India is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world. In Harappa, an area in the Indus Valley (now in Pakistan), between 3000 and 2000 BC , scores of thriving municipalities developed a distinct urban culture. This riverain civilization disappeared around 1500–1200 BC , probably owing to the arrival of Aryan (Indo-European-speaking) invaders, who began pouring through Afghanistan onto the lush plains of northern India. There followed over a thousand years of instability, of petty states and larger kingdoms, as one invading group after another contended for power. During this period, Indian village and family patterns, along with Brahmanism—the ancient form of Hinduism—and its caste system, became well established. Among the distinguished oral literature surviving from this period are two anonymous Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana (traditionally attributed to the legendary poet Valmiki) and the Mahabharata (the longest poem in the world, containing over 100,000 verses, including the Bhagavad-Gita ).
The South Asian subcontinent already had a population of about 30 million, of whom approximately 20 million lived in the Ganges Basin, when Alexander the Great invaded the Indus Valley in 326 BC . His successors were absorbed by the new Maurya dynasty (c.321–c.184 BC ); under Chandragupta (r.c.321–c.297 BC ), from his capital at Pataliputra (now Patna), the Mauryans subdued most of northern India and what is now Bangladesh. His successor, Asoka (r.273–232 BC ), put all of India under unified control for the first time; an early convert to Buddhism, his regime was remembered for its sectarian tolerance, as well as for remarkable administrative, legal, and cultural achievements. Many of the Buddhist monuments and elaborately carved cave temples found at Sarnath, Ajanta, Bodhgaya, and other places in India date from the reigns of Asoka and his Buddhist successors.
In the years following Asoka, India divided again into a patchwork of kingdoms, as other invaders arrived from central and western Asia. In the process, Hinduism prevailed over Buddhism, which found wide acceptance in Asian lands other than India, its birthplace. Although predated by other states of Brahmanic origin, true Hindu kingdoms first appeared in the Peninsula after the 4th century AD . The era of the Gupta dynasty rule ( AD 320– C .535) was a golden age of art, literature, and science in India. And Hindu princes of the Rajput sub-caste, ruling in the north, reached their peak of power from AD 700 to 1000, although their descendants retained much of their influence well into British days.
In the 8th century, the first of several waves of Islamic invaders appeared at the traditional northwest portals; between the years 1000 and 1030, Mahmud of Ghazni made 17 forays into the subcontinent. The first Muslim sultan of Delhi was Kutb-ud-din (r. c.1195–1210), and Islam gradually spread eastward and southward, reaching its greatest territorial and cultural extent under the Mughal (or Mogul) dynasty. "Mughal" comes from the Farsi word for Mongol, and the Mughals were descendants of the great 14th-century Mongol conqueror Timur (also known as "Timur the Lame" or Tamerlane), a descendant in turn of Genghis Khan.
One of the Timurid princes, the great Babur (r.1526–30), captured Kabul in 1504 and defeated the Sultan of Delhi in 1526, becoming the first of the Mughals to proclaim himself emperor of India. It was not until 1560 that Akbar (r.1556–1605), Babur's grandson, extended the dynasty's authority over all of northern India, and it was Akbar who was the first of the Muslim emperors to attempt the establishment of a national state in alliance with Hindu rajahs (kings). Though illiterate, he was a great patron of art and literature. Among his successors were Shah Jahan and his son Aurangzeb, who left their imprint in massive palaces and mosques, superb fortresses (like the Lahore fort), dazzling mausoleums (like the Taj Mahal at Agra), elaborate formal gardens (like those in Srinagar), and the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri (37 km/23 mi w of Agra). Under Aurangzeb (r.1658–1707), who seized his father's throne, the Mughal Empire reached its greatest extent and then began its decline, largely the result of his repressive policies. The Hindu Marathas fought the Mughals and established their own empire in western India.
Vasco da Gama reached India's southwest coast by sea in 1498, and for a century the Portuguese had a monopoly over Indian sea. Although it continued to hold bits of Indian territory until 1961, Portugal lost its dominant position as early as 1612 when forces controlled by the British East India Company defeated the Portuguese and won concessions from the declining Mughals. The company, which had been established in 1600, had permanent trading settlements in Madras, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and Calcutta by 1690. Threatened by the French East India Company, which was founded in 1664, the two companies fought each other as part of their nations' struggle for supremacy in Europe and the western hemisphere in the 18th century. They both allied with rival Indian princes and recruited soldiers ( sepoys ) locally, but the French and their allies suffered disastrous defeats in 1756 and 1757, against the backdrop of the larger sweep of the Seven Years' War (1756–63), and by 1761, France was no longer a power in India. The architect of the British triumph, later known as the founder of British India, was Robert Clive, later Baron, who became governor of the Company's Bengal Presidency in 1764, to be followed by Warren Hastings and Lord Cornwallis in the years before 1800. The Company's rule spread up the Gangetic plain to Oudh and Delhi, and eventually, to western India where the Maratha Confederacy, the alliance of independent Indian states that had succeeded the Mughal Empire there, was reduced to a group of relatively weak principalities owing fealty to the British in 1818.
The British government took direct control of the Company's Indian domain during the Sepoy Mutiny (1857–59), a widespread rebellion by Indian soldiers in the company's service, and in 1859, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. The succeeding decades were characterized by significant economic and political development, but also by a growing cultural and political gap between Indians and British. Indian troops were deployed elsewhere in the world by the Crown in defense of British interests but without any recourse of Indian views.
While the British moved gradually to expand local self-rule along federal lines, British power was increasingly challenged by the rise of indigenous movements advocating a faster pace. A modern Indian nationalism began to grow as a result of the influence of groups like the Arya Samaj, in the last century, of Western culture and education among the elite, and of the Indian National Congress (INC). Founded as an Anglophile debating society in 1885, the INC grew into a movement leading agitation for greater self-rule in the first 30 years of this century. Under the leadership of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (called the Mahatma, or Great Soul) and other nationalist leaders, such as Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, the INC began to attract mass support in the 1930s with the success of its noncooperation campaigns and its advocacy of education, cottage industries, self-help, an end to the caste system, and nonviolent struggle. But Muslims had also been politicized, beginning with the abortive partition of Bengal during the period 1905–12. And despite the INC leadership's commitment to secularism, as the movement evolved under Gandhi, its leadership style appeared—to Muslims—uniquely Hindu, leading Indian Muslims to look to the protection of their interests in the formation of their own organization, the All-India Muslim League (ML).
National and provincial elections in the mid-1930s persuaded many Muslims that the power the majority Hindu population could exercise at the ballot box, however secular the INC's outlook, could leave them as a permanent electoral minority in any single democratic polity that would follow British rule. Sentiment in the Muslim League began to coalesce around the "two nation" theory propounded by the poet Iqbal, who argued that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations and that Muslims required creation of an independent Islamic state for their protection and fulfillment. A prominent Mumbai (formerly Bombay) attorney, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who came to be known as "Quaid-i-Azam" (Great Leader), led the fight for a separate Muslim state to be known as Pakistan, a goal formally endorsed by the ML in Lahore in 1940.
Mahatma Gandhi, meanwhile, had broadened his demand in 1929 from self-rule to independence in 1929; in the 1930s, his campaigns of nonviolent noncooperation and civil disobedience electrified the countryside. In 1942, with British fortunes at a new low and the Japanese successful everywhere in Asia, Gandhi rejected a British appeal to postpone further talks on Indian self-rule until the end of World War II. Declining to support the British (and Allied) war effort and demanding immediate British withdrawal from India, he launched a "Quit India" campaign. In retaliation, Gandhi and most of India's nationalist leaders were jailed.
The end of World War II and the British Labor Party's victory at the polls in 1945 led to renewed negotiations on independence between Britain and the Hindu and Muslim leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru and the INC leadership pressed anew for a single, secular nation in which the rights of all would be guarded by constitutional guarantees and democratic practice. But Jinnah and the Muslim League persevered in their campaign for Pakistan. In mid-August 1947, with Hindu-Muslim tensions rising, British India was divided into the two self-governing dominions of India and Pakistan, the latter created by combining contiguous, Muslim-majority districts in British India, the former consisting of the remainder. Partition occasioned a mass movement of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who found themselves on the "wrong" side of new international boundaries; as many as 20 million people moved, and up to three million of these were killed in bloodletting on both sides of the new international frontier. Gandhi, who opposed the partition and worked unceasingly for Hindu-Muslim amity, became himself a casualty of heightened communal feeling; he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist five months after Partition.
Among the unresolved legacies of Partition was that it did not address the more than 500 princely states with which the British Crown had treaty ties. Most princely rulers chose one or the other dominion on grounds of geography, but the state of Jammu and Kashmir, bordering both new nations, had a real option. A Muslim-majority state with a Hindu maharaja, Kashmir opted first for neither but then chose to join the Indian Union when invaded in 1948 by tribesmen from Pakistan. Quickly, Indian and Pakistani armed forces were engaged in fighting that cut to the heart of the "two-nation" theory and brought the dispute to the fledgling United Nations. A UN cease-fire in 1949 left the state divided, one-third with Pakistan and the rest, including the prized Vale of Kashmir, under Indian control. An agreement to hold an impartial plebiscite broke down when the antagonists could not agree on the terms under which it would be held. While Pakistan administers its portion of the former princely state as Azad ("free") Kashmir and as the Northern Areas, under a legal fiction that they are separate from Pakistan, the Indian portion is governed as Jammu and Kashmir, a state in the Indian Union. Periodic statewide elections have been held in Jammu and Kashmir, but no plebiscite has been held on the state's future. In July 2002, the United States announced that it did not support Pakistan's persistent demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir, a statement welcome to India.
The issue has defied all efforts at solution, including two spasms of warfare in 1965 and 1971. In the late 1980s, India's cancellation of election results and dismissal of the state government led to the start of an armed insurrection by Muslim militants. Indian repression and Pakistan's tacit support of the militants have threatened to spark renewed warfare and keeps the issue festering.
India and China have been at odds about their Himalayan border since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, leading to clashes between Indian and Chinese troops at a number of locations along the disputed Himalayan border, including remote areas of Ladakh. In 1962, Chinese troops invaded—then withdrew from—Chinese claimed areas along the border, defeating India's under-equipped and badly led forces. The border dispute with China remains unresolved, although tensions have been eased by a standstill accord signed by the two countries in September 1993.
After Nehru's death on 27 May 1964, his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, led India in dealing with an unprecedented round of Hindu-Muslim violence occasioned by the theft of a holy Islamic relic in Kashmir. In August and September 1965, his government successfully resisted a new effort by Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute by force of arms. India was victorious on the battlefield, and an agreement both nations signed at Tashkent in January 1966, essentially restored the status quo ante. Shastri died of a heart attack at Tashkent, while at the height of his power, and his successor, Indira Gandhi (Nehru's daughter), pledged to honor the accords. India again went to war with Pakistan in December 1971, this time to support East Pakistan in its civil war with West Pakistan; Indian forces tipped the balance in favor of the separatists and led to the creation of Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan; in Kashmir, there were minor territorial adjustments.
Domestically, Indira Gandhi consolidated her power, first dividing, and then converting the ruling Congress Party to her own political instrument. The party lost its accustomed majority in parliament in the 1967 elections, but she continued to govern with the support of other parties and independents, winning again in 1972. In June 1975, after her conviction on minor election law violations in the 1972 polls, which required her to resign, she continued in power by proclaiming a state of emergency. By decree, she imposed press censorship, arrested opposition political leaders, and sponsored legislation that retroactively cleared her of the election law violations. These actions, although later upheld by the Supreme Court, resulted in widespread public disapproval.
Two years later, she held parliamentary elections in which she was defeated, forcing the CP into the parliamentary opposition for the first time. The state of emergency was lifted, and Morarji Desai, formerly Nehru's deputy prime minister and the compromise choice of the winning five-party Janata coalition, became prime minister. But Janata did not last. Formed solely to oppose Mrs. Gandhi, the Janata coalition had no unity or agreed program, and it soon collapsed. Mrs. Gandhi's newly reorganized Congress Party/I ("I" for Indira) courted Hindu votes to win a huge election victory in January 1980, and she regained office.
Rajiv Gandhi immediately succeeded his mother as prime minister and, in parliamentary elections held in December 1984, led the CP/I to its largest victory. But during the next two years, Rajiv proved unequal to the task, and his popularity declined precipitously as the public reacted to government-imposed price increases in basic commodities, his inability to stem escalating sectarian violence, and charges of military kickbacks and other scandals. In October 1987, Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian troops to Sri Lanka to enforce an agreement he and the Sri Lankan president had signed in July, aimed at ending the conflict between the country's Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority.In February 1983, India was beset by communal violence, a residue of the police excesses during the alleged emergency. Hindu mobs in the state of Assam (where direct central government rule had been imposed after student-led protests toppled the government the year before) attacked Muslims from Bangladesh and West Bengal, killing at least 3,000 persons. In October, Sikh factionalism triggered by her partisan maneuvering led to widespread violence by Sikh separatist militants in Punjab and to the imposition of direct rule in that state. A year later, with the Sikh separatist violence unchecked, she became herself one of its victims— assassinated by Sikh members of her own guard.
After a rise in Indo-Pakistan tensions in 1986–87, Rajiv Gandhi and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan signed a protocol in which both nations agreed not to attack the nuclear facilities of the other in 1988. And in September 1989, Rajiv agreed with Sri Lanka's request to pull his 100,000 troops out of their bloody standoff with Tamil separatists by the end of the year. In elections later that fall, his Congress/I Party won only a plurality of seats in the Lok Sabha, and he resigned. Vishwanath Pratap Singh, formerly Rajiv's rival in the CP and leader of the second largest party (Janata Dal) in the house, formed a government with the support of two other parliamentary groups. Despite an encouraging start, V.P. Singh's government lost first its momentum, then its ability to command a majority in the parliament. He resigned on losing a confidence vote 11 months later and was succeeded, with Congress/I support, by longtime Janata and Congress leader Chandra Shekhar, who resigned after four months.
During the election campaign that followed in the spring of 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a disgruntled Sri Lankan Tamil while in Tamil Nadu. Congress/I rallied around longtime party stalwart P. V. Narasimha Rao, a former minister under both Rajiv and Indira Gandhi, drawing on a sympathy vote, to finish close enough to a majority to form a minority government. As prime minister, Rao—who was also Congress Party president— dealt sensitively with widespread Hindu-Muslim violence focused on a dispute over the land on which "Babur's Mosque" sits at Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He and his finance minister were dynamic and innovative on economic reform, opening India to foreign investors and market economics, including rupee convertibility. And, despite frail health and advancing years, he brought new vigor to India's foreign policy in light of the end of the Cold War.
Rao lost his hold on power in 1996, however, after three cabinet members resigned amid charges of corruption and two elections weakened the Congress Party's rule. In May 1996, President Shankan Dayal Sharma appointed Hindu nationalist Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister, beginning a whirlwind of power struggles and political instability during which India changed governments four times in 11 months. Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was short-lived, replaced in October by the H. D. Deve Gowda-led United Front, India's first coalition government. The Congress Party withdrew its support for Gowda in April 1997, and the UF selected I. K. Gujral, foreign minister in the outgoing government, to replace him. Gujral, a compromise choice between the United Front and Congress Party, survived in office only seven months. In November 1997, Congress again withdrew its support from the UF government. General elections were held in early 1998 and the BJP emerged as the largest single party in Parliament. A. B. Vajpayee, the BJP leader, was appointed prime minister and succeeded in forming a coalition government. This coalition collapsed in April 1999, but in elections held in September– October, the country returned Vajpayee to office at the head of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
In May 1998, Vajpayee's government surprised the world by exploding several underground nuclear devices. Pakistan responded by holding its own nuclear tests later in the month. This was a cause of great concern in the international community: two countries, historical enemies whose armies faced each other in Kashmir, were now nuclear powers. The tests brought economic sanctions against both India and Pakistan from the United States and other countries. Tensions eased somewhat in February 1999, however, when Vajpayee inaugurated the first ever bus service between India and Pakistan by traveling to Lahore to meet Pakistan's prime minister. This resulted in the Lahore Declaration (signed 21 February 1999), by which India and Pakistan pledged to resolve their differences peacefully and work for nuclear security. Nevertheless, both countries continued to test medium-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads on targets throughout the region.
Significantly, the Lahore Declaration made no mention of Kashmir. This hit the international headlines in the summer of 1999 when Pakistani troops and armed Islamic militants infiltrated the Indian-held Kargil region of Kashmir, bringing India and Pakistan close to full-scale war. Pakistan eventually withdrew from Kargil, after heavy fighting and casualties on both sides. This ill-fated military adventure contributed to the military coup in Pakistan in October 1999. Border clashes between Indian and Pakistani troops along the Line of Control in Kashmir are commonplace. On 24 December 1999, Kashmiri militants hijacked an Indian Airlines plane flying between Nepal and Delhi to Afghanistan, an incident India blamed on Pakistan.
Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the United States lifted sanctions imposed on India following its 1998 nuclear tests, citing India's support in the US-led war on terrorism (India offered US forces the use of Indian airbases during the military campaign in Afghanistan, among other acts). India began to insist that Pakistan play a larger role in curtailing "cross-border terrorism" in Kashmir and India itself. On 13 December 2001, the Indian Parliament was attacked by 5 suicide fighters. Fourteen people died in the raid, including the five attackers. India blamed the attacks on two Pakistan-based organizations, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which the United States also listed as terrorist groups. Following the attacks on Parliament, diplomatic contacts were curtailed, rail, bus and air links were severed, and close to 1 million troops amassed on India's and Pakistan's shared border, the largest military build-up since the 1971 war. The two nuclear-armed countries were on the brink of war. In January 2002, India successfully test-fired the Agni, a nuclear-capable ballistic missile off its eastern coast. In May, Pakistan test-fired three medium-range surface-to-surface Ghauri missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads. In June, the United States and the United Kingdom undertook a diplomatic offensive to avert war, and urged their citizens to leave India and Pakistan. In October, India announced its troops had begun withdrawing from Pakistan's border, but Pakistan stated it wanted proof of the pullback before starting its own.
On 27 February 2002, a group of Muslims in the town of Godhra in the state of Gujarat attacked and set fire to two train cars carrying Hindu activists returning from the disputed holy site of Ayodhya. The Hindu Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) group was threatening to build a temple on the site in Ayodhya where activists tore down a 16th century mosque in 1992. Fifty-eight Hindus were killed in the 27 February attack. Starting the following day, Hindus attacked Muslims in Gujarat, leaving hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced. In three months of communal violence, approximately 2,000 individuals were killed, mostly Muslims.
An upsurge in violence marked the run-up to state elections held in Indian-administered Jammu-Kashmir in September– October 2002. More than 800 people were killed in the violence. The elections were fought among pro-India parties, with separatists boycotting the elections. The elections resulted in an upset for the National Conference; it was the first time the party had been voted out of office since independence. The NC won 28 seats out of 87 in the State Assembly. The People's Democratic Party, which firmly stood against human rights abuses in Kashmir, emerged as victor, along with the Congress Party. India has 7 million troops amassed on the Line of Control in Kashmir. As of the end of 2002, more than 61,000 people had been killed in the conflict in Kashmir.
On 19 March 2003, the US-led coalition launched war in Iraq. The war has been seen to have set a precedent for authorizing pre-emptive strikes on hostile states. The notion that India and Pakistan might adopt such a policy toward one another has caused international concern. In April 2003, spokesmen from both India and Pakistan asserted that the grounds on which the US-led coalition attacked Iraq also existed in each other's country.