

The Madras Observatory had been set up in 1796 – it was India’s first observatory – and in 1802, John Goldingham, an astronomer with the British East India Company, determined that the longitude that passed through Madras was 5 hours, 21 minutes and 14 seconds ahead of GMT. It was called ‘Madras Time’.

By the 1850s, Madras Time had been adopted as the time standard by the new railway network in India as it needed to synchronise its timetables. It was also called ‘Railway Time’. Also, since Madras was roughly equidistant from the commercial capital of Bombay (75 degrees East longitude ) and the imperial capital of Calcutta (90 degrees East longitude) , Madras Time was considered 30 minutes ahead of Bombay Time and 30 minutes behind Calcutta Time.

Over the decades, there were many attempts to impose a single time standard for India but the proud citizens of the grand metropolis of Bombay – the ‘gateway to India’; ‘urbs prima in Indis’ – resisted it tooth and nail. They refused to bow to a standard time set by the British.

In 1883, at a meeting of the Senate of the University of Bombay, one member was so enraged at the suggestion that he sought to appropriate time itself! He argued that because the city was home to the Rajabai Clock Tower, the magnificent clock tower gracing the lawns of the university, “the time of the city to which it belonged should be kept”.

The University of Bombay and the Bombay High Court too were rigorously following Bombay Time, while the railways and government offices had adopted Madras Time. In fact, the Bombay Municipal Corporation was so intent on the city retaining Bombay Time that it offered to pay half the cost of lighting the Rajabai Clock Tower if its wishes prevailed. Battle lines were firmly drawn – the government offered to do the same if Madras Time prevailed! Bombay Time won, for the time being, at least.

Bombay Says ‘No’, Again!

Things grew even more complicated in 1884, when the International Meridian Conference was held in the US, and Greenwich in Britain was established as the Prime Meridian. It was decided that all times zones in the world would be set according to the time at the Greenwich Meridian.

For India, the British administration selected the 82.5° East meridian, the longitude that passed through the Allahabad Observatory, as the central meridian for India. It was 5 hours, 30 minutes ahead of GMT.

Again, Bombay would have none of it. Accepting this would put Bombay 38 minutes, 50 seconds behind the Allahabad standard. More importantly, it meant loss of prestige. It was all just so much hooey!

In the early 20th century, there were so many time standards, especially in Bombay, that people were like time travellers, constantly slipping in and out of different time zones while going nowhere, really. Bombay alone had three time standards – Bombay Time, Madras Time and Port Signal Time. The latter applied to international ships that docked in the Bombay harbour, and it was set to 5 hours ahead of GMT.

The multitude of times zones (remember, various cities in India had set their ‘own’ time standards) made transacting business, communication and life itself, very difficult as schedules would frequently fall out of sync and this was an obstacle to trade, commerce and industry.

1905: A Vote For Swadeshi

The year 1905 was a watershed for India. It was the year when the British attempted, yet again, to impose a universal time standard on the country. A decision was taken by the very unpopular Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, to use the 82.5° East meridian, which passed through Allahabad, to determine ‘Indian Standard Time’. IST, which had been established in 1884, was now the official time standard and it took effect on 1st January 1906. Finally, there was one single time zone for the country.

But was there, really?

Madras Time was phased out. Calcutta Time persisted until 1948. And Bombay didn’t relent till 1955. It was the beginning of another extended phase in the battle of the clocks.

The year 1905 was also when Curzon partitioned Bengal. It caused outrage across India and was a pivotal point in India’s fight for freedom. In Bombay, opposing IST was a way to protest Curzon’s strategy of divide and rule.

Jim Masselos, an urban historian who has studied and chronicled the city of Bombay, describes the peculiar situation that arose: “Thereafter the city continued with two times, duly noted in the daily list of engagements in the daily papers, where some functions carried the initials ‘BT’ and others ‘ST’ to indicate their leanings… the clock crowning Victoria Terminus gave Standard Time while opposite the square, the municipal clocks in the Corporation building followed Bombay Time.”

Losing Time

Following ‘Bombay Time’ meant that Indian bankers, brokers and other commercial and financial establishments could stay open later than European establishments, giving them an edge. Regular folk too resisted the change as switching to IST meant moving the clock forward and that would leave no time for morning worship.

Factory workers were enraged because switching to IST would mean starting work a half hour earlier. Workers at Jacob Sassoon Mill wrecked the timekeepers’ office in protest. Finally, the mill establishment relented and allowed the workers to report at 6 am Bombay Time (6.39 am IST).

Sometimes, the battle was taken to the streets. The partition of Bengal had led to Indian nationalists launching the Swadeshi movement as a mass protest and in Bombay the IST versus BT war was a contest of colonizer versus colonized.

In many places, public clock towers were stoned, and factory and office employees struck work because adopting IST would mean starting the day half an hour earlier. In fact, to make a bold and blatant statement on Swadeshi, philanthropists and nationalists sponsored public clocks that defiantly set the time to ‘BT’, not IST.

But globalisation is a great leveller and it was only a matter of time before India adopted IST. In 1947, the British were gone and the country achieved Independence. On 1st September 1947, IST was adopted as the official time standard.

Not so fast!

Calcutta officially retained its own time zone a year longer, while the Bombay Municipal Corporation turned the hands of its clock 38 minutes, 50 seconds forward, in 1955. The battle against the ‘colonisers’ had long since been won. How’s that for being out of step with the times?

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