India - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about India: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



India, officially Republic of India (Hindi Bharat), country in southern Asia, located on the subcontinent of India. It is bounded on the north by China, Nepal, and Bhutan; on the east by Bangladesh, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and the Bay of Bengal; on the south by the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannār (which separates it from Sri Lanka) and the Indian Ocean; and on the west by the Arabian Sea and Pakistan. India is divided into 28 states and 7 union territories (including the National Capital Territory of Delhi). New Delhi is the country’s capital.

The world’s seventh largest country in area, India occupies more than 3 million sq km (1 million sq mi), encompassing a varied landscape rich in natural resources. The Indian Peninsula forms a rough triangle framed on the north by the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, and on the east, south, and west by oceans. Its topography varies from the barren dunes of the Thar Desert to the dense tropical forests of rain-drenched Assam state. Much of India, however, consists of fertile river plains and high plateaus. Several major rivers, including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus, flow through India. Arising in the northern mountains and carrying rich alluvial soil to the plains below, these mighty rivers have supported agriculture-based civilizations for thousands of years.

With more than 1 billion inhabitants, India ranks second only to China among the world’s most populous countries. Its people are culturally diverse, and religion plays an important role in the life of the country. About four-fifths of the people practice Hinduism, a religion that originated in India. Muslims form the next-largest group, and millions of others are Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, or Jains. Eighteen major languages and more than 1,000 minor languages and dialects are spoken in India.

India’s long history stretches back to the Indus Valley civilization of about 2500-1700 BC. For hundreds of years, India was home to massive empires and regional kingdoms. British rule in India began in the AD 1700s. Foreign domination engendered Indian nationalism, which eventually led to India winning its independence in 1947. With independence, part of India became the new, predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan. The two nations subsequently struggled over border differences and Hindu-Muslim relations. India’s federal political system, a democracy for more than 50 years, has demonstrated a remarkable resilience in resolving domestic and international crises. India has grown since independence to have great influence on Asia and a massive world presence. The country is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of political entities that once gave or currently give allegiance to the British monarchy.

The Indian economy has also evolved since independence. Once heavily dependent on agriculture, it has expanded in recent decades into the realms of industry and services. Economic reforms in 1991 dramatically altered economic policy to privatize state-owned enterprises and to promote competition and investment. The economic focus of the country has since changed from one based on self-sufficiency to one based on trade with other countries.


India consists geographically of the entire Indian Peninsula and portions of the Asian mainland. The length of India from north to south is 3,050 km (1,900 mi); from east to west it is 2,950 km (1,830 mi). India also has two island chains, each forming its own union territory. The Andaman and Nicobar island chain lies east of the mainland between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Its southernmost island is only 200 km (120 mi) from the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The Lakshadweep island group is located off India’s southwest coast. Excluding the portions of Jammu and Kashmīr claimed by India but occupied by Pakistan or China, India has an area of 3,165,596 sq km (1,222,243 sq mi). India’s land frontier—the length of its border with other countries—measures more than 15,200 km (9,400 mi). It also has 7,000 km (4,300 mi) of coastline, including the island territories, or 5,600 km (3,500 mi) of coastline without the islands.

Natural Regions in India

India can be divided into three main regions: the Himalayas, the Gangetic Plain, and peninsular India.

The Himalayan mountain system is 160 to 320 km (100 to 200 mi) wide and extends 2,400 km (1,500 mi) along the northern and eastern borders of India. It includes the mountains surrounding the Vale of Kashmīr in the Karakoram Range, and the central and eastern Himalayas. Ancient geological forces molded the Himalayas as the Indian plate of the Earth’s crust burrowed under the Eurasian landmass, creating an uplift that continues to push this northernmost boundary of India ever higher (see Plate Tectonics). The Himalayan Range is the highest mountain system in the world. Among its towering summits, wholly or partly within India or within territory claimed by India and administered by Pakistan, are K2 (8,611 m/28,251 ft) and Kānchenjunga (8,598 m/28,209 ft), which are the second and third highest peaks in the world, after Mount Everest. Other prominent Indian peaks include Nanga Parbat (8,125 m/26,657 ft), Nanda Devi (7,817 m/25,646 ft), Rakaposhi (7,788 m/25,551 ft), and Kāmet peak (7,756 m/25,446 ft). The Himalayas region, including the foothills, is sparsely settled. Agriculture and animal herding are the main economic activities.

South and parallel to the Himalayas lies the Gangetic Plain, a belt of flat, alluvial lowlands 280 to 400 km (175 to 250 mi) wide. This area includes some of the most agriculturally productive land in India. The Indian portion of the broad Gangetic Plain encompasses several river systems, and stretches from Punjab state in the west, through the Gangetic Plain, to the Assam Valley in the east. Marking the western end of the Gangetic Plain are the Indus River and its tributaries, including the Sutlej and Chenāb rivers, which flow through Punjab in India’s northwest corner. The Gangetic Plain is formed by the Ganges River and its tributaries, which drain the southern slopes of the Himalayas. Assam Valley is separated from the Gangetic Plain by a narrow corridor of land near the city of Dārjiling (Darjeeling). The valley is watered by the Brahmaputra River, which rises in Tibet and crosses into India at its northeast corner, then flows north of the Khāsi Hills into Bangladesh. The Thar Desert, a huge, dry, sandy region extending into Pakistan, lies at the southwestern end of the Gangetic Plain.

South of the plains region lies peninsular India. The northern peninsula features a series of mountain ranges and plateaus. The Arāvalli Range runs in a north-south direction on the eastern edge of the Thar Desert, and low hills cut by valleys lie along the border between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in central India. The Narmada River flows southwest between the Vindhya Range and an associated plateau on the north, and the Sātpura Range on the south. The plains of the Chota Nāgpur Plateau in the eastern states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand also lie within this region. The rocky and uneven lands of the northern peninsula are sparsely populated. Herding is a major occupation in the west, and farming of coarse grains such as millet is common in the central part.

In the southern part of peninsular India lies the vast Deccan Plateau, a tableland lying within a triangle formed by the Sātpura Range, the steep mountain slopes of the Western Ghats, and the gentler slopes of the Eastern Ghats. Elevations in the plateau region average 600 m (2,000 ft), although outcroppings as high as 1,200 m (4,000 ft) occur. At their northern end, the Western Ghats vary in height from 900 to 1,200 m (3,000 to 4,000 ft), but the Nīlgiri Hills of the extreme south reach a height of 2,637 m (8,652 ft) at Doda Betta, their highest peak. The Eastern Ghats lie along the eastern flank of the Deccan Plateau, interrupted by the Krishna and Godāvari river basins. Elevations of the Eastern Ghats are much lower, averaging 600 m (2,000 ft). The plateau itself, even rockier than the northern extension of peninsular India, supports a sparse agricultural population and is also home to industrial enterprises.

The Indian Peninsula is bordered by a mostly fertile seashore. The west coast, including the extensive Gujarāt Plain in the north, the thin Konkan shore in Mahārāshtra state, and the Malabar Coast in the south, support substantial populations of farmers and fishermen. Ancient trade routes to the west helped make the cities and towns of this region into market centers for textiles and spices. The east coast’s broad alluvial plains, stretching from the Kāveri River delta in the south to the Mahānadī River delta in the north, are intensely farmed.

Rivers and Lakes in India

The rivers of India can be divided into three groups: the great Himalayan rivers of the north, the westward-flowing rivers of central India, and the eastward-flowing rivers of the Deccan Plateau and the rest of peninsular India. Only small portions of India’s rivers are navigable because of silting and the wide seasonal variation in water flow (due to the monsoon climate). Water transport is thus of little importance in India. Barrages, structures that redirect water flow, have been erected on many of the rivers for irrigation, diverting water into some of the oldest and most extensive canal systems in the world.

The Indian subcontinent’s three great northern rivers, the Indus, the Brahmaputra, and the Ganges, flow through India. The Indus, about 2,900 km (1,800 mi) long, originates in the Himalayas of western Tibet, flows through the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmīr state, then enters Pakistan. The waters of three of its tributaries, the Sutlej, Rāvi, and Chenāb, have been diverted, under the Indus Water Treaty, for use in India. The Brahmaputra is about 2,900 km (1,800 mi) long and likewise rises in the Tibetan Himalayas. It flows through Assam state and then south through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. The 2,510-km (1,560-mi) Ganges, known as Ganga in India, rises in the Indian Himalayas and enters the Gangetic Plain northeast of Delhi. At Allahābād it is joined by its major tributary, the Yamuna. The main branch of the Ganges flows through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal, while a second branch meets the bay in India, near Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Both the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers discharge enormous amounts of water, almost all of it during the monsoon season.

The Narmada, at 1,289 km (801 mi) long, is India’s major west-flowing river; it flows mainly in the state of Madhya Pradesh, emptying into the Arabian Sea in Gujarāt state. Its annual runoff is less than one-tenth that of the Ganges system. Its basin consists of about 5 million cultivable hectares (about 12 million acres). A series of large dams are being constructed on the river as part of a massive development scheme to increase irrigation of the basin. One of the largest dams of the project, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, was designed to divert large amounts of water to an irrigation canal through the state of Gujarāt.

Three major rivers flow east into the Bay of Bengal, rising from the western hills of the Deccan Plateau. The northernmost is the Godāvari, about 1,400 km (900 mi) long. It has a basin (the area drained by a river) one-third the size of the Ganges, and carries one-tenth of the amount of water the Ganges carries. Emptying into the sea not far south of the Godāvari is the Krishna (about 1,300 km/800 mi), with a basin equal to the Godāvari but carrying only two-thirds of the amount of water. The smallest of the three rivers is the Kāveri (760 km/470 mi), with a basin less than one-third the size of the other two rivers.

India has a number of other significant rivers. Tributaries of the Ganges from the north include the Kosi, Gandak, Ghāghara, Gumti, and Sarda rivers. Joining the Ganges from the south are the Betwa, Chambal, and Son rivers. The Mahi, Sābarmatī, and Tāpi flow west into the Arabian Sea in Gujarāt. Flowing west to join the Indus River in Pakistan are the Beās, Chenāb, Jhelum, Rāvi, and Sutlej, all rivers of the Punjab (Hindi for “five rivers”) region of India and Pakistan. The Mahānadī and Brāhmani rivers rise in Chhattisgarh and Orissa states, respectively, and flow east to empty into the Bay of Bengal. The waters of all these rivers are used to irrigate crops, but the amount stored for purposes of irrigation and power generation varies enormously from river to river depending, among other things, on the number of dams on the river.

There are only a few natural lakes in India of any size. Chilika Lake on the coast of Orissa varies seasonally in volume and is alternately fresh and salty. Other lakes, such as Sāmbhar in Rājasthān state and Colair in Orissa state, typically dry out completely before the monsoon begins. Small, artificially created ponds called tanks are a feature of virtually every village, serving as sources of water for drinking, bathing, and irrigation.

Plant and Animal Life in India

India is home to abundant plant and animal life and has a wide range of climates that accommodate a diversity of species throughout the country. Broadly classified, there are seven major regions for plant and animal life in India: the arid Indus Plain, the Gangetic Plain, the Himalayas, Assam Valley, the Malabar Coast, the peninsular plateau, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

In the arid areas that adjoin Pakistan, the eastern part of the Indus Plain, most plant life is sparse and herblike. Various thorny species, including capers (spiny shrubs with pale flowers) and jujubes (fruit-producing trees with veined leaves and yellowish flowers), are common. Bamboo grows in some areas, and among the few varieties of trees is the palm. The Gangetic Plain, which has more moisture, supports many types of plant life. Vegetation is especially luxuriant in the southeastern part of the plains region, where the mangrove and the sal, a hardwood timber tree, flourish.

In the Himalayas many varieties of arctic flora are found on the higher slopes. The lower levels of the mountain range support many types of subtropical plant life, notably the orchid. Dense forests remain in the few areas where agriculture and commercial forestry have had little effect. Coniferous trees, including cedar and pine, predominate in the northwestern Himalayan region. On the Himalayas’ eastern slopes, tropical and subtropical types of vegetation abound. Here rhododendrons grow to tree height. Among the predominant trees are oak and magnolia.

The Assam Valley features evergreen forests, bamboo, and areas of tall grasses. The Malabar Coast, which receives a large amount of rainfall, is thickly wooded. Evergreens, bamboo, and several varieties of valuable timber trees, including teak, predominate in this region. Extensive tracts of impenetrable jungle are found in the swampy lowlands and along the lower elevations of the Western Ghats. The vegetation of the peninsular plateau is less luxuriant, but thickets of bamboo, palm, and deciduous trees grow throughout the Deccan Plateau. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have tropical forests, both evergreen and semievergreen.

India is inhabited by a wide variety of animal life, including almost 5,000 species of larger animals. Several species of the cat family—including the tiger, panther, Asiatic lion, Asiatic cheetah, snow leopard, jungle cat, and clouded leopard—live in some areas of India. Most of these species are under threat of extinction. Elephants roam the lower slopes of the central and eastern Himalayan foothills and the remote forests of the southern Deccan Plateau. Other large quadrupeds (four-footed animals) native to India include rhinoceros (under threat of extinction), black bear, wolf, jackal, dhole (wild Asian dog), wild buffalo, wild hog, antelope, and deer. Several species of monkeys live throughout the country.

Various species of wild goats and sheep, including ibexes and serows, are found in the Himalayas and other mountainous areas. The pygmy hog, bandicoot rat, and tree mouse are typical types of smaller native quadrupeds; bats are also abundant. Venomous reptiles, including the cobra, krait, and saltwater snake, are especially numerous in India, and pythons and crocodiles are also found. Tropical birds of India include the parrot, peacock, kingfisher, and heron. The rivers and coastal waters of India teem with fish, including many edible varieties.

Natural Resources of India

India’s most important natural resources are land and water. About half of the land area is arable, and groundwater resources are considerable. The Gangetic Plain is one of India’s most fertile regions. The soils of this region were formed by the alluvial deposits of the Ganges and its tributaries. In this area, as well as in the peninsular deltas, groundwater is plentiful and close to the surface, making year-round irrigation possible. These regions may produce two or three harvests a year. Most of India’s wheat and rice are grown here.

The black and red soils of the Deccan Plateau, although not as thick as the Gangetic Plain alluvium, are also fertile. The groundwater resources of the Deccan are significant but more difficult to reach, so most farmers rely on the monsoons for water. Farmers typically grow a single crop, including cotton and coarse grains such as sorghum, maize (corn), and millet.

Forests constitute another natural resource for India, with woodlands covering 21 percent of its land area. India’s highly varied climate and land produce diverse forests. The majority are deciduous forests, which are either tropical-dry, experiencing a significant dry season, or tropical-moist, receiving relatively uniform rainfall year-round. The remainder of forests range in type from tropical evergreen to Himalayan temperate and alpine. Major commercial tree species include teak, rosewood, and sal. Bamboo is a widely used construction material. Despite significant overuse of forest resources in the past, government and private efforts have reduced the rate of deforestation in natural forests and increased new plantations of trees.

The mineral resources of India include a vast belt of coal reserves stretching from the eastern part of Mahārāshtra state through Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand states to West Bengal state. The same geographical area, with the addition of Orissa state, contains major deposits of bauxite. Iron ore is also found here, as well as in the Western Ghats in and around Goa. Other mineral deposits include manganese (found mainly in central India), copper, and chromite. There are significant oil and natural gas reserves in Assam and Gujarāt states, and on the continental shelf off Mahārāshtra and Gujarāt. India also has ample reserves of phosphate rock, apatite, gypsum, limestone, and mica.

Climate in India

India’s shape, unusual topography, and geographical position give it a diverse climate. Most of India has a tropical or subtropical climate, with little variation in temperature between seasons. The northern plains, however, have a greater temperature range, with cooler winters and hotter summers. The mountain areas have cold winters and cool summers. As elevations increase sharply in the mountains, climate type can change from subtropical to polar within a few miles.

India’s seasonal cycle includes three main phases: the cool, dry winter from October to March; the hot, dry summer from April to June; and the southwest monsoon season of warm, torrential rains from mid-June to September. India’s winter season brings cold temperatures to the mountain slopes and northern plains; temperatures in the Thar Desert reach freezing at night. Farther south, temperatures are mild. Average daily temperatures in January range from 13° to 27°C (55° to 81°F) in the northeastern city of Kolkata; from 8° to 21°C (46° to 70°F) in the north central city of New Delhi; from 19° to 30°C (67° to 85°F) in the west central coast city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay); and from 19° to 29°C (67° to 85°F) in the vicinity of Chennai (formerly Madras) on the southeastern coast. Dry weather generally accompanies the cool winter season, although severe storms sometimes traverse the country, yielding slight precipitation on the northern plains and heavy snowfall in the Himalayas.

India’s hot and dry season reaches its peak during May, when temperatures as high as 49°C (120°F) are commonly recorded in the northern plains. Temperatures in the southern peninsula are somewhat lower, averaging 35° to 40°C (95° to 104°F). At higher altitudes, as in the Western Ghats and the Himalayas, temperatures are considerably cooler.

The intense heat breaks when the summer monsoon season arrives in June. For most of the year the monsoons, or seasonal winds, blow from the northeast. In the summer months, however, they begin to blow from the southwest, absorbing moisture as they cross the Indian Ocean. This warm, moist air creates heavy rains as it rises over the Indian Peninsula and is finally forced up the slopes of the Himalayas. The rains start in early June on a strip of coast lying between the Arabian Sea and the foot of the Western Ghats. A second “arm” of the monsoon starts from the Bay of Bengal in the northeast and gradually extends up the Gangetic Plain, where it meets the Arabian Sea “arm” in the Delhi region around July 1. In July the average daily temperature range is 26° to 32°C (79° to 89°F) in Kolkata; 27° to 35°C (80° to 94°F) in New Delhi; 25° to 30°C (78° to 86°F) in Mumbai; and 26° to 36°C (79° to 96°F) in Chennai.

The monsoon season is critical to India. Farming depends heavily on the monsoon, even though artificial sources of irrigation are also commonly used. The economy prospers when the monsoon season is normal and plummets when it is not. In the past a failure of the monsoon has brought abnormally low rains in crucial food-growing regions, leading to famine. A failed monsoon season in the dryland areas of the Deccan Plateau can mean poor or nonexistent harvests for that year’s crop. In the Gangetic Plain, the groundwater needed for irrigating the winter crop depends on the monsoon for replenishing. However, an excessive monsoon may also spell disaster, especially in the Gangetic Plain of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihār, where rivers can flood and wash away homes and fields.

The average annual rainfall for India as a whole is 1,250 mm (49 in). The heaviest rainfall occurs along the Western Ghats, often more than 3,175 mm (125 in), and on the slopes of the eastern Himalayas and the Khāsi Hills (of Meghalaya), where the town of Cherrapunji receives 10,900 mm (430 in) annually. The entire northeast region averages more than 2,000 mm (80 in) annually, with Jharkhand, Orissa, and the Bengal region receiving nearly as much. Rain and snow fall in abundance on the entire Himalayan range. New Delhi receives an annual average of 800 to 1,000 mm (32 to 40 in) of rain, and the broad swath of land extending to the south, much of it in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats, receives about the same or a little more.

Environmental Issues in India

India’s main environmental concern is its growing population, which is expected to increase to 1.8 billion by the year 2050. In order to feed such a large population, more groundwater will be needed to irrigate crops, increasing the risk of poor soil quality due to salinization (increased salt levels). More artificial fertilizer will likely be applied to crop fields, posing threats to drinking water. The demand for meat has increased with greater levels of prosperity, resulting in overgrazing and increasing wasteland. The demand for fuelwood has grown with rural populations, leading to the loss of trees and forests. To decrease reliance on fuelwood, the government has promoted the use of biogas (a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide produced by decomposing organic matter) for cooking fuel.

Expanding agrarian population has also affected wildlife. Farmers and herders have encroached on national park and other wildlife sanctuary land, and the spread of cultivation has limited the range of animals such as tigers and elephants outside of parks as well. Poaching is also a problem. Thousands of India’s plant species are critically endangered, mainly because of the population-related pressures of deforestation and agriculture. Most of India’s wetlands are under rice-paddy cultivation. To help combat these problems, the Indian government has enacted strong laws for forest conservation, wetland preservation, and wildlife protection. The Ministry of Environment and Forests was established in 1985.

India has a severe air pollution problem generated by industrial effluents and vehicle emissions. Water-treatment facilities have not kept pace with the increase in urban populations, and pollution of rivers and groundwater is a significant and worsening problem. Another major problem is toxic waste, generated by industry and deposited in rivers and oceans and on low-lying land within factory boundaries. The large number of small industrial workshops makes it difficult to enforce laws against industrial waste pollution.

A National Wildlife Action Plan provides a framework for species protection and directs the establishment of a protected areas network covering all the major habitat types. India has a national goal of covering one-third of its land area with existing or planted forests. India has had tremendous success with species conservation. World-renowned programs include Project Tiger, which has established special tiger reserves, and the Crocodile Breeding and Management Project. Many nongovernmental organizations aid India’s conservation efforts.


India’s people inherited a civilization that began more than 4,500 years ago, one that has proven capable of absorbing and transforming the peoples and cultures that over the centuries have come to the subcontinent. India has long supported a large population of great diversity. The people in India’s intricate network of communities speak literally thousands of languages, practice all of the world’s great religions, and participate in a complex social structure that incorporates the caste system, a rigid system of social hierarchy.

India is one of the world’s most populous countries. In 2009 it had a population of 1,166,079,217, yielding an average population density of 392 persons per sq km (1,016 per sq mi). An estimated 71 percent of India’s inhabitants live in rural areas. The population grew by 17.2 percent between 1995 and 2005, down from 24 percent growth between 1981 and 1991. It is estimated that the rate of growth will slow even further in the coming decades, but India’s population nevertheless is expected to continue to increase. The annual growth rate in 2009 was 1.5 percent.

Principal Cities of India

Dozens of Indian cities have metropolitan area populations of more than 1 million. The largest are Mumbai (2001 metropolitan area population, 16.4 million), India’s premier port; Kolkata (13.2 million), eastern India’s chief commercial, financial, and manufacturing center; and Delhi (12.8 million), a historical city as well as a major transportation, commercial, and industrial center. Other important cities are Chennai, one of India’s principal ports; Bangalore, a center of high-technology industry; Hyderābād, Nāgpur, Lucknow, and Jaipur, all centers of government and service industries; and Kānpur, Ahmadābād, Pune, and Surat, which are known for their industrial economies.

Ethnic and Cultural Groups in India

India’s population is rich with diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Ethnic groups are those based on a sense of common ancestry, while cultural groups can be either made up of people of different ethnic origins who share a common language, or of ethnic groups with some customs and beliefs in common, such as castes of a particular locality. The diverse ethnic and cultural origins of the people of India are shared by the other peoples of the Indian subcontinent, including the inhabitants of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka.

The government identifies some groups of people in India as tribal, meaning they belong to one of the more than 300 officially designated “scheduled tribes.” The tribal people are sometimes called hill tribes or adivasis (“original inhabitants”) and in 2001 made up about 8 percent (more than 84 million people) of India’s population. For the purpose of affirmative action, the Indian government publishes “schedules” (lists) of the tribes, as well as of some other disadvantaged groups, such as the former Untouchables (see the Castes section of this article). Members of India’s various hill tribes are thought to be indigenous and tend to be ethnically distinct. These groups typically marry within their community and often live in large, adjoining areas, which are preserved by government policies restricting the sale of land to tribe members.

Major tribes include the Gond and the Bhil. Each has millions of members and encompasses a number of subtribes. Most other tribes are much smaller, with tens of thousands of members. Very few tribal communities now support themselves with traditional methods of hunting and gathering or with shifting cultivation (also known as slash-and-burn agriculture) because of government restrictions aimed at protecting the environment. Instead, they generally practice settled agriculture. Tribal groups tend to live in rural areas, mainly in hilly and less fertile regions of the country. Less than 5 percent practice traditional tribal religious beliefs and customs exclusively; most now combine traditional religions and customs with Hinduism or Christianity. A large majority identify themselves as Hindus; a small percentage, mainly in the northeast, identify themselves as Christians.

Most tribal groups live in a belt of communities that stretches across central India, from the eastern part of Gujarāt (the westernmost state); eastward along the Madhya Pradesh-Mahārāshtra border; through Chhattisgarh, parts of northern Andhra Pradesh, most of interior Orissa, and Jharkhand; and to the western part of West Bengal. The western tribes speak a dialect of Hindi, the central tribes use a form of the Dravidian language, and the eastern tribes speak Austro-Asiatic languages.

The other major concentration of tribal people is in the northeastern hills. Tribe members make up the majority of the population in the states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Arunāchal Pradesh. These people, many of them Christian, speak languages of the Sino-Tibetan family. Sino-Tibetan languages are also spoken by the Buddhists who live along the Himalayan ridge, including the states of Arunāchal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmīr (specifically, the region of Ladakh). In the Himalayas particularly, isolation on the mountain flanks has led to languages so distinct that ethnic groups living within sight of each other may not understand each other. Other tribes live in southern India and on India’s island territories, but their numbers are not large.

Religion in India

Religion is very important in India, with deep historical roots; Hinduism and Buddhism both originated here. Most people in India practice Hinduism with Islam a distant second. Other important religions include Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

About 80 percent of Indians are Hindus. Significant differences exist within this Hindu majority, arising not only out of divisions of caste, but also out of differing religious beliefs. One great divide is between devotees of the god Vishnu and devotees of the god Shiva. There are also Hindus who are members of reform movements that began in the 19th century. The most significant of these is perhaps the Arya Samaj, which rejects divisions of caste and idol worship. Hindus may come together also as devotees of a guru. Despite its differences, the Hindu community shares many things in common. All Hindus who go to Brahman priests for the rituals connected with birth, marriage, and death will hear the same Sanskrit verses that have been memorized and repeated for hundreds of generations. Hindus also come from all parts of the country to visit pilgrimage sites. Four of the most sacred are at the four corners of India: Badrinath in the Himalayas; Rāmeswaram in Tamil Nādu state; Dwarka on the Gujarāt coast; and Puri in Orissa. Vārānasi is also a significant holy city for Hindus.

About 13 percent of the Indian population practices Islam, which also is divided into several different communities. The major division in the Muslim population is between Sunni and Shia branches. The Shia community has a significant presence in several areas, most notably in the cities of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and Hyderābād in Andhra Pradesh.

Muslim communities in India are generally more urban than rural. In many towns and cities in northern India, Muslims are one-third or more of the population. In addition to Jammu and Kashmīr and the Lakshadweep islands, where more than two-thirds of the population is Muslim, major concentrations of Muslims live in Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala states. About one-quarter of all Muslims living in India live in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

India’s other major religious groups include Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Smaller religious groups include Jains, Baha’is, and Parsis. Christians live primarily in urban areas throughout India, with major concentrations in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nādu, and Goa. Christians are a majority in three small states in the northeast: Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya. Most Sikhs live in Punjab, generally in rural areas.

Buddhists live in small numbers in the Himalayas from Ladakh to Arunāchal Pradesh; many converts also live in Mahārāshtra. The Jains live mainly in the belt of western states, from Rājasthān through Gujarāt and Mahārāshtra to Karnātaka. This region has many magnificent Jain temples, supported substantially by prosperous Jain traders. Parsis live mainly in Mumbai and in cities in Gujarāt, and Jews have small communities in Mumbai, Kolkata, and Cochin.

Local communities of all these religions maintain institutions such as places of worship, schools, clubs, and charitable trusts that bring them together. Larger associations of religious groups also exist, including political parties. Such groups sometimes lobby the government in regard to legislation touching religious or social issues, such as the inheritance rights of women.

Castes in India

The caste system is pervasive in India. Although it is entwined in Hindu beliefs, it encompasses non-Hindus as well. A caste (jati in Sanskrit) is a social class to which a person belongs at birth and which is ranked against other castes, typically on a continuum of perceived purity and pollution. People generally marry within their own caste. In rural areas, caste may also govern where people live or what occupations they engage in. The particular features of the caste system vary considerably from community to community and across regions. Small geographical areas have their own group-specific caste hierarchies. There are thus thousands of castes in India. In traditional Hindu law texts, all castes are loosely grouped into four varnas, or classes. In order of hierarchy, these varnas are the Brahmans (priests and scholars), the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), the Vaisyas (merchants, farmers, and traders), and the Sudras (laborers, including artisans, servants, and serfs). The varnas no longer strictly correspond to traditional professions. For example, most Brahmans belong to professions other than religion or scholarship.

Ranked below the lowest caste were the people of no caste, the Untouchables or Harijans (“People of God,” a term first used by Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi). Untouchables traditionally performed tasks considered “polluting,” such as slaughtering animals or leatherworking. Physical contact with these people was viewed as defiling. The practice of labeling people Untouchable was outlawed by India’s constitution, although Harijans continue to face discrimination in getting work and housing. Today many former Untouchables prefer to be called dalits (Hindi for “oppressed ones”).

Since independence the importance of caste has declined somewhat in India. Modern travel has brought people of every caste in contact with one another, since it is impossible to avoid physical contact with a former Untouchable in a crowded bus or train. Although caste is intimately linked with the giving and taking of food, no one can be certain of the caste of a person who cooks food in the restaurants and food stalls of towns and cities. There are no particular castes linked to the modern professions of bank clerk, postal worker, teacher, and lawyer. Many people have also been influenced by the nationalist movement’s ideological commitment to the equality of men and women, and lower castes have increasingly used the power of their numbers and their right to vote to gain social status in their local community. Yet castes have shown no sign of disappearing altogether, mainly because of the system of marriage. Almost all Hindu marriages in India are arranged, and almost all arranged marriages occur between people of the same caste. Only a handful of young people make “love marriages” across caste lines, and many suffer socially when they do so.

Muslims are often treated as just another caste, particularly in India’s villages. There are castelike categories among the Muslims as well. These are called brotherhoods in northern India, and they identify Muslims with their traditional occupations, such as butchers or leatherworkers. As with Hindus, Muslims marry within their brotherhood. Among Christians as well, in the 19th century and to a much less significant extent more recently, converts and their descendants continued to be identified by their Hindu caste of origin.

Languages spoken in India

There are two great Indian language families: the Indo-Iranian (or Indo-Aryan) branch of the Indo-European language family, most of which are spoken in the north, and the Dravidian languages, most of which are spoken in the south. The other major language groups are the Sino-Tibetan languages along the Himalayan ridge, with many languages spoken by few people, and the Austro-Asiatic languages of some tribal peoples. All these language families stretch far back in history and have influenced one another over centuries.

Indo-European languages stem originally from Sanskrit. Present-day languages in this family formed in the 14th and 15th centuries. These include Hindi and Urdu, which are similar as spoken languages. Hindi, spoken mainly by Hindus, is written in script called Devanagari and draws on Sanskrit vocabulary. Urdu is spoken mostly by Muslims and uses Persian Arabic script. Tamil is the oldest of the four main Dravidian languages, with a literary history that begins in the 1st century AD.

According to the national census of India, 114 languages and 216 dialects are spoken in the country. Eighteen Indian languages, plus English, have been given official status by the federal or state governments. Hindi is the main language of more than 40 percent of the population. No single language other than Hindi can claim speakers among even 10 percent of the total population. Hindi was therefore made India’s official language in 1965. English, which was associated with British rule, was retained as an option for official use because some non-Hindi speakers, particularly in Tamil Nādu, opposed the official use of Hindi. English is spoken by as many as 5 percent of Indians, and various Dravidian languages are spoken by about 25 percent. Many Indians speak more than one language, especially those who live in cities or near state borders, which were redrawn in 1956 in part to conform to linguistic boundaries. Because the languages of both northern and southern families are internally related, much like the Romance and Germanic languages of Europe, learning a second language is not difficult.

The many local languages and dialects in India are politically and socially significant. A politician, for example, may use the local dialect when campaigning in a village, switch to the official state language when speaking in a town, and then use Hindi or English to address parliament. The language one speaks can also limit one’s opportunities. People who use a local dialect are often identified as rustics or lower class, and they suffer discrimination. The spread of primary education, cinema, radio, and television has raised the prominence of the state languages. India’s growing participation in the global community is likely to preserve English as the preferred language of elite education.

Education in India

India’s official goal for education since independence in 1947 has been to ensure free and compulsory education for all children up to age 14. A lack of money and effort put into primary education, however, has hampered the achievement of that goal. At independence 25 percent of males and 8 percent of females were literate. By 2005 those figures had been raised to 69 percent of males and 43 percent of females—57 percent of the overall population. The government invests comparatively more in secondary schools and institutions of higher education. There was no serious political demand for primary education until the 1990s, when a grassroots movement arose to organize volunteers and conduct campaigns for universal adult literacy.

Education for the elite has been a tradition in India since the beginnings of its civilization. Great Buddhist universities at Nalanda and Taxila were famous far beyond India’s borders. Withholding education from the nonelite, including women, has also been a tradition. The lowest caste members, including the Harijans and non-Hindu tribal groups, were denied the right even to hear the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts, recited.

State governments control their own school systems, with some assistance from the central government. The federal Ministry of Education directs the school systems of centrally administered areas, provides financial help for the nation’s institutions of higher learning, and handles tasks such as commissioning textbooks. The Indian education system is based on 12 years of schooling, which generally begins at age 6 and includes 5 years of primary school, 3 years of middle school, 2 years of secondary school, and 2 years of higher secondary school. Completion of higher secondary education is required for entry to institutions of higher education, which include universities and institutes of technology. While most students enroll in government schools, the number of private institutions is increasing at all educational levels. Indians have a right to establish institutions to provide education in their native language and with a religious or cultural emphasis, although the schools must conform to state regulation of teaching standards. Students begin specializing in subjects at the level of higher secondary school. A university typically has one or more colleges of law, medicine, engineering, and commerce, and many have colleges of agriculture. Prestigious and highly selective institutes of management have been established. The educational establishment also includes a number of high-level scientific and social science institutes, as well as academies devoted to the arts.

The universities of Kolkata, Madras, and Mumbai, founded in 1857, are the oldest still operating in India, although colleges existed in those cities before that date. Other major universities in India include Banaras Hindu University (1935), in Vārānasi; Alīgarh Muslim University (1875), Jawaharlal Nehru University (1969), and Indira Gandhi Open University (1985) in New Delhi; Bangalore University (1964); the University of Calicut (1968); Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj University, Kānpur (1966); the University of Delhi (1922); Gauhati University (1948); Gujarāt University (1949); Kameshwara Singh Darbhanga Sanskrit University (1961); the University of Kerala (1937), in Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandrum); the University of Mysore (1916); the University of Pune (1949); and the University of Rājasthān (1947), in Jaipur.

Way of Life in India

The life of Indians is centered in the family. Extended families often live together, with two or more adult generations, or brothers, sharing a house. In much of the countryside, neighboring houses share a wall, so from the street one sees a continuous wall pierced by doorways. In other areas, in the south for example, the main house will have a veranda on the street, with an open courtyard behind. As farmers prosper, they change from adobe construction to brick plastered with cement, and from a tile or thatch roof to a flat concrete or corrugated metal one. Most home activity is outside in the compound courtyard or on the verandas of the house.

Only in a few parts of India, such as Kerala and Bengal, do people live on their farmland. The village is thus a settlement area, or a set of settlement areas, surrounded by unbroken fields, with farms frequently made up of separated plots. A large village will have a primary school, perhaps a temple or mosque, and a small shop or two. Some artisans have workshops in their houses. Most villages and settlement areas are fairly small, with about 100 to 200 families and a land area of about 250 hectares (about 620 acres) in regions where the land is irrigated, or three or four times that in dry areas. Paved roads and electricity have been extended to the majority of villages, making them less isolated. Many villagers now work for part of the day or part of the year in nearby towns or cities, while continuing to farm or to work as day laborers in agriculture or construction.

Men work mainly in the fields, although where rice is grown, women transplant the seedlings. The entire family will pitch in at harvest time because most agricultural work is still done by hand. Women fetch water, prepare meals, clean, and care for milking animals that are stabled in or near the house compound. Among Hindus particularly, most worship is done in the home, where a room or an alcove is devoted to images of a god or gods. Young girls are expected to help with the women’s work, and girls care for their younger siblings. Boys have fewer responsibilities, although they often herd goats and bring cattle to and from the fields.

In most cases a woman who marries moves to her husband’s village from her home village. Visits to her birth family, who may live a day’s journey or more away, are generally rare, especially as the woman grows older. Senior men (and their wives) exercise power in the family. Disputes within the family, which can be common, may result in partitioning of land or even of the house compound.

In the cities families still remain the center of social life. Different families (of the same or similar caste) may occupy different floors of the same house. Newer housing is in the form of apartment blocks for the poor and lower middle class, and separate two- and three-story houses on very small plots for the rich and upper middle class. Most women in cities work in the home, although some may supplement the family income through craft work such as embroidery. Poor women may work as house servants, laborers on construction sites, or street vendors. Increasingly among the educated, however, women have their own jobs as teachers, clerks or secretaries, or professionals.

Meals in village India consist mainly of the staple grain—rice, or wheat in the form of unleavened bread baked on a griddle—with stir-fried vegetables, cooked lentils, and yogurt. Each part of the country has its own cuisine, with differences in the kinds and mix of spices, in the cooking oil used (mustard oil in the north, coconut oil in the south), and in favored vegetables or meats. In seasons of scarcity, such as the months before the harvest, the poor may be reduced to having just a chili pepper or salt to flavor their rice or bread. Vegetables are those in season, and cooked food is generally not stored. Food at weddings or other celebrations can be very elaborate.

In urban areas meals are still organized around a staple grain, but the variety and amount of vegetables and meat are greater. Food is bought and consumed on the same day, and even those families with refrigerators typically use them only to keep water, soft drinks, or milk cool. Social visiting in cities is also mainly with relatives or among students with their classmates. The upper classes will entertain friends or business acquaintances at home, but men of other classes will more often meet at restaurants or tea stalls to socialize.

The basic traditional clothing for most Indians, men and women, is a simple draped cloth. For women this is the sari, which is wrapped as an ankle-length skirt and draped over one shoulder, with a fitted shirt underneath. Styles of tying the sari vary among regions and communities. Except for widows, who wear plain white, saris are generally colorful and can be made of cotton or the finest embroidered silks. Village men and men in some urban areas such as Kerala wear a cloth called a dhoti in its full-length form. In north India it is typically tied with one or both ends brought between the legs and tucked in, to form loose “pant” legs. In the south, the full cloth or a half-sized one is wrapped as a cylinder, an ankle-length skirt that can be pulled up and tucked in itself to form a short skirt when work requiring movement is done. Muslims tend to wear the half-cloth in colored cottons rather than the white with thin colored border favored by Hindus.

In Punjab, women, especially Sikh women, wear a baggy pants-and-shirt outfit known as the salwar-kameez. In Rājasthān and elsewhere long skirts and bodices are worn. This is also a common dress among young girls throughout the country. Men in northern India may also wear a pants-and-shirt outfit called the pajama-kurta. The pajama, which originated in India, is made of white cloth and can be loose or form-fitting. The tight-fitting style is often worn with a long closed-collar coat (the sherwani) made famous in the West when India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wore it. Also called the Nehru jacket, it is the most formal dress for men. Turbans are worn by a broad range of men, especially Sikhs and Hindus. Muslims can often be identified by their embroidered caps.

Western-style clothing has virtually replaced traditional dress for men, especially in northern India. Most women continue to wear the sari or other Indian dress. In major urban areas such as Mumbai, Western-style clothing is increasingly popular among the emerging middle class. Many Indians are familiar with images of Western popular culture, including styles of dress, from television, the Internet, magazines, and other mass media. The younger urban generation tends to emulate Western styles. Fashionable Indian clothing often incorporates some elements of Western wear with traditional textiles and forms.

Cricket and soccer have been popular sports in India since the colonial period. India’s national cricket team competes at the highest international level. Soccer is popular in eastern India. In central India men play a traditional Indian team sport, kabaddi, that requires quickness and strength. The oldest sport, one that goes back to the time of the Hindu epics, is freestyle wrestling. Wrestling clubs, presided over by a guru, feature a regimen of Hindu religious ritual and practice.

There are a number of traditional games played mainly by men. These include chess, which originated in India, and pachisi, which literally means “twenty-five,” after the number of spaces moved in one throw of the dice in the original Indian game. Card games also are common as is gambling.

Indians with leisure time and money, such as the middle class, go to the cinema, or increasingly watch television. During school holidays families may visit relatives or go briefly to hill resorts where it is cooler. In rural areas, slack times in the agricultural cycle allow families to go on pilgrimage or attend weddings, which include much feasting. India has many religious festivals, which provide occasions for even more feasting and conversation, perhaps accompanied by music or a dance or folk theater performance.

Social Issues in India

Social problems in India center on the connected issues of poverty and inequality. Particularly in rural areas lower castes and marginal social groups, such as tribal people and Muslims, are generally poor. India’s poor face disease, scarce educational opportunities, and often physical abuse by those who control their livelihood. It is difficult or impossible for the poor to escape and enter the modernizing sector of society, where discrimination on the basis of caste or community is less prevalent. In all classes and in urban as well as rural areas, discrimination and at times violence against women is almost taken for granted.

Poverty has been reduced in India since independence, although in 2000, 28.60 percent of the population still lived below the poverty line. Industrialization has created jobs in the cities, and rural workers have been able to diversify their sources of income. Urban workers at entry level, however, are usually forced to live in appalling conditions in slums.

Modern water supply and sanitation arrangements are rare in the poor areas of most towns and cities and are lacking entirely in most villages. As a result, many Indians suffer and even die from diarrhea, malaria, typhoid, and dengue fever. India has succeeded in eradicating smallpox and has brought down the overall death rate, in significant part by investing in a health-care system that includes hospitals, clinics, and drug manufacture and distribution. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) emerged as a serious problem in the 1990s. To combat the disease, the Indian government, with help from volunteer groups, established a vigorous AIDS-awareness program.

Part of the problem of disease and poverty in villages is that poor people cannot afford the money and time it takes to provide treatment for their children, many of whom are already weakened by an inadequate diet. Girls of all classes are given less medical care than their brothers and so die in greater numbers. Many parents prefer sons, who remain with them and provide security for them in old age. Because daughters often require a dowry at marriage and are unlikely to earn an income that could raise a family’s economic position, they are seen as a liability. The spread of family planning facilities and the increase in confidence that children would survive to adulthood has helped reduce the preferred family size to just three children: two sons and a daughter. Second- and third-born daughters, especially in families without sons, continue to die at rates greater than average.

Discrimination against women does not end with childhood, nor is it confined to the countryside. Although India has had a woman as prime minister, the percentage of women serving in political or administrative office still remains very low. Some women are major leaders of grassroots movements, and women play an active role in India’s vigorous press. Yet women are rare in senior business positions and in the legal and medical professions. Women’s movements to combat violence against women have had considerable success in raising awareness of the issue and stimulating government action.

Discrimination against lower caste members, including the Harijans or former Untouchables, is still a problem in India. As a result violence between castes sometimes breaks out. Since independence, many lower caste groups have mobilized politically and have achieved positions of power or leverage in several states. More than 50 percent of the positions in the national civil service are reserved for members of lower castes. Efforts to organize the landless and the homeless, however, have not enjoyed the same success. In rural areas, men of lower caste traditionally serve those of higher caste. This situation has aggravated caste conflict and has helped to keep the poor politically and socially weak.

Relations between Hindus and Muslims have also been problematic. After the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, Muslims of the northern provinces who stayed in India—where they were a minority—became vulnerable. Riots between Hindus and Muslims have occurred on occasion since the mid-1960s. Muslims in rural areas remain largely untouched by the conflict. Riots tend not to occur in areas where there are structures of mutual social or economic advantage—for example, in towns with a large industry owned by Hindus and employing Muslims. Also, at the personal level, there are many examples of friendships and mutual respect. Muslim leaders have served as presidents of India, and Muslims have held positions of great prominence in all fields, including the military.


The arts in India date back thousands of years. India’s earliest known civilization, the Indus Valley civilization (about 2500-1700 BC) produced fine sculpted figures and seals. The basis for Indian music may well be traced to the chanting of the Vedas, the Hindu sacred texts composed between about 1500 and 1000 BC. Architecture from the time of the Buddha (563?-483? BC) includes stone structures called stupas that resemble earlier wooden ones. Much of Indian literature has its roots in the great Sanskrit epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, which date from 400 BC. Secular literature in the form of story and drama has been important since the classical age of the 4th century AD. Royal patronage of these art forms continued throughout history, and the government of independent India also supports the arts with national academies for music, art, drama, literature, and other programs. There are yearly prizes for work in all the Indian languages, and in the several musical, dramatic, and art traditions. The government’s national radio network is a major employer of musicians.

As India has incorporated different peoples, so, too, has its culture absorbed outside influences. Sculpture derived from the Greeks developed a uniquely Indian style over time (the Gandhara school). Musical instruments brought by the Muslims in the 15th century were incorporated into existing musical methods in Hindu devotional poetry and song. Similar patterns are found in painting and architecture in the period of Mughal rule and patronage. British rule had no influence on classical music, but popular music was changed, particularly in the 20th century. Prose literature, and to a lesser extent poetry, was transformed by the model of the English novel, short story, and romantic poem. The British adapted Indian domestic architecture (the bungalow) and blended Mughal, Hindu, and European forms into a distinctive monumental architecture, visible most significantly in New Delhi.

Folk culture varies among regional and ethnic groups. Street magic shows and episodes from religious texts are dramatically staged in urban and rural areas. India is known for artistry in jewelry, textiles, paintings on the walls of mud houses, and images cast in metal through the lost-wax method (a process using wax to form a mold). Music and dance are performed in temples, at festivals, and at ceremonial functions at home.

Literature in India

Indian literature has a long, rich history. Major literary influences flow from northern Sanskrit and southern Tamil origins. India’s classic literature is written in Sanskrit (see Sanskrit Literature). These literary works—mainly religious poems, epics, and prose—date to the Vedic period (about 1500 BC to 200 BC). Sanskrit literature entered a secular period beginning about 200 BC until about AD 1100. One great development for Indian literature during this period was drama. Most early dramas were based on historical epic tales. In south India, during a period lasting from the 1st to 5th centuries AD, literary works were composed in the Tamil language. These works were generally secular in nature and based on themes of love and war. By the 6th and 7th centuries the bhakti (devotional) tradition began in Tamil Nādu in southern India. This literary tradition greatly influenced Indian literature, moving north from its origin over the next five centuries.

Modern literature in north Indian languages, as they developed from Prakrits (medieval dialects of Sanskrit), dates from around AD 1200. Themes and characters of Indian literature from this period are based on Hindu religious texts, although the texts contain secular content. The work of recent centuries has brought in more secular subjects, influenced first by Persian and Urdu literature and then British literature, especially of the 19th century. In 1913 poet Rabindrinath Tagore became the first Indian to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Some present-day Indian authors write in English. Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born writer who now lives in Britain, is one of the more famous of a number of fine poets and novelists. See Indian Literature.

Art and Architecture of India

Over many centuries, Indian architecture, sculpture, and painting developed many distinct styles based on religious, cultural, and regional influences. Some of the earliest examples of all three come out of Buddhism. For instance, Buddhist traditions gave rise to stupas, or burial mounds of earth and stone, constructed in the 3rd century BC. Images of the Buddha were carved in the 2nd century AD, and stories of the Buddha are depicted in paintings on temple walls carved in stone cliffs at Ajanta between the 2nd century BC and the 7th century AD.

After the 5th century AD Buddhism’s influence on art declined as that of Hinduism and Jainism rose. Hindu and Jain temples developed in many styles, most characterized by ornate carvings, pyramidal roofs and spires, and numerous sculptures of divinities housed within. Sculpture frequently portrayed Hindu and Jain gods in relief on temple walls, and became increasingly elaborate, linear, and decorative through the 13th century.

Muslim invaders from Central Asia and Persia brought new artistic styles and techniques, among them the dome, mosaic, and minaret. Many domed tombs and mosques from the 12th century and later have been preserved, as have some magnificent fortresses. Because Islam forbids carved images, sculpture took the form of gloriously elaborate geometric and floral designs adorning the temples. One of the most famous examples of Islamic architecture in India is the Taj Mahal in Āgra (started in 1632 and completed in 1648).

It is believed that most early painting has not survived because the materials, such as wood and cloth, that were used as surfaces were fragile. The paintings that did survive are of two types: wall paintings and miniature paintings. In addition to those found in about 30 caves at Ajanta, wall paintings dating from the 2nd to the 7th century AD have been found in cave temples in Tamil Nādu and Orissa. Most of these frescoes depict stories from the life of Buddha. The first surviving examples of miniature paintings are palm leaf manuscripts from the 11th century illustrating the life of Buddha. Secular-themed miniatures developed in the courts of Muslim sultans who controlled northern India after the 13th century. These illustrated manuscripts reached their height in the 16th through 18th centuries. They were heavily influenced by Persian art and often showed historical scenes and portraits.

Beginning in the 19th century, European influence affected all of the arts. Twentieth-century artists of significance include Amrita Sher Gill and M. F. Hussain. The best-known architect, who works in the international modern style, is Charles Correa. See Indian Art and Architecture.

Music and Dance in India

The basic structure of music and dance in India has been fundamentally indigenous, laid out in a 2nd century AD Sanskrit treatise on drama and music, the Natya Shastra. There are two classical traditions of music: the North Indian Hindustani style and the South Indian Carnatic (Karnatak) style. Although both styles of music were influenced by bhakti (devotional) traditions, the Hindustani style was also influenced in its instruments, styles, and schools of performance by Muslims invading from the north. Modern classical musicians of note include M. S. Subbalakshmi, a vocalist; Palghat Mani Iyer, a drum performer; Ravi Shankar, a sitar (stringed instrument) performer; Ali Akbar Khan, a sarod (plucked string instrument) performer; Bismillah Khan, a shehnai (reed instrument) performer; Amir Khan, who performs khyal (a north Indian vocal style); and the Dagar brothers, who perform dhrupad (another north Indian vocal style).

Dance is a highly developed art form in India and is important as a pastime, in worship, and as part of Sanskrit dramas. The major classical dance forms are bharata natyam, kathak, manipuri, and kathakali. Bharata natyam, which is based on the Natya Shastra, is probably the most significant of these forms. It incorporates many of the precise movements, hand gestures, and facial expressions for which Indian dance is famous. Each movement and gesture the dancer performs has its own meaning. The kathak dance style originated in north India and emphasizes rhythmic footwork (under the weight of more than 100 ankle bells) and spectacular spins. The manipuri dance form, which is named for Manipur, where it originated, is known for its graceful turning and swaying. The kathakali form is a dance drama, characterized by mime and facial makeup resembling masks.

Well-known dancers of the postindependence era include Balasaraswati, who performed the bharata natyam form of dance, and Pandit Birju Maharaj, who performed the kathak form. In India, European style has influenced only popular music and dance, not classical. See Indian Music; Indian Dance.

Theater and Film in India

India has had a distinguished theatrical tradition for more than a thousand years. The Gupta Dynasty (AD 320-550?) saw the flowering of Sanskrit drama. The great plays that survive from that time are generally secular, such as Shakuntala by Kalidasa, about the court, kings, and courtesans. Classical plays are rarely revived, although modern playwrights have experimented with traditional mythic and historical themes. Theater other than folk theater, which struggles despite government patronage to survive, is directly from the European tradition and is popular only in larger cities. Theater has been eclipsed by the cinema and more recently by television.

India produces more films annually than any other country. The audience, despite the spread of televisions and videocassette recorders, is still enormous. Popular films are generally written to a formula and are often embellished with songs and dance routines. Film themes vary from historical and religious to social: rich boy meets poor girl; twins separated at birth become policeman and criminal; boy sacrifices his love for a girl to patriotic duty or to the desires of parents, who wish him to marry another. Popular cinema rarely has realistic settings or plots, and imitations of Western films are common. Indian film is a significant cultural export to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Even within the popular genre, there have been films with political and humanistic messages. Perhaps best known in this genre is Satyajit Ray, whose “Apu trilogy”—Pather Panchali (1955, Song of the Road), Aparajito (1957, The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (1959, The World of Apu)—established him as one of the world’s leading filmmakers. Recent alternative cinema, supported largely by government subsidies, has only gathered a small, elite audience. Television entertainment in India includes situation comedies (sitcoms), domestic melodramas, and occasionally multiepisode Hindu epics.

Libraries and Museums in India

The National Library in Kolkata receives all books and magazines published in India. The National Archives and the Nehru Memorial Library and Museum are located in New Delhi. The Delhi Public Library is considered one of the best of the thousands of libraries in India. A number of specialized libraries are attached to various government departments, universities, and institutions.

India has hundreds of museums. Some of them contain important historical and archaeological collections, such as the Indian Museum in Kolkata, the Government Museum and National Art Gallery in Chennai, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (formerly called the Prince of Wales Museum) in Mumbai, and the National Museum of India in New Delhi. Rich collections of sculptures, miniature paintings, and other historical and archaeological treasures are housed in museums in Mathura and Vārānasi, and in several locations associated with archaeological sites. The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmadābād and the Crafts Museum in New Delhi have outstanding collections of Indian textiles. The Crafts Museum also houses a spectacular collection of folk art from all over the country. European art of the 19th century is a special feature of the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. The National Gallery of Modern Art is in New Delhi.


Since gaining independence in 1947, India has struggled to modernize and diversify an economy that was left relatively undeveloped by economic policies under British colonial rule. In the 19th century India’s cottage industries and thriving trade were virtually destroyed due to imports of European (primarily British) manufactured goods, which the colonial government paid for with exports of agricultural products such as cotton, opium, and tea. Agricultural development was therefore encouraged, while the industrial sector was neglected. Beginning in the late 19th century there was some investment in the industrial sector and infrastructure (mainly railways and irrigation works). Nevertheless, India’s economy stagnated during the last three decades of British rule.

At independence India was desperately poor, with an aging textile industry as its only major industrial sector. Since then the country has been gradually transforming its economic base from agricultural to industrial and commercial. To fund development, however, India rapidly accumulated high levels of foreign debt. Policies of economic liberalization introduced in the late 1970s stimulated the industrial sector, leading to an acceleration of economic growth in the 1980s. In the 1990s the service sector emerged as the primary economic stimulus, reflecting a growing business economy in urban areas as well as a large government bureaucracy. Although the economic structure of the country began to change, with services contributing more to the economic bottom line than any other sector, agriculture remained the most important sector in terms of employment. Economic development was regionally uneven, with the prosperity of more developed states standing in sharp contrast to the extreme poverty of relatively undeveloped states.

Economic Policy in India

Economic policy after independence emphasized central planning, with the government setting goals for and closely regulating private industry. Self-sufficiency was promoted in order to foster domestic industry and reduce dependence on foreign trade. These efforts produced steady economic growth in the 1950s, but less positive results in the two succeeding decades.

In the late 1970s the government began to reduce state control of the economy but made slow progress toward this goal. By 1991 the government still regulated or ran many industries, including mining and quarrying, banking and insurance, transportation and communications, and manufacturing and construction. Economic growth improved during this period, at least partially as a result of development projects funded by foreign loans.

A financial crisis in 1991 compelled India to institute major economic reforms. After a rise in oil prices precipitated by the Persian Gulf War of 1990 to 1991, India faced a serious balance-of-payments problem. Because petroleum was a major import, India’s expenditures on imports far exceeded its income from exports. To obtain emergency loans from international economic organizations, India agreed to adopt reforms aimed at liberalizing its economy. These reforms removed many government regulations on investment, including foreign investment, and eliminated a quota and tariff system that had kept trade at a low level. The reforms also began a gradual process of deregulating industries and privatizing public enterprises. In 1999 the government made privatization of the public sector the centerpiece of its agenda, permitting private investment in all infrastructure industries, including power, telecommunications, and civil aviation, as well as in the financial sector. Some industries remain reserved for the public sector, including defense equipment, railways, and nuclear energy.

With the reforms, India made a dramatic shift from an economy relatively closed to the global economy to one that is relatively open. Growth of exports has helped India to increase its share of world trade, while the inflow of foreign capital has helped India reduce its external debt. Economic growth has brought an expansion of the middle class, leading to growing demand for consumer goods from shoes to luxury cars. Despite the emergence of a consumer-oriented middle class, however, income inequalities and widespread poverty remain significant issues.

Agriculture of India

Most farms in India are small. Few farms are larger than 20 hectares (50 acres) as a result of land reforms that imposed ceilings (maximum limits) on holdings.

India’s most important crops include cotton, tea, rice, wheat, and sugarcane. Other important cash crops include jute, groundnuts, coffee, oil seeds, and spices. Another central feature of India’s agricultural economy is the raising of livestock, particularly horned cattle, buffalo, and goats. India has substantially more cattle than almost any other country. Many Indians, particularly Hindus, refuse to eat beef for religious reasons, although they eat other meat, eggs, and fish. The cattle are used mainly as draft animals and for leather. As farmers increasingly use machinery, the number of livestock they raise will probably decrease. Buffalo is the main animal used for producing milk and dairy products. Milk production and distribution increased dramatically in the 1990s because of a nationwide, government-supported cooperative dairy program. Sheep are raised for wool, and goats are the main meat animal.

Agricultural production faces occasional declines as a result of irregular monsoon seasons, resulting in widespread flooding or drought. Food imports help offset yearly fluctuations in output. India faces many future challenges in producing enough food to feed its growing population. Production of food grain has barely kept pace with the rate of population increase. The government-implemented Green Revolution, which took hold in the 1970s, encouraged the use of high-yielding crop varieties, fertilizers, and carefully managed irrigation. It resulted in a steady growth in production of food grain, allowing India to achieve self-sufficiency by 1984. However, success has been limited to areas of assured irrigation, such as northwestern India and the deltaic regions. Output has not significantly improved in dry and semiarid areas, where poverty and malnourishment remain prevalent.

Forestry and Fishing in India

Although relatively undeveloped on a national scale, large-scale commercial fishing is vital to the economy in certain regions, such as the Ganges Delta in West Bengal and along the southwestern coast. Small-scale fishing is widespread, taking place in oceans, lagoons, rivers, ponds, wells, and even flooded paddy fields; these fish are typically sold in street markets. In recent years the government has encouraged deep-sea fishing by building processing plants and giving aid to oceangoing fleets and vessels. Local, more traditional fishers protest this encouragement because they see it as a threat to their livelihood.

Forests cover about one-fifth of India’s total land area. The area of land planted in trees has increased steadily since 1990 due to government and commercial plantation schemes. However, the harvesting of mature trees for lumber production has tended to outpace the growth rate of replanted areas. Loss of topsoil in harvested areas as well as forestland lost to development and agriculture have also contributed to India’s difficulty in achieving sustainable timber harvests. Industrial timber species include teak, deodar (a type of cedar), and sal. Products such as charcoal, fruits and nuts, fibers, oils, gums, and resins are among the most valuable commodities from India’s forests.

Mining in India

India ranks among the world leaders in the production of coal, iron ore, and bauxite. Cut diamonds are also an important export product. India also produces significant amounts of manganese, mica, dolomite, copper, petroleum, natural gas, chromite, lignite, limestone, gold, and zinc.

Manufacturing in India

The government’s push for industrialization beginning in the late 1950s gave India a diversified and substantial manufacturing sector. Industrial production steadily increased, reducing India’s reliance on imports, and by the 1980s India ranked among the “newly industrialized countries.” Important industrial products include processed food, textiles, iron and steel, chemicals, aluminum, and vehicles of all kinds from bicycles to trucks and railway engines. India also is a significant producer of electrical machinery, fertilizer, refined petroleum products, and copper. High-technology items such as computers are manufactured in collaboration with foreign companies. In the 1990s and 2000s India’s computer software industry expanded enormously.

Energy in India

Energy is the keystone of India’s agricultural and industrial development. To meet its energy needs, India is heavily dependent on coal. The next most important energy source is petroleum, followed by hydroelectricity and natural gas. Although India remains self-sufficient in coal, the country must import petroleum to meet growing domestic demand.

Services and Tourism of India

Service industries in India include transportation, trade, banking and insurance, real estate, and public administration and defense. Retail and wholesale trade are among the most important services. Major cities, such as Mumbai and Kolkata, are centers of such trade. Government service is also very important. India’s government provides many social services to its population, particularly in the fields of education, health, and public administration. India earns an increasing amount of foreign exchange from data processing and call-center services that are outsourced from businesses in the United States and other countries.

Tourism, which contributes to the country’s foreign exchange earnings, is another significant part of India’s service economy. The bulk of India’s tourists come from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Other major countries of origin include the United Kingdom, the United States, Sri Lanka, Germany, France, and Japan. Most foreign tourists visit a few tourist sites, such as the Taj Mahal and other monuments in Āgra; the “pink city” of Jaipur, known for its pink-hued architecture; and Delhi, with its magnificent Red Fort and many museums. Other tourist destinations include the rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora, the temples at Khajurāho, and the beaches in Kerala, as well as cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, New Delhi, Vārānasi, and Udaipur.

Transportation in India

India has a network of railroad lines that covers the entire country. The network is the largest in Asia and one of the largest in the world. The railroad network is badly in need of modernization, however. All railroad lines are publicly controlled, but some private-sector participation is being encouraged to help raise revenue. The system carries millions of passengers daily, but passenger traffic is heavily subsidized.

Each state in India operates a publicly owned bus company. The major Indian ports, including Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Cochin, and Vishākhapatnam, are served by cargo carriers and passenger liners operating to all parts of the world. The port system is operating beyond its intended capacity, although efforts are under way to modernize and expand port facilities. India has a large merchant shipping fleet. A comprehensive network of air routes connects the major cities and towns of the country. In the 1990s India opened up domestic air service to private airlines for competition with publicly owned Indian airlines, and air service greatly improved as a result.

Communications in India

The government-controlled postal services remain the backbone of India’s communication industry, handling billions of letters and parcels each year. The post office also transmits money orders in large amounts, mainly serving workers sending home part of their pay, and has a large number of savings certificate programs that serve the same population.

India’s telecommunications system has been expanding rapidly, especially since the government began liberalizing the sector in 1994. The country’s first privately owned telephone network was founded in 1998, and a state-held monopoly on international telecommunications services ended in 2002. Most people in India have access only to public telephones, especially in rural areas. In the 1990s the government launched a major program to increase public access to telephone service in all areas of the country. One goal of the program was to install a public telephone in each of India’s approximately 600,000 villages. Another goal was to set up public call offices (PCOs) in both rural and urban areas. A number of these also provide Internet access.

Thousands of newspapers are published in India. Most principal dailies publish from multiple cities, including the English-language Times of India, the Indian Express, the Hindustan Times, the Hindu, and the Statesman; and the Hindi-language Navbharat Times and the Punjab Kesari. Newspapers are privately owned in India.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting controls the country’s major broadcasting networks, All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan India (Television India). AIR broadcasts throughout the country with a network of stations. The Indian government limits television broadcasting by private companies. Satellite television was introduced in India in 1991. Since the early 1990s there has been an exponential growth in television viewing, spurred in part by the spread of private cable systems and television broadcasts via satellite that bring news, sports, and entertainment from around the world.

Foreign Trade in India

Economic reforms introduced in 1991 radically altered India’s trade policies in order to encourage foreign trade. Principal trading partners for India’s exports include the United States (by far India’s largest trading partner), the United Kingdom, China (primarily Hong Kong), Germany, and Japan. India receives the bulk of its imports from the United States, Singapore, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

India’s principal exports are gems and jewelry, garments and textiles, engineering products, chemicals, and marine and agricultural products. Other important exports include ores and minerals, leather goods, carpets, electronic goods, and computer software. In the 1990s India emerged as a major supplier of computer software, as well as computer services such as software programming and data processing. The export of software services and electronics grew rapidly, contributing 15 percent of the country’s total export earnings in 1999-2000. India’s major imports include petroleum and petroleum products, nonelectrical machinery, precious and semiprecious stones, electronic goods, chemicals, cooking oil, iron and steel, fertilizers, and plastics.

Currency and Banking of India

The rupee, India’s basic monetary unit, is divided into 100 paise. The Reserve Bank of India, founded in 1934 and nationalized in 1949, operates as India’s central banking institution. It is the sole authority for issuing bank notes and the supervisory body for all banking operations in India. It supervises and administers exchange-control and banking regulations, the government’s monetary policy, and licenses for private and foreign-owned banks. The central government’s Ministry of Finance and statutory bodies such as the Security and Exchange Board of India also help control the financial sector. Although government-owned banks dominate India’s banking industry, numerous private and foreign banks have been licensed to operate in the country since the 1991 economic reforms.

There are a number of stock exchanges in India. One of the largest is the Bombay Stock Exchange in Mumbai. Founded in 1875, the Bombay Stock Exchange is the oldest in Asia. Another major stock exchange is the National Stock Exchange, founded in 1994, also in Mumbai.


The Republic of India is a federal republic, governed under a constitution and incorporating various features of the constitutional systems of the United Kingdom, the United States, and other democracies. The power of the government is separated into three branches: executive, parliament, and a judiciary headed by a Supreme Court. Like the United States, India is a union of states, but its federalism is slightly different. The central government has power over the states, including the power to redraw state boundaries, but the states, many of which have large populations sharing a common language, culture, and history, have an identity that is in some ways more significant than that of the country as a whole.

Constitution of India

India’s constitution went into effect in 1950, providing civil liberties protected by a set of fundamental rights. These include not only rights to free speech, assembly, association, and the exercise of religion—echoing the United States Bill of Rights—but also rights such as that of citizens to conserve their culture and language and to establish schools to aid this endeavor. The constitution also lists principles of national policy, such as the duty of the government to secure equal pay for men and women, provision of free legal aid, and protection and improvement of the environment. India has universal voting rights for adults beginning at age 18.

The Indian parliament has amended the constitution many times since 1950. Most of these amendments were minor, but others were of major significance: For example, the 7th amendment (1956) provided for a major reorganization of the boundaries of the states, and the 73rd and 74th amendments (1993) gave constitutional permanence to units of local self-government (village and city councils).

Executive of India

The head of state of India is the president. The role of president, modeled on the British constitutional monarch, is largely nominal and ceremonial. Most powers assigned to the president are exercised under direction of the cabinet. The president’s major political responsibility is to select the prime minister, although that choice is circumscribed by a constantly evolving set of conventions (for example, that the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in parliament should be given the first opportunity to form a government).

The president is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of the elected members of the national and state legislatures. The president is eligible for successive terms. The vice president is elected in the same manner as the president and assumes the role of the president if the president is incapacitated or otherwise unable to perform his or her duties.

A council of ministers, or cabinet, is headed by a prime minister and wields executive power at the national level. The council, which is responsible to parliament, is selected by the president upon the advice of the prime minister. Each council member heads an administrative department of the central government. In most important respects, the Indian cabinet system is identical to that of Britain. There is a constitutionally fixed division of responsibilities between national and state governments, so that the national government has exclusive powers over areas such as foreign affairs, while the states are responsible for health-care systems and agricultural development, among other areas. Some areas are the joint responsibility of both the national and state governments, such as education.

The actual administration is carried out by a many-tiered civil service, almost all of whom are recruited by a competitive, merit-based examination. At the top is the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), whose senior members serve as the administrative heads of departments, responsible only to their minister. All members of this service are assigned to particular states and spend most of their early career serving in those states. They typically start as district-level administrators and rapidly move to head state-level departments. Additional central government civil services include the Indian Foreign Service, the Indian Police Service, and services for audits and accounts, posts and telegraphs, customs and excise, and railroads.

Legislature of India

The constitution vests national legislative power in a parliament of two houses: the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the lower house, and the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), the upper house. The Lok Sabha consists of members directly elected by universal adult suffrage, except for two members who are appointed by the president to represent the Anglo-Indian community. The number of seats allocated to each state and union territory is proportional to its population. The term of the Lok Sabha is limited to five years, but the president may dissolve the house upon the advice of the prime minister, or upon defeat of major legislation proposed by the government. A provision of the constitution that was intended to expire after ten years, but which has been consistently extended, allocates reserved seats to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in proportion to their share of the population.

Members of the Rajya Sabha are elected by the members of the state legislative assemblies, except for a group of presidential appointees who have special knowledge or practical experience in literature, the arts, science, or social services. The elected members are chosen by a system of proportional representation for a six-year term; one-third of the Rajya Sabha is chosen every two years. A two-thirds majority is required for some constitutional amendments to pass; some amendments also require ratification by one-half of the states.

Judiciary in India

Judicial authority in India is exercised through a system of national courts administering the laws of the republic and the states. All senior judges are appointees of the executive branch of the government, with their independence guaranteed by a variety of safeguards. Noteworthy among these safeguards is a provision requiring a two-thirds vote of parliament to remove a judge from office. The highest court is the Supreme Court; all Supreme Court judges serve until a retirement age of 65. The top court at the state level is called the High Court; members of the Supreme Court are selected from among justices of the High Courts. Judges of the High Courts are in turn selected from subordinate courts operating at the district level. Important judicial posts at the district level are filled by members of the administrative service.

Local Government of India

India is a union of 28 states and 7 union territories. The Indian states are Andhra Pradesh, Arunāchal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Bihār, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarāt, Haryāna, Himāchal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmīr, Jharkhand, Karnātaka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Mahārāshtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Orissa, Punjab, Rājasthān, Sikkim, Tamil Nādu, Tripura, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. The union territories are the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chandīgarh, Dādra and Nagar Haveli, Damān and Diu, Delhi (formally called the National Capital Territory of Delhi), Lakshadweep, and Puducherry. The form of state governments in India is generally modeled after that of the central government. The states each have a legislature invested with the governance of state affairs. The union territories of Delhi and Puducherry also have their own legislatures. Each of these 30 political units is formally headed by a governor, who is appointed by the president of India to a five-year term. The governor’s powers resemble those of the president. The governor’s most important duty is to invite a party leader to form a government after state legislative elections.

The basic territorial unit of administration in the states is the district. Within the districts are units called tehsils or talukas for departments such as revenue and education, and “blocks,” which are the base units for agrarian development. Local self-government includes village councils (panchayats) and municipal councils, which began under British rule. Local governments have been saddled with major duties, few sources of revenue, and a weak base of political power. These bodies were frequently superseded for long periods by the state governments. In the mid-1990s new constitutional provisions, including the requirement that a percentage of village council seats must go to women, were implemented to help improve these local governments.

The central government of India created three new states in November 2000. The new states were carved out of three existing states—Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand) from Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand from Bihār—to create smaller, more manageable administrative areas. The new states are populated by tribal groups that had waged decades-long campaigns for the creation of separate states in the interest of cultural autonomy and regional economic development.

Political Parties of India

Political parties play an important role in India’s democracy. For many years a centrist national party known as the Congress Party was the most powerful political party in India. Established in 1885 as the Indian National Congress, it led India in the struggle for independence. Its members have included influential figures such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. With few exceptions, the Congress Party provided the country’s prime ministers until the mid-1990s. The Congress Party, also known for a time as the Congress (I) Party, significantly declined in popular support in the 1990s due to allegations of corruption. However, it won the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections by fashioning an alliance with smaller parties and appealing to both rural farmers and urban middle-class voters.

A Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party (BJP), became the largest single party in the Lok Sabha in 1996. Unable to win an outright majority, it led a multiparty coalition called the National Democratic Alliance. The BJP found its base of support in the growing Hindu middle class. It continued policies of economic liberalization that had been initiated by the Congress Party. In the 2004 elections, the BJP lost control of the Lok Sabha to the Congress Party, which had campaigned on a platform that appealed to India’s rural poor.

Other important parties in India include the Janata Dal (People’s Party), a secular, socialist party appealing to lower caste and Muslim voters. The Janata Dal was a key member of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The Janata Dal and the BJP are the primary successors to the Janata (People’s) Party, which was a coalition of opposition parties that formed in 1977.

The far left of the political spectrum is dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which draws support from urban and rural laborers, and the more moderate Communist Party of India. Both parties have been significant participants in coalition politics. India has two other Communist parties.

Regional parties are of major importance in many states, including Tamil Nādu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, and several smaller states, particularly in the northeast. These regional parties deliberately focus on support of particular people of a particular state and thus have no ambition of extending their reach to other states. They elect a significant number of members of parliament, and many have been included in coalition governments by forming alliances with larger parties.

Social Services in India

India’s central government has focused on improving the welfare of the Indian people since independence. The focus has been on transforming the health of the population and providing benefits for the weakest members of the society, especially scheduled castes and tribes, women, and children. These efforts have resulted in improvements, although the degree varies by state.

Health-care facilities have been extended to all parts of the country, with tens of thousands of health centers in operation. Still, the number and quality of personnel staffing them are less than desirable, and spending levels have been low. Although the number of hospital beds in relation to the population has increased since independence, there are still too few doctors for the population, particularly in rural areas. The government also promotes family planning and alternative systems of health care, particularly those with deep Indian roots such as Ayurvedic medicine.

Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, and deaths on a large scale due to cholera, influenza, and other similar diseases have also been eliminated. Malaria and tuberculosis occur at much reduced rates, but new drug-resistant varieties are cause for concern. Efforts to check the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) have focused on the most at-risk groups, including prostitutes in major cities and drug users. In some areas, meanwhile, the disease has made its way into the general population, creating a potential crisis for India’s already overburdened health-care system. Malnutrition remains a serious problem, despite the gradually increasing amount of grain available per capita (rice, wheat, and grains such as millet remain the major food source of most Indians). Public sanitation facilities are not adequate, and in most areas, including most towns, smaller cities, and the countryside, are almost nonexistent.

Welfare programs for the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes (including the Harijans, or Untouchables) have centered on “compensatory discrimination,” which is similar to affirmative action: Positions are reserved for this population in the legislature, civil services, and educational institutions. Also, education subsidies are provided, including scholarships and reduced fees. A national commission for scheduled castes and tribes monitors progress in ending discrimination against these groups and progress in their social and economic standing. Public discrimination has become rare, and quite a few individuals have risen to positions of influence and respect, including India’s first Harijan president, Kocheril Raman Narayanan, who served from 1997 to 2002. Private discrimination in housing and employment continues, however, and the desperately poor of the countryside, constituting the majority of these groups, remain virtually powerless against exploitation and physical abuse.

There are a wide variety of programs intended to improve the welfare of women and children, but they have had little impact in parts of the country (particularly the northern states) where the problem is most acute. Female children suffer particularly: They are often neglected in infancy, sometimes resulting in death. Also, they may be kept out of school or married off early. Programs for children, such as those for supplemental nutrition, have little effect in situations where child labor is endemic.

Defense of India

All branches of the armed services of India are made up solely of volunteers. Service, however, is considered a national duty, and competition for entry into the armed forces remains high. Although defense is considered important in India, the percentage of the GDP spent on defense has declined. About 1 million people serve in India’s paramilitary forces, many in units that guard the borders and join with police in suppressing insurgencies. Women have long served in the medical areas of the armed services but have only recently been allowed in limited numbers to enroll as officers in other noncombatant sections of the armed services.

Military units of all branches are well equipped. India has received extensive military aid, especially from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Many of its weapons systems, including some of the most advanced such as missiles, are manufactured in India. The country exploded its first nuclear device in 1974, leading to an arms race with neighboring Pakistan. Exactly 24 years later, India set off five more nuclear devices and declared itself a “nuclear weapons state.” Pakistan responded within weeks with its own nuclear tests.

International Organizations in India

India is a founding member of the United Nations (UN), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank). India is also a member of other organizations of the UN system, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Labor Organization (ILO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), World Trade Organization (WTO), and Universal Postal Union. Since 1961 India has been a member of the Nonaligned Movement, a group of nations that did not align themselves with either the United States or the USSR during the Cold War. In keeping with its policy of nonalignment, India has not joined regional security arrangements. However, India has contributed troops and observers to international peacekeeping missions around the world. India is one of seven member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was founded in 1985 to provide a forum for regional economic and social issues.


India’s history begins not with independence in 1947, but more than 4,500 years earlier, when the name India referred to the entire subcontinent, including present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. The earliest of India’s known civilizations, the Indus Valley civilization (about 2500 to 1700 BC), was known for its highly specialized artifacts and stretched throughout northern India. Another early culture—the Vedic culture—dates from approximately 1500 BC and is considered one of the sources for India’s predominantly Hindu culture and for the foundation of several important philosophical traditions. India has been subject to influxes of peoples throughout its history, some coming under arms to loot and conquer, others moving in to trade and settle. India was able to absorb the impact of these intrusions because it was able to assimilate or tolerate foreign ideas and people. Outsiders who came to India during the course of its history include the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Kushānas from Central Asia, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, Muslim traders and invaders from the Middle East and Central Asia, and finally the British and other Europeans. India also disseminated its civilization outward to Sri Lanka and much of Southeast Asia. Buddhism, which originated in India, spread even farther.

Central to Indian history are the people of India who established complex political systems, whether local kingdoms or mighty empires, in which learning and religion flourished. Until the modern industrial era, India was a land famed for its economic as well as cultural wealth. Europeans visited the country to trade for the finest cotton textiles as well as spices. Eventually, the British colonized the region. Their exploitation of India’s economic wealth and the subsequent destruction of its indigenous industry provoked and then fueled a nationalist movement, eventually forcing the British to grant India (partitioned into India and Pakistan) its independence in 1947. Since that time India has developed into a vibrant democracy, making slow but steady progress in development.

Early Civilizations

Indus Valley Civilization

For almost 1,000 years, from around 2500 BC to around 1700 BC, a civilization flourished on the valley of the Indus River and its tributaries, extending as far to the northeast as Delhi and south to Gujarāt. The Indus Valley civilization, India’s oldest known civilization, is famed for its complex culture and specialized artifacts. Its cities were carefully planned, with elaborate water-supply systems, sewage facilities, and centralized granaries. The cities had common settlement patterns and were built with standard sizes and weights of bricks, evidence that suggests a coherent civilization existed throughout the region. The people of the Indus civilization used copper and bronze, and they spun and wove cotton and wool. They also produced statues and other objects of considerable beauty, including many seals decorated with images of animals and, in a few cases, what appear to be priests. The seals are also decorated with a script known as the Indus script, a pictographic writing system that has not been deciphered. The Indus civilization is thought to have undergone a swift decline after 1800 BC, although the cause of the decline is still unknown; theories point to extreme climatic changes or natural disasters.

Aryan Settlement and the Vedic Age

In about 1500 BC the Aryans, a nomadic people from Central Asia, settled in the upper reaches of the Indus, Yamuna, and Gangetic plains. They spoke a language from the Indo-European family and worshiped gods similar to those of later-era Greeks and northern Europeans. The Aryans are particularly important to Indian history because they originated the earliest forms of the sacred Vedas (orally transmitted texts of hymns of devotion to the gods, manuals of sacrifice for their worship, and philosophical speculation). By 800 BC the Aryans ruled in most of northern India, occasionally fighting among themselves or with the peoples of the land they were settling. There is no evidence of what happened to the people displaced by the Aryans. In fact they may not have been displaced at all but instead may have been incorporated in Aryan culture or left alone in the hills of northern India.

The Vedas, which are considered the core of Hinduism, provide much information about the Aryans. The major gods of the Vedic peoples remain in the pantheon of present-day Hindus; the core rituals surrounding birth, marriage, and death retain their Vedic form. The Vedas also contain the seeds of great epic literature and philosophical traditions in India. One example is the Mahabharata, an epic of the battle between two noble families that dates from 400 BC but probably draws on tales composed much earlier. Another example is the Upanishads, philosophical treatises that were composed between the 8th and the 5th centuries BC.

As the Aryans slowly settled into agriculture and moved southeast through the Gangetic Plain, they relinquished their seminomadic style of living and changed their social and political structures. Instead of a warrior leading a tribe, with a tribal assembly as a check on his power, an Aryan chieftain ruled over territory, with its society divided into hereditary groups. This structure became the beginning of the caste system, which has survived in India until the present day. The four castes that emerged from this era were the Brahmans (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), the Vaisyas (merchants, farmers, and traders), and the Sudras (artisans, laborers, and servants).

The Emergence of Kingdoms and Empires

By about the 7th century BC territories combined and grew, giving rise to larger kingdoms that stretched from what is now Afghanistan to what is now the state of Bihār. Cities became important during this time, and, shortly thereafter, systems of writing developed. Reform schools of Hinduism emerged, challenging the orthodox practices of the Vedic tradition and presenting alternative religious world views. Two of those schools developed into separate religions: Buddhism and Jainism.

The Mauryan Empire

By the 6th century BC, Indian civilization was firmly centered at the eastern end of the Gangetic Plain (in the area of present-day Bihār), and certain kings became increasingly powerful. In the 6th century BC the Kingdom of Magadha conquered and absorbed neighboring kingdoms, giving rise to India’s first empire. At the head of the Magadha state was a hereditary monarch in charge of a centralized administration. The state regularly collected revenues and was protected by a standing army. This empire continued to expand, extending in the 4th century BC into central India and as far as the eastern coast.

As political power shifted east, the area of the upper Indus became a frontier where local kings were confronted by an expanding Persian empire. These invaders had conquered the land up to the Indus River near the end of the 6th century BC. In 326 BC, after fighting the Persians and the tribes to the west of the Indus, Alexander the Great traveled to the Beās River, just east of what is now Lahore, Pakistan. Fearing the powerful and well-equipped kingdoms that lay farther east, Alexander’s army revolted, forcing him to turn back from India. What was left after his death in Babylon in 323 BC were the Hellenistic states of what is now Afghanistan; these states later had a profound influence on the art of India.

Chandragupta Maurya, the first king of the Mauryan dynasty, succeeded the throne in Magadha in about 321 BC. In 305 BC Chandragupta defeated the ruler of a Hellenistic kingdom on the plains of Punjab and extended what became the Mauryan Empire into Afghanistan and Baluchistan to the southwest. Chandragupta was assisted by Kautilya, his chief minister. The empire stretched from the Ganges Delta in the east, south into the Deccan, and west to include Gujarāt. It was further extended by Ashoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, to include all of India (including what is now Pakistan and much of what is now Afghanistan) except the far southern tip and the lands to the east of the Brahmaputra River. The Mauryan Empire featured a complex administrative structure, with the emperor as the head of a developed bureaucracy of central and local government.

After a bloody campaign against Kalinga in what is now Orissa state in 261 BC, Ashoka became disillusioned with warfare and eventually embraced Buddhism and nonviolence. Although Buddhism was not made the state religion, and although Ashoka tolerated all religions within his realm, he sent missionaries far and wide to spread the Buddhist message of righteousness and humanitarianism. His son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta converted the people of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and other missionaries were sent to Southeast Asia and probably into Central Asia as well. He also sent cultural missions to the west, including Syria, Egypt, and Greece. Ashoka built shrines and monasteries and had rocks and beautifully carved pillars inscribed with Buddhist teachings. (The lion capital of one of these pillars is now the state emblem of India.)

The Post-Mauryan Kingdoms and Empires

The Mauryan Empire rapidly disintegrated after Ashoka’s death in 232 BC. In its aftermath, invaders fought for outlying territories in the north, while regional monarchies gained power in the south. The Mauryas’ original territorial core on the Gangetic Plain was defended by the Sunga dynasty, which had consolidated its power by about 185 BC. The Sungas reigned over extensive lands and were the most powerful of the north-central kingdoms. Their dynasty lasted about a century, and was succeeded by the Kanvas, whose shrunken kingdom was defeated in 28 BC by the Andhra dynasty, invading from their homeland in the south.

The invasions of northern India came in several waves from Central Asia. Indo-Greeks conquered the northwestern portion of the empire in about 180 BC. Shortly thereafter, Menander, an Indo-Greek king, conquered much of the remainder of northern India. By the 1st century BC, the Shakas of Central Asia had brought numerous tribes in western India under their control. In south and central India, the Andhra dynasty (also known as Satavahana) ruled for almost four centuries. The Maha-Meghavahanas held territories in the southeast, while the Chola and the Pandya dynasties controlled the far south.

The first centuries AD saw the rise and triumph of another major power from Central Asia: the Kushānas. At its height, this empire stretched from Afghanistan to possibly as far as eastern Uttar Pradesh, and included Gujarāt and central India. Although it is unclear whether he converted himself, the Kushāna ruler Kanishka (who ruled in the late 1st century AD) is considered one of the great patrons of Buddhism. He is credited with convening the fourth council on Buddhism that marked the development of Mahayana Buddhism.

Between the decline of the Mauryas and the emergence of the Gupta Empire, India was at the center of a global economy, with social and religious links to all of Asia. Trade with the Roman Empire brought an abundance of Roman gold coins to India beginning in the 1st century AD. These coins were melted down and reminted by the Kushānas. Buddhism spread through Central Asia and Southeast Asia toward China. Indian art, particularly sculpture, achieved greatness in this era.

The Classical Age

The Gupta Dynasty

The Kushāna dynasty collapsed in the 3rd century, leaving the Ganges River valley in the hands of several small kingdoms. In about AD 320, Chandragupta I, the ruler of the Magadha kingdom, united the many peoples of the valley and founded the Gupta dynasty. For about the next century his son Samudragupta and grandson Chandragupta II brought much of India under unified control for the first time since the Mauryan Empire, controlling the lands from the eastern hills of Afghanistan to Assam, north of the Narmada River. Samudragupta conducted a successful military expedition as far south as the city of Kānchipuram, but probably did not directly rule in those regions. The Guptas directly ruled a core area that included the east central Gangetic Plain, located in present-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihār. In addition, they conquered other areas, reinstating the kings who were then obliged to pay tribute and attend the imperial court. Both Chandragupta I and Chandragupta II made strategic marriages that extended the empire, the latter with the successors to the Andhra dynasty in central India. A policy of religious tolerance and patronage of all religions also helped consolidate their rule.

The time of the Gupta Empire has been called the golden age of Indian civilization because of the period’s great flowering of literature, art, and science. In literature, the dramas and poems of Kalidasa, who wrote the romantic drama Sakuntala, are especially well known. The Puranas, a collection of myths and philosophical dialogues, was begun around AD 400. These remain today the basic source for the tales of the gods who are now central to Hinduism: Vishnu, Shiva, and the goddess Shakti. During this era India’s level of science and technology was probably higher than that of Europe. The use of the zero and the decimal system of numerals, later transmitted to Europe by the Arabs, was a major contribution to modern mathematics.

Regional Kingdoms after AD 500

The Gupta Empire faced many challengers. Until about AD 500 it was able to defeat internal and external enemies. In the mid-5th century the White Huns, a nomadic people from Central Asia, moved onto the Indian plains and were defeated by the Guptas. The Huns invaded India again in AD 510, when Gupta strength was in decline. This time the invasion was successful, forcing the Guptas into the northeastern part of their former empire. The Huns established their rule over much of northwest India, extending to present-day western Uttar Pradesh. However, they in turn were defeated by enemies to the west a short time later. The Buddhist monasteries and the cities of this region never recovered from the onslaught of the Huns. By AD 550 both the Hun kingdom and the Gupta Empire had fallen.

The absence of these centralizing powers left India to be ruled by regional kingdoms. These kingdoms often warred with each other and had fairly short spans of power. They developed a political system that emphasized the tribute of smaller chieftains. Later, starting in the 11th century and especially in the south, they legitimized this rule by establishing great royal temples, supported by grants of land and literally hundreds of Brahmans. Literature and art continued to flourish, particularly in south and central India. The distinctive style of temple architecture and sculpture that developed in the 7th and 8th centuries can be seen in the pyramid-shaped towers and heavily ornamented walls of shrines at Māmallapuram (sometimes called Mahabalipuram) and Kānchipuram south of Chennai, and in the cave temples carved from solid rock at Ajanta and Ellora in Mahārāshtra. The religious tradition of bhakti (passionate devotion to a Hindu god), which emerged in Tamil Nādu in the 6th century and spread north over the next nine centuries, was expressed in poetry of great beauty. With the decline of Buddhism in much of peninsular India (it continued in what is now Bangladesh), Hinduism developed new and profound traditions associated with the philosophers Shankara in the early 800s and Ramanuja in about 1100.

The regional kingdoms were not small, but only Harsha, who ruled from 606 to 647, attempted to create an expansive empire. From his kingdom north of Delhi, he shifted his base east to present-day central Uttar Pradesh. After extending his influence as far west as the Punjab region, he tried to move south and was defeated by the Chalukya king Pulakeshin II of Vatapi (modern Bādāmi) in about 641. By then the Pallava dynasty had established a powerful kingdom on the east coast of the southern Indian peninsula at Kānchipuram. During the course of the next half-century the Pallavas and the neighboring Chalukyas of the Deccan Plateau struggled for control of key peninsular rivers, each alternately sacking the other’s capital. The eventual waning of the Pallavas by the late 8th century allowed the Cholas and the Pandya dynasty to rule virtually undisturbed for the next four centuries.

Elsewhere in India, the 8th century saw continued power struggles among states. Harsha died in 647 BC and his kingdom contracted to the west, creating a power vacuum in the east that was quickly filled by the Pala dynasty. (The Palas ruled the Bengal region and present-day southern Bihār state from the 8th through the 12th centuries.) Harsha’s capital of Kanauj was conquered by the Gurjara-Pratiharas, who were based in central India, and who managed to extend their rule west to the borders of Sind (in what is now Pakistan). The Gurjara-Pratiharas fought with the Rashtrakutas for control of the trade routes of the Ganges. The Rashtrakutas controlled the Deccan Plateau from their capital in Ellora, near present-day Aurangābād. Their frequent military campaigns into north and central India kept the small kingdoms ruled by Muslims in Sind and southern Punjab confined. The Western Chalukyas also fought with, and were finally overthrown by, the Rashtrakutas in the 8th century.

The kingdoms persisted despite this protracted warfare because they were more or less equally matched in resources, administrative and military capacities, and leadership. Although particular dynasties did not last long, these kingdoms, which shifted the center of rule in India to areas south of the Vindhya Range, had a remarkable stability, lasting in one form or other in particular regions for centuries.

The kingdoms of the south, especially the Pallavas and Cholas, had links with Southeast Asia. Temples in the style of the early 8th-century Pallavas were built in Java soon after those in the Pallava kingdom. In pursuit of trade, the Cholas made successful naval expeditions at the end of the 10th century to Ceylon, the region of Bengal, Sumatra, and Malaya. They also established direct trade with China. By the 12th century the cities of the southwestern coast of India, in what is now Kerala and southern Karnātaka, housed Jewish and Arab traders who drew on a network centered in the Persian Gulf and reaching through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea and Italy.

Muslim and Mongol Invaders

By the 10th century Turkic Muslims began invading India, bringing the Islamic religion to India. The Ghaznavids, a dynasty from eastern Afghanistan, began a series of raids into northwestern India at the end of the 10th century. Mahmud of Ghaznī, the most notable ruler of this dynasty, raided as far as present-day Uttar Pradesh state. Mahmud did not attempt to rule Indian territory except for the Punjab area, which he annexed before his death in 1030.

A little more than a century after Mahmud’s death, his magnificent capital of Ghaznī was destroyed in warfare among rivals within Afghanistan. In 1175 one of the successors to Mahmud’s dismembered empire, the Muslim conqueror Muhammad of Ghur, began his conquest of northern India. Within 20 years he had conquered all of north India, including the Bengal region. In 1206 Qutubuddin Aybak, one of Muhammad of Ghur’s generals, founded the Delhi Sultanate with its capital at Delhi and began the Slave dynasty. Also in 1206 Genghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and established the Mongol Empire. He then moved rapidly into China and westward, reaching the Indus Valley about 1221. In the following three centuries the Mongols remained the dominant power in northwest India, gradually merging with the Turkic Muslim peoples there.

The Delhi Sultanate engaged in constant warfare during its 300-year reign, subduing intermittent rebellions of the nobles of the Bengal region, repelling incursions of Mongols to the northwest, and conquering and looting Hindu kingdoms as far south as Madurai in Tamil Nādu. Beginning with the Slave dynasty, the sultanate was ruled by a succession of five dynasties before it was finally overthrown by the Mughal emperor Humayun in 1556. During the reign of the short-lived Khalji dynasty (1290-1320), the warrior leader Alauddin financed his successful campaigns to south India with an established system of local revenue. The next dynasty, that of the Tughluqs, weakened when Muhammad Tughluq moved his capital from Delhi to the more centrally located Daulatabad in an effort to assert more permanent rule over his southern lands. He lost control over the Delhi area, and nobles in the south and in Bengal also established their independence. In 1398 the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane invaded India, sacking Delhi and massacring its inhabitants. Tamerlane withdrew from India shortly after the sack of Delhi, leaving the remnants of the empire to Mahmud, who as last of the Tughluqs ruled from 1399 to 1413. Mahmud was succeeded by the Sayyid dynasty (1414-1451), under which the Delhi Sultanate shrank to virtually nothing. The Lodi dynasty (1451-1526), of Afghan origin, later revived the rule of Delhi over much of north India, although it was unable to give its rule a firm military and financial foundation. The rest of India remained under the rule of other kings, some Muslim and some Hindu. The greatest of these polities was the Hindu empire of Vijayanagar, which existed from 1336 to 1565, centered in what is now Karnātaka.

Many Indians converted to Islam during this era. One of the areas where a great majority of the population became Muslim was in the Punjab region, which by the end of the Delhi Sultanate had been under the continuous rule of Muslim kings for more than 500 years. Muslims did marry Hindus (the founder of the Khalji dynasty was the offspring of one such marriage), and Hindus did convert to Islam. In general, Muslim kings were far from tolerant, even despising their Hindu subjects, but there is no record of forced mass conversions. The region that is now Bangladesh also became overwhelmingly Muslim during this period. This area had been mainly Buddhist before the Muslims arrived. Even in south India, where the Hindu revival inspired by the works of Shankara and others had its greatest influence, a small minority of people became Muslim.

The Mughal Empire

Rise of the Mughals

The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 by Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane. It is famous for its extent (it covered most of the Indian subcontinent) and for the heights that music, literature, art, and especially architecture reached under its rulers. The Mughal Empire was born when Babur, with the use of superior artillery, defeated the far larger army of the Lodis at Pānīpat, near Delhi. Babur’s kingdom stretched from beyond Afghanistan to the Bengal region along the Gangetic Plain. His son Humayun, however, lost the kingdom to Bihār-based Sher Khan Sur (later Sher Shah) and fled to Persia (now Iran). Humayun recaptured Delhi in 1555, shortly before his death.

Humayun’s son Akbar, whose name (meaning “great”) reflected the ruler he became, extended the Mughal Empire until it covered the subcontinent from Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal and from the Himalayas to the Godāvari River. The Mughals moved their capitals frequently: Wherever they made camp became the capital. The cities they built, and the citadels within those cities, were like army camps, with the nobles living in tents, rich carpets on the ground, and just the walls, audience halls, royal residences, and mosques built of stone. In the course of the dynasty those citadels were located in Lahore, in and around Āgra, in the architecturally spectacular city of Fatehpur Sikri, and near the city of Shahjahanabad (“city of Shah Jahan”).

Although illiterate, Akbar matched the learning of his father and grandfather, both of whose courts were enriched by Persian arts and letters, and surpassed them in wisdom. He brought under his control the Hindu Rajput kings who ruled just south and west of Āgra by defeating them in battle, extending religious tolerance, and offering them alliances cemented by marriage (Akbar married two Rajput princesses, including the mother of his son and successor, Jahangir) and positions of power in his army and administration. As an observant Muslim, Akbar brought to his court adherents to various sects of Islam, as well as priests of other faiths, including Christians, to hear them present their beliefs. European visitors to the Mughal court became even more frequent in the succeeding reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Europeans were allowed to establish trading posts at the periphery of the empire and beyond, but they never became influential at court.

Paying for the military campaigns and for the magnificent court required the transformation of traditional patterns of taxation and administration. Sher Shah initiated the necessary administrative system, and Akbar improved it. By accurately assessing average yearly harvests for land in different regions and then standardizing the percentage of the harvest due in taxes, Akbar secured a reliable source of income from land revenues. To make it easier to govern his empire, he divided it into provinces and subdivided it into districts. He established a bureaucracy of ranked officials to administer the functions of the empire and paid many of its members in cash rather than in the traditional form of grants of land, allowing for flexibility in the location and type of assignments the officials were given. This system was so successful that the British adopted it in large part.

The system came under strain with Shah Jahan’s costly and unsuccessful campaign to capture the Mughal’s ancestral homeland of Samarqand in 1646, and his son Aurangzeb’s equally costly efforts to extend the empire south. In 1686 and 1687 Aurangzeb conquered the Muslim kingdoms of Bijāpur and Golkonda, which controlled the northern half of the Deccan Plateau. But his attempt to subdue the Hindu Maratha Confederacy (centered in what is now Mahārāstra state) was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Mughal armies suffered numerous defeats. Aurangzeb’s growing religious intolerance also undermined the stability of the empire. In 1697 he reimposed a poll tax on non-Muslims, abolished during Akbar’s rule. Disaffection over such discriminatory policies, along with the now-crushing tax burden, led to widespread rebellion at the end of Aurangzeb’s reign.

Although it did not formally end until 1858, the Mughal Empire ceased to exist as an effective state after Aurangzeb died in 1707. The political chaos of the period was marked by a rapid decline of centralized authority, by the creation of many small kingdoms and principalities by Muslim and Hindu adventurers, and by the formation of large independent states by the governors of the imperial provinces. Among the first of the large independent states to emerge was Hyderābād, established in 1712. The tottering Mughal regime suffered a disastrous blow in 1739 when the Persian king Nadir Shah led an army into India and plundered Delhi. Among the treasures stolen by invaders were the mammoth Koh-i-noor diamond and the magnificent Peacock Throne, made of solid gold inlaid with precious stones. Nadir Shah withdrew from Delhi, but in 1756 the city was again captured—this time by Ahmad Shah, emir of Afghanistan, who had previously seized Punjab.

Maratha Confederacy

Despite these outside sieges upon Delhi, it was the Marathas who first attempted to appropriate the lands of the Mughal Empire. Moving from the northwestern Deccan Plateau, they seized lands in Gujarāt in the 1720s, central India in the 1730s, the provinces up to the Bay of Bengal in the 1750s, and south India as far as Tanjore (Thanjāvūr) in what is now Tamil Nādu in the 1760s. They were defeated by the Afghans on the Pānīpat battlefield in 1761, preventing them from expanding any farther north. The Marathas held mainly nominal control of much of the land they conquered and did not collect taxes from many areas. The Sikhs, whose persecution under the later Mughals provoked them to transform themselves into a community of warriors, built a kingdom in the Punjab in the late 18th century.

The Europeans in India

As early as the 15th century, Europeans were interested in developing trade opportunities with India and a new trade route to East Asia. The Portuguese were devoted to this task, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese royal navigator and explorer, led an expedition around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean. In May 1498 he sailed into the harbor of Calicut (now Kozhikode) on the Malabar Coast, opening a new era of Indian history. Establishing friendly relations with the dominant kingdom of the Deccan, the Portuguese secured lucrative trade routes on the coast of India in the early 16th century.

For about the first two centuries after Europeans arrived in India, their activities were restricted to trade and evangelism, their presence protected by naval forces. For the entire period of the Mughal Empire, European traders were confined to trading posts along the coast. In the 16th century the Portuguese navy controlled the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, protecting the traders settled in Goa, Damān, and Diu on the western coast. Christianity swiftly followed trade. Saint Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit missionary, came to Goa in 1542, converting tens of thousands of Indians along the peninsular coast and in southern India and Ceylon before leaving for Southeast Asia in 1545. In fact, the area of India he and other missionaries traversed was already home to communities of Christians, some converted by Saint Thomas in the 1st century AD and some who fled to India many centuries later to escape persecution for their Nestorian beliefs.

The Dutch displaced the Portuguese as masters of the seas around India in the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, two years after its main rival, the English East India Company. Both companies began by trading in spices, gradually shifting to textiles, particularly India’s characteristic light, patterned cottons. Their activities in India were centered primarily on the southern and eastern coasts and in the Bengal region. The economic effect of purchases made at the coastal depots were felt far inland in the cotton-growing areas, but the Europeans did not at that time attempt to extend their political sway.

By the 18th century British sea power matched that of the Dutch, and the European rivalry in India began to take on a military dimension. During the first half of the 18th century the French, who had begun to operate in India in about 1675, emerged as a serious threat to the growing power and prosperity of the English East India Company. By the mid-18th century the British and French were at war with each other throughout the world. This rivalry manifested itself in India in a series of conflicts, called the Carnatic Wars, which stretched over 20 years and established the British as the primary European power in India.

As the French and British skirmished over control of India’s foreign trade, the Mughal Empire was experiencing its rapid decline and regional kingdoms were emerging. The continuously warring rulers of these kingdoms used well-trained and disciplined French and British forces to support their military activities. The foreigners, however, had their own agenda, frequently expanding their own political or territorial power under the guise of championing a local ruler. Led by innovative and effective Joseph François Dupleix, the French managed by 1750 to place themselves in a powerful position in southern India, especially in Hyderābād. In 1751, however, British troops under Robert Clive captured the French southeastern stronghold of Arcot in a pivotal battle. With this encounter the balance of power in the south swung to favor the British, although the struggle for control of India’s trade continued.

In Bengal, the English East India Company had begun fortifying Fort William in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to defend against possible attacks by the French. Nominally a part of the Mughal Empire, Bengal was at this time virtually independent under the emperor’s nawab (governor). In response to reports of unauthorized activities of the British, the nawab Siraj-ud-Dawlah attacked Calcutta in 1756. Some British survivors of the attack were imprisoned in a small dungeon known as the Black Hole of Calcutta where a number of them died. After the incident, Robert Clive, then the British governor of Fort Saint David, moved north from Madras and, conniving with the commander of his enemy’s army, defeated the nawab in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The battle marked the first stage in the British conquest of India. The French attempted to regain their position in India but were beaten back by the British in 1761. In 1764 the British again defeated local rulers at the Battle of Buxar. This victory firmly established British control over the Bengal region.

The British Empire in India

British Expansion

The English East India Company continued to extend its control over Indian territory throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Treaties made with Indian princes provided for the stationing of British troops within these princely states. To pay for the troops the British were often given revenue-collecting rights in certain parts of the states; this gave them indirect control over these areas. Many of these states were annexed when succession to the throne was in doubt or when the ruler acted in ways that seemed contrary to British interests.

The British made even more significant gains by military means. In the late 1700s they were drawn into a three-way conflict when the nizam of Hyderābād asked for British assistance against his rivals: the Marathas, and Tipu Sahib, the sultan of Mysore. In 1799 the British marched on Seringapatam, Tipu’s capital, and defeated his troops. Tipu was killed defending the city. The British annexed much of Mysore outright; they controlled the remainder through a new sultan they installed. After a series of battles (1775-1782, 1803-1805, 1817-1818) with the Marathas, the British also succeeded in bringing Maratha lands under their control.

In 1773 the British Parliament passed the Regulating Act, the first of a series of acts that gave British governors greater control over the English East India Company. Under the Regulating Act the company was still permitted to continue handling all trading matters and to have its own troops, but its activity was now supervised by parliament. The act also established the post of governor-general of India and made the holder of the office directly responsible to the British government. Warren Hastings became the first governor-general of India in 1774.

The British proceeded to make major changes in the administration of their realm. The three presidencies (administrative districts)—Bengal, Bombay, and Madras—adopted different systems of fixing responsibility for the payment of land taxes. In Bengal, the local landed gentry accepted responsibility for a fixed amount of taxes in return for ownership of large estates. Under this arrangement the British did not share in the gains of any potential improvements in agricultural productivity. By contrast, in Madras and Bombay, peasant cultivators paid annual taxes directly to the government. The tax rate could be adjusted at fixed intervals, so in this case the British could reap the benefits of agricultural expansion. A civil service system was developed that admitted British officers through a merit examination, trained them in an administrative college, and paid them handsomely to reduce corruption. Meanwhile, the development of the textile industry in Britain forced a transformation of India’s economy: India had to produce raw cotton for export and buy manufactured goods—including cloth—from England, while the cottage industries that produced textiles in India were ruined.

At the same time British attitudes about Indian culture changed. Until about 1800 the East India Company traders adapted themselves to the country, donning Indian dress, learning Sanskrit, and sometimes taking Indian mistresses. As British rule strengthened, and as an influential evangelical Christian movement emerged in the early 19th century, India’s customs were judged more harshly. Missionaries, who had been kept out by the company for fear they would upset Indians and thus disrupt commerce, were now brought in. Laws were passed to abolish Indian customs such as suttee (the immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre). The 18th-century company officers, such as Sir William Jones, a scholar of Sanskrit who discovered the relationship of Indo-European languages, were replaced by British subjects who felt Indian thought and literature was of virtually no value. In 1835 English was enforced as the language of government.

Under the leadership of Governor-General James Andrew Broun Ramsay, 10th earl of Dalhousie, the empire continued to expand. After two wars with the Sikhs, the Sikh state of Punjab was added in 1849. Governor-General Dalhousie also annexed Sātāra, Jaipur, Sambalpur, Jhānsi, and Nāgpur on the death of their native rulers, taking advantage of a British doctrine that declared Britain’s right to govern any Indian state where there was no natural heir to the throne. The absorption of Oudh, long under Britain’s indirect control, was the last major piece added to the company’s possessions; it was annexed in 1856. Dalhousie’s tenure was also marked by various improvements and reforms: the construction of railroads, bridges, roads, and irrigation systems; the establishment of telegraph and postal services; and restrictions on slave trading and other ancient practices. These innovations and reforms, however, aroused little enthusiasm among Indian people, many of whom regarded the modernization of their country with both fear and mistrust.

Sepoy Rebellion

The annexation of Indian territory and the rigorous taxation on Indian land contributed to a revolt against British rule that began in 1857 (see Sepoy Rebellion). The revolt started as a mutiny of Indian sepoys (soldiers) in the service of the English East India Company in Meerut, a town northeast of Delhi. The mutiny erupted when some sepoys refused to use their new Lee-Enfield rifles. To load the rifles, the soldiers had to bite off the ends of greased cartridges. Rumors that the cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and pigs outraged both Hindus, who regard cows as sacred, and Muslims, who regard pigs as unclean. After taking Meerut, the mutineers marched to Delhi and persuaded the nominal sovereign of India, the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II, to resume his rule. The revolt spread rapidly, with local rulers playing an active part in expelling or killing the British and putting their garrisons under siege, especially at Lucknow. The revolt extended through Oudh Province (now part of Uttar Pradesh) and present-day northern Madhya Pradesh. The British were able to crush it, making particular use of Sikh soldiers recruited in the Punjab. The mutiny ended by 1859, with both sides guilty of atrocities.

The Sepoy Rebellion, with its unanticipated fury and extent, left the British feeling insecure. In August 1858 the British Parliament abolished the English East India Company and transferred the company’s responsibilities to the British crown. This launched a period of direct rule in India, ending the fiction of company rule as an agent of the Mughal emperor (who was tried for treason and exiled to Burma). In November 1858, in her proclamation to the “Princes, Chiefs, and Peoples of India,” Queen Victoria pledged to preserve the rule of Indian princes in return for loyalty to the crown. More than 560 such enclaves, taking in one-fourth of India’s area and one-fifth of its people, were preserved until Indian independence in 1947. In 1876, at the urging of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria took the title of Empress of India.

Among the reforms introduced after the adoption of direct rule was a reorganization of the administrative system. A secretary of state, aided by a council, began to control Indian affairs from London. A viceroy (a governor who acts in the name of the British crown) implemented London’s policies from Calcutta. An executive and a legislative council provided advice and assistance. Provincial governors made up the next level of authority, and below them were district officials.

The army was also reorganized after the imposition of direct rule. The ratio of British to Indian soldiers was reduced, and recruitment policies were reshaped to favor Sikhs and other “martial races” who had been loyal during the Sepoy Rebellion. Castes and groups that had been disloyal were carefully screened out.

Although the system of revenue collection remained largely unchanged, landowners who remained loyal during the mutiny were rewarded with titles and grants of large amounts of land, much of it confiscated from those who rebelled. Later, during agitations for Indian independence, the British were able to rely on many landowners for support.

With the imposition of direct rule, the economy of India became even more closely linked than before with that of Britain. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced the sailing time between Britain and India from about three months to only three weeks, enabling London to exercise tight control over all aspects of Indian trade. Railroads, roads, and communications were developed to bring raw materials, especially cotton, to ports for shipment to England, and manufactured goods from England for sale in an expanding Indian market. Development schemes, such as massive irrigation projects in the Punjab, were also intended to serve the purpose of enriching England. Indian entrepreneurs were not encouraged to develop their own industries.

Although some industrialization took place during this period, its benefits did not reach the majority of the Indian population. During the 1850s, mechanized jute industries were developed in Bengal and cotton textiles in western India, mainly by British firms. Although these industries expanded rapidly from 1880 to 1914, and although an Indian iron-and-steel industry was developed in the early 20th century, India remained essentially an agrarian economy. By 1914 industry accounted for less than 5 percent of national income, and less than 1 percent of India’s workforce was employed in factories. A succession of severe famines occurred at this time despite the general improvement of agricultural production, the expansion of the railways, and the development of administrative procedures designed to tackle such crises. With only small advances in public health, death rates remained high and life expectancy low.

The assumption of direct British rule in 1858 made Indians British subjects and promised in principle that Indians could participate in their own governance. Few reforms addressed this issue, however. Although local government councils had been elected even before 1857, it wasn’t until the Indian Councils Act of 1861 that Indians were permitted, by appointment, to participate in the Executive Council, the highest council of the land. Indian representation on local and provincial bodies gradually expanded under British rule, although never to the point of complete control. The higher civil service had theoretically been opened to Indians in 1833, and the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 confirmed this point again. Nevertheless, candidates for the service had to go to England to compete in the examination, which emphasized classical European subjects. Those few who managed to overcome these initial obstacles and join the service encountered discrimination that prevented them from advancing.

The Movement for Independence

Rise of Indian Nationalism

The Sepoy Rebellion and its aftermath increased political awareness among the Indian people of the abuses of British rule. This growing consciousness found its strongest voice among an English-educated intelligentsia that grew up in India’s major cities during the last three decades of the 19th century. These men were journalists, lawyers, and teachers from India’s elite. Most had attended universities founded in 1857 by the British in Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata), and Madras (now Chennai). Studying the political theorists of Western democracy and capitalism such as John Stuart Mill convinced many that they were being denied the full rights and responsibilities of British citizenship.

Dissatisfaction with British rule took organized political form in 1885, when these men, with the support of sympathetic Englishmen, formed the Indian National Congress. Resolutions at the first session called for increased Indian participation on provincial legislative councils and improved access for Indians to employment in the Indian Civil Service. Initially the organization adopted a moderate approach to reform. For its first 20 years, the Congress served as a forum for debate on questions of British policy toward India, as well as a platform to push for economic and social changes. Central to a newly developed Indian identity was the argument, articulated by three-time Congress president Dadabhai Naoroji, that Great Britain was draining India of its wealth by means of unfair trade regulations. The Congress also took issue with the restraint on the development of native Indian industry and the use of Indian taxes to pay the high salaries and pensions of the British who ruled over India by “right” of conquest.

At the same time, a Hindu social reform movement that had begun 50 years earlier contributed ideas about the injustice of caste and gender discrimination. Reformers lobbied for laws to permit, for example, the remarriage of Hindu women widowed before puberty. In western India, one reformer, journalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak, impatient with the slow pace of the nationalist movement, attempted to mobilize a larger audience by drawing on Hindu religious symbolism and Maratha history to spark patriotic fervor. A similar thread of nationalism appeared in Bengal. By 1905 extreme nationalists had arisen to challenge the more moderate members of Congress, whose petitioning of the British government had had little success.

George Nathaniel Curzon, who was viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, presided over the affairs of British India at its peak, and he worked to weaken nationalist opposition to British rule. In 1905 he partitioned the administratively unwieldy province of Bengal into East Bengal and Assam (with a Muslim majority) and Bengal, Bihār, and Orissa (with a Hindu majority). This measure sparked a set of developments in the nationalist movement that were to transform India’s future. The Hindu elite of Bengal, many of whom were landlords collecting rent from Muslim peasants of East Bengal, were roused to protest not just in the press and at public meetings, but with direct action. Some pushed a boycott and swadeshi (literally “own-country,” but meaning here “buy Indian”) campaign against British goods, especially textiles. Others joined small terrorist groups that succeeded in assassinating some British officials. This movement echoed in other parts of India as well. By 1908 imports had fallen off significantly, and sales of local goods enjoyed a five-year boom that gave real impetus to the development of native industries.

The emergence of extremism, led particularly by Tilak, resulted in a split in the Congress in 1907. The election of a new Liberal government in Britain in 1906 and the subsequent appointment of a new Liberal secretary of state, John Morley, gave new heart to the moderates. Many extremists were imprisoned by the British for lengthy terms.

Finally, the partition of Bengal, the vehement agitation against it, and the prospect of liberal reform crystallized the opposition of the Muslim elite to the trend of Indian nationalism. They worried about the role of a Muslim minority in a fully democratic, independent India. In October 1906 a delegation of about 35 Muslim leaders called upon Lord Minto, the viceroy, to ask for separate electorates for Muslims and a weighted proportion of legislative representation that would reflect their historic role as rulers and their record of cooperating with the British. (These requests were later adopted in the reforms incorporated in the Government of India Act of 1909.) In December, this delegation, joined by additional delegates from every province of India and Burma, formed the All-India Muslim League (later the Muslim League). Although the Muslim League did not then generate a mass following, its leaders played an important role in the politics that accompanied the challenge to British rule and the partition of India in 1947.

Ultimately the opposition to the partition of Bengal was successful. In 1911 the division was annulled, and the eastern and western portions of Bengal were reunited as a presidency, with Calcutta as its capital. Assam became its own province, while Bihār and Orissa were joined as a province (divided into separate provinces in 1936). Also at this time, the British authorities announced that the capital of India would be moved from Calcutta (where it had been formally since 1858) to Delhi. There, a new adjoining city called New Delhi would be built to house the government offices; it was inaugurated as the capital in 1931. Although New Delhi was constructed on a grand imperial scale, the losses from World War I (1914-1918) dealt what was to become a mortal blow to the British Empire.

The World Wars and the Emergence of Gandhi

India was a major source of support for Britain’s war effort. Some 750,000 Indian troops served in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; more than 36,000 were killed. India supplied wheat and other goods to British forces east of Suez, and with the loss of trade with Germany and the other Central Powers and the continuance of heavy taxation, the economic cost of the war was evident. Political resistance to British rule continued, although mainly at a more moderate level. A small, mostly Sikh revolutionary movement appeared briefly in Punjab.

Shortly after the war began, Indian lawyer Mohandas Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, where he had organized and led an Indian ambulance corps when the war broke out. When he came to India in 1915 he was already an important political leader because of an earlier trip to India in 1901 and 1902 and because of his efforts for civil liberties in South Africa. He met with the viceroy and the leaders of the Congress, and in 1916 he forged a pact with Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, for Congress-Muslim League joint action. Gandhi also became involved in a number of campaigns of nonviolent resistance, in which he honed the nonviolent techniques he had developed in South Africa.

In 1917 Edwin Montague, the secretary of state for India, had announced a policy of the “gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.” As the war ended the British introduced a fresh set of reforms, culminating in the Government of India Act of 1919. This act brought some Indian control over certain executive departments in the provinces and greater representation of Indians in the central legislative council. Also, the act made it easier for Indians to gain admission into the civil service and into the officer corps of the army, an aspect of the law which encountered resistance from some British.

In the same year that it passed these reforms, however, the legislative council also passed the Rowlatt Acts. The Rowlatt Acts, which detractors called the Black Acts, made permanent some restrictions on civil liberties that had been imposed during the war. Specifically, the acts gave the government emergency powers to deal with so-called revolutionary activities. There was an immediate wave of disapproval from all Indian leaders, and Gandhi stepped in and organized a series of nonviolent acts of resistance. Gandhi called these acts satyagraha (Sanskrit for “truth and firmness”). These included nationwide work stoppages (hartal) and other activities in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs participated together. One of these protests coincided with a Hindu festival in Amritsar. Despite a last-minute ban on public meetings, thousands of unarmed pilgrims and protesters gathered in a public square to celebrate on April 13, 1919. Without warning, British troops opened fire on the peaceful crowd, killing nearly 400 people. The success of the Rowlatt Satyagraha followed by the Amritsar incident brought public sympathy to the nationalist movement, and with it a new level of prestige.

In 1920, when the government failed to make amends, Gandhi began an organized campaign of noncooperation. Many Indians returned their British honors, withdrew their children from British schools, resigned from government service, and began a new boycott of British goods. Gandhi reorganized the Congress in 1920, transforming it from an annual gathering of self-selected leaders with a skeleton staff to a mass movement, with membership fees and requirements set to allow even the poorest Indian to join. Gandhi ended the noncooperation movement in 1922 after 22 Indian policemen were burned to death. A lull in nationalist activity followed. Gandhi was jailed shortly after ending the noncooperation movement and remained in prison until 1924. In 1928, a British committee began to study the next steps of democratic reform, sparking a revival of the Congress movement. In its 1929 annual session, the Congress issued a demand for “complete independence.”

Gandhi then led another even more massive movement of civil disobedience. It climaxed in 1930 with the so-called Salt Satyagraha, in which thousands of Indians protested taxes, particularly the tax on salt, by marching to the Arabian Sea and making salt from evaporated seawater. Tens of thousands, including Gandhi, were sent to jail as a result. The British government gave in, and Gandhi went to London as the sole representative of the Congress to negotiate new steps of reform.

In 1935, after these negotiations, the British Parliament approved legislation known as the Government of India Act of 1935. The legislation provided for the establishment of autonomous legislative bodies in the provinces of British India, the creation of a federal form of central government incorporating the provinces and princely states, and the protection of Muslim minorities. The act also provided for a bicameral national legislature and an executive arm under control of the British government. The federation was never realized, but provincial legislative autonomy went into effect April 1, 1937, after nationwide elections. In these elections, the Congress saw victory in much of India, except in areas where Muslims were a majority. Congress governments, with significant powers, took office in a number of provinces.

When World War II broke out in 1939 the British declared war on India’s behalf without consulting Indian leaders, and the Congress provincial ministries resigned in protest. After extended negotiations with the British, who were searching for a way to grant independence some time after the war’s end, Gandhi declared a “Quit India” movement in 1942, urging the British to withdraw from India or face nationwide civil disobedience. Along with other Congress leaders, he was imprisoned in August that year, and the country erupted in violent demonstrations. Gandhi was not released until 1944.

The Muslim League supported Britain in the war effort but had become convinced that if the Congress Party were to inherit British rule, Muslims would be unfairly treated. Jinnah campaigned vigorously against Congress during the war and increased the Muslim League’s support base. In 1940 the League passed what came to be known as the Pakistan Resolution, which demanded separate states in the Muslim-majority areas of India (in the northwest, centered on Punjab, and in the east, centered on Bengal) at independence. Many Muslims supported the Muslim League in its demand, while Hindus (and some Muslims) supported the Congress, which opposed partition of British India. Another round of negotiations over Indian independence began after the war in 1946, but the Congress and the Muslim League were unable to settle their differences over partition. Jinnah proclaimed August 16, 1946, Direct Action Day for the purpose of winning a separate Muslim state. Savage Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Calcutta the next day and quickly spread throughout India. In September, an interim government was installed. Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of Congress, became India’s first prime minister. A united India, however, no longer seemed possible. The new Labor government in Britain decided that the time to end British rule of India had come, and in early 1947 Britain announced its intention of transferring power no later than June 1948.

Indian Independence

As independence approached and Hindus and Muslims continued to fight and kill each other, Gandhi once again put his belief in nonviolence into play. He went on his own to a Muslim-majority area of Bengal, placing himself as a hostage for the safety of Muslims living among Hindus in western Bengal. With the British army unable to deal with the threat of mounting violence, the new viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, decided to advance the schedule of the transfer of power, leaving just months for the parties to agree on a formula for independence. Finally in June 1947 Congress and Muslim League leaders, against Gandhi’s wishes, agreed to a partition of the country along religious lines, with predominantly Hindu areas allocated to India and predominantly Muslim areas to Pakistan. They agreed to a partition of the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal as well. Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh refugees numbering in the millions streamed across the newly drawn borders. In Punjab, where the Sikh community was cut in half, a period of terrible bloodshed followed. In Bengal, where Gandhi became what Lord Mountbatten called a “one-man boundary force,” the violence was insignificant in comparison. On India’s independence day, August 15, 1947, Gandhi was in Calcutta rather than Delhi, mourning the division of the country rather than celebrating the self-rule for which he had fought.

India After Independence

Territorial Consolidation

Under the provisions of the Indian Independence Act, India and Pakistan were established as independent dominions of the British Commonwealth of Nations, with the right to withdraw from or remain within the Commonwealth. At independence India received most of the 562 princely states, as well as the majority of the British provinces, and parts of three of the remaining provinces. Pakistan received the remainder. Pakistan consisted of a western wing, with the approximate boundaries of modern Pakistan, and an eastern wing, with the boundaries of present-day Bangladesh. For the subsequent history of Pakistan (and Bangladesh, from 1947 to 1971), see Pakistan: History.

Within days after India gained independence, violence broke out among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. In the following months some 12 million people fled their ancestral homes, Hindus and Sikhs seeking safety in India, Muslims in Pakistan. During the riots and upheaval that took place, Gandhi pleaded with Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to live peacefully. The country experienced a further blow on January 30, 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

Before independence, Mountbatten had made clear to the Indian princes that they would have to choose to join either India or Pakistan at partition. In all but three cases, the princes, most of them ruling over very small territories, were able to work out an agreement with one country or another, generally a deal that preserved some measure of their status and a great deal of their revenue. The status of three princely states—namely, Jammu and Kashmīr, Hyderābād, and the small and fragmented state of Jūnāgadh (in present-day Gujarāt)—remained unsettled at independence, however. The Muslim ruler of Hindu-majority Jūnāgadh agreed to join to Pakistan, but a movement by his people, followed by Indian military action and a plebiscite (people’s vote of self-determination), brought the state into India. The nizam of Hyderābād, also a Muslim ruler of a Hindu-majority populace, tried to maneuver to gain independence for his very large and populous state, which was, however, surrounded by India. After more than a year of fruitless negotiations, India sent its army in a police action in September 1948, and Hyderābād became part of India.

Hari Singh, the Hindu maharaja of Jammu and Kashmīr, a large state with a majority Muslim population and adjacent to both India and Pakistan, kept postponing the decision of whether to join India or Pakistan, hoping to explore the possibilities of independence. After tribal warriors supported by Pakistan invaded and threatened his capital in October 1947, Hari Singh finally agreed to join India in exchange for military support from the Indian army. The situation, however, was complicated by a nearly 20-year-old movement against the maharaja—a movement that was likely supported by a large majority of Muslims of the Kashmīr valley. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, the leader of the movement against the maharaja, also explored the possibility of independence, but his friendship with Nehru prevented him from pursuing this idea. Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru made an arrangement whereby Abdullah became Jammu and Kashmīr’s first prime minister in 1948, and the new state was granted far more autonomy than any other princely state that had joined India.

The problems with Jammu and Kashmīr, however, were only beginning. As fighting continued between Indian and Pakistani forces, India asked the United Nations (UN) for help. A cease-fire was arranged in 1949, with the cease-fire line creating a de facto partition of the region. The central and eastern areas of the region came under Indian administration as Jammu and Kashmīr state, while the northwestern third came under Pakistani control as Azad (Free) Kashmīr and the Northern Areas. Although a UN peacekeeping force was sent in to enforce the cease-fire, the territorial dispute remained unresolved (see Indo-Pakistani Wars).

France and Portugal still held territories on the Indian coast after India gained independence. The French territories, the largest of which was Puducherry, had an area of about 500 sq km (about 200 sq mi); they were ceded to India in 1956. Portugal’s main Indian possession was Goa, a territory on the western coast of India. Goa had an area of about 3,400 sq km (about 1,300 sq mi) and a population of about 600,000 in 1959. Portugal refused to cede its territories to India, and in December 1961 the Indian army occupied them. Portugal eventually accepted India’s rule in the early 1970s. Goa became a state of India in 1987; Puducherry became a union territory in 1962.

India Under Nehru

The constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950, a date celebrated annually as Republic Day. The constitution provided for a federal union of states and a parliamentary system, and included a list of “fundamental rights” guaranteeing freedom of the press and association.

Nehru had become India’s first prime minister in 1947 and remained its leader until his death in 1964. Under Nehru’s leadership, the government attempted to develop India quickly by embarking on agrarian reform and rapid industrialization. A successful land reform was introduced that abolished giant landholdings, but efforts to redistribute land by placing limits on landownership failed. Attempts to introduce large-scale cooperative farming were frustrated by landowning rural elites, who—as staunch Congress Party supporters—had considerable political weight. Agricultural production expanded until the early 1960s, as additional land was brought under cultivation and some irrigation projects began to have an effect. The establishment of agricultural universities, modeled after land-grant colleges in the United States, also helped. These universities worked with high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, initially developed in Mexico and the Philippines, that in the 1960s began the Green Revolution, an effort to diversify and increase crop production. At the same time a series of failed monsoons brought India to the brink of famine, prevented only by food grain aid from the United States.

The planning commission of the central government inaugurated a series of five-year plans in 1952 that emphasized the building of basic industries such as steel, heavy machine tools, and heavy electrical machinery (such as power plant turbines) rather than automobiles and other consumer goods. New investment in those industries, as well as investment in infrastructure, especially railroads, communications, and power generation, was reserved for the public sector. Most other economic activity was in private hands, but entrepreneurs were subject to a complex set of licenses, regulations, and controls. These were designed to ensure a fair allotment of scarce resources and protect workers’ rights, but in practice they hampered investment and management. The central government controlled foreign trade stringently. Substantial progress was made toward the goal of industrial self-reliance and growth in manufacturing during the 1950s and early 1960s.

India’s large diversity of languages contributed to internal political problems during the 1950s and early 1960s. Although Gandhi had reorganized the Congress movement in 1920 to reflect linguistic divisions, and although the nationalist movement had always promised a reorganization of provincial boundaries once independence was achieved, Nehru resisted a demand to bring together the Telugu-speaking areas of the former British province of Madras and Hyderābād state. He yielded only when the leader of the movement fasted to death, and severe riots broke out. A States Reorganization Commission was appointed, and in 1956 the interior boundaries of India were redrawn along linguistic lines. In 1960 much of the land making up Bombay state was divided into Mahārāshtra and Gujarāt states, with the remainder going to Karnātaka state. In 1966 most of Punjab was split into the states of Punjab and Haryāna after significant public protest. Aside from some minor border disputes, and with additional states formed mainly in northeast India, the reorganization generally strengthened India’s unity.

The thorny problem of a national language for the country remained. The constitution specified that Hindi, spoken in many dialects by 40 percent of Indians, would become the official language in 1965, after a transition in which English, spoken by the educated elite of the country, would serve. Non-Hindi speakers, especially in the south Indian state of Madras (later renamed Tamil Nādu), mobilized against central government efforts to impose Hindi. To settle the dispute, the government allowed continued use of English for states that wished to keep it.

During its first years as a republic India figured increasingly in international affairs, especially in deliberations and activities of the UN. Nehru became world famous as the leading spokesman for nonalignment, the idea that other countries should refuse to take sides in a mounting ideological and political struggle between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States known as the Cold War. Indian determination to avoid entanglement with either of these powers became increasingly apparent after the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953). Although the Indian government approved the UN Security Council resolution invoking military sanctions against North Korea, no Indian troops were committed to the cause, and Nehru dispatched notes on the situation to the United States and the Soviet Union, repeatedly trying to restore peace in Korea. In its initial attempts at mediation the Indian government suggested that admitting China to the UN was a prerequisite to a solution of the Korean crisis. Even after China intervened in the Korean War—and despite India’s differences with China over Tibet, which China had invaded in 1950—India adhered to this view. However, it was rejected by a majority of the UN Security Council.

Nehru was unable to resolve the hostility with Pakistan, rooted in the Indian nationalists’ opposition to the creation of Pakistan and in the terrible bloodshed that accompanied the partition of the two countries at independence. The division of Jammu and Kashmīr along the 1949 cease-fire line left each country claiming important territory held by the other. Diplomatic efforts at the UN and at bilateral meetings between Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, proved unsuccessful. Although India had agreed to hold a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmīr state, it claimed that the plebiscite was dependent on the withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the region, and that the vote of the Jammu and Kashmīr state legislature in the mid-1950s to integrate fully into India made a plebiscite unnecessary. Pakistan claimed that a mutual withdrawal of forces was necessary, and that one party to an agreement cannot unilaterally change it.

In the late 1950s India began to conflict with China over the ownership of some largely uninhabited land along India’s northeastern border in Arunāchal Pradesh and in the hill areas of northeastern Jammu and Kashmīr. Until that time India’s relations with China had been generally amiable, and Nehru believed that the territorial dispute could be solved through friendly negotiations. The difficulty of mapping the area accurately, and the conflicts between the security interests of the two countries, however, proved to be thornier problems than Nehru had anticipated. By 1959 the dispute had begun heating up, and popular pressure not to yield territory to China grew. Nehru’s government sent military patrols into the disputed territory.

China’s answer was to attack in both disputed areas in October 1962, quickly routing an ill-prepared Indian army, and threatening to move virtually unopposed to the plains of Assam. In desperation, India sought Western and military aid, especially from the United States, which the administration of President John F. Kennedy willingly provided. The fighting ended when China unilaterally announced a cease-fire in late November, continuing to occupy some of the territories it had invaded. The crisis precipitated a drastic overhaul of Indian defenses, including massive arms procurement and the modernization of its armed forces. Also, Defense Minister V. K. Krishna Menon, a powerful neutralist, was ousted from the government at the end of October. This in turn alarmed Pakistan, concerned that its small size and small economic capacity compared with India would condemn it to a permanent position of inferiority on the subcontinent.

Nehru died in May 1964. He was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was seen both at home and abroad as a weak successor. Unrest in Kashmīr combined with Pakistan’s belief in India’s weakness, resulted in a short war between the two countries in September 1965. The Soviet Union brokered a cease-fire, and literally hours after it was signed in January 1966, Shastri died in Toshkent, Uzbekistan.

The Indira Gandhi Era

Indira Gandhi’s Rise to Power

Prime Minister Shastri died just as India entered a period of severe economic crisis, brought on by successive monsoon failures and the failure of the strategy of self-reliant industrialization to generate resources necessary for investment. Shastri’s successor was Nehru’s daughter, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi. Gandhi, who was leader of the Congress Party and an elected member of parliament since 1955, was chosen by a group of conservative old-guard Congress leaders known as “the syndicate.” The syndicate regarded her as a pliant figurehead, but also as a genuinely national leader who was needed to preserve Congress power in the 1967 elections. In those elections the Congress suffered serious reverses and was soundly defeated in a number of states as well as being reduced to a minority of seats in the lower house of parliament; a number of syndicate members lost their seats.

In this atmosphere of political instability and economic crisis, Indira Gandhi took the bold initiative of nationalizing the country’s largest banks and abolishing payments of personal allowances to the Indian princes, which had been part of the agreement that had brought them peacefully into the Indian union. In the 1971 elections, campaigning on a platform of abolishing poverty, Gandhi led the Congress Party to a decisive victory.

In December 1970 the Awami League, an East Pakistani party advocating a federation under which East Pakistan would be virtually independent, won a majority of votes in Pakistan’s first legislative elections since independence. Civil war broke out in the country after Pakistan’s military leader refused to allow the legislature to convene. Millions of refugees, mainly Hindus, were forced into India. India supported the East Pakistani freedom fighters with sanctuary, training, and arms, and when Pakistan bombed Indian airfields on December 3, 1971, India invaded Pakistan to liberate East Pakistan. The Pakistani troops were quickly defeated, and East Pakistan gained recognition as the independent nation of Bangladesh (Bengali for “land of the Bengalis”). Pakistan’s humiliating defeat, despite the efforts of the United States on its behalf, restored India’s pride that had been so badly hurt by its defeat by China.

The success also of the Green Revolution, an effort to diversify and increase crop yields, brought India to a position of self-sufficiency in food grain production, and made the sweeping victory of Gandhi’s Congress in the 1972 state elections almost inevitable. Gandhi attempted to build on this political advantage by reorganizing the party so that its state leaders would owe their primary loyalty to her and the national party, and to push forward further radical measures in the economic sphere, nationalizing the wholesale trade in wheat in 1973. A worldwide oil crisis in 1973, coupled with a series of poor harvests, brought about severe inflation. Gandhi began to lose support after several unpopular moves, such as rescinding on the nationalization of wholesale wheat trade and the testing of the country’s first atomic device in 1974.

By the spring of 1975 harsh economic measures had brought the economy back under control. At the same time, however, Gandhi was convicted of corrupt practices in the election of 1971. Although she maintained her innocence, opposition to Gandhi grew, bringing together elite politicians anxious for power with a grassroots opposition movement that had been building in the previous year. Gandhi’s response to this mounting pressure was to declare a state of national emergency in June 1975. Opposition politicians were jailed, the press was censored, and strong disciplinary measures were taken against a bureaucracy that had grown slack and corrupt. Initially the country did well under the so-called Emergency Rule: Hindu-Muslim riots, which had been increasing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, virtually ceased, prices stabilized, and government seemed to work with honesty and vigor.

As stringent measures and corruption in the government continued, however, the Indian public grew resentful, and open opposition to Congress leaders and the bureaucracy surfaced. In the fall of 1976 Gandhi pushed through amendments to the constitution that would have entrenched many of the emergency provisions. At the same time, her younger son, Sanjay, was associated with a coercive family planning campaign and similar measures, and government leaders enjoyed a lack of accountability to the public.

Janata Government

Rather than postpone elections again, Gandhi sought a popular mandate in hopes of reenergizing her regime. Although she did not lift the emergency provisions, she did release most of the opposition politicians, who were soon joined by a major defector from the Congress, Jagjivan Ram, a leader among those formerly called Untouchables. Coming together as the Janata (People’s) Party, these leaders soundly defeated the Congress in the 1977 elections, thus bringing about the first ruling party change of the national government since India became independent. The Congress Party split, and the faction loyal to Gandhi was renamed Congress (I), for Indira. The Janata government, which was headed by Morarji R. Desai, a survivor of the Congress old guard, was divided and ineffective, and the government collapsed after two years in power.

Indira Gandhi Returns

Indira Gandhi returned to power in the 1980 elections with her Congress (I) Party. Shortly thereafter, her son Sanjay was killed when an airplane he was piloting crashed. Gandhi then persuaded her other son, Rajiv Gandhi, to enter politics. Elections in 1980 turned the control of many state legislatures from Janata governments to Congress (I) ones. An exception was in West Bengal, where a Communist Party government continued in power, winning election after election. Despite a revival in India’s economic fortunes in the late 1970s, Indira Gandhi soon faced a political crisis of major proportions. A nationalist movement had emerged among native inhabitants of Assam state against Bengali immigrants, and an extremist Sikh leader was conducting a terrorist campaign to establish a Sikh state in the Punjab region, the historical homeland of the Sikhs.

In June 1984 Gandhi ordered the army to fight its way into the main shrine of the Sikh religion, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Sikh terrorists had established their headquarters. About 1,000 people, including the main terrorist leaders, died in the battle. All the buildings of the complex, with the exception of the central shrine, were badly damaged. Sikhs everywhere were outraged at the desecration. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh members of her security guard.

The Rajiv Gandhi Government

With elections looming, the Congress quickly selected Rajiv Gandhi to succeed his mother as prime minister. In the days following the assassination, Sikhs in Delhi and other cities in northern India were killed in the thousands. Gandhi responded to the unrest among the Sikhs by agreeing to expand the boundaries of Punjab state. In yet another tragedy that year, a gas leak from a pesticide plant at Bhopāl resulted in the deaths of at least 3,300 people; more than 20,000 became ill.

Despite this internal turmoil, the 1984 elections, secured by the young, fresh leader Rajiv Gandhi, promised both continuity and change and brought an enthusiastic turnout; the Congress (I) party scored its most impressive victory ever. Gandhi quickly moved to negotiate peace accords in Assam and Punjab and accelerated the economic liberalization begun by his mother. His political inexperience, however, quickly surfaced. His uncertainty on how to handle a Supreme Court decision that antagonized orthodox Muslims cost him Muslim support and at the same time encouraged renewed stirrings of Hindu nationalism. The Punjab accord unraveled when the moderate leader with whom he had negotiated it was assassinated. Also, Gandhi sent Indian troops in 1987 to Sri Lanka to help suppress a rebellion by Tamil guerrillas. A peace agreement was signed in July, but violent clashes continued, and Indian troops were left embroiled in that guerrilla war.

Although economic growth accelerated to record levels, it was fueled by large-scale external borrowing; the government was also spending a great deal on modernizing its armed forces. A military exercise to test new weapons and new tactics brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war in 1987, and a kickback scandal involving the purchase of artillery from a Swedish firm weakened Gandhi’s government. However, in 1988 relations between India and Pakistan improved when Gandhi made the first official visit of an Indian prime minister to Pakistan in nearly 25 years. Despite subsequent high-level talks aimed at defusing tensions between the two countries, relations rapidly deteriorated again in late 1989 after India accused Pakistan of supporting a violent separatist insurgency being waged by militant Muslim groups in Jammu and Kashmīr.

India in the 1990s

Corruption was the main issue in the 1989 elections. Once again the Congress (I) lost its power, this time to a coalition led by V. P. Singh, who had served as Rajiv Gandhi’s finance and then defense minister before being expelled from the Congress (I) Party for investigating corruption allegations. Singh’s National Front coalition collapsed when L. K. Advani, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was arrested for campaigning to replace the 16th-century Babri Masjid (Mosque of Babur) in Ayodhya with a temple to the god Rama. The BJP withdrew its support for Singh’s government. The government that replaced it, led by Chandra Shekhar, was scuttled in 1991 by the Congress (I) Party, which had initially supported it. In the meantime, India’s finances were badly hit when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990: Remittances from Indian workers in Kuwait and Iraq abruptly ceased, and the workers had to be brought home at great cost.

In May 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist during a campaign rally. The assassination disrupted the May elections, and a second round of voting was scheduled for June. P. V. Narasimha Rao, who had once served as Gandhi’s foreign minister, was chosen to replace Gandhi as head of the Congress (I). Rao led the party to a near majority in the second round of voting, and took office as India’s new prime minister.

Economic Reform

When Rao took office, India was facing an economic crisis that threatened the country with bankruptcy. Rao made economic reform the first item on his agenda. Under his reforms, many of the most burdensome controls on private enterprise, such as licenses to build or expand factories, were abolished. His government also welcomed foreign investment, and lowered tariff rates to encourage trade.

India’s economy responded with growth in the gross domestic product, a rapid expansion of trade, and new vigor in the private sector, visible in new products from automobiles to breakfast cereals. Other parts of the reform package were only partially implemented. Subsidies to farmers were cut barely at all, privatization of public-sector enterprises was attempted with great caution, and little was done to change laws that made labor management difficult. The states began to compete vigorously for private investment, including foreign investment, and also took some small steps to privatize their own public-sector enterprises.

Hindu Nationalism

The economic policies were put in place with surprisingly little political resistance. This was due perhaps to other major political issues commanding attention at the time, including Hindu nationalism. Faced with a militant movement with links to the BJP to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and build a Hindu temple there, the Rao government decided to accept the assurances of the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh that the shrine would be protected. But in December 1992 gangs of militant Hindu youths stormed the mosque and demolished it, sparking serious protests by Muslims, police firings, and then Hindu-Muslim riots, with a particularly terrible one in Mumbai; thousands lost their lives.

Militant Hindu nationalism had apparently peaked, however. In March 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai severely damaged the Bombay Stock Exchange and killed several hundred people, but the bombing did not spark riots, even though it was widely assumed that Muslim extremists were responsible. The BJP, whose governments in several north Indian states had been dismissed by the central government in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, faced united opposition in the elections of November 1993 and fared poorly.

Rise of the BJP

The 1996 elections ushered in a period of unrest in India and concern on the part of foreign investors. The Congress (I), now known simply as the Congress Party, lost its majority, forcing Rao to resign as prime minister. The central political issue had become the corruption of the most senior politicians. Amid allegations of corruption, Rao retained his parliamentary seat but resigned as party president. He was indicted for corruption in 1997, as were a number of his former cabinet colleagues. Members of other political parties—with the exception of the Communist parties—were also implicated in bribery and kickback scandals. With the continued investigative vigor of the press and a newly energized judicial system, the revulsion of most Indians against corruption became evident.

The BJP, which had toned down its emphasis on Hindu nationalist demands, won the most seats of any party in the 1996 legislative elections. Having fallen short of a majority in the parliament, the BJP formed a coalition government with its allies. BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister. After only 13 days in office, however, Vajpayee resigned when it became clear that he would not pass a confidence vote by the parliament.

The leftist coalition United Front, which had the second highest number of parliamentary seats, formed a government under Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda with the help of the Congress Party and several smaller regional parties. Gowda’s government, however, had only been in power for nine months when the Congress Party withdrew its support, demanding Gowda’s resignation. In order to avoid new elections, Gowda resigned and Inder Kumar Gujral, also of the United Front coalition, assumed the position of prime minister with support from the Congress Party. Still, the Indian government remained shaky. In the fall of 1997, Gujral resigned when the Congress Party once again pulled its support of the coalition, this time over differences relating to the investigation of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

In the March 1998 elections that followed, the BJP and its regional party allies won a majority of seats in parliament with 35 percent of the vote. A coalition government took office, led by Vajpayee of the BJP as prime minister.

Relations with Pakistan

Two months after the 1998 elections, the new BJP-led government followed through on its controversial pledge to make India into a nuclear power. In its first atomic tests since 1974, India detonated five nuclear devices underground. Pakistan responded with its own nuclear tests, arousing fears of a regional nuclear arms race. A number of foreign governments declared sanctions against both countries to express disapproval of the tests, and the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1172, which prohibited export technologies to India and Pakistan that could assist them in making nuclear weapons.

Tensions eased somewhat in the months following the nuclear tests, as India and Pakistan both declared moratoriums on further testing and entered into negotiations sponsored by the United States. Some economic sanctions were lifted at these signs of progress. In early 1999, after months of talks, the leaders of India and Pakistan signed the Lahore Declaration, which expressed the two countries’ commitment to improve relations between them. However, fears of an arms race revived in April, when first India and then Pakistan tested medium-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Relations between India and Pakistan were further strained by their longstanding territorial dispute over the region of Jammu and Kashmīr. A Muslim separatist insurgency that emerged in the region in 1989 had become increasingly militant and violent, leading to periodic escalations of violence.

In May 1999 Pakistan army forces seized Indian-controlled territory in the Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmîr. Fighting between Indian and Pakistani forces raged until July, when, in an agreement brokered by the United States, Pakistan withdrew its remaining forces. However, the territorial dispute continued to be a major obstacle to the normalization of relations between the two countries.

India into the 21st Century

Economic Growth

In April 1999 the BJP-led government lost its majority in parliament when a member of the coalition withdrew, and new elections were held in October. A multiparty coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which was led by the BJP, won a clear majority of seats in parliament. BJP leader Vajpayee was sworn in as prime minister a third time.

Vajpayee’s government continued to vigorously pursue economic reforms, which had begun in the early 1990s under the Congress (I) Party. The reforms achieved remarkable economic growth in India through the 1990s and into the early 21st century. Many state-owned enterprises were sold to the private sector, and foreign investment poured into the country. Information technology became a vital sector of the economy, leading to the development of new high-tech centers. India’s per capita income increased, helping alleviate poverty. However, the economic growth mostly benefited India’s middle and upper-middle classes.

Issues with Pakistan and the United States

After India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, a series of high-level talks between India and the United States resulted in an easing of sanctions that had been imposed due to the tests. U.S. president Bill Clinton made a highly successful visit to India in the spring of 2000. The Clinton administration worked hard to strengthen ties with India. Then starting in 2004, the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush focused on negotiating what was called a nuclear deal, under which India agreed to international inspection of its nonmilitary nuclear sites, and support for nuclear arms control measures, in return for removing the penalties imposed for having nuclear weapons. However, the deal allowed India to continue its refusal to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement in October 2008. Most U.S. nonproliferation experts objected strenuously to the deal because they believed it undermined the NPT. See also Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States had a significant impact on the relations between India, Pakistan, and the United States. India quickly offered to work with the United States in attacking the al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, while Pakistan, under General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule, made an abrupt change in policy and withdrew its support for the Taliban, allowing U.S. forces to use Pakistan as a base for their operations against the Taliban. India blamed Pakistan for supporting Kashmîr-based terrorists, who staged an attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi in December 2001. Taking advantage of the new global consensus on combating terrorism, India aggressively moved hundreds of thousands of troops, on hair-trigger alert, to the India-Pakistan border. Pakistan responded by massing its troops. By mid-2002 the two countries had amassed an estimated 1 million troops along their shared border. The military buildup raised concerns in the international community that the conflict in Kashmīr could escalate into full-fledged war between the two nuclear powers.

However, intense international diplomacy helped defuse the crisis. In 2003 India and Pakistan agreed to restore full diplomatic ties and made the first high-level government contacts in almost two years.

Tensions between India and Pakistan increased, however, due to a deadly series of bombs set off in Indian cities, and they became volatile after the November 2008 terrorist attacks on a commuter rail line and two luxury hotels and other locations in Mumbai, India’s financial center. The terrorist group that carried out the attacks originated in Pakistan. The one gunman known to have survived reportedly told Indian authorities that he was a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group based in Pakistan that had been blamed for a number of terrorist attacks within India and India-administered Kashmīr. The Pakistan government condemned the attacks and denied any involvement. Indian officials did not explicitly blame the Pakistan government, but there was great uncertainty about how the attacks would impact peace negotiations between India and Pakistan.


In February 2002 at least 58 Hindu activists were burned to death when their train was stopped by assailants believed to be local Muslims in Gujarāt. The state government, which was run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), failed to control several days of widespread violence, in which well over a thousand Muslims and hundreds of Hindus perished. The BJP was probably complicit in several of the attacks on Muslims and the destruction of Muslim homes, businesses, and shrines, which many observers labeled a “pogrom.” This was by far the worst communal violence since the Bombay riots of 1992-1993. Although national BJP leaders expressed regret at the occurrence and several leaders of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) strongly condemned the attacks, the NDA continued in power.

In parliamentary elections in 2004, the NDA campaign motto, “India Shining,” emphasized economic development and prosperity. The election resulted in a surprise win for the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. The causes of the BJP-NDA defeat became a puzzle. Detailed analysis of the exit polls and other data suggested that the defeat was not due to economic factors, nor did an “anti-incumbency” factor play much of a role. Polls also indicated that voters were not dissatisfied with the leadership of Prime Minister Vajpayee, nor was there voter revulsion after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002.

India’s Communist parties and the Socialist Party declined to join the UPA coalition but offered it crucial support. Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was widely expected to be named prime minister. However, not wishing to challenge those who opposed her, including some in the UPA, due to her foreign-born status, she turned down the post.

The upset victory of the Congress Party led to the biggest one-day plunge in the history of India’s stock market, fueled by investors’ fears that economic reforms could be slowed or halted because of pressure from the political left. However, the market soon rallied on news that a respected architect of India’s economic reforms, former finance minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party, had been chosen to be India’s next prime minister. He became the country’s first Sikh prime minister. Pratibha Patil, former governor of the state of Rajasthan, was elected India’s first woman president in 2007.

Tsunami Disaster

On December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck under the Indian Ocean off the northwestern coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earthquake triggered a tsunami (series of massive waves), which quickly hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, spread across the Bay of Bengal, and crashed into the east coast of India about two hours later. Coastal towns and fishing villages in Tamil Nādu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Puducherry were devastated by the powerful wave surges. Between 11,000 and 16,000 Indian people died in the tsunami.

Terrorist Attacks in Mumbai

In a terrorist attack on the railroad system in Mumbai in July 2006 about 180 people were killed. The coordinated bombings occurred aboard seven commuter trains within 15 minutes of each other during the evening rush hour. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in India since 1993, when about 250 people were killed in a series of bombings in Mumbai, including one at the stock exchange. Bomb blasts in the markets of cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, and Guwahati—located in the four corners of the country—in the 2005 to 2009 period killed tens of people in each case. The police claimed to have evidence that Pakistani terrorist groups were responsible.

However, a terrorist attack on a commuter rail line, two luxury hotels, and other locations in Mumbai in November 2008 was called “India’s 9/11” because of the audacity of the attack. The attacks led to prolonged gun battles between India’s security forces and the terrorists who holed up in the hotels. A group of at least ten gunmen began the attack on November 26 and were not subdued until November 29. Estimates of the death toll ranged from at least 188 to more than 195 people, including at least 28 foreigners. Among them were 6 U.S. citizens and 8 Israeli citizens. At least 2 U.S. citizens were killed at a Jewish religious center that had been seized by some of the terrorists. Neither the failures of security measures, which prompted the resignation of the home minister, nor the BJP’s efforts to blame “Muslims” and stir up anti-Pakistan fervor had any effect on the domestic political scene.

Parliamentary Elections of 2009

In July 2008 the UPA government survived a no-confidence vote in a session of parliament marked by the high drama of impassioned speeches and charges that MPs were being bribed to support the government on the issue of the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The Communist parties, which objected strenuously to the new partnership with the United States that the deal symbolized and made concrete, withdrew their support, but the Socialist Party did not. In the regularly scheduled parliamentary elections nine months later, a slightly different UPA won decisively, while the NDA and particularly the leftist parties lost support. Voters seemed to have rewarded parties in states that were judged to be well-governed, no matter what their alliance. In May 2009 Prime Minister Singh was sworn in again, the first prime minister to be reelected after a full term since Nehru in 1962.

Space Exploration

In October 2008 India demonstrated its scientific and technological achievements by launching its first spacecraft to the Moon. The unpiloted lunar mission was intended to improve mapping of the Moon’s surface. The Chandrayaan-1 went into orbit around the Moon and also successfully sent a probe to its surface. See also Space Exploration.

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