Through invasions and empires, through the birth of religions and the collapse of civilisations, through bold leaps forward and countless cataclysms, India has proved itself to be, in the words of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads’. India's history isn't just the history of a nation state, but the history of a legion of communities and cultures who, after centuries of strife, found greater strength bonded together than apart.
Indus Valley Civilisation
The Indus Valley, straddling the modern India–Pakistan border, is the cradle of civilisation on the Indian subcontinent. The first inhabitants of this region were nomadic tribes who cultivated land and kept domestic animals. Over thousands of years, an urban culture began to emerge from these tribes, particularly from 3500 BC. By 2500 BC large cities were well established, the focal points of what became known as the Harappan culture, which would flourish for more than 1000 years.
The great cities of the Mature Harappan period were Moenjodaro and Harappa in present-day Pakistan, but the city of Lothal near Ahmedabad can still be visited. From Lothal's precise, carefully laid-out street plan, some sense of the sophistication of this 4500-year-old civilisation can be gleaned. Harappan cities were astoundingly uniform, despite being spread across an enormous area. Even their brickwork and streets had a standard size. They often had a separate acropolis, suggesting a religious function, and great tanks, which may have been used for ritual bathing purposes. The major Harappan cities were also notable for their size – estimates put the population of Moenjodaro at some 50,000 at its peak.
By the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, the Indus Valley culture was arguably the equal of other great civilisations emerging at the time. The Harappans traded with Mesopotamia, and developed a system of weights and measures, along with highly developed art in the form of terracotta and bronze figurines. Recovered relics, including models of bullock carts and jewellery, offer the earliest evidence of a distinctive Indian culture. Indeed, many elements of Harappan culture would later become assimilated into Hinduism.
Clay figurines found at Harappan sites suggest worship of a mother goddess (later personified as Kali) and a male three-faced god sitting in the pose of a yogi (believed to be the historic Shiva) attended by four animals. Black stone pillars (associated with phallic worship of Shiva) and animal figures (the most prominent being the humped bull; later Shiva’s mount, Nandi) have also been discovered. The 'dancing girl', a small bronze statuette of a young girl, whose insouciant gaze has endured over 4500 years, indicates a highly developed society, both in its skilful sculpture and the indication of the opportunity for leisure pursuits. The statuette may be seen in the National Museum in Delhi.
Early Invasions & the Rise of Religions
The Harappan civilisation fell into decline from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. Some historians attribute the end of the empire to floods or decreased rainfall, which threatened the Harappans’ agricultural base. Despite a lack of archaeological proof or written reports in the ancient Indian texts, an enduring, if contentious, theory is that an Aryan invasion put paid to the Harappans. A rival theory claims that it was the Aryans (from a Sanskrit word for ‘noble’) who were the original inhabitants of India. There's no clear evidence that the Aryans came from elsewhere, and it's even questionable whether the Aryans were a distinct race, so the 'invasion' could simply have been an invasion of new ideas from neighbouring cultures.
Those who defend the traditional invasion theory believe that, from around 1500 BC, Aryan tribes from Afghanistan and Central Asia began to filter into northwest India. Despite their military superiority, their progress was gradual, with successive tribes fighting over territory and new arrivals pushing further east into the Ganges (Ganga) plain. Eventually these tribes controlled northern India as far as the Vindhya Hills. Many of the original inhabitants of northern India, the Dravidians, the theory goes, were pushed south.
What is known is that the Aryans were responsible for the Sanskrit literary tradition. The Hindu sacred scriptures, the Vedas, were written during this period of transition (1500–1200 BC), and the caste system became formalised. These compositions are of seminal importance in terms of India's spirituality and history.
As Aryan culture spread across the Ganges plain in the late 7th century BC, its followers were absorbed into 16 major kingdoms, which were, in turn, amalgamated into four large states. Out of these states arose the Nanda dynasty, which came to power in 364 BC, ruling over huge swaths of North India.
During this period, the Indian heartland narrowly avoided two invasions from the west, which, if successful, could have significantly altered the path of Indian history. The first was by the Persian king Darius (521–486 BC), who annexed Punjab and Sindh (on either side of the modern India–Pakistan border). Alexander the Great advanced to India from Greece in 326 BC, an achievement in itself, but he turned back in Punjab, without ever extending his power deeper into India.
The period is also distinguished by the rise of two of India’s most significant religions, Buddhism and Jainism, which arose around 500 BC in the northern plains. Both Buddha and Jainism’s Mahavira questioned the Vedas and were critical of the caste system, attracting many followers from the lower castes.
The Mauryan Empire & its Aftermath
If the Harappan culture was the cradle of Indian civilisation, Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the first great Indian empire, probably the most extensive ever forged, stretching from Bengal to Afghanistan and Gujarat. He came to power in 321 BC, having seized control from the Nandas, and soon expanded the empire to include the Indus Valley previously conquered by Alexander the Great.
From its capital at Pataliputra (modern-day Patna), with its many-pillared palace, the Mauryan empire encompassed much of North India and reached as far south as modern-day Karnataka. There is much documentation of this period in contemporary Jain and Buddhist texts, plus the intensely detailed depiction of Indian statecraft in the ancient text known as the Arthasastra. The empire reached its peak under emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism and spread the faith across the subcontinent. Such was Ashoka’s power to lead and unite that after his death in 232 BC, no one could be found to hold the disparate elements of the Mauryan empire together. The empire rapidly disintegrated, collapsing altogether in 184 BC.
None of the empires that immediately followed could match the stability or enduring historical legacy of the Mauryans, although the post-Ashokan era did produce at least one line of royalty whose patronage of the arts and ability to maintain a relatively high degree of social cohesion were substantial. The Satavahanas eventually controlled all of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Under their rule, between 230 BC and AD 200, the arts, especially literature and philosophy, blossomed; Buddha's teaching thrived; and the subcontinent enjoyed a period of considerable prosperity. South India may have lacked vast and fertile agricultural plains on the scale of North India, but it compensated by building strategic trade links via the Indian Ocean, and overland with the Roman Empire and China.
The Golden Age of the Guptas
The empires that followed the Mauryans may have claimed large areas of Indian territory as their own, but many secured only nominal power over their realms. Throughout the subcontinent, small tribes and kingdoms effectively controlled territory and dominated local affairs.
In AD 319, Chandragupta I, the third king of one of these tribes, the little-known Guptas, came to prominence by a fortuitous marriage to the daughter of one of the most powerful tribes in the north, the Liccavis. The Gupta empire grew rapidly and under Chandragupta II (r 375–413) achieved its greatest extent. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien, visiting India at the time, described a people ‘rich and contented’, ruled over by enlightened and just kings.
Poetry, literature, astronomy, medicine and the arts flourished, with some of the finest work done at Ajanta, Ellora, Sanchi and Sarnath. The Guptas were tolerant of, and even supported, Buddhist practice and art. Towards the end of the Gupta period, Hinduism became the dominant religious force, however, and its revival eclipsed Jainism and Buddhism; the latter in particular went into decline in India with the Hun invasion and would never again be India’s dominant tradition.
The invasions of the Huns at the beginning of the 6th century signalled the end of this era, and in 510 the Gupta army was defeated by the Hun leader Toramana. Power in North India again devolved to a number of separate Hindu kingdoms.
The Hindu South
Southern India has always laid claim to its own unique history. Insulated by distance from the political developments in the north, a separate set of powerful kingdoms emerged, among them the Satavahanas – who, though predominantly Hindu, probably also practised Buddhist meditation and patronised Buddhist art at Amaravathi and Sanchi – as well as the Kalingas and Vakatakas. But it was from the tribal territories on the fertile coastal plains that the greatest southern empires – the Cholas, Pandyas, Chalukyas, Cheras and Pallavas – came into their own.
The Chalukyas ruled mainly over the Deccan region of south-central India, although their power occasionally extended further north. In the far south, the Pallavas ruled from the 4th to 9th centuries and pioneered Dravidian architecture, with its exuberant, almost baroque, style. The surviving architectural high points of Pallava rule can be found across Tamil Nadu, including in the erstwhile Pallava capital at Kanchipuram and the seaport of Mamallapuram.
The south’s prosperity was based on long-established trading links with other civilisations, among them the Egyptians and Romans. In return for spices, pearls, ivory and silk, the Indians received Roman gold. Indian merchants also extended their influence to Southeast Asia. In 850, the Cholas rose to power and superseded the Pallavas. They soon set about turning the south’s far-reaching trade influence into territorial conquest. Under the reign of Rajaraja Chola I (985–1014), they controlled almost the whole of South India, the Deccan plateau, Sri Lanka, parts of the Malay peninsula and the Sumatra-based Srivijaya kingdom.
Not all of their attention was focused overseas, however, and the Cholas left behind some of the finest examples of Dravidian architecture, most notably the sublime Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur and Chidambaram’s stunning Nataraja Temple. Both Thanjavur and Chidambaram served as Chola capitals. Throughout this period, Hinduism remained the bedrock of South Indian culture.
The Muslim North
The first Muslims believed to reach India were some newly converted merchants crossing the Arabian Sea in the early 7th century, who established communities in various southern ports, and some small, pioneering Arabian forces in 663 from the north. Sporadic skirmishes occurred over the ensuing centuries, but no major confrontations took place until the late 10th century. But at this point, wave after wave of land assaults began convulsing the north.
At the vanguard of Islamic expansion was Mahmud of Ghazni. In the early 11th century, Mahmud turned Ghazni (in today's Afghanistan) into one of the world’s most glorious capital cities, which he largely funded by plundering his neighbours’ territories. From 1001 to 1025, Mahmud conducted 17 raids into India, most infamously on the famous Shiva Temple of Somnath in Gujarat. The Hindu force of 70,000 died trying to defend the temple, which eventually fell in early 1026. In the aftermath of his victory, Mahmud transported a massive haul of gold and other booty back to his capital. These raids effectively shattered the balance of power in North India, allowing subsequent invaders to claim the territory for themselves.
Following Mahmud’s death in 1033, Ghazni was seized by the Seljuqs and then fell to the Ghurs of western Afghanistan, who similarly had their eyes on the great Indian prize. In 1191, Mohammed of Ghur advanced into India in brutal fashion, before being defeated in a major battle against a confederacy of Hindu rulers. Undeterred, he returned the following year and routed his enemies. One of his generals, Qutb ud-din Aibak, captured Delhi and was appointed governor; it was during his reign that the renowned Delhi landmark, the Qutb Minar Complex, containing India's first mosque, was built. A separate Islamic empire was established in Bengal and, within a short time, almost the whole of North India was under Muslim control.
Following Mohammed’s death in 1206, Qutb ud-din Aibak became the first sultan of Delhi. His successor, Iltutmish, brought Bengal back under central control and defended the empire from an attempted Mongol invasion. Ala-ud-din Khilji came to power in 1296 and pushed the borders of the empire inexorably south, while simultaneously fending off further attacks by Mongol hordes.
North Meets South
Ala-ud-din died in 1320, and Mohammed Tughlaq ascended the throne in 1324. In 1328, Tughlaq took the southern strongholds of the Hoysala empire, which had centres at Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur. However, while the empire of the pre-Mughal Muslims would achieve its greatest extent under Tughlaq’s rule, his overreaching ambition also sowed the seeds of its disintegration. Unlike his forebears, Tughlaq dreamed not only of extending his indirect influence over South India, but of controlling it directly as part of his empire.
After a series of successful campaigns Tughlaq decided to move the capital from Delhi to a more central location. The new capital was called Daulatabad and was near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Tughlaq sought to populate the new capital by forcefully marching the entire population of Delhi 1100km south, resulting in considerable loss of life. However, he soon realised that this left the north undefended, and so the entire capital was moved north again. The superb hilltop fortress of Daulatabad stands as the last surviving monument to his megalomaniac vision.
The days of the Ghur empire were numbered. The last of the great sultans of Delhi, Firoz Shah, died in 1388, and the fate of the sultanate was sealed when Timur (Tamerlane) made a devastating raid from Samarkand (in Central Asia) into India in 1398. Timur’s sacking of Delhi was truly merciless; some accounts say his soldiers slaughtered every Hindu inhabitant.
After Tughlaq’s withdrawal from the south, several splinter kingdoms arose. The two most significant were the Islamic Bahmani sultanate, which emerged in 1345 with its capital at Gulbarga, and later Bidar, and the Hindu Vijayanagar empire, founded in 1336 with its capital at Hampi. The battles between the two were among the bloodiest communal violence in Indian history and ultimately resolved nothing in the two centuries before the Mughals ushered in a more moderate age.
Even as Vijayanagar was experiencing its last days, the next great Indian empire was being founded. The Mughal empire was massive, at its height covering almost the entire subcontinent. Its significance, however, lay not only in its size. Mughal emperors presided over a golden age of arts and literature and had a passion for building that resulted in some of the finest architecture in India, including Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal at Agra.
The founder of the Mughal line, Babur (r 1526–30), was a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). In 1525, he marched into Punjab from his capital at Kabul. With technological superiority brought by firearms, and consummate skill in simultaneously employing artillery and cavalry, Babur defeated the larger armies of the sultan of Delhi at the Battle of Panipat in 1526.
Despite this initial success, Babur’s son, Humayun (r 1530–56), was defeated by a powerful ruler of eastern India, Sher Shah, in 1539 and forced to withdraw to Iran. Humayun spent much time outside India, a fact reflected in the design of his tomb in Delhi, which was created by Persian architects and influenced by Iranian style. Following Sher Shah’s death in 1545, Humayun returned to claim his kingdom, eventually conquering Delhi in 1555. He died the following year and was succeeded by his young son Akbar (r 1556–1605), who, during his 49-year reign, managed to extend and consolidate the empire until he ruled over a mammoth area.
True to his name, Akbar (which means ‘great’ in Arabic) was probably the greatest of the Mughals: he not only had the military ability required of a ruler at that time, but was also widely regarded as a wise leader and a man of culture. He saw, as previous Muslim rulers had not, that the number of Hindus in India was too substantial to subjugate, and skillfully integrated Hindus into his empire, including them as advisers, generals and administrators.
Akbar also had a deep interest in religious matters; he spent many hours in discussion with religious experts of all persuasions, including Christians and Parsis, and abolished the punitive jizya tax imposed on non-Muslims as a condition of being allowed to continue their faith. Nevertheless, Akbar's tolerance of other cultures was relative – massacres of Hindus and other minorities were commonplace during his reign, most notoriously at Panipat and Chitrod.
Jehangir (r 1605–27) ascended to the throne following Akbar’s death and kept his father's empire intact, despite several challenges to his authority. In periods of stability, Jehangir spent time in his beloved Kashmir, eventually dying en route there in 1627. He was succeeded by his son, Shah Jahan (r 1627–58), who secured his position by executing all male relatives who stood in his way. During his reign, some of the most vivid and permanent reminders of the Mughals’ glory were constructed; in addition to the Taj Mahal, he oversaw the construction of Delhi's mighty Red Fort (Lal Qila) and converted the Agra Fort into a palace that would later become his prison.
The last of the great Mughals, Aurangzeb (r 1658–1707), imprisoned his father (Shah Jahan) and succeeded to the throne after a two-year struggle against his brothers. A religious zealot, Aurangzeb devoted his resources to extending the empire’s boundaries, and thus fell into much the same trap as that of Mohammed Tughlaq some 300 years earlier. A combination of decaying court life and dissatisfaction among the Hindu population at inflated taxes and religious intolerance weakened the Mughal grip.
The empire was also facing serious challenges from the Marathas in central India and, more significantly, the British in Bengal. With Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the empire’s fortunes rapidly declined, and Delhi was sacked by Persia’s Nadir Shah in 1739. Mughal ‘emperors’ continued to rule right up until the First War of Independence (Indian Uprising) in 1857, but they were emperors without an empire.
The Rajputs & the Marathas
Throughout the Mughal period, there remained strong Hindu powers, most notably the Rajputs, hereditary rulers of Rajasthan. The Rajputs were a proud warrior caste with a passionate belief in the dictates of chivalry, both in battle and state affairs. The Rajputs opposed every foreign incursion into their territory, but they were never united. When they weren’t battling foreign oppression, they squandered their energies fighting one another. This eventually led to their territories becoming vassal states of the Mughal empire. Their prowess in battle, however, was acknowledged, and some of the best military men in the Mughal armies were Rajputs.
The Marathas were less picaresque and ultimately more effective. They first rose to prominence under their great leader Shivaji, also known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who gathered popular support by championing the Hindu cause against the Muslim rulers. Between 1646 and 1680, Shivaji performed heroic acts in confronting the Mughals across most of central India. Shivaji was captured by the Mughals and taken to Agra, but, naturally, he managed to escape and continue his adventures. Tales of his larger-than-life exploits are still popular with wandering storytellers. He is a particular hero in Maharashtra, where many of his wildest adventures took place. Today, you’ll see Shivaji’s name all over Mumbai. He’s also revered for the fact that, as a lower-caste Shudra, he showed that formidable leaders don’t have to be of the Kshatriya (soldier) caste.
Shivaji’s son was captured, blinded and executed by Aurangzeb, and his grandson wasn’t made of the same sturdy stuff, so the Maratha empire continued under the Peshwas, hereditary government ministers who became the real rulers. They gradually took over more of the weakening Mughal empire’s powers.
The expansion of Maratha power came to an abrupt halt in 1761 at Panipat. In the town where Babur had won the battle that established the Mughal empire more than 200 years earlier, the Marathas were defeated by Ahmad Shah Durrani from Afghanistan. Maratha expansion to the west was halted, and although they consolidated their control over central India, they were to fall to India’s final imperial power – the British.
The Rise of European Power
During the 15th century, the Portuguese sought a sea route to the Far East so they could trade directly in spices, hoping to also find the kingdom of legendary Christian ruler, Prester John, thought to contain the fountain of youth. Instead, they found lucrative trading opportunities on the Indian coast and, unexpectedly, a thriving Syrian Christian community, allegedly founded by St Thomas the Apostle.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived on the coast of modern-day Kerala, having sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. Pioneering this route gave the Portuguese a century-long monopoly over Indian and Far Eastern trade with Europe. In 1510, they captured Goa, followed by Diu in 1531; Goa was the last colony in India to be returned to the Indian people, following an Indian Army invasion in 1961. In its heyday, the trade flowing through ‘Golden Goa’ was said to rival that passing through Lisbon. However, the Portuguese didn’t have the resources to maintain a worldwide empire and they were quickly eclipsed and isolated after the arrival of the British and French.
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to a London trading company that gave it a monopoly on British trade with India. In 1613, representatives of the British East India Company established their first trading post at Surat in Gujarat. Further British trading posts, administered and governed by representatives of the company, were established at Madras (Chennai) in 1639, Bombay (Mumbai) in 1661 and Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1690. For nearly 250 years a commercial trading company, and not the British government, ‘ruled’ over British India.
By 1672, the French had established themselves at Pondicherry (Puducherry), an enclave they held even after the British departed and where architectural traces of the French era remain. The stage was set for more than a century of rivalry between the British and French for control of Indian trade. At one stage, the French appeared to hold the upper hand, even taking Madras in 1746. But they were outmanoeuvred by the British, and by the 1750s were no longer a serious force on the subcontinent.
Serious French aspirations effectively ended in 1750, when the directors of the French East India Company decided that their representatives were playing too much politics and doing too little trading. Key representatives were sacked, and a settlement designed to end all ongoing political disputes was made with the British. The decision effectively removed France as a serious influence on the subcontinent.
Britain’s Surge to Power
The transformation of the British from traders to governors began almost by accident. Having been granted a licence to trade in Bengal by the Mughals, and following the establishment of a new trading post at Calcutta in 1690, business began to expand rapidly. Under the apprehensive gaze of the nawab (local ruler), British trading activities became extensive and the ‘factories’ took on an increasingly permanent (and fortified) appearance.
Eventually the nawab decided that British power had grown large enough. In June 1756, he attacked Calcutta and, having taken the city, locked his British prisoners in a tiny cell. The space was so cramped and airless that many were dead by the following morning.
Six months later, Robert Clive, an employee in the military service of the East India Company, led an expedition to retake Calcutta and entered into an agreement with one of the nawab’s generals to overthrow the nawab himself. He did this in June 1757, at the Battle of Plassey (now called Palashi), and the general who had assisted him was placed on the throne. With the British effectively in control of Bengal, the company’s agents engaged in a period of unbridled profiteering. When a subsequent nawab finally took up arms to protect his own interests, he was defeated at the Battle of Baksar in 1764, a victory that confirmed the British as the paramount power in east India.
In 1771, Warren Hastings was made governor in Bengal. During his tenure, the company greatly expanded its control. He was aided by the fact that India was experiencing a power vacuum, created by the disintegration of the Mughal empire. The Marathas, the only real Indian power to step into this gap, were divided among themselves. Hastings concluded a series of treaties with local rulers, including one with the main Maratha leader. From 1784 onwards, the British government in London began to take a more direct role in supervising affairs in India, although the territory was still notionally administered by the East India Company until 1858.
In the south, the picture was confused by the strong British–French rivalry, and one ruler was played off against another. This was never clearer than in the series of Mysore Wars, in which Hyder Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, waged a determined campaign against the British. In the Fourth Mysore War (1789–99), Tipu Sultan was killed at Srirangapatnam, and British power took another step forward. The sultan's personal arms and armour are still displayed in London. The long-running struggle with the Marathas was concluded a few years later, leaving only Punjab (held by the Sikhs) outside British control. Punjab finally fell in 1849 after the two Sikh Wars.
By the early 19th century, India was effectively under British control, although there remained a patchwork of states, many nominally independent and governed by their own rulers, the maharajas (or similarly titled princes) and nawabs. While these ‘princely states’ administered their own territories, a system of central government was developed. British bureaucratic models were replicated in the Indian government and civil service – a legacy that still exists today.
Trade and profit continued to be the main focus of British rule in India, with far-reaching effects. Iron and coal mining were developed, and tea, coffee and cotton became key crops. A start was made on the vast rail network that’s still in use today, irrigation projects were undertaken, and the Mughal-era zamindar (landowner) system was encouraged, further contributing to the development of an impoverished and landless peasantry.
The British also imposed English as the local language of administration. For them, this was critical in a country with so many different languages, but it also kept the new rulers at arm’s length from the Indian populace.
The Road to Independence
Opposition to the British increased at the turn of the 20th century, spearheaded by the Indian National Congress, the country’s oldest political party, also known as the Congress Party or Congress. It met for the first time in 1885 and soon began to push for participation in the government of India.
A highly unpopular attempt by the British to partition Bengal in 1905 resulted in mass demonstrations and brought to light Hindu opposition to the division. The Muslim community formed its own league and campaigned for protected rights in any future political settlement. As pressure rose, a split emerged in Hindu circles between moderates and radicals, the latter resorting to violence to publicise their aims.
With the outbreak of WWI, the political situation eased. India contributed hugely to the war: more than one million Indian volunteers were enlisted and sent overseas, suffering more than 100,000 casualties. The contribution was sanctioned by Congress leaders, largely with the expectation that it would be rewarded after the war. However, no such rewards transpired and disillusion followed. Disturbances were particularly persistent in Punjab, and in April 1919, following riots in Amritsar, a British Army contingent was sent to quell the unrest. Under direct orders of the officer in charge, they ruthlessly fired into a crowd of unarmed protesters at Jallianwala Bagh. News of the massacre spread rapidly throughout India, turning huge numbers of otherwise apolitical Indians into Congress supporters.
At this time, the Congress movement found a new leader in Mohandas Gandhi, a British-educated lawyer who suggested a new route to Indian self-governance through ahimsa – nonviolent resistance to British rule. Not everyone involved in the struggle agreed with or followed Gandhi’s policy of nonviolence, yet the Congress Party and Gandhi remained at the forefront of the push for independence.
As political power-sharing began to look more likely, and the mass movement led by Gandhi gained momentum, the Muslim reaction was to consider its own immediate future. The large Muslim minority realised that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus and that, while Gandhi’s approach was fair-minded, others in the Congress Party might not be so willing to share power. By the 1930s, Muslims were raising the possibility of a separate Islamic state.
Political events were partially disrupted by WWII, when large numbers of Congress supporters were jailed to prevent disruption of the war effort.
One of the great figures of the 20th century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 in Porbandar, Gujarat. After studying in London (1888–91), he worked as a barrister in South Africa. Here, the young Gandhi became politicised, railing against the discrimination he encountered. He soon became the spokesperson for the Indian community and championed equality for all.
Gandhi returned to India in 1915 with the doctrine of ahimsa (nonviolence) central to his political plans, and committed to a simple and disciplined lifestyle. He set up the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, which was innovative for its admission of Untouchables.
Within a year, Gandhi had won his first victory, defending farmers in Bihar from exploitation. This was when it’s said he first received the title ‘Mahatma’ (Great Soul) from an admirer (said to be Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore). The passage of the discriminatory Rowlatt Acts in 1919, which allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries, spurred him to further action, and he organised a national protest. In the days that followed this hartal (strike), feelings ran high throughout the country. After the massacre of unarmed protesters in Amritsar, Gandhi, deeply shocked, began to organise his program of civil (nonviolent) disobedience against the British.
By 1920 Gandhi was a key figure in the Indian National Congress, and he coordinated a national campaign of noncooperation or satyagraha (nonviolent protest) to British rule, with the effect of raising nationalist feeling while earning the lasting enmity of the British. In early 1930, Gandhi captured the imagination of the country, and the world, when he led a march of several thousand followers from Ahmedabad to Dandi on the coast of Gujarat. On arrival, Gandhi ceremoniously made salt by evaporating seawater, thus publicly defying the much-hated salt tax; not for the first time, he was imprisoned. Released in 1931 to represent the Indian National Congress at the second Round Table Conference in London, he won the hearts of many British people, but failed to gain any real concessions from the government.
Disillusioned with politics, he resigned his parliamentary seat in 1934. He returned spectacularly to the fray in 1942 with the Quit India campaign, in which he urged the British to leave India immediately. His actions were deemed subversive, and he and most of the Congress leadership were imprisoned.
In the frantic independence bargaining that followed the end of WWII, Gandhi was largely excluded and watched helplessly as plans were made to partition the country – a dire tragedy in his eyes. Gandhi stood almost alone in urging tolerance and the preservation of a single India, and his work on behalf of all communities drew resentment from some Hindu hardliners. On his way to a prayer meeting in Delhi on 30 January 1948, he was assassinated by a Hindu zealot, Nathuram Godse.
Independence & the Partition of India
The Labour Party victory in the British elections in July 1945 dramatically altered the political landscape. For the first time, Indian independence was accepted as a legitimate goal. This new goodwill did not, however, translate into any new wisdom as to how to reconcile the divergent wishes of the two major Indian parties. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, championed a separate Islamic state, while the Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, campaigned for an independent greater India.
In early 1946, a British mission failed to bring the two sides together – indeed, there was evidence that the British deliberately fostered resentment on both sides to discourage a unified resistance – and the country slid towards civil war. A ‘Direct Action Day’, called by the Muslim League in August 1946, led to the slaughter of Hindus in Calcutta, which prompted reprisals against Muslims. In February 1947, the nervous British government made the momentous decision that Independence would come by June 1948. In the meantime, the viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell, was replaced by Lord Louis Mountbatten.
The new viceroy encouraged the rival factions to agree upon a united India, but to no avail. A decision was made to divide the country, with Gandhi the only staunch opponent. Faced with increasing civil violence, Mountbatten made the precipitous decision to bring forward Independence to 15 August 1947.
Dividing the country into separate Hindu and Muslim territories was immensely tricky; the dividing line proved almost impossible to draw. Some areas were clearly Hindu or Muslim, but others had evenly mixed populations, and there were ‘islands’ of communities in areas predominantly settled by other religions. Moreover, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country and, therefore, Pakistan would inevitably have an eastern and western half divided by a hostile India. The instability of this arrangement was self-evident, but it was 25 years before the split finally came and East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
An independent British referee was given the odious task of drawing the borders, well aware that the effects would be catastrophic for countless people. The decisions were fraught with impossible dilemmas. Calcutta, with its Hindu majority, port facilities and jute mills, was divided from East Bengal, which had a Muslim majority, large-scale jute production, no mills and no port facilities. One million Bengalis became refugees in the mass movement across the new border.
The problem was worse in Punjab, where intercommunity antagonisms were already running at fever pitch. Punjab, one of the most fertile and affluent regions of the country, had large Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities. The Sikhs had already campaigned unsuccessfully for their own state and now saw their homeland divided down the middle. The new border ran straight between Punjab’s two major cities, Lahore and Amritsar. Prior to Independence, Lahore’s population of 1.2 million included approximately 500,000 Hindus and 100,000 Sikhs. When the dust had finally settled, roughly 1000 Hindus and Sikhs remained.
Punjab contained all the ingredients for an epic disaster, but the resulting bloodshed was far worse than anticipated. Huge population exchanges took place. Trains full of Muslims, fleeing westward, were held up and slaughtered by Hindu and Sikh mobs. Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to the east suffered the same fate at Muslim hands. The army that was sent to maintain order proved totally inadequate and, at times, all too ready to join the sectarian carnage. By the time the Punjab chaos had run its course, more than 10 million people had changed sides and at least 500,000 had been killed.
India and Pakistan became sovereign nations under the British Commonwealth in August 1947 as planned, but the violence, migrations and integration of a few states, especially Kashmir, continued. The Constitution of India was at last adopted in November 1949 and went into effect on 26 January 1950 and, after untold struggles, independent India officially became a republic.
Jawaharlal Nehru tried to steer India towards a policy of nonalignment, balancing cordial relations with Britain and Commonwealth membership with moves towards the former USSR. The latter was due partly to conflicts with China, and US support for its arch-enemy Pakistan.
The 1960s and 1970s were tumultuous times for India. A border war with China in what was then known as the North-East Frontier Area (NEFA; now the Northeast States) and Ladakh resulted in the loss of parts of Aksai Chin (Ladakh) and smaller NEFA areas. Wars with Pakistan in 1965 (over Kashmir) and 1971 (over Bangladesh) also contributed to a sense among many Indians of having enemies on all sides.
In the midst of it all, the popular Nehru died in 1964 and his daughter Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) was elected as prime minister in 1966. Indira Gandhi, like Nehru before her, loomed large over the country she governed. Unlike Nehru, however, she was almost always a controversial figure whose historical legacy remains hotly disputed.
In 1975, facing serious opposition and unrest, she declared a state of emergency (which later became known as the Emergency). Freed of parliamentary constraints, Gandhi was able to boost the economy, control inflation remarkably well and decisively increase efficiency. On the negative side, political opponents often found themselves in prison, India’s judicial system was turned into a puppet theatre and the press was fettered.
Indira Gandhi’s government was bundled out of office in the 1977 elections, but the 1980 election brought her back to power with a larger majority than ever before – firmly laying the foundation for the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty that continued to dominate Indian politics for decades. She was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards after her decision to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which was being occupied by fundamentalist Sikh preacher, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Her son Rajiv took over, but in 1991 was assassinated in Tamil Nadu by a suicide bomber from a Sri Lankan militant group opposed to government actions against Tamil separatists based in India. Rajiv's widow, Sonia, later became president, with Manmohan Singh as prime minister. However, the Congress party started losing popularity, largely due to a slowing economy and slew of cronyism and corruption allegations.
The 2014 federal elections saw the Congress party suffer a thumping defeat under the shaky leadership of Rahul Gandhi, Indira's grandson. The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), headed by the confident and charismatic Narendra Modi, swept to power in a landslide victory, promising to clean up Indian politics and usher in a new era of economic development. Modi was formerly chief minister of Gujarat, which witnessed economic success during his tenure.
After coming to power, Modi launched a number of laudable campaigns – including 'Make in India' (to boost foreign investment); 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao' (to improve the plight of girls); and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (to promote public cleanliness). However, they have received mixed reports vis-a-vis sustainable implementation and effectiveness.
One of Modi's boldest manoeuvres came on 8 November 2016, when the government, without warning, demonetised the nation's ₹500 and ₹1000 banknotes, in a shock move intended to counter tax-dodgers, corrupt officials and terrorism supporters. This lead to startlingly long queues at banks as millions struggled to exchange old notes for legal tender. According to figures released in late 2018 by the Reserve Bank of India, 99.3% of the value of old bills that had been invalidated by demonetisation eventually re-entered the financial system, indicating the futility of the whole exercise.