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One of the world's major cultural areas. India has a long history, though not all of it is known in detail. Between 1500 BC and 1200 BC there was an invasion of cattle herding Aryan (Indo-European) speakers from the north - roughly Afghanistan - (represented by the learned language Sanskrit) into an area probably occupied by Dravidian speakers. The Dravidians may have been the inhabitants of the great cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa believed to have existed from 2500 BC to 1700 BC. The result was a composite culture generally known as Hindu, characterized by a religion with many forms of worship and belief. The scriptures came with the Aryans but many of the ceremonies and customs probably derive from the Dravidians. Some of the characteristic names of gods are found across the whole Indo-European linguistic area via Persia as far west as Ireland.

Dravidian languages are still spoken in southern India.

(This is the accepted academic view of Indian history. However, there is a revisionist school, associated with Hindu nationalists, that the Aryan language speakers are indigenous to India. The linguistic evidence is against this view.)

Several Hindu empires covered different areas of India, mostly of the northern part represented by the Hindi speaking area. The Maurya Empire lasted from about 321 BC to 185 BC. The Emperor Ashoka (died 325 BC) extended it to the greatest extent. Indian culture spread far beyond India itself. Hinduism spread to south east Asia: Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia where its influence can still be seen. Out of Hinduism came Buddhism, a kind of reform version, which also spread to the east and south east, as well as into Afghanistan and Tibet. Other religions also diverged, such as Jainism. A group of Hindus are known to have been in Egypt until the reign of the Roman Emperor Caracalla (died 217).

Muslim Period
Muslim Arabs reached Sind in 712 AD. A second wave of invasions also from Afghanistan brought more Muslims. Mahmud of Ghazna (971-1030), one of the Turkish dynasty from Ghazna, ruled much of Iran and India as far as the Ganges from northern Afghanistan (Transoxiana) to Rajputana. In India he controlled only the Punjab. But he massacred many Hindus on the banks of the Ganges at a great temple and weakened the Hindu kingdoms of the north so that they fell more easily to his successors. The Sultanate of Delhi was founded in 1192.

The Mogul Empire came in 1562. Founded by Babur, one of the descendants of the Mongols who had destroyed the Islamic civilization of Central Asia (but later adopted Islam themselves and based themselves in Balkh in Afghanistan), it covered northern and central India until it decayed in the 18th century. It was from India that Islam spread to Indonesia (where it coexists with the Hindu and Buddhist elements which preceded it).

The Sikh religion seems to have arisen out of an attempt to show that the origins of Hinduism were similar to Islam and contains elements of both religions (but some Sikhs are now hostile to both).

The main object of Portuguese exploration was to reach the spice trade of India and further east. They built settlements at Goa and Bombay (the Portuguese name for what is now Mumbai) and retained control of Goa and some other small settlements until displaced by the Independent Indian government.

British period

1. East India Company
The British influence began in 1613 when the East India Company first started to trade and founded a factory at Surat. This was moved to Bombay, a Portuguese colony given to the English king Charles II when he married a Portuguese princess in 1662. The British came to trade but gradually transformed the trading posts into colonies.

The East India Company started as a trading company but gradually become a government. Robert Clive is said to be the person whose military activities led to the Company coming to rule Bengal, from its base in Calcutta. The Company’s armies, mostly Indian soldiers led by British officers over-awed the soldiers of the local rulers - including those of the Mogul emperors. When it was mainly a trading company it made its money from trading English cloth for spices. After it came to reule Bangal its most important agents were called Collectors, because they collected the taxes of the nominal ruler - the Nawab of Bengal (in theory the governor of the Mogul emperor).Its rule lasted until the Sepoy Revolt of 1857. The British government gradually came to control the Company and abolished its government functions in 1857 and from then appointed administrators from the London India Office.

By the 17th century the Muslim Mogul Empire centered on Delhi was past its peak and the British moved in to replace it. They disputed the area with the French who were eventually defeated. British control was established over India by the early 19th century. There was a revolt by the Indians in 1857 (the first War of Independence or the Indian Mutiny) which was suppressed with great brutality - what in modern times would be considered war crimes and genocide.

The result of this rebellion was to abolish the Mogul Empire and replace it with direct British rule - except in the native states. The East India Company itself was abolished and replaced by direct British government control under a Viceroy. Queen Victoria was declared to be the Empress of India in succession to the Moguls.

2. The British Raj
Whereas the last days of the Mogul empire had seen the king's actions controlled by a British Resident, after its abolition, administration was by Governors of provinces supervising British District Commissioners, as became the pattern in the rest of the British Empire, replacing Indirect Rule. The chief British administrator was known as the Viceroy, representing the Monarch (after Queen Victoria had been declared Empress of India by Prime Minister Disraeli).

British rule over the whole area lasted from the late 18th century until 1947. It was divided into two forms: direct colonies and indirect supervision of Native States (also known as Princely states). The latter included Kashmir, peopled mainly by Muslims but ruled by a Hindu prince. See this wikipedia article.

During the 1920s and 30s Britain created new institutions in which Indians participated in their rule. Gradually Indians came to occupy some of the posts of the administration. Indian politics began, with the foundation of the Congress Party demanding that the British leave India. Support for the nationalists was boosted by a military massacre at Amritsar in 1919 in which a British general Dyer ordered the dispersal of a crowd from an enclosed square, and fired on them. In theory the Congress party hoped for a religiously neutral government, but the Muslims, mainly in the northwest and in Bengal founded the Muslim League. Their demand was for Muslim ruled areas - in effect for modern Pakistan and Bangladesh.

At the end of British rule it became clear that the Muslims would not accept a unified state, even with Federal institutions, and therefore demanded Partition, which the British and the Congress Party had to accept.

The 1945 British Labour government realised that India was no longer governable by the British administration and decided to leave India as quickly as possible. They appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten, a relative of the king, as Viceroy and ordered him to negotiate a quick withdrawal. He negotiated with the leader of the Congress Party, Jawarhalal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League. The latter demanded an opt out for the main Muslim provinces. A boundary between the two states was rapidly drawn up by a British official. Unfortunately it separated previously mixed areas, without any consultation - there wasn't time, given the requirement for the British to leave quickly. The Native States were required to join either India or Pakistan.

Post Colonial
On Independence the area split into India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and Nepal. At the time when the two states of India and Pakistan came into being many Hindus moved out of Pakistan and many Muslims moved out of India. During this movement of peoples millions died in the fighting. Few Hindus remain in Pakistan and Bangladesh but about 100 million Muslims remain in India. The territory of Kashmir remains a problem. It has a majority Muslim population but its Prince was a Hindu and chose to join India without consulting the people (the family of the first Prime Minister of India Pandit Nehru came from Kashmir).

India also incorporated the small French colony of Pondicherry and conquered the Portuguese Goa and its small offshoots Diu and Damam.

Since independence India has become an important industrial power, though it is still overwhelmingly a peasant society. There are many problems of poverty and wealth divergences. Population growth has created pressure on the environment and makes it difficult to raise the standard of living generally.

India has exploded at least one nuclear device, in 1974 and others in 1998.

Of the innumerable problems faced by any Indian government the most serious may be: diversity of language - India is more diverse than Europe and could contain many linguistic nation states if it broke up, as it threatens to do; diversity of religion - some Sikhs want to secede, the Muslims are attacked by some Hindus; caste - a social system in which status is acquired through birth; population pressure as the number of people grows beyond the size which could be supported permanently from income resources; serious poverty which everyone seems to accept as unavoidable. An Afghan Philosopher's joke: God had hell, yet he created India.


Indo-European languages derived from Sanskrit




and many others in the north


Dravidian languages




and many others in the south
 The Great Partition

John Keay - History of the Honourable East India Company

John Keay - History of the Honourable East India Company

Charles Allen - Ashoka The Search for India's Lost Emperor

Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor
Katherine Boo - Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

What is life really like for the mass of urban Indians?







India is a Parliamentary democracy modeled partly on Britain's, and also a federation (but, as the state governments can be dismissed by the federal government, they should be classified as 'devolved').

Since independence the Federal government has usually been formed by the Congress Party. Originally this party was formed to assert Indian Nationalism against the British Empire. The struggle was led by a lawyer turned religious holy man, M.K.Gandhi, who practiced non-violent resistance against the British. He was assassinated shortly after independence.

The party claims to be secular (impartial in religion) and socialist. The first prime minister was Jawaharlal Nehru. He was followed on his death, after a short interval, by his daughter Indira Gandhi (her name came from her husband, not a relative of M.K.Gandhi). On her assassination by Sikh extremists her son, Rajiv Gandhi, took over. Thus the Congress Party looks like a vehicle for a dynasty rather than a democratic party. It is said that its internal structure is not democratic.

In 1990 Rajiv Gandhi lost a general election and a coalition led by V.P.Singh a former Finance Minister in Rajiv Gandhi's government and including Hindu fundamentalists, communists and socialists took power. This coalition proved unstable. He lost power in November 1990. During the General Election campaign in May 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, perhaps bringing the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to an end. (The widow of his brother Sanjay, however seeks to continue it and also Sonia, the Italian widow of Rajiv. Like the Kennedys, there are children.)In the 2004 General election two of Rajiv Gandhi's children are standing, and his Italian born widow Sonia remains the de facto non-Parliamentary leader.

Commentators note that the political class in India appears to be becoming less and less competent and more estranged from the mass of the people. The democratic facade appears to conceal a feudal organization of power in which voters are treated as voting blocks and bribed by various means. Many of the parties represent castes and religious interests rather than policies. The political system does not appear suited to solving India's problems.

Nehru represented the British-educated class and his policies were based on those of the British Labour government of 1945-51, which were not perhaps best suited to India's needs. M.K.Gandhi had urged that the government should be based on the needs of the villagers. Instead it has been based on urban industry and the westernized classes, two small minorities of the total population. The present series of short lived governments headed by politicians whose main interest appears to be in holding office rather than solving India's problems seems likely to provoke some kind of change.

For much of the period since 1947 the Congress was the overwhelmingly largest party. Now it is still the largest party in parliament but has lost its overall majority, and has lost control of many of the states. The other parties include: Several types of Marxist, a Hindu nationalist, regional parties representing the non-Hindi speakers, parties representing the lowest castes.

The rise of militant Hindu nationalism has some features in common with the rise of extreme rightwing parties in 1930s Europe. This takes the form of hatred against the Muslim and other religious minorities. As Muslims are a large minority (100 million) general hatred and massacres could lead to a great deal of disturbance, including another war with Pakistan. This was shown by the disturbances following the destruction of a mosque at Ayodhya to build a temple (see Religion), organized by the Bharatiya Janata Party, said to be the political arm of a group trying to reform Hinduism into a Church with a chief God - Ram.

In 1991 the government was formed by the Congress Party under a Prime Minister, Narasinha Rao, who was not connected to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. But he did not have a majority and seemed to defer to the Gandhis.

Some commentators are very gloomy about the stability of the Indian state, suggesting that the institutions are in advanced decay. Perhaps for the mass of the people the nature of the government is irrelevant to their problems, except that the political goon squads (including the police) make life increasingly unsafe.

The advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Hindu Nationalist and rightwing) in 1998 was marked by the decision in May 1998 to test 5 nuclear weapons. Would this new government cause attacks on Muslims and other minorities? The new regime emphasised Hindu culture and religion, and abandoned the secularism practiced by the Congress governments from the time of the independence struggle.

In 2002 massacres of Muslims in Gujarat by militant Hindus seemed to pass without central government action suggesting indifference to the fate of Muslims. (There had also been massacres by militant Muslims of Hindus, travelling on a train returning from the Ayodha temple being built on the site of a former Mosque built by the original Mogul invader.)

In 2004 the Pakistan leader and the Indian prime minister were making progress towards normalising relations. In March 2004 an India cricket team toured Pakistan, and rail and bus links were reopened. There are grounds for cautious optimism.

The May 2004 General Election resulted in a victory for a coalition led by the Congress Party. The Premiership was offered to Sonia Gandhi, who declined it, becoming President of the Congress party, while offering the Premiership to the Sikh Manmohin Singh - who has become the first non-Hindu Prime Minister.

A growing "Maoist" revolt among the excluded peoples = "tribals" and lower caste peoples may threaten the government system. These are allied to the insurgents who replaced the kingdom in Nepal.

Interesting reading

Tahir Shah - Sorcerers' Apprentice
Journeys among the low life of India, gurus and conjurers

Der Zauberlehrling von Kalkutta. Reise durch das magische Indien

Charles Allan - Plain tales from the Raj

Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the Twentieth Century

Harry Hobbs - Indian Dust Devils

Reminiscences of life in India in the 1880s.
Reference to Hobbs here

J G Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur

Le siège de Krishnapur

Maud Diver - The Unsung, A record of British Services in India

British engineers in India







In the early years after independence India tried to practice socialist autarky - to make as much as possible within the country in closely controlled industries. The main effect was to protect old fashioned and inefficient industries. Foreign companies were discouraged from wholly owned subsidiaries and even from jointly owned projects. As these are an important means of technology transfer India failed to receive much technology which could have helped industrial growth. The situation has many similarities with the countries of eastern Europe whose backward industries also produced a great deal of pollution and poor quality goods.

Until the1980s much of the economy appeared frozen in the 1950s.

The GNP per capita remains very low as the modern sector does not affect the mass of people in the villages. Like Brazil, India shows that trickle down does not work in practice. Could India grow as fast as the various Chinese and other Far Eastern economies? If not, why not? (But if it did, could the ecology stand it?)

The most recent development is the software business and the Call Center - made possible by modern communications. India exports software engineers to the US and other western countries. Helplines are located in India with local workers trained in western cultures to service customer queries.

However, Indian companies are now active in western countries and have taken over such British companies as Landrover (acquired from Ford) and the former British Steel - more or less the whole of the British steel industry.

Is this a reversal of the British Empire?

Jewel in the Crown

A perceptive article by Karl Marx
Diana L Eck - India: A Sacred Geography

India: A Sacred Geography
Review by William Dalrymple







There are many serious ecological problems. These include: deforestation; desertification; industrial pollution. The greatest is probably a rapidly increasing population. But AIDS also is said to be spreading rapidly in the urban areas and in the rural areas via the lorry drivers, as happened in Africa. January 1992 estimate of 1,000,000 infected with HIV. Medical authorities expect 15-20,000,000 infections by the end of the decade (2010).

Another tendency which may limit population growth is the spread of sonic scanners which enable parents to choose the sex of their children. As they overwhelmingly prefer boys, and abort or murder girls, there may soon be such a preponderance of males that the growth slows. What a nation of mainly males will be like is something for the Science Fiction writer. Will the status of women rise? Will the insane customs of huge dowries which the parents of women must pay to the husband's family diminish? Will the men become homosexual or warlike? This article discusses the effects of a large preponderance of males that are already being seen: more violence from wifeless men. Families feared the burden of female dowries. Instead of abolishing dowries, they decided to abolish girls.

This article also discusses the problem

A recent report on BBC says that Polyandry - one wife married to several brothers - has been noticed.

Indian nuclear power stations are reported to be causing radiation sickness around them. There are believed to be 30-40 nuclear weapons.

Passage to India

DVD film Kim
Film (1950) based on Rudyard Kipling)

Kim [DVD] [1950]

Kim - Geheimdienst in Indien

Rudyard Kipling - Kim (novel)

Kim (Wordsworth Classics)






Human Rights

There is a functioning court system but it is so slow and inefficient that for most people there is no access to justice. There are reports of police brutality going unchecked. In Kashmir police brutality, torture and rape are believed to be common.

Some observers believe that the facade of democracy conceals a chaotic state in which the institutions left by the British - especially the civil service and the legal system - continue without reference to the needs of the mass of the people who are largely excluded from their operation - as they were in British times.

Climate effects

Climate change will affect India. One possibility is instability in the Monsoon rains: some years with heavier rains, causing floods; drier years with harvest failure. Water from the Himalayas in the great rivers may be affected by the loss of glaciers, causing droughts and lack of irrigation water. There is a scientists' disagreement about how soon the glaciers are likely to disappear. Changes of this kind tend to take place faster than many predict.
Can the ever expanding population survive these changes?

Last revised 3/08/12

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