*** history India

National Histories: India

 Mahatma Gandhi
Figure 1.--Here a little boy leads Mahatma Gandhi to a Juhu-Bombay beach in 1938. Gandi who had been sick was recovering. At the time, India under the British was moving for self rule. The pace was too slow for Congress wgich by this point was intent on independence. Ghandi and others in Congress were apauled by NAZI military aggression and violence, but did not did not appreciate the extent of NAZI racism and the genocidal vission of Hitler and the NAZIs for non-Aryan (non-Nordic) peoples. As in the West, the general view was that the NZIs were focused on Jews and not other ethnic/racil groups. India would play an important role in the British War effort, but without Congress. Ghandi, Nehru, and other Congress leaders did not join the Axis like Chandra Bose, but they did launch the Quit India Movement which put pressure on the British at the very time that Japanese armies were moving through Burma toward India (1942).

India has an extraordinaryly colorful history in which the sub-continent's geography has played a central role. It is one of the grand epics of world history and not well understood in the West. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru notably described it as 'a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads'. Humans reached India earlier than most other areas of Eurasia, The first wave of human migration out of Africa followed the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and along the coast of Iran and Pakistan down into the sub-Continent, again primarily following the coast. The Indus Valley was one of the great cradles of civilization. Less is known about the Indus Valley civilization than the other great River Valley civilizations. The sub-continent was never fully under once centrally controlled empire like China or Rome. And as a result, its history is complicated and often difficult to follow. Few artifacrts have been found. They are believed to have had trad contacts with Mesopotamian civilizations. Historian debate the role of Aryan invaders. A succession of Hindu kingdoms fighting wars with each other dominate the history of India. Invaders have at times played in mportant rokles, but the Himilayas has effectively isolated India and its people from outside influence. In that environment two of the world's great religiins developed: Hinduism and Budhism. Invaders intriduced a third--Islam. Many invaders have fought to enter the mountain passes that connected India with the Middle East: Persians, Greeks, and Mongols. Other foreigners took sea routes: Arabs, Portuguese, French, and British. Hindu kingdoms resisted Alexander, but finally fell to the Moguhls and then go the British. Both empire have left a lasting imprint. One of the ironies of history is that the principal national elements that unite this vibrant, diverse countey come from the British Raj: democracy, law, and the English language. They are also key factors in the emergence of India as an economic powehouse in the 21st century. We welcome contributions from our Indian readers to help build our Indian history here.


The pre-history of India is not well established. Tools reportly crafted by proto-humans in northwestern India have been dated back 2 million years, but there is considerable doubt about these artifacts. The first wave of human migration out of Africa is widely believed to have followed the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and along the coast of Iran and Pakistan down into the sub-Continent, again following the coast. This coastal route pressumably reflects their subsistence technology and the inhospitable nature of the interior until they reached the Subcontinent. This is believed to have occurred about 200,000 years ago, although there continues to be considerable academic about the approximate date. Some anthropologists believe it is more recent. And others claim to have found remains of Homo erectus at Hathnora (Narmada Valley in central India) which are variously dated (500,000 - 200,000 bp). The settlement pattern of the first humans is unclear. Some are believed to have followed the coastline south. Others moved into the interior of the sub-continent. Actual evidence is scant. The sub-continent is a vast area and the numbers of these early hunter-gathers very small. They moved in bands composed of only a few families. And their primitive technology left very little trace. As a result, actual confirmed archeological finds relate to a subsequent human migration. Archeological finds in Tamil Nadu (southeast Indai) have been found before and after the explosion of the Toba Volcano are the first confirmed presence of the first anatomically humans (about 75,000 bp). A large number of primitive stone tools have been found in the Soan valley and south India, but little is known about the people associated with them. Some authors date the appearance of modern man to a a relatively recent date (about 36000 BC).

Ancient India (5,000 BC- 5th Century AD)

Ancient India is less well studied than the other great cradles of civilization. Settlement of the Indus Valley is believed to have begun before 4000 BC. Archeologists have divided the history of ancient India into three principal eras. The early Indus River civilization dominated India for a millenium (3000-1500 BC). This civilization was notable for planned cities which had straight streets. Cotton is known to have been grown in India as early as 3,000 BC, but was almost ceratinly grown much earlier. Ancient Indians are known to have worn brightly colored clothes. Ancient India was conquered by the Aryans about 1500 BC by the Aryans, a nomadic people from from Central Asia. They entered the Indus Valley through the Khyber pass--the traditional invasion route into the Southern Asian sub-continent. As in so many cases, the Aryans were a war-like hearing people that conquuered a more sophisticated settled agaraian civilization. The Aryans employed chariots and engaged in constant warfare. They did not have sophisticated governmental structures and were instead still organized in tribal clans and warrior chiefs called rajas. They left few structures that archeologists could study. They did leave a rich setof stories at first sng and told orally. The principal Aryan beliefs as well as descriptions of daily life were set down in the Vedic Scriptures, a collection of poems and sacred hymns, about 1500 BC. Veda meant simply knowledge and include four parts: the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas. The ancient warriors caste, the Kashtriya, are described in the Vedic scriptures. The Aryan dominance gave way with the age of empire which began about 500 BC. There were numerous empires in different regions of India. The greatest of these empires was the Gupta Empire (320 AD to about 500 AD). The Gupta Empire existed at about the same time as the final yearsof the Roman Empire in the the West. The Gupta Empire controlled northern India. The Gupta Empire brought law and order to northern India. Elephants were incorporated into the imperial army. Some call the Gupta period, the "Golden Age" of ancient India. There was religious freedom and the Empire promoted education, literature and art.

Medieval India (6th-16th Centuries AD)

Medieval India witnessed the high point of Hindu civilization on the Indian sub-continent, followed by a succession of Muslim conquests before the arival of the Europeans at the beginning of the modern era. Medieval India was divide along a north-south axis. The Chola dominated thev south and the Rajputs in the north. The most important dynasty during the medieval period rose in southern India away from the Indus Valley and Ganges rivers in the north, where civilization first appeared during the ancient era. The Cholas unlike other major dynasties (the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, the Pandyas or the Rashtrakutas) were a native dynasty rather than an invaduing force. The Deccan region was in chaos. The Deccan Plateau comprises much of southern Asia. The Cholas reduced the Pallavas to the status of minor vassals. The Rashtrakutas had declined, but a resurgent branch of the Chalukya family (the later Chalukyas) became an imortant regionalpower in the western Deccan. The Deccan region was contested by the later Chalukyas, the Yadavas in Devagiri (northern Deccan around Aurangabad), the Kakatiyas of Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) and the Hoysalas of Dorasamudra (Mysore). It was Cholas whould ultimately emerge as unchallenged authorities in the south (900-1100 AD). The Hoysala Empire emerged as the lastbgreat southern empire (10th-14th centuries). The Hoysala were hill people from the western Ghats. As the Chalukyas and Kalachuri kingdoms exausted themselves in constant warfare, the Hoysala gained control of present day Karnataka and parts of the Kaveri River delta in Tamil country (12th century). The Hoysala expanded into modern Karnataka, minor parts of Tamil Nadu and parts of Deccan India. The Hoysala era was important period in the development of Indian art, architecture, and religion. The Empire left largebnumbers of stone temples which survice today. After the death of Harsha the Rajputs rose in northern India. The Rajput period in the north was as in medieval Europe was an age of chivalry and feudalism. The Rajputs constantly warred with each other which impaired their ability to resist Muslim invaders. The Rajputs were thus unable to resist Turkic invaders from Afghanistan from gaining a hold on nothern India where they established the Delhi Sultanate an Islam (13th century).

Mugul Empire (16th-18th Centuries)

When the Mongols storm broke on China, the Middle East and Euope, they failed to ernter the Indian sub-continent. They weere blocked by the Delhi Sultanate. It was a later Mongol invasion that overwealmed India. Baber or Zahir ud-Din Mohammed (1483-1530), a descendents of Genghis Kahn and Timor (Tamerlanre), was a child warrior King at age 11. He began raids into India for booty (1519-24). He defeated the Sultan of Delhi, taking both Delhi and Agra (1526). Baber founded India's famed Mogul dynasty (1526-1707). He greatly expanded the dominions that had been held by the Sultan of Dwlhi. The Moguls were an Islamic dynasty which governed India for more than 200 years. The Moguls reformed government and promoted the arts. One of their major accomplishments was uniting India. The greatest Mogul ruler was Baber's grandson Akbar (reigning 1556-1605). Akbar significantly expanded the boundaries of the Empire. India was a great challenge for the Islamic Moguls. The subcontinent was populated by a largely Hindu people. Not only did the Mogul's encounter a largely alien religion, but dizzing variety of languages and traditions. Akbar's genius was not only his military conquests but his his toleration toward Hindus, and Christians. Akbar also promoted the arts and learning. The resulting artistic flowering is one of the glories of India, expressed in painting, glass, and carpets. The last of the Mogul rulers was Aurangzeb ( -1707). Unlike Akbar Aurangzeb was intolerant of other religions, resulting in Hindu uprisings which drained the royal treasury.

British Control (18th-20th Centuries)

Britsh and France battled to control India (18th century). The issue was largely settled by the dominance of the Royal Navy. British victories in Indua during the Seven Years War essentially ousted the French. Gradually Britain expanded its control over all of India as well as modern Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma. The British accomplished all of this with an incredibly small military force. This was in part because they were largely replacing weak Muslim rulers who India's Hindu massess saw as just as foreign and at first more oppresive than the British. India was by far Britain's most important colony--truly the jewel in the Crown of the British Empire. It was possibly the most valuble possession of any empire in all of history. Controlling the sub-continnt was a development of emense geo-political consequnce. Britain at first exerted control of India through the East India Company, a private company chartered by the Crown. This changed with the Sepoy or Great Mutiny (1857-58). As part of the reforms following the reimposition of British control was that the British Governmrnt commenced direct rule. This period of direct Bitish rule is reffered to as the Raj. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims were kept in check by the British Raj, altjhough the British also played on this division in administering India. Huge fortunes were made in India and wealth transferred back to Britain. India's modern infrastructure was built during the Raj. Britain set policies to benefit Britain and not India. But many Indians took advantage of the stable political situation. British policies undercut inefficent local industries. Serious famines were not well handled. On the other hand, Britain founded a modern education system and laid the foundation for a demoratic system. While Britain undoubtedly exploited India and most Indians are critical if not bittr about th Raj, most of the serious problems independent India faces date from either centuries old traditions or socialist policies adopted by India after independence and not the Raj.

World War I (1914-18)

World War I was largely limited to Europe, but the British Empire, both dominions and colonies, each played a role. India was an important source of both men and resources for Britain. At the time British India included not only modern India, but Pakistan, Bangaldesh and Sri Lanka as well. Indian units were also imployed in the fighting. As part of the BEF rushed to northeast France and Belgium were 30,000 Indian troops. They helped slow the German advance and prevented the Germans from seizing the Channel Ports. Here the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps played an important role. Khudadad Khan at the First Battle of Ypres was the first Indian to win a Victoria Cross. German possession of the Channel Ports would have greatly complicated Allied supply problems on the Western Front. A total of 0.14 Indians were deployed to the Western Front. About two-thirds were committed to the front-line Indian Corps, and one-third to auxiliary battalions. The Indian Corps served in the front line trenches for about a year. They were then withdrawn, decimated by sickness and casualties. Indians accustomed to a tropical climate were especially affected by trench warfare. Indian units totaling about 0.7 million men were subsequently deployed primarily in the Middle East. They saw action against the Ottomans in the Mesopotamian campaign. Indians were also committed in the costly Gallipoli peninsula as well as actions in East and West Africa as well as China. There was no conscription, but 1.5 million Indians volunteered to serve with British forces. This was a major contribution to the Allied effort. Had the Indian forces not been available, Britain would have had to divert men from the critical Western front. Nearly 48,000 Indins were killed. About 100,000 Gurkhas from Nepal fought in the War.

Independence Movement (1920s-40s)

The Indian people under British rule during the 19th century had no say in government even at a local level. This was not a huge change for Indians because before the arrival of The British, the subcontinent was ruled by potentates over which the population had little or no influence. Educated middle class nationals at the behest of British civil servant A.O. Hume and fellow members of the Theosophical Society movement founded the Indian National Congress (INC) (1885). Their objectives were at first modest, but wanted Indians to have a voice as to how they were governed. Secretary of State for India John Morley and Lord Minto Viceroy of India introduced government reforms to respond to growing Indian political demands (1909). A governor was appointed for each province of India and Indian nationals were allowed to sit on the provincil councils which advised the new governors. The Indian struggle for independence began in earest after World War I (1914-18). Mahatma Gahandi inspired the Indian people in an unorthodox independence movement led by the Congress Party. The INC was not satisfied ny the Moley-Minto Reforms and pressed for more Indian participation in governmnt. The British Parliament responding to Indian demands and recognizing the importance of India in Word War I passed the Government of India Act to permit increased Indian particpaton in the governing of the colony (1919). The Act established for the first time a national parliament with two houses. About 5 million Indians were given the right to vote, a small percentage of the total population but a huge number in comparison to any earlier period of Indian history. And Indians were appointedcto mkinisterial positions for the first time. Provincial governments could now include Indian nationals, including ministers of education, health, and public works Amd a commitment was made to form a commission in 1929, to determine if India was ready for expanded governmental reforms. The British continued to control all central government and within the provincial governments, the British retained control of the critical posts of tax and security (police and military). Congress as it developed included both Muslim and Hindu leaders. Largely through Ghandi's influence it was a non-violent movement. The independence movement led by Mahatma Ghandi and the Congress Party gained considerable strength during the 1920s and 30s. The Simon Commission set up the pramters for discussing furhr cinstitutional reforms (May 1930). Three Round Table Conferences were hosted in London by the British Government to discuss constitutional reforms (193o-32). They were conducted in London with an Indian delegation led by Ghandi. The Indians demanded swaraj (self-rule). And in Britain, many were comong to the conclusion that India should move toward dominion status. Others thought that this might be desirable, but the constitutional shift should be incremental. Significant differences between the Indian and British delegtions proved impossible to bridge. What emerged in India as World war II loomed was a political situation short of home rule, but included substantial Indian participation and a free press. Nehru and other Congress leaders greatly respected Gandhi, including Muslim leader Muhammed Jinnah. Most including Nehru and Jinnah considered Gandhi him a kind of beloved dreamer and not a pracical man whose bission they could follow to actually govern India. An Indian with whom we have been discussing Gandhi writes, "Gandhi was not an enemy of capitalism.But after he discovered India, when returned from South Africa he had a vision of self-reliant villages, with a reinvigorated agriculture and craft production. He believed that modern economics would lead to pauperization. And he also distrusted technology because it dehumanized man. At that time, we were not ready to take off industrial revolution as it would cause unemployment to illiterate indians. Gandhi distrusted technology but not businessman." [Ch] The British-ducated Nehru and much of Congress had a more Socialist vision for India which is not surprising because this a direction tht Britain itself was headed. And may were impressed with the apparent rapid development of the Soviet Union as a result of state planning.

World War II (1939-45)

The British by 1939 were having increasing difficulties governing India. The Congress Party while refusing to support the War efort, decided not to actively oppose Britain or to take advantage of British defeats in the early stages of the War. Some Indian POWs taken by the Japanese were recruited by anti-British nationalists and formed the Free Indian Army. Under Subhashchandra Bose, they fought alongside the Japanese in Burma. Overall, India played an important part in the Allied war effort. Indian units fought with other British Empire forces in both the Pacific and European theaters. About 2.5 million Indians (including modern Pakistan) were mobilized. Some Indian units played important roles in the early stages of the War before Britain had fully mobilized and American joined the War. The Fifth Indian Division ngaged the Italians in the Sudan ans subsequently the Germans in the western Desert. The Indians played a major role in quelling a pro-NAZI revolt in Iraq. A successful revolt would have cut the British off from the Iraqi oil fields whigh would have undermined the naval and land defenses of Egypt and the Suez Canal. the Division along with eight other Indian Divisions fought in Burma. After the Japanese surrender, the Indian forces then disarmed the Japanese forces in Malayia and Java. India provided important bases for the recinquest of Burma and delivering supplied to the Chinese. India also was a source of food and other supplies for British and Commonwealth forces as well as the British homefront.

Independence (1947)

The current conflict dates from the independence of India after World War II. Lord Mountbatten was sent to India by Britain's post-War Labour Government to be the last Viceroy and oversee independence. His wife Edwina played an important role in partnership with her husband, a rather complicated relationship. India's independence was achieved by the Congress Party. Ghandi through the Congress Party had promoted the idea of a secular Indian state in which people of all faiths could live harmoniously. Muslims were an important part of the Congress Party coalition. Here both Ghandi and Nehru played central roles. The two admired each other and were close friends, but did not agree on many issues. In the negotiations over independence, Muslim leader Jenna decided that Muslims needed a separate state--Pakistan. Britain granted India independence August 15, 1947 and two states were creates--Undia and Pakistan. Inter-communal rioting in 1947 resulted in hundred of thousands of deaths if not more than a million. There was no accurte accounting. Muslims fled from India and Hindus from Pakistan--one of the largest migrations in history. Thousands more died in violence as these collumns foraged or food and were set upom by villagers also inflamed by religious and national zealotry. The two collumns also fought with each other. The British have been criticised for leaving India before key aspects of independence, such as the facr of the princely states had been finalized. At the time, however, the Indians were pressing for independence.

India-Pakistan Conflict (1940s- )

The ongoing conflict betwwen Moslems and Hindus dated back to Mongul invasions of the 16th century. Many Indians converted to Islam under Mongul rule. There were economic advantages. Some Mongul emperors forced conversion. In addition, Islam offered relief from untouchibility. Areas of northern and eastern India in particular became strongly Muslim. After the decline of Nongiul empire tensions developed between Muslim and Hindu communities. This was kept in check by the British Raj, altjhough the British also played on this division in administering India. The current conflict dates from the independence of India after World War II. Lord Mountbatten was sent to India by Britain's post-War Labour Government to be the lat Viceroy and oversee independence. India's independence was achieved by the Congress Party. Ghandi through the Congress Party had promoted the idea of a secula Indian state in which people of all faiths could live harmoniously. Muslims were an important part of the Congress Party coalition. In the negotiations over independence, Muslim leader Jenna decided that Muslims needed a separate state--Pakistan. Britain granted India independence August 15, 1947. Inter-communal rioting in 1947 resulted in hundred of thousands of deaths if not million as Muslims fled from India and Hindus from Pakistan--one of the largest migrations in history. Thousands more died in violence as these collums foraged or food and were set upom by villagers also inflamed by religious and national zealotry. The two collumns also fought with each other. The flash point for armed conflict between India and Pakistan was Kasmir. The formula agreed to by Congress and the British was that the aristocratic rulers were allowed to chose whether to join India or Pakistan. This was a complicated process as colonial India was composed of 565 separate states. Pakistan expected Kashmir to affiliate with their country because of the majority Muslim population. Local extremists supported by Pakistan attempted to seize control. Kashmir's Hindumaharajah decided to affiliate with India and pleaded for military support. The result was the first India-Pakistan War. United Nations Resolutions in 1948 and 50 called for a refreandum, but India has never allowed this. Pakistan since 1989 has supported a violent insurgency in Kashmir. The coinflict has been further complicated in the 1990s. Both India and Pakistan developed and tested nuclear weapons. Hindu nationalists have defeated Congress in Indian elections. Since the 9-11 attacks, the Pakistani Government has reassessed its support of terroism in Khasmir, but Islamacists in Pakistan object to this and other actions by the country's secular Government, especially cooperation with America on the war against terrorism.

Cold War

The United States and India are the world's two great multi-ethnic demoracies. It might seem that they would have been natural allies in the Cold War struggle with the totalitarian Soviet Union. This for a number of reasons did not occur. The United States had pressed Britain on the colonial question during World War II. And with the election of a Labour Government (1945), Britain proceeded rapidly with independence after the War. India became independent (1947). The Congress Party stabilized the political life of perhaps the most ethnically and culturally disparate country in the world. Unlike many other European colonies, India adopted a real democratic system after independence. Many were convinced that democracy could never work in such a large, diverse country. Free market economics was another matter. Nehru and other major Indian leaders after independence saw the United States as a basically colonial power and Western free market economics as inappropriate for the rapid development of the Indian economy as well as explotive system. This idea was widespread within the Congress Party. Many Indians saw Soviet socialism and central planning as the way to both rapidly modernize the economy and to do so in a more ethically just manner. Many American liberals would now use the term 'social justice'. The result was despite India's vast economic potential was several decades of economic stagnation and poverty. None of the economic goals so optimistically anticipated were met. Despite the alienation with the British during the indpendence movement, the Indians decided to pursue English-style parliamentary democracy, but Soviet-style central planning and costly massive beaureacracy. India as a result languished as a poor, backward third world country. Indian leaders persued this economic program for several decades becuse of an almost religious devotions to socialist ideology. The Soviets in turn courted India and provided funding for major projects. It is unclear why the Indians with their democratic system were not disturbed by Soviet totalitarianism and creation of a colonial empire in Eastern Europe. It is presumasblt the same dynamic which affected left-wing individuals like Sarte in the West when they viewed Soviet atrocities. It appears that Soviet anti-colonial retoric was more important than actual Soviet policies. India was a participant in the Non-Aligned Movement which essentially became a foil for Soviet foreign policy, blaming economic conditions in the Third World on the West. India's Cold War policies were complicated by the wars with Pakistan over Kasmir and a war with China over the Himalayan border. Only with the fall of the Soviet Union and the exposure of its economic failure did India begin its free market reforms that has so transformed its economy.

Turn to the West

Most of the newly independent countries in the post-World War II era adopted socialist, statist policies to develop their economies. There was no real understanding that socialism does not work and in fact destroys wealth. Which is exactly what happened. The new countries failed to achieve the optimistic goals and high hopes of independence. Some actually declined economically. A few countries reversed this direction and embraced capitalism, most notably the Asian Tigers which began to report spectacular economic growth. Than of all countries, Communist China began embracing capitalism-- which they called 'market reforms'. India continued to ignore these developmeents, Finally, the implosion pf the Soviet Union (1991) forced Indian leaders to reassess their economic policies. The resulting market reforms soon resulted in the notable growth that most Indians had expected with independence.


Ch, Kiran Reddy. Email message, August 2, 2014.


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Created: 12:49 AM 8/4/2007
Last updated: 12:18 PM 4/26/2023