Central Themes and Key Points

by Leonard A. Gordon, Senior Research Scholar, and Judith Walsh, Research Scholar
South Asia Institute, Columbia University

Originally designed in the 1980s to support the New York State 9th-10th grade Global History requirement, the themes are designed to provide an infrastructure for the myriad facts and dates encountered in studying the long histories of the East Asian countries. The themes are reprinted here for educators seeking new perspectives to bring to bear on the individual histories of each of the East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — and of South and Southeast Asia also.

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These "central themes" are distinctive, and recurrent, so that they are touched on again and again under different categories, until a portrait of cultural difference is accumulated. Of the many possible themes, six are suggested here as illustrative of South Asian culture and its relation to the world:

Theme 1: Cultural Adaptation and Synthesis

The ever-evolving South Asian civilization has as its sources indigenous elements of prehistoric origin and elements borrowed from the cultures represented by successive waves of invaders over more than four millennia. The sources are unusually diverse: indigenous prehistoric, Mesopotamian, Indo-European Aryan, Greek, Mongol, Arab, Persian and European. From early times, there have been cultural and economic centers where different cultures have met and generated new forms.

Theme 2: Search for Unity in Face of Diversity

Recurrent efforts toward unification have been partially successful in creating the Great Tradition of South Asia, linking the Hindu, Buddhist, and later, Islamic traditions. At the same time, a rich diversity of regional language, local custom, religious belief and practice, dress, and cuisine has continued into the present.

There are two major language families in South Asia: the Sanskrit-derived languages of the north and west (including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi) and the Dravidian family of languages in south India (including Tamil, Malayalam, Telegu, and Kannada). Urdu, derived from Hindi, Arabic, and Persian developed later. Some form of Hindu-Urdu is understood by South Asians in many parts of the subcontinent, and it is the first language of about one-third of the population. English is spoken by a thin but widely spread urban elite; efforts have been made to enhance inter-regional communication through Hindu-Urdu and English.

Theme 3: Religion and Power

Priests, usually Brahmins, have traditionally played a very important role in Hindu religious belief and practice. They occupy the highest rung in the hierarchy of Indian society and serve as arbiters among those of other ranks, although they have had to accommodate to secular authority. Through history, the established social and religious order has been called into question. Buddhism, Jainism, the bhakti or devotional movement, Sikhism, Islam, and Christianity may be regarded as challenges to the dominant and hierarchical Hindu pattern; there have also been secular challenges, such as communism.

Theme 4: Importance of Socio-Cultural Institutions: Family, Jati, Varna

Since the 16th century, Westerners have referred to the groupings in Hindu society as castes, a term that subsumes the much older traditional Indian groupings, jati and varna. The jati is a large, locally based endogamous birth group and is, in practice, the most important social grouping in Indian society. The Varnas are a universal model of society comprising four classes based on hereditary occupations: Brahmins (priests); Kshatriyas (warriors); Vaishyas (merchants); Sudras (ordinary workers). Members of the first three are said to be twice-born and undergo an initiation ceremony into their status. The cultural model of the varnas and the functioning jati system overlap and both continue to be vital in modern India. In the lowest ranks of society are the so-called "untouchable" groups, considered to be ritually impure.

Theme 5: Economic Interdependence and Independence

Historically, South Asian society has been largely agricultural. A measure of economic interdependence was achieved at the local level through the exchange of goods and services between members of different jatis. Although there had long been extensive trade networks, market centers, and temple complexes spanning the subcontinent and having links to the outside, India was relatively complete and independent economic world unto itself until the 19th century when, under British rule, it participated to a greater extent in the international economy and became an exporter of raw materials; industrialization began slowly and has accelerated since independence in 1947. Modern India is tied to the international economy but has striven for relative economic independence. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the other heirs to the British Empire in South Asia, are more dependent than India on the international economy and external assistance. [Note: Burma was part of British India until it was separated from India by the 1935 Government of India Act.]

Theme 6: South Asia and the World

South Asia has had cultural and economic links with other countries and regions through much of its history; it carried on extensive trade with Southeast Asia and with Arabs to the west. From India Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia and Buddhism spread throughout Asia, while Islam was introduced into South Asia from Persia and Central Asia.

India was "the jewel in the crown' of the vast British Empire from the mid-18th century to 1947. During this time, Indians migrated to distant parts of the empire, primarily for economic reasons. A member of the British Commonwealth, India today maintains special ties to the United Kingdom. Following independence, large numbers of Indians migrated to Britain and more recently to the United States.

Since 1947, India has often assumed a leadership role among the new nations of Asia and Africa, pursuing a policy of positive neutrality. Pakistan allied itself with the United States and has been a major recipient of American military and economic assistance. India has also received a good deal of economic aid, but has refused to form any military alliance, although in 1970 it concluded a long-tern friendship treaty with the U.S.S.R.

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I. The Physical/Historical Setting of South Asia

The Indian subcontinent, which is most often called Bharat by its inhabitants, comprises three separate and independent nations: India, Pakistan (established with the participation of British India in 1947), and Bangladesh (established in 1971 in what was formerly East Pakistan). [Note: The countries of Nepal and Sikkim, sometimes considered as part of the subcontinent, are not discussed here.] It is a subcontinent with formidable natural barriers to the outside: the world's highest mountains to the north, a desert to the west, a dense jungle on the eastern frontier, and water to the southeast and southwest. Even in earliest times, however, these obstacles did not stop waves of invaders who introduced their cultures throughout the region. [THEME 1]

Within the subcontinent there are no major barriers to travel or communication. There are two main river valleys: the Indus and the Ganges. Both rivers flow from the Himalayan mountains, the Indus into the Arabian Sea, the Ganges into the Bay of Bengal. The southern peninsula is dominated by the Deccan plateau. Seasonal rains, the monsoons, usually start in June with winds from the southwest and continue through the summer; the region is heavily dependent on them. [See Map]

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Beginnings: The Indus Valley Civilization

Archeological discoveries in the early 20th century provided evidence of urban centers in the Indus Valley, in what is now Pakistan, as early as ca. 2500 B.C., predating the arrival of the Aryans in ca. 1800 B.C. These urban centers had grain storage facilities and had ties to villages throughout western India and also to Mesopotamia. It has been strongly suggested that the inhabitants were linked to the Dravidian cultures of south India. They had a pictorial form of writing and were skilled in urban design; there is evidence of a priestly class [THEMES 1, 3, 5, and 6]. This civilization succumbed more probably to natural catastrophe than to invading armies.

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The Aryans and Their Contributions

The Aryans, nomadic tribal peoples probably from the Russian steppes, entered South Asia ca. 1800-1400 B.C. through mountain passes to the northwest, bringing with them a primitive form of Sanskrit, belonging to the Indo-European family of languages. Cattle herders, they gradually moved southward and eastward down the Gangetic plain, mixing with the darker skinned peasants already there [THEMES 1, 2, and 6]. Archeological evidence is meager; the record of their interaction consists mainly of Vedic hymns and ritual texts passed down orally over centuries. Following strict Vedic rules, Aryan priests, or Brahmins, conducted rituals which were expected to bring blessings in this life if carries out exactly [THEME 3]. The Aryans learned agricultural methods from the indigenous population, and as they spread, formed larger political units and small kingdoms, having an agricultural base with officials to collect taxes. This later Aryan period, ca. 1000-300 B.C., saw the codification of Sanskrit, extensive philosophical speculation (Upanishadic dialogues), the development of law and education, and the composition of epic poems. The complicated social organization and structure of later centuries are thought to have originated in this era [THEME 4].

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Heterodox Religions: Buddhism and Jainism

In response to the growing dominance of Brahmin priests and the hierarchical ritual and social order, the religious heterodoxies of Buddhism and Jainism developed [THEME 3]. They shared some of the concepts of early Hinduism, but were open to all believers. Jainism was founded by Mahavira (ca. 540-468 B.C.) and Buddhism by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or Enlightened One (ca. 563-483 B.C.). The teachings of each were spread by wandering mendicants who renounced the worldly life in search of salvation. They preached in popular dialects, and received alms from lay Buddhists. A dualistic religion, Jainism stresses the perfectibility of human nature and spiritual liberation through asceticism and reverence for all living things. It continues to be practiced in India today. In Buddhism, the faithful seek nirvana, or release from the cravings of this world and the endless chain of rebirth. Eventually, certain elements were absorbed into Hinduism; the Buddha was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon of deities, and became an object of worship, in contradiction to his instructions. Buddhism continued to be an important, though increasingly secondary, religion in India until about the 12th century. Although it spread throughout Asia [THEME 6], it is not widely practiced in India today.

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Early Empires and Classical Indian Civilization

A. Political Unification and Fragmentation

Opposing trends of unification and fragmentation have been evident throughout South Asian history. The former trend culminated in the formation of extensive empires (Mauryan, Gupta, Mughal, British), while the latter saw the development of regional kingdoms co-existing with other regional powers [THEMES 1 and 2]. The Mauryan Empire (ca. 321-187 B.C.) extended throughout the Ganges basin and was notable for its centralized bureaucracy and its attempts to formulate a universal moral law. Asoka (ca. 269-232 B.C.), the most famous of the Mauryans, converted to Buddhism and spread the Buddha's teachings throughout the realm. His successors saw the dissolution of the empire.

A long period of political fragmentation ensued until the advent of the Gupta Empire (ca. 320-647 AD.). Although not as centralized as that of the Mauryas, its bureaucracy was considerable, and depended on the collection of land revenues. The complex social system of castes was further developed and became more rigid. This period saw the rich development of Hindu philosophy, aesthetics, literature, painting, mathematics, as well as the codification of dharmic law.

A. The Hindu Way of Life

[Please refer to Theme 4, above, for a full explanation of varna jati as discussed below.]

During the Gupta Empire, Brahminism, the ritualistic Aryan religion based on ancient texts, the Vedas, developed into Hinduism, which, integrating a variety of heterogeneous elements, reconciled the diverse aspects of life. It provided a model of social organization, the varna system (class determined by hereditary occupations); identified the four stages of life, or asramas through which members of the three highest varnas will pass (celibate student, responsible householder, hermit, wandering ascetic); and prescribed the four pursuits of man: dharma (moral obligation), artha (wealth and power), kama (sexual and aesthetic pleasure), and moksha (religious liberation, or freedom from the cycle of rebirth) [THEMES 1, 2, and 3]. Teachings are passed down from generation to generation by guru (teacher) to pupil, through the memorization of texts on the above and many other topics, and through the formulation of commentaries on them.

Dharma encompasses the range of religious and social obligations as determined by one's varna or jati membership, age, and sex. These include rules of behavior which vary according to the situation and must be interpreted by Brahmin priests and other authorities. Dharmic texts teach that the interests of the family and larger social units take precedence over the wishes of the individual. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, for example, Rama is heroic for putting dharma ahead of personal wishes, and in the Mahabharata, Krishna teacher Arjuna that duty to one's varna takes precedence.

The fourfold varna model of hereditary occupation is embodied in numerous texts of the period. Many sources demonstrate that the jati system was also in place, with the result that in any functioning local system there were more than the four groups described in the varna model [THEME 4]. New groups were incorporated, although their ranks differed according to region; outsiders were "placed" with reference to the social context. Regional variation was and is very important. With its rigid rules for marriage and social intercourse, the system separates people, but also members of different castes (jati and varna) work together and run their villages for mutual benefit. Individuals may develop strong ties to members of their jati outside the village, but they also develop some measure of village solidarity. Jati ruling bodies usually have jurisdiction over their members, but the local ruler, or raja, might become the final arbiter in disputes between members.

Although there are core texts and ideas of Hinduism that are common to all sects, there is enormous regional diversity in the customs and practices, in the gods worshipped, and in the versions of texts used locally. Philosophically, Hinduism's core insight of the underlying unity of all life contracts with the extraordinary multiplicity that is experienced in the world: in the diversity within society; the many lives experienced through reincarnation; the forms taken by various gods; and the multiple existences of this world in the cycle of creation and destruction of the universe. Hinduism as a religion expresses and accommodates both unity and diversity [THEME 2].

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Growth of the Bhakti, or Devotional Movement

Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, likely began in south India, but flourished in the north as well. It emphasized a more personal relation and complete devotion to the chosen deity as the path to moksha, or religious fulfillment. The Gita Govinda and the Ramayana of Tulsidas, as well as religious lyrics produced in Maharashtra, Bengal, and Rajasthan are examples of the literary expressions of the movement.

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Regional Kingdoms in South and Eastern India, ca. 500-1200

The empires founded in northern India, centered in the Gangetic Plain, never extended control over southern India, where there were independent kingdoms. Notable among the dynasties in the south were the Pallavas (ca. 6th-8th centuries) and the Cholas (10th-13th centuries). Bureaucratic systems allowed considerable village autonomy and carried out extensive public works; they controlled administration of the temples which were economic as well as religious centers. These kingdoms traded with Southeast Asia and advanced the synthesis of indigenous Tamil cultural elements of the south with the Aryan culture of the north [THEMES 1, 2, 5, and 6]. [See Map]

Another sign of the extensive political fragmentation characteristic of the subcontinent were the regional dynasties in the north — in Rajasthan and in Bengal — often not under the control of the imperial systems of the Gangetic valley. Kings taxed the peasantry to support their administrations and made land grants to officers in return for support. Grants were also given to Brahmans in return for services [THEMES 2, 3, and 5].

It was chiefly in this period that the modern regional spoken languages began to develop. In the north they were related to Sanskrit and included Marathi, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Gujerati; and in the south, the Dravidian languages, derived from Tamil.

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Islamic Period

A. Delhi Sultanate, 13th-16th Century

Islam, based on the Koran, the sunna (body of custom and practice), and the Shari'a (law of Islam), spread rapidly from the Arabian peninsula beginning in the 7th century, and Turkic Muslims pressed on toward northwest India from the 9th century. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, a large part of northern India was ruled by a succession of Turkic dynasties, among them Ghurides, Khaljis, Tughluqs, and Lodis, which are referred to collectively as the Delhi Sultanate. Efforts were made to establish a centralized administration; under the iqta system, land grants were made to civilian and military officials. Urbanization spread and craft production flourished in the cities to support the Sultanate [THEMES 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6]. Major Hindu rulers were sometimes incorporated into the revenue system as landlords and, with the extension of land cultivation, the peasantry was likewise expected to toil in support of the establishment. Substantial numbers of Muslims from Persia and Central Asia migrated to South Asia, where they gained many converts, some by the sword but others through the influence of mystical Sufi sects. Hinduism continued as the religion of the great majority, however, while Buddhism had to a great extent died out in South Asia.

As newcomers, Muslims were placed in a complex ranking system; responding to local traditions, they often developed their own social hierarchy. In some villages, the Muslim population was regarded as a jati, but participated in the cooperative aspects of the community as well. The Muslims had their own social and religious traditions and laws, which were usually distinct from those of the Hindus.

B. Mughal Empire, 16th-18th Century

The last and most extraordinary of the Muslim dynasties was that of the Mughals, 1526 to 1707, who made enduring contributions to the arts and to administration. Persian was the language of administration from the 13th century until the 1830s, but during this period a new language, Urdu, emerged from a synthesis of Persian, Arabic, and Hindi [THEMES 1 and 2].

Akbar, the greatest Mughal, who ruled from 1556-1605, developed an administrative system dividing Mughal territory into twelve subhas or provinces, which were headed by mansabdars who were moved from post to post and were well rewarded. This helped the emperor to keep control in his hands. Akbar's social and religious tolerance was reflected in his efforts to bring Hindus into the ruling strata and in his involvement in the creation of a synthetic religion, The Divine Faith (THEMES 1, 3, and 4). His accomplishments include the building of a beautiful capital complex, Fatehpur Sikri, outside of Agra, and the elaboration of an administrative system which continued to flourish for 150 years after his reign.

Under succeeding emperors, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb, the empire was extended, and extraordinary examples of Indo-Persian architecture, including the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Jama Masjid, and Red Fort in Delhi were completed. Trade increased and Europeans began to appear even at the Mughal court requesting trading facilities. A sophisticated network of banking and commercial facilities developed, of which the Europeans were to make use [THEMES 5 and 6].

The tolerance that characterized Akbar's reign, however, had given way to intolerance by the time Aurangzeb assumed power in 1658. The latter's grandiose plans for conquest led to successes in Bijapur and Golconda, but this long reign was marked by revolts, notably that by the Maratha Hindu leader Shivaji, and after Aurangzeb's death the overextended Mughal Empire went into decline.

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II. Dynamics of Change
18th Century Struggle for Dominance: India and the Western Powers

With the decline of the Mughal Empire, the British and French East India companies, with their troops and mercenaries, competed with various Indian regional powers for succession. The British had the benefit of disciplined military leadership, firm backing from home, and ambitious men. At mid-century, having scored a series of regional military victories, the British East India Company became the revenue collector, or diwan, for Bengal. During the next 100 years, the British government gradually took over and conquered the subcontinent piece by piece, eventually ruling two-thirds of it directly and one-third indirectly through native rulers and princes. [THEMES 1, 2, and 6]

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Changes under the British Raj (Rule)

Administration, Education, and Law

The British worked within the indigenous social, political, cultural and economic systems to effect change. Utilizing elements of the Mughal administrative structure, they placed British officials, members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), at the top, and Indians at the lower levels; English replaced Persian as the language of administration [THEMES 1 and 2]. Europeans and Indians together built a new educational system, with English as the language of instruction for higher education. Among the Indian population there had long been traders, bankers, experts in indigenous medicine, and legal practitioners, but by the middle of the 19th century there were also Indian doctors and scientists schooled in Western disciplines, as well as barristers and from 1858 Indian members of the Indian Civil Service who had been trained in the United Kingdom.

The British Raj developed an overarching administrative system through which it sought to control its vast number of subjects. Efforts were made to codify Indian law, utilizing Hindu and Muslim law for personal matters and Anglo-Saxon law and precedent for others [THEMES 1, 2, and 6]. While the British finally did allow missionaries into India in 1813, they were careful about instituting changes and regulations affecting indigenous religions. Although sati, the practice of a widow joining her husband on the funeral pyre, was abolished, the British trod warily with respect to such matters, particularly after a revolt against the Raj in 1857 [THEMES 1, 3, and 4].

Although some Indians became Westernized in their professional lives, they generally retained the traditional Indian culture in their personal lives, thus compartmentalizing their existence. Some Hindus converted to Christianity while retaining many Hindu social customs; some saw Christianity as yet another path to moksha (religious liberation). Direct and indirect Christian and Western pressure led to the slow modification of some customs, such as those concerning widow remarriage, marriage age, and even caste remarriage.

The British, in effect, constituted a ruling social and political stratum whose members, after initial experiments in the 18th century, were not encouraged to intermarry or engage in extensive social interaction with the Indian population. Of course, there was some intermarriage, particularly among teachers, missionaries, and administrators, and a small Anglo-Indian community developed. But European racism, consonant with Hindu prejudice against those with darker skin, remained strong.

Economic Changes

Having arrived as traders, the British set the terms of trade and tariffs in their favor, and exploited South Asia as a source of raw materials (cotton, iron ore, coal, spices). Following the lead of the Mughals, they tried to systematize the collection of land revenues. The British imposed their own definition of property holding on the Indian population and specified "owners" [THEMES 1, 5, and 6] which differed from older Indian notions, wherein different groups of people had shares in the produce of the land and there was not an "owner" in the Western sense. In the 19th century the Raj built an impressive railway system, which became an important factor in the commercialization of the Indian economy and its integration into the world system.

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Nationalism, ca. 1885-1928


Having learned important lessons from European businessmen and missionaries, Indians began in the early 19th century to organize in order to advance their own interests, particularly in the growing cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. At first, the most affluent and highly educated worked for limited change and the protection of their own interests under the Raj [THEME 1]. In the second half of the century, Indians gradually moved into the political arena; some of those educated in the West sought to play a much greater role in running their own country within the framework of the Raj. First, regional political associations were formed; then, in 1885, the Indian National Congress was established. Though its founders were generally appreciative of British rule, they sought a greater role in the civil service, legislative councils, universities, and governmental bodies at all levels. They demanded that local elected bodies be given more power and, insisting that Britain was draining India of its wealth, greater equality in economic relations. [THEMES 1, 5, and 6]

Swadeshi Movement

The political movement was limited to several thousand members of the urban , Western-educated elite until the early 20th century when, toward the end of Lord Curzon's tenure as viceroy (1899-1905), the swadeshi ("own country") movement erupted. For a short time there were mass demonstrations and a boycott of British goods; some demanded home rule forthwith. Religious sentiment fueled the passion of some of the Hindu nationalists, alienating many Muslims who, as the largest minority group (ca. 20% of the population), were wary of actions that might invite retribution from the British rulers [THEMES 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6].


The independence movement languished for some years until it was revived at the end of World War I by Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu lawyer who had been politically active in South Africa, where he developed the concept of non-violent resistance called satyagraha (grasped by the truth, in Sanskrit), which he introduced to India when he returned in 1915. Drawing heavily on Hindu traditions, it was also shaped by Gandhi's reading of the New Testament, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Ruskin. But instead of individual protest, Gandhi built a mass movement, and in 1918 and 1921-22 lead nation-wide protests against British rule [THEMES 1, 2, and 3]. He became the de facto leader of the Indian National Congress, which remained the most important nationalist organization until 1947, when it became the dominant political party (hereafter referred to as Congress). Though Gandhi reached more Indians than any previous leader, millions, especially those in the rural areas and among the poorest groups, remained untouched by the movement; they occasionally waged protests on local issues, but were suspicious of outsiders claiming to work in their name.

Although Gandhi tried to overcome caste and communal prejudices by reaching out to all Indians, the concepts he developed (satyagraha; swaraj, self rule; ram rajya, a Utopian future) reflected his Hindu point of view. Like most of the Congress leaders, Gandhi was a high-cast Hindu, making it difficult to reach Muslims as well as Hindus in the lowest castes.

Cultural Flowering

The 19th and 20th centuries saw a rich flowering of Indian literature and art. Stimulated by Western cultural influences, India's languages were adapted to produce new and experimental literary forms. The most famous literary pioneer was the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. A critical nationalist and a friend of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (who was to became independent India's first prime minister), Tagore stimulated new creative forms, not only in Bengali poetry, but in all the arts; his influence was felt throughout India [THEMES 1, 2, 3, and 6].

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To Partition, 1928-1947: The Hindu-Muslim Divide

Toward Responsible Self-government

The pronouncement in 1917 by a member of the British government that India could expect to gain home rule gave rise to an era of maneuvering, negotiation, agitation and sporadic acts of violence that continued for decades as nationalists pressed for the realization of that goal. The preservation of Indian unity was to be a collateral subject of negotiation up until independence was achieved in 1947 [THEME 2].

Triangular Negotiations

In 1928 a committee of nationalists put forth a plan for an independent India, but could not gain the agreement of the Muslim League which, founded in 1906, had emerged as the main organization working for the protection of the rights and interests of the Muslim minority and was led by M.A. Jinnah, a former Congressman. The Congress led a nation-wide civil disobedience movement in 1930-31, which Gandhi halted when he agreed to join discussions in London. When these failed, Gandhi and other Congress leaders were imprisoned until the mid-1930s. The British parliament passed the Government of India Act (1935), which provided for a form of provincial self-government and a cumbersome federal system. Both Congress and the Muslim League participated in the 1937 elections, and Congress formed governments in a number of provinces. But with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Congress ministries resigned and India became involved in the war effort, though not by its own choosing [THEMES 2 and 6].

World War II Impasse

Negotiations to gain Congressional participation in the war effort failed; in 1942 Gandhi was imprisoned for leading the "Quite India" movement against the Raj. One rebel nationalist, Subhas Bose, joined the Axis Powers and formed a provisional independent Indian government in Southeast Asia, leading an army of 30,000 Indians in fighting alongside the Japanese.

End of Empire

The Muslim League had decided in 1940 to work for an independent Muslim nation, Pakistan, whereas the goal of Congress was a unified Indian republic (THEMES 2 and 6). India had achieved some economic leverage vis-à-vis Britain during the war by its productivity and loans (THEME 5); after the war, the British oversaw elections in India. Their outcome confirmed the division between the Congress and the Muslim League.

As Britain's last viceroy in India, Admiral Louis Mountbatten presided over the final negotiations. Serious riots between Hindus and Muslims hardened their opposition, and a division of the country into the new nations of India and Pakistan was agreed to in June 1947. The transfer of power took place on August 15. The new Muslim nation was composed of two parts, separated by India: East Pakistan (East Bengal) and West Pakistan (part of the Punjab, Sind, the Northwest Frontier Province, and Baluchistan) [THEMES 2,3, 5, and 6].

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III. Contemporary Society and Government: New Nations and Problems of Independence
Consequences of Partition and National Integration

Integration of the Princely States

With partition came complicated problems of nation-building. A British judge had drawn the lines separating East and West Pakistan from India, but the approximately 500 Indian states also had to be integrated into one or the other of the new nations. Several would have preferred independence but Mountbatten, fearing balkanization, opposed this, and most joined either India or Pakistan. (The very large state of Hyderabad acceded only after being invaded by the Indian army.) Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim and borders both nations as well as China and Afghanistan, was the most difficult case. After a military conflict, a de facto line of control dividing the territory was established over Pakistan's objections. The issue was eventually brought before the United Nations, but was not resolved satisfactorily and continues to be a source of tension in relations between India and Pakistan [THEMES 2 and 3].

India-Pakistan Wars and the Creation of Bangladesh

Although partition resulted in the migration of perhaps ten million people, Hindu-Muslim tensions persist and occasional riots continue to occur in parts of the subcontinent. Unresolved border questions and ethnic fervor led to military clashes in 1948, 1965, and 1971. The first two were small wars fought mainly on India's western border with West Pakistan; the third stemmed from a conflict between East and West Pakistan. Even before independence Pakistan had been beset by tensions between the Punjabis in the West and the more numerous Bengalis in the East. These tensions erupted in 1954 during provincial elections (and with the Bengali language movement which sought to make it the national language of Pakistan), and again in 1969-71, when a political stalemate led to a crackdown in the East by the Punjabi-dominated army and then to open warfare. Ethnic hatred became rampant and the Pakistani army murdered and otherwise persecuted intellectuals and other leaders. Several million Bengali refugees flooded across the border to India, which sought international intervention. In December 1970, with Indian troops assisting the Bengali guerrillas in East Pakistan, the Pakistani army was defeated and the independent nation of Bangladesh was created.

Continuing Ethnic and Regional Tensions

Ethnic and regional aspirations — sometimes escalating to calls for independence — continue in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Within India, provincial boundaries have been redrawn to form several new entities: most importantly, Bombay was divided into Maharashtra and Gujerat, and the new state of Haryana was carved out of the Punjab [THEMES 2 and 3].

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Politics and Government


In 1950 India drew up its constitution, borrowing from the Government of India Act of 1935 and taking the British and American forms of government as its models. Its government is a strongly centralized federal system with a bicameral parliament, of which the Council of the People, or Lok Sabha, is the more important. Each constituent state has its legislature and cabinet, and also a governor appointed by the central government; in times of crisis, the central government can rule directly through its governors. Since independence, the Congress Party, which was developed into a strong organization by Mahatma Gandhi and his lieutenants, notably Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, has dominated, except from 1977 to early 1980. Nehru became prime minister in 1947, a position he held until death in 1964; in 1966 his daughter, Indira Gandhi assumed the office, holding it until 1977 and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. She was succeeded by her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who was replaced after the Congress Party's defeat in the 1989 election by coalition leader V.P. Singh.

India has a relatively open political system with universal suffrage, a generally independent judiciary, lively press and vocal opposition. However, its political and economic systems have perpetuated the great disparities between rich and poor, and allowed entrenched interests to retain their power. Various socialist and communist movements have been active since the 1920s, but these have been plagued with internal divisions, weakening the possibility of achieving a more egalitarian India. Also, many of their platforms and measures have been co-opted by the Congress Party. The communists, more effective in party-building than the socialists, have had greater success in a few regions, particularly Kerala in the far southwest and West Bengal in the east, than in the country as a whole. In the 1960s the radical leftist Naxalite movement, pressing for violent revolution, was ruthlessly suppressed by the government, including the more establishment communist authorities in West Bengal [THEMES 1 and 2].

The Congress Party, benefiting from the divisions within the opposition, has itself endured many factional splits and difficulties. Threatened by judicial writ and political opposition, in 1975 Mrs. Gandhi declared a state of emergency which lasted until 1977. She then allowed a free election in which the opposition united to defeat her and form the Janata government. But it too succumbed to internal dissension and Mrs. Gandhi returned in 1980. In addition to movements of the left, there have been right-wing Hindu nationalist and business-oriented parties, and, particularly in south India, regional parties.

Pakistan and Bangladesh

Pakistan has had greater difficulty developing its democratic and parliamentary institutions, alternating between civilian government and military rule (1958-71 and 1977-88).

Following the defeat of its army and the creation of Bangladesh, in 1972 civilian rule was reestablished in Pakistan under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was deposed by a military coup led by Zia-ul Haq in 1977. Two years later, Zia executed Bhutto and continued to rule until he lost his life in an air accident in 1988. Subsequently, a fairly open election took place and Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, became prime minister and introduced a new era of civilian government.

Bangladesh has likewise experienced alternating civilian and military rule. Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, leader of the largest party, the Awami League, returned from imprisonment in Pakistan to become prime minister and then president until 1975, when a military coup brought General Ziaur Rahman to power. Today power is held by another general, H.M. Ershad, who took over in 1982.

Throughout much of the past three decades, the inhabitants of Pakistan and Bangladesh have been denied basic political freedoms.

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Population Growth and Economic Development


Social change and economic development, proceeding unevenly throughout the subcontinent, have been hampered by the enormous growth in population since independence. In 1911 the population was approximately 252 million; by 1951 the population of India alone had reached 361 million and is about 817 million today. With about 110 million people in Bangladesh and 104 million in Pakistan, the population of the subcontinent is now well over 1 billion, second only to China in terms of concentration in one nation or closely related group of nations. Population control efforts have been judged by many to be inadequate and poorly administered. Thus, although there has been significant economic development in India and Pakistan — less in Bangladesh — this progress has been overwhelmed by the increase in population. India's food grain production has nearly tripled since 1947, but this has not resulted in a better diet for most of the people. In fact, between one-third and one-half of the population are living below the poverty level, existing on a diet that the World Health Organization has deemed inadequate for subsistence. In all three nations, distribution and access to available food, mainly grains, is uneven [THEME 5].


India has seen substantial industrial development, starting slowly in the late 19th century and accelerating after independence. On an index of 100 in 1970, industrial production was 28.2 in 1950-51 and about 206.5 in 1985-86. There has been a concomitant increase in electrical capacity, transport facilities, and foreign trade. India has become a relatively strong economic power, though it ranks considerably behind the major industrial nations and its growth is hampered by its enormous population of poor, both in rural areas and in the cities, where many have flocked in search of employment.

Starting in the 1950s, India began a series of 5-year plans to rationalize the economic development process and to allocate resources to the public sector, including the social services and education. At first, these plans emphasized heavy industry to a greater degree than economists, both domestic and foreign, thought prudent. Later, resources were directed to agricultural development in an effort to achieve self-sufficiency in food grains, even in years of drought. Despite serious setbacks in the mid-1960s and in 1987, India has attained greater self-sufficiency and resilience.

The one essential resource that india lacks is oil, although preliminary studies have indicated the potential for oil development offshore near Bombay and also for natural gas. India has not developed these resources as quickly and effectively as some had hoped, and, dependent on imported oil, suffered from the price increases in the 1970s [THEMES 5 and 6].

Pakistan and Bangladesh

Pakistan has achieved substantial economic growth, though it has been more reliant than India on foreign aid and on the remittances of overseas Pakistanis, particularly those working in the Middle East. In the 1950s it too introduced economic planning measures, and has slowly been building an industrial sector and increasing agricultural production.

Bangladesh, even more than Pakistan, is heavily dependent on foreign assistance; it has few natural resources or processed goods to offer in trade. It remains a very poor nation, unable to feed itself [THEMES 5 and 6].

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Social Change, Struggle for Equality and Human Rights

South Asian societies have never been static; egalitarian movements have occurred intermittently since the 6th century B.C. Although untouchability is proscribed by India's 1950 constitution (which was drafted by a committee headed by a member of the untouchable caste, Dr. Ambedkar), it endures. Some in the lowest ranks have tried to escape the Brahminical hierarchy by converting to other religions, e.g. Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, or embracing the secular ideologies of socialism and communism. Increasingly, members of repressed groups — untouchables, women, tribal peoples and some ethnic minorities — are fighting for their constitutional and human rights, and some tribal groups — Nagas and Mizos — have established separate states. Attempts to introduce change, for example through affirmative action or quota systems, have met with fierce opposition among some caste Hindus, however, and incidents of murder, maiming, and bride burning by those opposed to advances by the oppressed are not uncommon.

In recent years, another ethnic-cum-regional issue which has been the source of continuing violence and stability is that concerning the Sikh minority, some of whom are calling for the establishment of an independent nation. Tensions exploded into violence in 1984 when Prime Minister Gandhi sent an army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in which a number of armed Sikh extremists had barricaded themselves; in reprisal, the Prime Minister was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards later the same year, an act which, in turn, unleashed a storm of violence against Sikhs by Hindus. Violence and political turmoil continue to this day. With politicians on both sides exploiting the issue, no sign of a real solution is in sight [THEMES 1, 2, 3, and 4].

In Pakistan attempts by women and religious minorities to bring about a more egalitarian social order have also had to contend with strongly entrenched power structures and rigid customs, including those built into the fabric of Islamic law. Of the three nations, Bangladesh has the least rigid social structure, but its various rulers have found it convenient to use Islam to support the status quo [THEMES 1 and 3].

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IV. The Global Context

South Asia's contacts with the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and East Asia have a history of several thousand years. Its contacts with Europe became increasingly important in the past 500 years; indeed, its destiny was shaped during almost 200 years of British rule. World culture has been enriched by religions, art forms, fabulous tales and mathematical insights that originated in India. Likewise, Indian civilization has been shaped by the cultures of those who came as invaders, traders, missionaries, and has borrowed from the culture of the Aryans, the religion of Islam, art forms of Persia, and later Western culture, science, and technology [THEMES 1 and 6].

The experiences gained by the peoples of South Asia in their 20th century struggles for independence are reflected in the foreign policies of their countries. India has stood firm against imperialism throughout the world; Muslim leaders on the subcontinent worked for the Pan Islam movement in the 1920s and subsequently for Palestinian rights and for freeing the Islamic countries from Western domination [THEMES 3 and 6].

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India's Positive Neutrality

Jawaharlal Nehru, several times president of the Congress before independence, and then prime minister of India from 1947 to 1964, was the chief architect of India's foreign policy. In the context of the Cold War in the late 1940s and 1950s, he formulated a policy of positive nonalignment, with India, as the first and largest newly independent nation, playing an active role on the world stage to decrease tensions. For example, India was active in efforts to end the Korean War and served as chair of the Control Commission for Indochina established by the Geneva Conference of 1954. Under Nehru's leadership, India was instrumental in founding the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) [THEMES 1 and 6].

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South Asia and the United States, the Soviet Union, and China

Seeking military allies near or bordering the U.S.S.R., the United States, as part of its Cold War strategy, allied with Pakistan in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955. Having affirmed its anti-communism, Pakistan received from the United States a total of about $4.5 billion in economic and military aid between 1954 and 1960. India was unwilling to join any military alliance but did accept economic assistance from both the United States and the Soviet Union. It went to war with China over a border dispute in 1962, whereas Pakistan signed a border agreement with China in 1963. During its conflict with China, in 1962, India obtained some U.S. military aid; Pakistan, however, was supplied with U.S. equipment during its short war with India in 1965.

In the 1971 confrontation between India and Pakistan over the issue of Bengali refugees in India and self-determination for East Pakistan, China and the United States again took the side of Pakistan, the U.S.S.R. the side of India. Since then, each of the South Asian countries has tried to cultivate friendly relations with the three world powers [THEMES 5 and 6].

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The Nuclear Issue

India exploded a nuclear device in 1974; Pakistan has long been accused of secretly working on an "Islamic Bomb." Both countries deny having nuclear weapons, but both have refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Outside experts believe that if they do not already have nuclear weapons, India and probably Pakistan could develop them quickly. The nuclear powers are urging them to sign the NPT, and threaten to cut off aid to countries that produce nuclear weapons.

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The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to back a pro-Soviet government heightened tensions between Pakistan and the U.S.S.R. Perhaps as many as three million Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan, which became a supply base for anti-Soviet Afghan guerrillas. Pakistan received large amounts of U.S. military aid during the ensuing decade. India, reluctant to alienate an economic donor and having a different perspective on the issue, remained silent. Even with the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, it is not clear how many of the Afghan refugees will return to their homeland.

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The South Asian "Diaspora"

In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, millions of Indians sought employment overseas: in Southeast Asia, East and South Africa, and the Caribbean region. After 1947, many South Asians emigrated to the United Kingdom and later to the United States. As of 1984, there were at least twelve million Indians and large numbers of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living and working abroad. The largest groups today are in Mauritius, Malaya, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Great Britain, the Middle East, and Fiji. There is also a large Indian Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Overseas Indians have frequently been subjected to political, economic, and racial discrimination; many were deported from East Africa. Overseas Indians are beginning to organize, both within the countries in which they reside and also across boundaries to encourage ethnic solidarity [THEMES 1, 2, 5, and 6].

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© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu