Central Themes for a Unit on South Asia

by Dr. Dominic Vendell, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Exeter

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.

Introduction to the Themes: Designation “South Asia” in this outline

These "central themes" are distinctive, and recurrent, so they are touched on under different categories, producing a portrait across time. Of many possible themes, six are suggested as illustrative the history of South Asia and its relation to the world:
The designation “South Asia” in this timeline refers to the area encompassed by the contemporary nation-states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. While Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka are also considered to be part of the South Asia region, and have rich histories in their own right, they will not be discussed in detail.

Theme 1: Cultural Interactions: The Search for Unity in the Face of Diversity

South Asian civilization is the product of cultural patterns established over more than four millennia of global interaction, including successive waves of migration, conquest, and settlement. The most prominent sources of South Asian civilization are strikingly diverse: indigenous prehistoric, Mesopotamian, Indo-European, Greek, Arab, Turco-Mongol, Persian, and European. Deliberate efforts toward synthesis and unification have been successful in creating distinctive and coherent South Asian religious and linguistic traditions. At the same time, a rich diversity of religious belief and practice as well as regional art, dress, cuisine, and language has continued into the present.

  • South Asia is the birthplace of four major religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
    • In addition, Islam is an important religion of South Asia, being the home of approximately 600 million Muslims.
    • Smaller communities of Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians too have formed part of the religious fabric of the sub-continent.
  • There are two major language families in South Asia:
    • the Sanskrit-derived languages of the north (broadly construed), including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, and Marathi. While taking its script and much of its vocabulary from Persian and Arabic, Urdu has very strong links with Hindi, and indeed Hindi and Urdu are regarded by many as a single language.
    • the Dravidian languages of south India, including Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada.
    • English is used by a thinner but widely spread urban elite.

Theme 2: Power, Politics, and the State

Ideas about power in the history of South Asia have been flexible. Kautilya’s Arthashastra (4th century BCE) posited that any king must pursue the fourfold means of alliance-making (sama), gift-giving (dana), sedition (bheda), and force (danda). More practically, rulers required resources, of which the most important was land. Hence state-formation in South Asia required clearing and cultivating land and capturing its products in cash and kind. The ruler’s key tool was the grant of land because it allowed many individuals and groups - from soldiers and scribes to priests and temples to skilled family firms and artisanal guilds - to share in the privileges and responsibilities of power. Something of this vision of royal authority persisted in the government of the British Raj, which at the same time enhanced enumerative and disciplinary techniques like the census. In the middle of the twentieth century, emerging leaders of an Indian nation-state re-imagined the concept of swaraj, or self-rule, to advocate for independence from foreign rule. The contemporary nation-states of South Asia are constitutional, democratic republics built on the political participation of people of diverse religions, languages, and places of origin.

Theme 3: Social Structures and Religious Hierarchies: Family, Jati, and Varna

In Western social science, caste, a term most likely deriving from the Portuguese word casta, has been considered the central building block of South Asian society, but much older forms of social organization and hierarchy have also been historically significant. Most prominent are jati and varna:

  • Jati refers to a large, regionally based endogamous birth group; rooted in marriage, ritual, and food, it is the most important form of Indian social organization in practice.
  • Varna is a textual model of society comprising four classes based on hereditary occupations: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchant-pastoralists), and Shudras (laborers).

Often, religious practice reinforced jati and varna. Brahmin priests, who traditionally played a very important role in Hinduism, administered rituals that perpetuated caste hierarchies. For example, while all people of course have a natal birth, it was believed that young males of the first three varnas experience a second, spiritual “birth” through an initiation ceremony centered on the donning of a sacred thread. Caste intersected with gender in numerous ways - marriages between upper-caste women and lower-caste men were expressly prohibited in Sanskrit legal texts. Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) were excluded from the varna hierarchy and considered to be ritually impure; however, in the twentieth century, they built a mass political movement to combat their historic marginalization. Religious movements outside of Hinduism, including Buddhism, Jainism, the bhakti or devotional movement, Sikhism, Islam, and Christianity, have also called attention to the inequality of caste.

Theme 4: Economic Independence and Interdependence

Historically, South Asian society has been predominantly agricultural. Exchange of goods and services between members of different castes and communities produced economic interdependence as well as relations of power and domination. Extensive mercantile networks along maritime and overland trade routes between urban emporia, market towns, and temple complexes in the subcontinent created links between South Asia and neighboring world regions, including, most prominently, Southeast Asia, Iran and Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean arena. In the nineteenth century, British rule accelerated South Asia’s participation in the world system as it became an exporter of raw materials. Industrialization began gradually and rapidly expanded after independence in 1947. While the Indian nation-state in its infancy strove for relative economic independence, it has played a more prominent role in the international market since relaxing restrictions on foreign commodities and investment in the 1990s. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the other heirs to the British Empire in South Asia, have been more dependent than India on external assistance. Most recently, Bangladesh’s economy has grown enormously - by 188% since 2009 according to one estimate - in large part by incentivizing foreign investment.

Theme 5: South Asia and the World

South Asia has had strong social, cultural and economic connections with other countries and regions through much of its history. From the fourth century CE onwards, Indian missionaries and Chinese pilgrims transmitted Buddhist ideas and texts into East Asia, while extensive contacts with Southeast Asia allowed for the circulation of Sanskritic and Hindu culture. Medieval South Asia’s incorporation into the Islamicate and Persianate worlds led to the migration of substantial numbers of Arabs, Turks, Persians, Afghans, Jews, Armenians, and East Africans. Building on this remarkable cultural diversity, India became "the jewel in the crown” of the vast British Empire from the mid-eighteenth century to 1947. Whereas small numbers of Britons and other Europeans settled in South Asia, thousands of Indian laborers migrated to distant parts of the empire in East Africa and the Caribbean. Following independence, the South Asian diaspora became more prominent in Britain and, more recently, in the United States.

Theme 6: Environmental Change and Continuity

Successive waves of human settlement in South Asia have wrought major changes to the natural landscape, yet the livelihoods of many South Asians have also depended upon the preservation of the environment and its resources. Hence, the environmental history of South Asia exhibits a pattern of both mutual reliance and conflict between sedentary cultivators and townspeople, mobile pastoralists, and forest-dwelling communities. Dependent upon hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture, forest-dwellers’ livelihoods have been impacted by shifting conditions of population density, land cover, and land use. In India, these communities constitute between 8 and 9% of the population. They are generally considered to be both indigenous - via the term Adivasi, meaning “first inhabitant” - and socioeconomically marginalized. They have been entitled to certain education and employment benefits and special political representation through their classification as “Scheduled Tribes.”

Today, the main environmental challenges facing South Asia are population growth and climate change. With about 1.35 billion people (as of 2020), India’s population may soon be the largest on earth. The need to feed, house, and care for growing populations has made it difficult for South Asian nation-states to confront the effects of climate change, including deforestation, desertification, species extinction, pollution, and rising sea levels. Bangladesh’s population is especially vulnerable to flooding caused by increasingly frequent cyclones and higher tides. While short-term measures like sea walls, saltwater-resistant crops and seasonal migration have been key to survival, sea levels are projected to rise from 0.4 to 1.5 meters by 2100, a fact that ought to lend urgency to the threat of climate change in South Asia.

The Themes in Context

I. Physical and Historical Foundations of South Asia

The Physical Geography of South Asia

The South Asian subcontinental land mass, which emerged out of the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana about 150 million years ago, features formidable natural barriers: to the north, the world's highest mountains, the Himalayas; a desert in the west; and dense jungles and swampy marshes on the northeastern frontier. Yet its northwest corridor as well as the Indian Ocean to the west and the Arabian Sea to the east have allowed for traffic in goods, peoples, and ideas from the earliest times. The Indus and Ganges rivers flow from the Himalayan mountains into the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, creating river valleys that have been a historic cradle of wheat-based agrarian cultivation. Passing beyond the north-south dividing lines of the Vindhya and Satpura mountains and the Narmada river, the southern peninsula is dominated by the semiarid Deccan plateau and the wetter, rice-growing lowlands of the south. Driven by seasonal winds from the southwest, the monsoon from June to September brings rains that are critical to maintaining biodiversity “hot spots” and local and regional economies alike [THEME 6].

Beginnings: the Indus Valley Civilization, c. 3000-1500 BCE

Evidence of agriculture and animal domestication dating to as early as 7000 BCE have been identified at Mehrgarh in today’s Pakistan. More populous and organized urban centers in the Indus Valley emerged from roughly 2700 BCE. Reflecting the existence of a hierarchical and highly organized social and economic order, Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and other sites have yielded evidence of fired brick and mud-brick houses; wells and baths; granaries and warehouses; fortification and drainage systems; and many different kinds of objects, including seals, shells, beads, pottery, and stone and copper tools [THEMES 3, 4]. Seals feature a writing system with fascinating images of animals, including a mysterious horned creature likened to a unicorn, that has yet to be deciphered [THEME 1]. Between roughly 1800 and 1300 BCE, northwestern India experienced a general pattern of de-urbanization due to desertification and other environmental and economic stresses [THEME 6].

The People of the Vedas, c. 1500-500 BCE

Clans of semi-nomadic pastoralists speaking an early form of Sanskrit migrated from the steppes of west-central Asia to Iran, Anatolia, and South Asia, where they settled in the Indus and Gangetic alluvial plains around 1500 BCE [THEME 5]. Because archeological evidence is meager, most of what we know of this people is based on the Vedic Sanskrit corpus of hymns and ritual texts passed down orally and committed to paper over many centuries. Following rules prescribed in Vedic texts, priests, known as Brahmins, conducted rituals and sacrifices, many centered on fire, clarified butter (ghi) and the drink soma, which is believed to have been pressed from a plant with hallucinogenic properties. Cattle and the products of the cow, especially milk and butter, were used for sacrifice, consumption, and agriculture, while the horse was important to warfare [THEMES 1, 6]. Central to Vedic narratives were sociocultural distinctions between the members of these clans, who were known as aryans, and those who they encountered, referred to as dasas [THEME 3].

Heterodox Religions: Buddhism and Jainism, c. 6th-5th centuries BCE

The later Vedic texts and the early Upanishads (philosophical commentaries), composed between 900 and 500 BCE, were part of the “Axial Age” of religious and philosophical innovation encompassing both Europe and Asia. At the same time, Buddhism and Jainism challenged the scriptural authority of the Vedas and appealed to a wider range of practitioners. Founded by Mahavira (ca. 540-468 BCE) and associated with lineages of teachers, or tirthankaras, Jainism is a dualistic religion that stresses human perfectibility and spiritual liberation through asceticism, non-violence, and reverence for all living creatures. In the case of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or Enlightened One (ca. 563-483 BCE), was said to have been a prince who left his home in search of nirvana, or release from the cravings and sufferings of the material world and its endless chain of rebirth. Jain and Buddhist ideas circulated through the activities of monks, nuns, teachers, and wandering mendicants [THEMES 1, 3, 6].

Early Empires and Exchanges, c. 4th-2nd centuries BCE

Controlling both the strategically important northwest passage and the Indo-Gangetic basin, the Mauryan Empire (ca. 321-187 BCE) was notable for its sophisticated statecraft, its centralized bureaucracy, and its attempts to formulate a universal moral law [THEME 2]. Diplomatic exchanges of gifts, envoys, and marriage partners with the Seleucids, the successors of Alexander the Great, attest to the respect garnered by the Mauryan Empire [THEME 5]. Its most famous sovereign Ashoka (ca. 269-232 BCE), claiming to be inspired by the gruesome conquest of Kalinga in eastern India, converted to Buddhism and spread the Buddha's teachings by inscribing edicts on pillars scattered across the realm. With the dissolution of the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka’s successors, remarkable cultural and economic exchanges between the Hellenistic, Persian, Chinese, and Indic worlds accompanied significant political fragmentation [THEME 1].

Classicisms in Language, Religion, and Polity, c. 500 BCE-500 CE

Due to its enduring norms in kingship, literature, and religion, the end of the first millennium BCE until roughly 500 CE is considered to be a classical age in South Asian civilization. Coinciding with the zenith of the Gupta Empire (3rd century to 549 CE), classicism is most clearly associated with the widespread diffusion of Sanskrit as the primary language of elite written expression in South and Southeast Asia, including today’s Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand [THEMES 1, 2, 5]. Whereas in earlier periods Sanskrit had been restricted to priestly rituals and abstruse philosophical commentaries, it was now marshalled for a wider range of literary and political uses. Most famously, the great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both composed between 200 BCE and 200 CE, told stories of heroic deeds and explored ethical, religious, and philosophical dilemmas. Equally authoritative were ethical and legal codes (dharmashastra), of which the most well-known is the Manusmriti of the 2nd-1st centuries BCE, that prescribed rules for conduct and punishments for their violation in accordance with the varna order [THEMES 1, 3].

Regional Developments in Southern and Eastern India, c. 500-1200 CE

Even as the Gupta emperors expanded from their base in the Gangetic plain, several dynasties competed for control over the Deccan peninsula and trading entrepots on the coasts, including the Pallavas (ca. 6th-8th centuries) and the Cholas (10th-13th centuries) in the southeast, and the Chalukyas (ca. 6th-8th centuries) and the Rashtrakutas (ca. 8th-10th centuries) in the southwest [THEME 2]. Royal grants of tax-free land to individual Brahmins and Brahmin settlements as well as temples further supported the building of wells and reservoirs and the extension of agriculture. Massive temple complexes at Mahabalipuram, Pattadakal, and elsewhere became focal points for ecological transformation, economic exchange, artistic patronage, and religious worship [THEMES 4, 6]. While South Asian dynasts continued to enable Brahminical dominance of the socio-religious order, they were also compelled to adopt positions within a religious marketplace structured around Buddhism, Jainism, and competing Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects of the religious tradition that came to be known as Hinduism [THEMES 1, 3].

II. Dynamics of Change

Commerce and Conquest: The Beginnings of Islamic Rule in South Asia, c. 10th-11th centuries CE

In the centuries following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the Islamic faith - grounded in the Qu’ran, sunna (custom and practice), and shariʿa (law) - expanded out of the Arabian peninsula and encountered the pre-Islamic literary and political traditions of Iran and Central Asia. Emerging out of this encounter was an Islamicate and largely Persianate culture sphere that became influential across many regions from the Balkans to Bengal [THEMES 1, 5]. At the same time, Arab, Persian, and Chinese navigators harnessed the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and South China Sea to build an extensive trade network between numerous ports, including Aden on the Arabian peninsula, Hormuz in Iran, Kilwa and Zanzibar in east Africa, Calicut and Masulipatnam in India, Malacca in today’s Malaysia, and Guangzhou in China. Oceanic exchanges complemented a distinct set of overland routes [THEMES 4, 5]. Beginning with Mahmud of Ghazni (970-1030 CE), the founder of the Ghaznavid dynasty, Turkish cavalrymen, many of whom were captured, enslaved, and trained to fight, began conducting periodic raids out of northwest India. While the violence of these raids became infamous in historical memory, both commerce and conquest were important vehicles for the diffusion of Islamicate and Persianate culture [THEMES 2, 5].

The Delhi Sultanate, c. 13th-16th centuries CE

Between the 13th and 16th centuries, a succession of Turkish and Afghan dynasties - namely the Ghurids, Khaljis, Tughluqs, and Lodis, known collectively as the Delhi Sultanate - capitalized on their access to key military resources, including horses and elephants, to make Delhi into a flourishing city famous across the Islamic world [THEMES 2, 5]. In response to the Mongol invasions, substantial numbers of poets, scholars, and spiritual teachers from Persia and Central Asia migrated to South Asia. The mystical Sufi tradition of Islam, most notably represented in South Asia by the Chishti brotherhood of north India, became extremely popular, winning converts and followers among ordinary people. Among the most famous disciples of the Chishti saint Nizamuddin Auliya was the poet and musician Amir Khusrau, the “parrot of India,” whose multilingual verses are exemplary of the very best of the literary creativity of this period [THEME 1]. The dispersal of Sufi hospices to outlying regions, including the Deccan and Bengal, not only led to the expansion of Islam, but also enabled the spread of hydraulic technologies critical to the cultivation of the land [THEMES 4, 6].

Popular Movements in Society, Religion and Literature, c. 14th-16th centuries CE

With the establishment of breakaway Islamic sultanates in Bengal, Kashmir, Malwa and Gujarat, the constant interchange between Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Sanskrit and local Indian languages, often referred to as Hindvi, led to the development of hybrid forms of art, literature, religion, and legal and political practice [THEME 1, 2]. Alongside the continuing presence of military slavery and servitude, a robust military labor market developed amidst the dispersal of Islamic sultanates in South Asia, with recruitment of armed men fueling the gradual formation of Rajput clan identities in Rajasthan. At the same time that socioeconomic mobility shaped community formation, popular devotionalism became a new site for religious and literary expression in the centuries following the Islamic conquest. Bhakti, or the devotional tradition of Hinduism, seems to have emerged in south India, but spread across all regions of the subcontinent between the 12th and 18th centuries. Bhakti devotional sentiment drove the composition of new literature in Braj Bhasha, a language originating in the region near Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace, that was one of many to shape the modern language of Hindi-Urdu [THEMES 2, 3].

Competing Cosmopolitanisms in the South, c. 14th-17th centuries CE

Two imperial powers came to define the political landscape of peninsular India in the wake of the conquests of the Delhi sultans: the Bahmani sultanate and the Vijayanagara empire. Founded in the mid-fourteenth century by a general who served under Sultan Muhammad Tughluq, the Bahmani sultanate at Bidar and its breakaway kingdoms at Bijapur, Gulbarga, and Ahmadangar quickly established independent connections with Timurid Iran and Central Asia, facilitating the migration of thousands of Sufis, scribes, and soldiers proficient in Persian and Arabic [THEMES 1, 3, 5]. Upwardly mobile Karnataka-born warriors created their own dynasty based at the monumental “City of Victory,” or Vijayanagara (today known as Hampi). By improving on rain-fed agriculture through the construction of extensive canals and reservoirs, the Vijayanagara rulers accumulated wealth, which they donated to individual Brahmins, monastic centers, and major temple complexes dedicated to their family deity Virupaksha, a form of Shiva, as well as the Shri Venkateshwar complex at Tirupati [THEMES 1, 4, 6]. But they also incorporated Islamic architectural motifs, such as domes and arches, into palace buildings and wore tunics and headgear fashionable in the Near East. It was only by means of an extraordinary alliance that the fractious Deccan Sultanates were able to defeat Vijayanagara at the battle of Talikota in 1565 [THEMES 1, 2, 5].

The Mughal Empire, 1526-1707

Undoubtedly the most famous and consequential of the early modern Muslim states to leave its footprint on the Indian subcontinent was the Mughal Empire. Claiming descent from both Timur and Genghis Khan, its founder Babur was a Central Asian prince who sought political opportunity in what he called Hindustan. With the exception of a short interlude of Afghan rule between 1540 and 1556, Babur’s successors managed a sprawling empire through a combination of personal charisma, military might, administrative know-how, and economic incentives for the transformation of forests and waste-lands into cultivated fields [THEMES 2, 5].

While the Mughal nobility was initially dominated by Central Asian and Iranian migrants, it came to include many Hindu Rajputs and locally powerful men from other Indian communities, and from Emperor Akbar’s time onwards, Rajput women began contracting marriages with the Mughal emperors [THEME 3]. Facilitating the creation of an open culture of imperial service was Akbar’s policy of universal peace and toleration (sulh-i kul) and the spread of Persian as a lingua franca. Extraordinary examples of Indo-Persian architecture included the Taj Mahal at Agra, built as a mausoleum for Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz [THEME 1]. Popular revolts, wars of succession, inflation caused by the importation of New World silver, and shortages of land grants for a rapidly growing class of nobility all contributed to imperial crisis and eventual decline [THEMES 3, 4, 5].

Mughal Decline and the Struggle for Dominance, 1707-1818

The decline of the Mughal Empire is typically dated to the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, though a weaker Empire would persist until the end of the eighteenth century and in name only until the Rebellion of 1857. The provinces became sites for new ventures in political mobilization, ranging from the creation of successor states at Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad to more insurgent movements for independence among the Sikhs in the Punjab and the Marathas in western India [THEME 2].

By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the British and French East India companies too had become serious competitors for dominance. Both combined a desire for profit with advanced military organization, financial backing from their home countries, and strategic relationships with Indian rulers, advisors, and merchants. But it was the British who with a major victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757 obtained the right to revenue collection, or diwani, in Bengal; in so doing, they began the gradual process of turning a trading company into a company-state [THEMES 4, 5].

With the defeat of Tipu Sultan, known among the British as “Tipu the tiger,” in 1799 and the Marathas’ final capitulation in 1818, the British East India Company became the unmatched power in South Asia.

British Raj, Indian Society, 1818-1857

While certain territories remained in the hands of Indian rulers who exercised limited autonomy, two-thirds of the subcontinent fell under the direct authority of a British governor-general. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the British sought to reform perceived abuses within Indian society and government whilst preserving the overall spirit of local forms of rule [THEME 2]. While British officials held the highest ranking positions within the Indian Civil Service (ICS), knowledgeable Indian subordinates were recruited to collect, translate, and explain documents key to evaluating systems of land tenure and revenue collection. English and local languages replaced Persian in administration; claims to ancestral landed property became subject to closer scrutiny; separate “Anglo-Hindu” and “Anglo-Muhammedan” laws were codified; and earlier modes of learning were replaced with English-language education in Western subjects. The British staged interventions in the lives of Indian women, including the abolition of sati, or widow immolation, in 1829. Because British officials and Indian reformers alike understood the “uplift” of women to be a barometer of civilizational “improvement,” such interventions became the subject of intense debate within a growing print-based public sphere [THEMES 1, 3].

The Rebellion of 1857

Even while forcibly gaining a monopoly over the military labor market and subduing mobile forest-dwelling pastoralists, the East India Company recruited Indian men to serve in its own armies. Known as sepoys, Indian soldiers in Company armies sparked the Rebellion of 1857. The causes of the Rebellion were multiple, but most notoriously included rumors that cartridges in the new Enfield rifle, which had to be bitten off, were greased in cow or pig fat, considered by Hindus and Muslims to be polluting substances. Beginning in Meerut in north India, the rebellion spread across the north and down into central and parts of western India and came to encompass a range of dispossessed and disaffected groups with very different reasons for deciding to revolt [THEMES 3, 4, 6]. The Rebellion’s immediate effect was to prompt the British Parliament to transfer control over the government of India from the Company into the hands of the British Crown. More broadly, 1857 marked a key turning-point in the theory of British rule in South Asia. Rather than aiming to effect liberal schemes of reform and improvement, the British government now sought to stabilize an imagined society-in-crisis by ruling through influential, but sometimes corrupt and oppressive “natural leaders” [THEME 2].

The Formation of a Classical Colonial Economy, c. 1850-1900

With the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a British domestic textile industry, South Asia became an exporter of raw materials and an importer of British-made manufactures. As the great weaving centers of early modern South Asia declined, commercial agriculture expanded, focusing on cash crops like cotton, indigo, jute, rice, tea, and opium. To facilitate the creation of an integrated colonial economy, the British government and Indian laborers built a railway system; telegraph lines; irrigation canals in regions with significant agrarian potential like the Punjab; and a single low-cost government postal service. Yet these public works in infrastructure tended to redound to the overall financial benefit of British investors and the British industrial manufacturing sector. The British government annually withdrew funds, known as “Home Charges,” to cover debts, pensions, and office expenses, inspiring Indian nationalist leaders to decry the “drain of wealth” from India to Britain. South Asia was also incorporated into a global imperial system by becoming a source of indentured labor for British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia [THEMES 4, 5].

Colonial Technologies of Rule, c. 1850-1900

In conformity with the implementation of the new technologies in agriculture, communication, transportation, and forestry management, the British colonial state relied on more systematic “technologies of rule” to enumerate and manage a population that it now considered to harbor a potential for rebellion. The Census of India, conducted on a decennial basis from 1881, collected information about the food, dress, occupations, marriage patterns, and religious sentiments of Indian castes and communities. Such information when paired with photographs and physiognomic data formed a much more fixed and concrete notion of caste identity than had prevailed in pre-colonial South Asia. While this notion aided the colonial state in policing practices viewed as “backward” or “dangerous,” such as hook-swinging, it also inspired upwardly mobile communities to petition the state for modification of their classification within the census schema [THEME 2, 3]. Efforts were made to form separate British areas, known as “civil lines” and “cantonments” for civilian and military personnel, and to establish “hill stations” for British officials to escape the supposedly diseased air of dense urban localities [THEME 6]. Because the theories behind such sanitation measures were often first developed with British working-class populations in mind, some historians view India as a colonial laboratory for forms of social control in the metropole [THEME 5].

Education, Civil Society and the Beginnings of Indian Nationalism, c. 1880-1910

Access to English education and, for a select few, advanced training in Western law, science, and medicine and opportunities to study abroad in Britain altered the relationship between the British colonial state and its Indian subjects. At the same time, a robust vernacular language print culture, including Indian-owned and -operated newspapers with wide circulation, featured debates about government policies, social and religious norms, and the new popular literatures being produced in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, and other languages. Fostering the development of a robust public sphere and print culture was an active civil society composed of caste- and community-based organizations, voluntary associations, and educational and literary initiatives [THEMES 1, 3]. With the growth of civil society came a slow, but steady movement towards formal political representation for Indians. Community leaders and wealthy philanthropists acquired a greater, though still subordinate role on municipal boards, dealing with issues of sanitation, policing, education, and public works, and subsequently on legislative and provincial councils with broader jurisdiction. In 1885, these developments culminated in the formation of the Indian National Congress [THEME 2].

Communalism and Revolutionary Nationalism to World War I

Starting in the 1890s, mass organization and protest around religious symbols, a phenomenon known as communalism, swept through multiple regions. In Maharashtra, the new festivals commemorated the Hindu elephant-god Ganapati and the Maratha founder Shivaji, while in the north, organizations emerged to protect the cow, an animal sacred in the Hindu tradition but part of the diets of Muslims and Christians. In response to Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905, Bengalis organized the swadeshi movement to boycott British-made products, and secret societies taking the Hindu goddess Kali as their patron carried out spectacular acts of violence. The British colonial government began to limit civil liberties and arrest its most outspoken critics while cultivating the loyalties of a group of upper-class Muslims who felt that the interests of the Muslim community were not adequately represented. The Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 (also known as the India Councils Act) added more Indian representatives with greater powers of consultation to the existing provincial and central legislative councils and introduced a demand for separate Muslim electorates. In 1906, the All-India Moslem League, or Muslim League, was formed [THEMES 1, 2, 3].

Gandhi and the Nation, 1914-1919

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to the recruitment of over a million Indians to serve in the British army. War between Russia and the Ottoman Empire as well as revolts against Ottoman rule in Greece and the Balkans inspired Muslims worldwide, including in India, to advocate for the protection of the Ottoman emperor as the living successor, or khalifa, of the Prophet [THEME 5].

Most significant of all was the return of the English-educated Hindu Gujarati barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (better known as Mahatma Gandhi) to India in 1915. Previously, Gandhi had been politically active in South Africa, where he developed the concept of passive resistance called satyagraha (grasped by the truth, in Sanskrit). Drawing heavily on the New Testament, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Ruskin as well as Hindu tradition, including the Bhagavad Gita, he advocated for a return to an idealized Indian past, free from the materialist failings of the West. He attempted to embody this way of life through his dress and diet and to set up model communities around village-based crafts like the production of hand-spun cloth (khadi). Rather than committing individual acts of violence, Gandhi focused on building a non-violent mass movement, which led in 1918 and 1921-22 to nation-wide protests against British rule [THEMES 1, 2].

Non-Cooperation and Challenges to Congress Leadership, 1919-1935

In 1919, the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, in which a British garrison commanded by Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians in a garden in the Punjabi city of Amritsar, quickly becoming a symbol of the violence of the British Raj. The massacre lent urgency to the Congress’ 1920 declaration of non-cooperation, a measure spearheaded by Gandhi and co-signed by the Muslim-led Khilafatist groups.

In the same period, one of the most serious challenges to Gandhi’s moral leadership came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a Dalit leader and graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics who led public actions against discrimination towards Dalits and demanded the creation of separate electorates for lower castes.

When the British government floated the 1932 Communal Award to create such electorates, Gandhi mounted a “fast to the death” from his jail cell in Pune, resulting in a compromise that preserved a unified Hindu electorate. Ambedkar would continue to call attention to the marginalization of the concerns of lower caste people within the nationalist movement. Viewing the caste system to be inextricably linked to Hinduism, he converted to Buddhism just before his death [THEMES 2, 3].

World War II and “Quit India,” 1935-1942

The passage of the Government of India Act (1935) accelerated participation in provincial elections. Whereas Congress won majorities in several provinces during the 1937 elections, the Muslim League won a majority in none of the Muslim majority provinces, losing out to far more popular regional parties formed on the basis of class and caste solidarities. Hence after more than three decades of negotiation, the problem of the political future of South Asia’s Muslims remained unsolved [THEMES 2, 3].

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British government unilaterally committed India to the war effort, leading to the deaths of 87,000 soldiers from South Asia. Taking matters into his own hands, the disaffected Congress leader Subhas Chandra 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 [THEME 5]. In 1942, Gandhi, now working closely with the Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), demanded that the British immediately “Quit India” and was once again jailed. Without clear leadership, the subsequent “August uprising” was far more violent and spontaneous than previous mass actions, sweeping through most of north India as well as major cities like Bombay [THEME 2].

The Demand for Pakistan and the Road to Partition, 1940-1947

The Muslim League led by the barrister Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) had proposed an independent Muslim nation, Pakistan, in 1940. First floated as an idea in the early 1930s, Pakistan only became a serious political goal once it was clear that it would be impossible to negotiate a federal national scheme acceptable to both Congress and the League. Wide swathes of territory divided certain Muslim majority areas (e.g. Bengal, Hyderabad) from those in northwest India; regional parties remained strong; and not all Muslim leaders supported the idea of forming a separate state. Afraid that Congress would not abide by the terms of ongoing negotiations for a federal scheme with strong Muslim provincial powers, Jinnah in July 1946 called for a general strike and direct action, leading to mass riots in Bengal and Bihar. As Britain's last viceroy in India, Lord Mountbatten presided over final negotiations, and it was finally agreed that a division of the country into the new nations of India and Pakistan would take place on August 15, 1947. The new Muslim nation would be composed of two parts, separated by India: East Pakistan (East Bengal) and West Pakistan (part of the Punjab, Sind, the Northwest Frontier Province, and Balochistan) [THEME 2].

III. The Aftermath of Decolonization and the Contemporary Nation-States of South Asia

The Violence of Partition, 1947

Uprooting almost 12 million people, Partition was one of the most significant instances of mass migration in twentieth-century world history and a defining event for post-colonial South Asia. The speed of the transfer of power from British to South Asian hands compounded with existing communal tensions led to both coordinated and spontaneous acts of violence across the countryside. The situation was especially grim in the Punjab, where some 5 million Hindus and Sikhs moved inside the new borders of India and an equal or larger number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan. Because the “purity” of women was commonly understood to index the honor of the community, Partition violence was deeply gendered. In its aftermath, both sides mounted campaigns to “restore” abducted women to their purported homelands, whether or not these women wanted to return. While Hindu majorities were created in both Punjab and Bengal, many Muslims did not migrate to Pakistan - today, about 14% of today’s Indian population is Muslim, the largest population outside of Muslim-majority countries [THEMES 1, 2, 3].

Problems of National Integration, c. 1947-1956

In addition to dividing Punjab and Bengal from West and East Pakistan, approximately 500 princely states had to be integrated into one or the other of the new nations, sometimes by force. The States Reorganisation Commission of the 1950s used language as the primary criterion for forming state boundaries, leading to protests in Bombay in 1956. But it was Kashmir, where a Muslim majority had been ruled by a Hindu raja, that proved to be the most contested region in post-Partition South Asia. Following an initial clash between India and Pakistan in 1948, the United Nations brokered a territorial division along the so-called line of control wherein India would control roughly two thirds of the region and Pakistan would control one third (a smaller portion was eventually claimed by China). But this arrangement has been repeatedly troubled by overt military engagements and more subtle political interventions. Most recently, in 2019, the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi suspended Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had provided a measure of internal autonomy to Kashmiris [THEMES 1, 2, 3].

1971: Pakistan’s Internal Divides and the Creation of Bangladesh

While roughly 50% of the Pakistani population consisted of Bengali-speakers living in the province of East Pakistan, the civilian and military bureaucracy was dominated by Urdu-speakers from the Punjab and north India. After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League called for greater provincial autonomy and won a decisive electoral majority in East Pakistan in 1970, the central government ordered the army to suppress the opposition in March 1971. Open rebellion quickly escalated into a full-fledged war that the Pakistani army could not win, especially after a flood of several million Bengali refugees across the Indian border prompted Indira Gandhi’s government to invade in support of the Bengali guerrillas. The human cost of these developments was enormous, though the total number of casualties in the war remains a contested matter. While Pakistani official figures put the death-toll at 26,000, Bangladeshi figures can be as high as one or two million. As numerous survivors’ oral accounts have attested, violence against non-combatants, especially women, was rampant [THEMES 1, 2, 3].

India: From Congress Raj to Modi Sarkar, 1947-present

Independent India’s early political history was shaped by the dominance of the Congress Party, which received its first challenge after Indira Gandhi’s second electoral victory in 1971. Facing a mass opposition movement, she declared a state of emergency in 1975, suspended civil liberties, and after a series of electoral defeats and victories, died at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. While an ideology equating the nation with an imagined Hindu essence, or Hindutva, existed from the earliest days of Independence, political Hindutva was revived in the early 1990s in the wake of Congress decline. The three arms of the “Sangh Parivar” - namely, the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS), a grassroots organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political party, and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an international network - mobilized around the claim that Ayodhya was the birthplace of the god Ram, or ram-janmabhoomi, and the site of a temple that had been demolished by the Mughal emperor Babur to build a mosque, the Babri Masjid. In 2014 and again in 2019, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won majorities in the lower house of the legislature, the Lok Sabha, and elected Narendra Modi, a former RSS member and Gujarat chief minister, to the office of prime minister [THEMES 1, 2].

Pakistan: Struggling Towards Democracy, 1947-present

Pakistan’s political history has been rocked by bouts of martial authoritarianism. After deposing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), in 1977, General Zia ul-Haq established a regime based on military power and Islamist ideology. Following Zia’s death in an air accident in 1988, Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Butto, and Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi industrial magnate, competed for political control, each serving multiple terms as prime minister. Pakistan’s reliance on a military-industrial complex closely tied to dependence on foreign monetary aid and policy influence has continued to hinder the civilian government in establishing its independence. When the former army chief Pervez Musharraf dismissed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in anticipation of his refusal to approve a second presidential term, the eruption of nationwide protests re-affirmed that Pakistan had a robust democratic tradition and vocal press, even if it could not sustain a fair and transparent constitutional government. Capitalizing on critiques of corruption and election rigging, the cricket star Imran Khan and his centrist Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party (PTI) became Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister in 2018 [THEMES 1, 2].

Bangladesh: Military Rule and Patrimonial Democracy, 1971-present

Bangladesh too has experienced alternating periods of civilian and military rule in its efforts to transform a struggle for independence into a stable system of government. In August of 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, was assassinated, and a series of military coups resulted in the installation of Major-General Ziaur Rahman. For the next fifteen years, military generals, first Zia (1975-1981) and then Hussain Muhammad Ershad (1982-1990) ruled Bangladesh. Widespread agitation in 1990, including student protests against a proposal to impose Arabic as a mandatory subject in primary schools, toppled the Ershad regime and brought a return to parliamentary democracy. Strikingly, the two leaders who dominated Bangladeshi politics in subsequent elections were women: Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia, headed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, represented the Awami League. Both combined personal charisma with their family’s outsized reputations to dominate what has become a highly patrimonial, if formally democratic two-party system [THEMES 1, 2].

IV. Key Issues in Contemporary South Asia

Population Growth and Economic Development

With about 1.35 billion people in India, 212 million people in Pakistan, and 161 million in Bangladesh, the population of the subcontinent is slowly approaching 2 billion. Although there has been significant economic development in all three nation-states, this progress has been constrained by increase in population, dependence on international aid, and challenges to democratic governance. Having shifted from a broadly socialist model of central economic planning to a neoliberal one prioritizing the “free” flow of capital, goods, and services, India’s current GDP is second only to the U.S. and China, though over twenty percent of the population lives below the poverty line.Pakistan took a different course, accepting some $67 billion in American aid between 1951 and 2011. Roughly 90% of the East Pakistani population was rural and agricultural, with the bulk of state support for industrialization projects channeled to West Pakistan. Following the 1971 war of independence, Bangladesh became a prime target of the human development industry as foreign governments, international bodies and especially non-governmental organizations (NGO) began to play a greater role in shaping economic policy. Most recently, the Bangladeshi government has touted its “economic miracle” - referring to the increase in GDP per capita from approximately $300 in 1991 to $1500 in 2017 - even as concerns about workplace safety, workers’ rights, and rapid urbanization persist [THEMES 4, 5].

The Struggle for Equity and Human Rights

South Asian women, lower caste and indigenous people, religious minorities, and most recently, LGBTQ groups, have fought for equality, both in the eyes of the law and in terms of access to socioeconomic resources. In India, the constitutional abolition of untouchability as well as employment and education reservations have attempted to redress caste-based discrimination and violence. The recent consolidation of BJP power at the national level under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led to periodic violence against Muslims, the suppression of student-led protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016, and the eruption of Hindu riots against Muslim residents of Delhi in 2020. Debates about human rights in Pakistan have revolved around the status of women and religious minorities in a state defined by its commitment to governing according to broadly conceived Islamic principles. The regime of Zia ul-Haq broadened minority exclusion with the enforcement of blasphemy laws and curtailed women’s rights with the 1979 Hudood ordinances, especially the zina ordinance declaring that anyone found guilty of adultery would be stoned to death. Like India and Pakistan, the new nation-state of Bangladesh has not afforded full and equal rights to women and religious minorities; however, it has also failed to protect the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hills Tracts south of the Indian states of Tripura and Mizoram. In the last few years, it has faced a new refugee crisis in response to Myanmar’s attempted genocide of its Rohingya population [THEMES 3, 5].

Foreign Policy, Nuclear Power, and National Security

Within the bipolar international system of the Cold War of the late 1940s and 1950s, the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru formulated a policy of positive nonalignment, while Pakistan actively pursued an alliance with the United States. When India conducted its second nuclear bomb test in 1998 (its first was at Pokhran in 1974), Pakistan responded with an intermediate-range missile. Terrorism and border security too have shaped the role of South Asia in the contemporary international system. Amidst the U.S.- and Pakistan-backed Afghan war of resistance against Soviet invasion, some three million Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan’s border provinces, which became a major center of Islamist rhetoric and training associated with the Jamia’t ul-Islami. Despite the Musharraf government’s official endorsement of the U.S. “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan did not sever its ties to terrorist networks. The revelation that the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which killed over 170 people, were coordinated by the Pakistan-based Laskhar-i Taiba with support from the Inter-Services Intelligence added to Pakistan’s image as a refuge for Islamist terrorist organizations [THEMES 2, 5].

The South Asian Diaspora

Between the mid-1830s and the British prohibition of the indenture system in 1917, over 1 million Indians were transported across the fearsome “dark waters,” or kala pani, to work in sugar plantations and other industries in the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa. In the twentieth century, increasing numbers of South Asians emigrated to the United Kingdom and the United States. Punjabi Sikhs came to Canada and the west coast of the U.S. to work on farms, in mines, and on the railroads, and in 1913, a group of Punjabis started the Ghadar movement in support of Indian independence. 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, Fiji, the United States, Great Britain, and the Arab Gulf states, where the construction and service industries depend upon South Asian migrant labor. From the second half of the twentieth century, the South Asian diaspora has increasingly involved the migration of highly skilled and educated professionals working in scientific, medical, and technological fields [THEMES 3, 5].

Climate Change and Environmental Health

Among the most pressing issues facing South Asia as a region is climate change, and the attendant effects on public and environmental health of deforestation, species extinction, rising sea levels, pollution, and extreme weather events. Since the early 1990s, the governments of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have participated in international treaties aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and lowering the average global temperature, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and the Paris Agreement (2016). Qualifying this participation was their assertion that they had not contributed to the problem of climate change at the level of more developed economies, and that mitigation of climate change should not impede the development agendas required to support their populations. Current climate data demonstrates the complexity of the issue. For example, India is the world’s third largest emitter of GHG (between 6-7% of the world’s total, behind China and the United States), but its carbon emissions per capita is between 1-2%, far below that of more developed economies. Hence South Asian nation-states have stressed the need for international cooperation in meeting GHG reduction goals through direct loans, technology transfers, investments in sustainable technologies, and other forms of capacity-building [THEMES 5, 6].