A Brief History of India

Note: the material in this essay was largely derived from Burton Stein's A History of India, Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India, and various online sources. Most dates and statistics were drawn from the first two (some modern statistics from Nilekani's book may be a little out of date, as it was published in 2008). Feedback and errata greatly appreciated.

The more large-scale history I read, the more vital geography seems. The collision of the Indian subcontinent with the rest of Asia many millions of years ago created the Himalayas, blocking India off from substantial interactions with China. For most of its history, India's channels to the rest of the world were roughly the areas corresponding to modern Pakistan and Bangladesh (which, for most of this essay, I will include when talking about "India"). Those channels were formative, but in a skewed way: India has very disproportionately been influenced from the west and, in turn, exerted influence towards the east. While this is a rather broad claim, as far as I can tell it's surprisingly accurate in summarising the last few millennia. The other important geographic point to note is the distinction between North India and South India - one which, although it cannot be exactly defined, reflects real differences. South India spoke Dravidian languages, primarily Tamil, and kept to itself militarily. North India, by contrast, spoke Indo-Aryan languages derived from ancient Sanskrit, and gave rise to a number of large empires (although none which managed to conquer all of South India).

The two regions were, however, culturally similar - and while the history of the rest of the world is best described by the rise and fall of states, in India that is decidedly secondary to cultural development. In stark contrast with Europe and the Middle East, even India's most prominent empires lasted no longer than a few centuries. These empires were more suzerains (holding the allegiance of effectively independent vassal states) than sovereigns (controlling their territory directly), and affected the day-to-day lives of their subjects relatively little. This is not to say, of course, that this cultural development was uniform or homogeneous: vassal states had their own languages, local deities, and customs. In short, India was throughout most of its history no more or less than a patchwork of tribes and kingdoms sharing a few important cultural touchstones and sometimes a nominal emperor.

Classical India

What did influence Indian culture, then? As I alluded to earlier, the most prominent influences came sweeping in from the west. Indian civilisation started with the Indus Valley culture, which slowly developed from around 3000 to 2000 BC. We don't know much about them, but we do know that they went into decline a few centuries before the Aryan migrations of around 1500 BC, in which horse-riding nomads from Persia became the ruling class of Northern India. The Aryans brought with them two important things: the Sanskrit language, and their religion, which was expressed in four Veda texts composed in the following centuries. The influence of these scriptures on religion in the East is comparable to that of the Old Testament in the West - both were very early texts which became important influences on several major religions. Particularly notable are the sections of the Vedas which focus on philosophy and spirituality, called the Upanishads. Additionally, versions of Sanskrit became entrenched in North India (with traces of it also found in all Dravidian languages).

Vedic religion was based around elaborate rituals and sacrifices, which required priests to carry them out. This was the origin of the Brahmin class, and subsequently an elaborate caste system beneath them. As this religion spread across India, it merged with local tribal religions, with their deities and heroes being retroactively explained as close family or even manifestations of what became the three main Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. An illustration of the resulting complexity is the fact that Krishna, another major god, is sometimes worshipped as an avatar of Vishnu, but also sometimes worshipped as the one underlying god which all other gods are manifestations of - and sometimes as both.

In the 5th century BC, two men challenged this hierarchical religious orthodoxy. The first was Gautama Siddartha, better known as the Buddha. His doctrines favoured "the Middle Way", a path of moderation that avoided both self-indulgence and asceticism. Later versions of Buddhism were based around the Four Noble Truths: "that suffering is an ingrained part of existence; that the origin of suffering is craving for sensuality, acquisition of identity, and fear of annihilation; that suffering can be ended; and that following the Noble Eightfold Path [of morality, meditation and insight] is the means to accomplish this". The second was Mahavira, founder of Jainism. Jains, by contrast, were extreme in their asceticism and non-violence. Jain monks do not even eat root vegetables, out of a concern for the plant; many early Jains believed that even wearing clothes was enough to make you unworthy of salvation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jainism never found the same widespread following as Buddhism, but it persisted in India and now has around five million adherents. Buddhism, on the other hand, was exported eastwards, and flourished across China and southeast Asia even in the centuries during which it was suppressed in India. (By a remarkable coincidence, Confucius was also alive at the same time as the other two, making the 5th century the most important foundational period for Eastern religions). The success of Buddism and Jainism led to some of their ideas being adopted into Hinduism over the coming centuries.

The next major disruption was the invasion of Alexander the Great in 326 BC. Although he and his armies turned back at the easternmost tributary of the Indus River, the power vacuum left by his retreat allowed a general called Chandragupta Maurya to raise an army and capture extensive territory. His Mauryan Empire was founded around 320 BC; despite only lasting 140 years, during that time it became the largest empire ever formed in the Indian subcontinent, covering an area which stretched across Pakistan and Afghanistan and was over 1.5 times the size of modern India. Its most notable ruler, Ashoka, was a devout Buddhist who carved his edicts on stones across the breadth of his territory, and sent missionaries even further afield.

Conveniently, India's next notable empire was also founded by a man called Chandragupta, and also in the year 320 - but this time AD not BC. His Gupta Empire (which stretched across most of North India but relatively little of the south) is considered a "golden age" of classical India - notable inventions include chess, the number 0, base 10 numerals, and the Kama Sutra. It was also a period in which Hinduism became more entrenched and many of its oral scriptures (most notably the Puranas) were converted to authoritative written texts.

During the second century of Gupta rule, Europe was being ravaged by a series of barbarian invasions as the Huns displaced other tribes from the central Asian steppes, resulting most notably in the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. A similar thing happened in India, with invasions of Hunic tribes on its northwest border creating instability (as well as devastating Buddhism by destroying temples and killing monks). When the Gupta Empire fell around 550, its territory fragmented into a number of smaller, rapidly-changing kindoms, and the "classical" era of Indian history came to an end; it was followed by the "medieval" era. This terminology is somewhat controversial, as it's sometimes seen as simply overlaying western ideas of history onto India. However, "medieval" India shares a number of traits with medieval Europe: most notably division into feuding kingdoms; increased agricultural production (although without Western-style feudalism); significant urbanisation; and religious puritanism (which came hand in hand with the increasing influence of brahmins).

Late Medieval and Early Modern India

Indian kingdoms would remain small and separate until yet another invasion from the west: that of Muhammad Ghazid, ruler of the Ghurid Empire in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in 1178. After several decades of intermittent fighting, he set up his slave, Aibak, as the ruler of the newly-formed Delhi Sultanate, which eventually stretched across most of India and Pakistan. Aibak's successors (all former slaves) formed the Mamluk Dynasty, the first of the Delhi Sultanate's five dynasties of rulers. Thus began over five centuries of Muslim rule over India. Throughout this entire period, the sort of mass conversion to Islam seen across the Middle East never occurred - nor was it even really attempted. Rather, each religion managed to find ways to adapt to the other. Islamic scripture allows rule over infidels as long as they pay the jizya, a tax on non-Muslims. This was only ever meant to apply to the other Abrahamic religions, but pragmatic sultans decided to extend it to Indian populations too. Meanwhile, the Indian caste system gained, de facto, a new caste.

There was of course some conversion to Islam to gain preferential treatment in a number of ways. This was often superficial, with continued worship of traditional deities who were now seen as aspects of Allah. In two regions, however, conversion was particularly influential. The first was Eastern India, around Bengal, where the lower classes had predominantly followed Buddhism until it was brutally suppressed. The second was Western India (modern Pakistan). Here, Muslim forces were concentrated to fend off Mongol raids, and were therefore seen as benevolent protectors. In fact, the Mongol threat led more generally to military buildup and greater centralisation of authority. The last rulers of the Delhi Sultanate were the Lodis, who had invaded from Afghanistan and simply taken over those central power structures.

The Delhi Sultanate was overthrown in 1526, this time by Muslim Turks under the leadership of Babur. From Babur's claim to be descended from Genghis Khan, his forces called themselves Mongols, or Mughals. The Mughal Empire became the second-largest empire ever to arise on the Indian subcontinent (after the Mauryans), controlling parts of Afghanistan, most of Pakistan, and all of modern India except an area at the southern tip about the size of Sri Lanka. The Mughals are well-known for their architecture (the most prominent in North India), particularly mosques and tombs such as the Taj Mahal (built by Shah Jahan as a tribute to his wife). Their empire's longevity owed much to their capable administration, primarily stemming from Babur's grandson Akbar the Great. Akbar built on earlier efforts by Sikandar Lodi and Sher Khan (a former Lodi soldier who briefly conquered much of their territory) to create regional authorities roughly corresponding to existing communities; above them he created a nobility whose highest ranks included Turks, Persians and Indians.

In addition to this diversity of nationalities, Akbar was very religiously tolerant: he abolished the jizya, allowed the construction of new temples, and even granted land to the newly-formed Sikh religion, on which they built their Golden Temple. Sikhism, founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century in the Punjab, was originally a peaceful, non-sectarian faith similar to Buddhism; after conflicts with Mughals in later years, it became more militaristic and ritualistic. The Mughal empire itself, while competently governed, was also very active militarily and plagued with internecine conflict: all its rulers from Akbar onwards fought campaigns against either their fathers or brothers (or both) in order to secure the throne. Aurungzeb, for instance, killed all three of his brothers and imprisoned his father, Shah Jahan, in Agra (with a view overlooking the Taj Mahal) until his death.

Aurungzeb was a zealous Muslim, and his policies alienated both Hindus and moderate Muslim officials. By his death in 1707, rebellions were being fought by the Jats, the Rajputs, and most significantly the Marathas (based in southwest India) whose mobile hit-and-run tactics proved very effective. While Aurungzeb's sons fought for the succession, the Sikhs in Punjab also revolted, creating their own state (which proved to be one of the most resistant to British influence). In the following decades a series of emperors seized power and were just as quickly deposed; meanwhile the empire fragmented into pieces, many of which were absorbed by the Marathas. However, Marathan superiority proved short-lived, as they too splintered into competing kingdoms in the second half of the 18th century. This was the state of India as the British East India Trading Company began its push for dominance.

British Rule

The relationship between India and Europe until then had been roughly as follows. The Portuguese had established initial naval trade with India with Vasco da Gama's arrival there in 1498. However, they and the Spanish focused more on exploiting other territories. With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the British and the Dutch began sending ships to Asia, and established the British and Dutch East India Trading Companies in the early years of the 17th century. After conflicts between them, the Dutch ended up focusing on Indonesia and the British on India, where they established several dozen trading posts over the next century (small territories were also claimed by the Portuguese (Goa), French (Pondicherry), Dutch, and Danes). The most desirable goods were spices and textiles; obtaining them required cooperation with many Indian merchants, bankers and village chiefs, as well as the employment of British and Indian soliders (the latter known as 'sepoys'). The beginning of the actual British empire in India is often dated to 1757, when Robert Clive captured Calcutta for the Company, to great profit. In the face of superior British technology and military strategy, many Indian rulers - far from uniting against the threat the British posed - actually formed alliances with them, or hired their mercenary divisions, in order to gain advantages in local conflicts.

In part this lack of foresight can be explained by the fact that the East India Trading Company was still predominantly a trading company, and that many of its directors in Britain were opposed to further conquest. Nevertheless, that is what soon happened in large sections of India, starting in the south and east. The relative ease with which the Company conquered these territories was due not only to its strong military position, but also divisions within Indian society: many wealthy Indians thought that their commercial interests would benefit from Company rule. This reasoning was, at first, not so incorrect. As an association of merchants, the Company placed great emphasis on private property rights. They also largely kept in place existing administrative institutions - and those Indians at the top of them. In some cases this was very harmful: slavery, which had already existed in India, flourished under the British to the point where there were more slaves in India than the entirety of the Americas. Slavery in India was unusual in that there was no sharp division between enslaved and free: the people at the bottom of caste, economic or gender hierarchies were often very close to slaves anyway.

The extensive collaboration between Indian gentry and the British was replaced, by around 1830, by a more marked colonialism. The most obvious cause of this was Britain's increasing military dominance, which reduced their reliance on local sepoys and allowed them to take control of former allies, provoking resentment. Enemies also fell apace: Maratha was conquered in 1818; Sind in 1843; Punjab in 1849; and Burma in three wars between 1824 and 1885. However, there were more subtle forces at work as well. Around this time, demand increased in Britain for raw materials, such as cotton, to process in their factories. Meanwhile trade between India and China was largely replaced by bilateral links with Britain; further, there was a significant increase in imports to fund infrastructure, particularly railways. These disparate factors all contributed to a diminishing role for Indian bankers, traders and industrialised manufacturers, who until then had been crucial to Company operations; in essence Indian capitalists were frozen out of the economy. This is particularly significant given that India had been a "industrial giant", producing a wide variety of high-quality goods. Other British reforms attacked traditional customs and the power of the Indian landed elites. These reforms were not necessarily bad or ill-intentioned - one example was the ban on sati, the practice of burning a man's widow alive on his funeral pyre - but diminished Indian confidence that British rule would be non-interventionist and beneficial.

These sentiments helped to spur the pivotal 1857 Indian Mutiny. Tensions had been mounting for some time, particularly in Bengal; they came to a head in an unusual way. It was standard policy for sepoys to tear open with their teeth the paper cartridges for rifle ammunition; however, a rumour spread that they had been greased with the fat of pigs and cows. This was anathema to both Muslims and Hindus, and so a few dozen of them were prosecuted and convicted for refusing to obey orders. This provoked a rebellion which gained the support of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had until then remained in Delhi as a subordinate figurehead. The British, who had felt secure in their (partly racially-motivated) superiority, were unprepared. However, after some initial defeats, they were able to brutally suppress the rebellion - thanks in large part to the loyalty of Indian forces from non-rebelling territories (even ones which had only recently been conquered, such as Maratha and Punjab). Immediately afterwards, the Crown took control of India directly, making it an official colony for the first time - although by this point the change was mainly symbolic. However, it should be noted that for the whole duration of the British Raj, there remained hundreds of "princely states" (the largest being Hyderabad and Mysore) whose monarchs were at least nominally in control of their internal affairs. Meanwhile, rural areas were dominated by zamindars, large-scale landlords responsible for tax collection.

Over the next decades, the bureaucracy which governed India grew and grew. Simultaneously, however, Indian manufacturing workers were forced back into agriculture through policies which favoured British imports and a role for India as a massive market for British goods. Further, under British rule the traditional structure and "social fabric" of rural life was transformed - for example, replacing informal local institutions with more official and centralised authority. Indian soliders were employed to make other conquests abroad. Taxation increased to the point where little remained to reinvest in infrastructure; profits were sent back to Britain; poverty increased significantly. These shifts all contributed to the ferocity of famines which occurred over the next half-century. I cannot adequately convey their scale; instead I quote Stein:

"Widespread and intense dearth began in 1866–7, though localized famines leading to higher than usual death-rates had occurred in many places even during the first half of the nineteenth century. The famine which struck in 1866–7 is usually called the Orissa famine, but in reality mortality extended well into the Gangetic valley, far down the eastern coast of the Madras Presidency and across the peninsula to parts of the Hyderabad and Mysore principalities. Three million people were affected and deaths of 800,000 in excess of normal were recorded. Almost immediately afterwards, from 1868 to 1870, famines affecting around 21 million struck Rajasthan, the western Ganges region and parts of central India and the northern Deccan, causing excess deaths of around 400,000. During the last thirty years of the century the dreadful toll increased: 1873–4 in Bengal and eastern India, affecting a quarter of a million; 1876–8, involving 36 million in parts of the Ganges again and also Madras, Bombay, Mysore and Hyderabad, with deaths of 3.5 million. The century ended with two other massive outbreaks of famine and disease nearly everywhere in the subcontinent, with more fearsome death counts: 1896–7, affecting 96 million and causing the excess deaths of over 5 million, and again in 1899–1900, with 60 million affected and another 5 million dying prematurely."

This was, to be very clear, a series of holocausts. The large death tolls were to some extent due to unpredictable factors - for example, many of the deaths were caused by disease outbreaks which spread along railway routes and were exacerbated by the famines. But blame lies most heavily on British officials who first systematically impoverished the Indian population and destroyed the social and political structures which had previously mitigated inequalities in food distribution - and then, in the face of an unprecedented series of humanitarian disasters, pursued what amounted to a policy of utter indifference. This attitude dominated until the 1880 Famine Code, although even afterwards the resources committed by the British were far insufficient as famines raged on.

The Struggle for Independence

Throughout this period, especially in Bengal, "moderate" nationalists in the Indian National Congress (a symbolic organisation with no governing power) campaigned for greater Indian independence and ultimately a self-governing Western-style state; to this end they organised a very successful boycott of British products.  There were also campaigns based around a more extreme Hindu nationalism - for instance, the "Cow Protection" movement, which tried to prevent Muslims from eating beef, led to riots and multiple Muslim deaths. By around 1907, the extremists had become more prominent than the moderates, with frequent small-scale terrorist attacks on British officials; soon a Muslim nationalist movement, the Muslim League, also developed. The British responded by increasing police repression and arresting movement leaders; in 1912 they also moved the capital from Calcutta (a hotbed of activism) to a newly-built section of Delhi designed by Edward Lutyens: New Delhi.

Soon afterwards, World War 1 broke out. Indians contributed massively to the war effort, both in terms of personnel and (largely involuntary) financial contributions. Surprisingly, many Hindu independence leaders actively supported the war, partly in the hope that the British would repay their goodwill afterwards. However, to Muslims, war against the Ottomans comprised an attack on the spiritual successor to Mohammad; this was enough to bring them together with Hindu nationalists in a joint campaign for Home Rule. This unified campaign soon fell under the leadership of a London-educated lawyer by the name of Mohandas Gandhi - later known as Mahamta, meaning "great-souled".

Before WW1 Gandhi had been living in South Africa, developing his methods of non-violent resistance as part of anti-racism struggles. In 1915 he returned and gradually became a key figure in the Indian independence movement, with significant influence over the Congress. Gandhi, while often revered, was a paradoxical figure in many ways. Throughout his campaign for independence he "refused to disturb the status quo of Indian social and economic hierarchy", which alienated people such as Dr Ambedkar, leader of the untouchable castes. For example, rather than taxing the wealthy he wanted to wait for them to donate their riches voluntarily. He idealised purity and the ascetic endurance of suffering to a rather unhealthy extent - in fact, his insistence on "self-control" as an alternative to birth control was a not-insignificant factor contributing to India's population explosion.

However, Gandhi was also an incredibly brave and dedicated campaigner who was pivotal in urging non-violence even in the face of atrocities like the slaughter of 379 peaceful protesters by the British in Punjab. His strategy of satyagrahi involved people volunteering to be imprisoned for refusing to obey oppressive laws, resigning official positions and titles, striking, boycotting British goods, and so on; Gandhi also personally underwent many hunger strikes. He was able to mobilise millions of protesters thanks to an enormous support base amongst the lower-middle class; Gandhi's hold over the movement was so strong that he single-handedly stopped the entire national campaign after violence broke out against police in a single village in 1922. His allies - most notably the future Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru and the Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah - were outraged. The same year, Gandhi was imprisoned by the British for two years. In the following years, extremists amongst the Hindu nationalists convinced the Congress to take anti-Muslim stances. As a result, the independence movement resplintered into religious factions.

From 1930 to 1934 Gandhi spearheaded another campaign of civil disobedience, popular support for which was strengthened by economic depression in the late 20s and early 30s. A month-long march protesting the regressive Salt Tax was a dramatic gesture watched around the world. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned for symbolically breaking laws; farmers in rural areas escalated the protests by refusing to pay any taxes. This culminated in the Government of India Act of 1935, which made provinces more autonomous and established direct elections; while much of it was unpopular at the time, it was to be a significant influence on the eventual Indian constitution.

Under Nehru, the Congress had been adopting left-wing ideology, with some of its members becoming communists. However, they had also attempted to balance their campaigns with the interests of the wealthy Indian elite, whose support for the independence movement depended heavily on how it affected their business interests. Nehru, while sympathetic to the far left, was firmly enough under Gandhi's influence that he tried to minimise class agitation in favour of a Gandhian focus on unity. The Muslim League had a different focus, due to the large numbers of Muslims who were poor tenant farmers. Deepening tensions were expressed by the formation of paramilitary groups representing both religions during the 1930s. During the Second World War, India again became an important strategic outpost. While Congress leaders who attempted peaceful protest against it were imprisoned, younger Hindu extremists carried out active sabotage campaigns. Indeed, one radical Congress leader, Subhas Bose, gathered an army of Indians captured by the Japanese and convinced them to fight against the Allies. Increasing British retaliation led to thousands of civilian casualties. In addition, while much of the Indian economy benefited from the war, food shortages in the east were exacerbated by the destruction of boats to prevent them falling into Japanese hands. Around three million people died in the Bengal Famine of 1943.

By contrast, the Muslim League under Jinnah offered the British wartime cooperation, in exchange for being recognised as equal to Congress in representing India. In the face of continued intransigence by the Congress, Jinnah warmed to the idea of a separate state for Muslims: Pakistan (PAKIS being an acronym for Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Sind). The Muslim League gained greatly in popularity during the war, and when Clement Attlee's post-war government started the independence process, they had a strong position. But Jinnah became frustrated by stalled negotiations, and decided to pursue a course of "direct action", ordering his followers to launch attacks and beginning several years of bloody inter-religious violence. As the casualties rose to hundreds of thousands, over ten million people fled their homes in the largest mass migration in human history: Muslims to the West and East, and Sikhs and Hindus to the centre. British soldiers, who had been promised to stem the violence, never arrived.

Gandhi's finest moments came as he rushed from city to city, drawing on his longstanding reputation and following to calm the orgies of violence. It was during one of these missions, in early 1948, that he was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist outraged by his compromises with Pakistan. Gandhi was just one of over a million casualties of religious violence over these two years. In the midst of this whirlwind came the defining event in modern Indian history: independence from the British Raj in 1947. With it came the independence of Pakistan, originally composed of two noncontiguous territories: the majority of its land in west India, plus East Bengal. Over the next few years, India and Pakistan absorbed all the remaining princely states. Jinnah, the first leader of Pakistan, died only a year after independence, and an Islamic regime came to power; this fell to a military coup in 1958. In 1971, Pakistan's eastern territory fought a war of independence (aided by India) to become Bangladesh. Jinnah's dream of a nation united by religion had proved no match for major ethnic and linguistic differences.

Independent India

India had been left impoverished and scarred by British occupation. The next seven decades of Indian history was better, but not rosy by any means. Under the leadership of Nehru, a backlash occurred against ideas associated with the West, such as free markets, the English language and even urbanism. The British Raj was replaced with a "License Raj", as the Indian government tried to create a planned economy by regulating the exact specifications of all business activity. It can scarcely be exaggerated how much bureaucracy this entailed - and with it, strong incentives for corruption and regulatory capture. Even if this kneejerk reaction was understandable at first, its longevity cannot be defended: the license raj, and the corruption that accompanied it, kept India deeply impoverished for the best part of a century, entrenched oligopolies of powerful businesses, and stifled innovation. Primarily responsible was Nehru's Congress Party, which remained in power for the first thirty years of independence: Nehru was followed, after his death in 1964, by his daughter Indira Gandhi.

However, even Indian gratitude towards its independence campaigners couldn't survive long-term economic mismanagement. As her popularity waned and she was found guilty of "electoral irregularities", Indira declared a state of emergency and ruled by fiat for nearly two years. During that time she pushed through a population policy which saw millions of men bribed or coerced into sterilisation, provoking riots. Unsurprisingly, upon reinstating elections in 1977, she lost. Surprisingly, three years later, she was back in power, where she continued to implement authoritarian policies such as a cap on building heights, which led to massive housing shortages and sprawling slums. In 1984, she sent the army into the Sikh's sacred Golden Temple to flush out Sikh separatists. Only a few months afterwards, she was killed by her Sikh bodyguard; in retaliation, over 1000 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi, with the tacit cooperation of local police. Indira's successor was her son Rajiv Gandhi, a former pilot; only upon his assassination in 1991 did over forty years of single-family rule end.

Finally, reformers were in power. Significant economic liberalisation, and the partial dismantling of the license raj, occurred as conditions on an IMF bailout in 1991. These steps have boosted economic growth, but India is still in desperate need of more reform. In 2007, more than 150 billion USD was spent on popular subsidies, such as free electricity for farmers - a strategy which has already proven ineffective in lifting people out of poverty (this particular subsidy, for instance, mostly helps wealthier farmers who use more electricity, as well as contributing to severe power shortages and blackouts). Moving goods between India's 29 states can be more difficult than crossing international borders; India's rank in the Ease of doing Business index still hovers around 130th in the world. Public education is so bad that even many of the poorest parents shell out for private education (often illegally, since even the very common one-room schools needs licenses from 14 different departments to set up). Trains running hours late is the rule, not the exception - my two trains were delayed by 8 and 4 hours respectively, and the Guwahati Express sets the record with an average delay of over 10 hours. Labour policies are so restrictive that it's estimated the number of official (as opposed to black-market) jobs would be 30% higher without them. While India has the world's 6th-biggest economy, its GDP per capita is 25% less than that of Vietnam (which gained independence decades after India did, in far more devastating circumstances), and less than 1/4 of China's. The Indian government's main saving grace is that it remains democratic and has not murdered millions of civilians through induced famines or wars. By that measure at least, it ranks ahead of China, Russia, the US, the UK, and most of Western Europe.

While we can point to many individual policies and politicians which have let India down, it very much feels like the underlying difference between India and the most successful Asian economies is its fundamental heterogeneity. India is divided by religion, which meant its first experience of independence was furious riots as it tore itself apart; by region, with states imposing border taxes on each other in order to raise revenue, and some even campaigning for secession; by caste, which has hindered anti-poverty programs and led to the dominance of special-interest voting blocs; by language, with many states having undermined the teaching of Hindi (and even English) in favour of their native tongues; by education - after independence, it was still primarily a British-educated elite choosing the policies of a largely illiterate nation; by urban vs rural areas - the decrepitude of Indian cities can be traced to their governance, not by city councils, but by state bodies representing primarily rural voters; and by wealth, with upper classes consistently blocking reforms which could harm their economic interests. India still has 22 official languages, the most in the world (the most spoken being, in order, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu). Other Asian countries like South Korea, China and Vietnam of course faced significant divisions upon gaining independence, but also benefited from a deeper cultural and historical unity - China, for example, is still over 90% Han Chinese. Singapore has perhaps been similarly divided along ethnic and religious lines, but on a much smaller scale. Heterogeneity has made democracy in India rather dysfunctional - but perhaps democracy was the only system that could even have survived this colossal tug-of-war.

Internationally, a major feature since independence has been India's enmity with Pakistan, which led to several wars and both of them becoming nuclear powers. India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring a number of terrorist attacks which have taken place on its soil, and cooperating with the Taliban; Pakistan accuses India of mistreating its Muslim population. Neither accusation is baseless: Pakistan semi-officially condones terrorism against India and probably funds it too; meanwhile the BJP, India's current ruling party, are Hindu nationalists who stirred up riots in 2002 that saw hundreds dead, mostly Muslims. Tensions are often high, and this is probably the one region where a nuclear exchange is most likely. Also particularly contentious is the status of Kashmir, a mountainous province at the northern end of the border between them. Relations with Bangladesh, which has remained very poor, are better, although there is some hostility towards the flow of economic migrants westwards into India. Relations with China, originally positive, soured when they fought a border war in 1962. For most of the Cold War, India was a leading member of the Non-Aligned movement, although it was somewhat more sympathetic to the Soviets than the US (especially whenever the US aided Pakistan).

On a more positive note, India has also developed a space program; the world's largest movie industry (Bollywood, based in Mumbai); a number of prestigious universities; and a burgeoning tech sector, based in Bangalore. Brain drain has been significant, with many graduates of the leading Indian Institutes of Technology pursuing jobs overseas, particularly in the US (these emigrants include the current CEOs of both Google and Microsoft!). However, this has led to high levels of remittances from abroad; further, Bangalore is in the process of shifting from low-skill jobs - such as call-centers and IT help - to more high-tech innovation. India has the fourth-largest number of billionaires in the world, a plurality based in Mumbai. Current GDP growth is around 7%, one of the highest in the world. Nilekani argues that India is benefiting from a "demographic dividend" of a generation which had unexpectedly low child mortality and will have greater workforce participation and fewer children of their own, and that if properly harnessed this workforce could drag India out of perpetual underachievement. Let us hope so.


  1. Stein's scholarship is heavily north India centric, and Nilekani is, simply put, not remotely a serious historian. It's a notoriously common tendency among historians to greatly simplify, or skip over almost entirely, as you seem to have, Indian history in general in the second half of the first millennium A.D., and South Indian history in the second millennium up to the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 17th century. Perhaps the most tragic omission in most histories intended for the general readership is the sophisticated and unique hybrid system of agricultural production prevalent in the Chola, Chalukya, and Pallava empires.

    Another commonly ignored, yet crucially important, topic is the influence precolonial maritime trade has had on Indian and Southeast Asian culture and society.

    Unfortunately, it is difficult to find serious research on these topics in mass market histories of the sort from which the contents of this post are derived. If you are truly interested in Indian history, however, and are willing to dig a bit deeper, I would urge you to check out Nilakanta Sastri's 'A History of South India' and 'South India and South-East Asia: Studies in their History and Culture', as well as the tangentially related, but highly informative 'A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development, 100-1500', by Kenneth Hall. Also worthwhile, particularly if you're strapped for time, are the first few papers in the collection 'Southeast Asian History: Essential Readings'. Arabian Sea maritime trade is covered well in the always-excellent George Hourani's book on Arab seafaring in the late first millennium. I've also heard good things about Margariti's 'Aden and the Indian Ocean Trade', though I haven't yet read it.

    I won't begin to go into the various oversimplifications present in your condemnation of the so-called "licence Raj", and the, in my view, deeply misguided notion that the pseudo-command economy of pre-liberalisation India was developed as a sort of perverse postcolonial 'backlash'. I'm familiar with these analyses from Nilekani's books and comments, and don't really find them surprising coming from a man who owes his riches and his company's success to an almost miraculous bailout from Morgan Stanley soon after liberalisation. This topic is much more controversial, however, no doubt due to its relative proximity to the present. I'll simply say that you should consider the significance of the nonaligned movement in Nehru's domestic policymaking, and the sources of capital necessary for the industrialization (which Nehru considered to be of paramount importance) of a decidedly non-industrialized nation in the first two decades following independence.

    1. Sorry, I should also mention Stein's book on South India, and the Cholas in particular -- it's a meticulous study, but highly controversial, so I didn't recommend it. I'm personally not at all sympathetic to his view of the Chola empire as a segmentary state, but this is due to a lot of work his historiography spurred, that of Karashima in particular. I certainly didn't mean to sound dismissive of his work, though I feel his historiography re: South India negatively influenced his 'A History of India'.

    2. Thanks for your comments! I agree that I have by no means done South Indian history justice; unfortunately, given the limited time I can commit to each post, such omissions are inevitable. Perhaps if I have time later I'll add a paragraph or two on the empires you mentioned.

      I'm particularly interested, though, in your stance on economic policy since independence. Perhaps I was too quick to accept Nilekani's analysis, since his economic views are similar to my own, but I've seen a great deal of criticism, and few defenses, of policies of the 50s, 60s and 70s; also, growth since liberalisation in the 90s has been exceptional. By referencing the nonaligned movement, are you implying that the move towards socialism was necessary from an international perspective?

      I'm also a little unsure what point you're making regarding sources of capital, as my understanding was that India placed quite strict limits on foreign investment during its first few decades of independence. (Also, the fact that liberalisation led to Infosys being bailed out and subsequently becoming very successful does seem like a point in its favour.)

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