India became an independent nation on August 15, 1947, with the end of British colonial rule. With a population of 1,095,351,995 (July 2006 estimate), India is the second most populous nation after China.
It is the seventh-largest nation in land area in the world, covering 3,287,590 square kilometers. It borders Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, China, Nepal, and Pakistan. It presents considerable ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. India has 18 officially recognized languages and about 1,600 dialects. Hindus form 83.5 percent of the total population. After Indonesia, India has the second-largest number of Muslims, who constitute 13 percent of the population.
The partition of the British Empire into India and Pakistan created problems for both countries, a legacy that continues. India faced problems including the merger of princely states, an influx of refugees from Pakistan, communal riots, the division of assets, and war with Pakistan. The 562 independent princely states were given the choice to merge with either India or Pakistan. Vallabhbhai Patel (1875–1950), the home minister, was the architect of the merger of these states. Hyderabad and Junagarh were annexed when their rulers did not select the option of merging with India. War broke out over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, whose ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh (1895–1961), had signed the Instrument of Accession with the governor general of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900–79) on October 26, 1947. Despite opposition, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) took the matter to the United Nations, which called for a cease-fire on August 13, 1948. It called for a plebiscite to determine the desire of the people of the state. The hostilities were over by December 31, 1948, and the demarcation line became the Line of Control (LOC) between the two countries. India also was getting ready to prepare a constitution, and B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) was appointed chairperson of the Drafting Committee on August 29, 1947. On November 26, 1949, the Constituent Assembly adopted the constitution. India became a sovereign democratic republic on January 26, 1950, when the constitution came into effect. Rajendra Prasad (1884–1963) became the first president of India, which adopted a parliamentary form of government.
In 1952 the first general elections were held, and the Indian National Congress (INC), under Nehru, formed the government. Nehru left an indelible mark on modern Indian history with his belief in a parliamentary form of democracy, a socialist pattern of society, secularism, equality before the law, and nonalignment. He believed that India could play a meaningful role at the time of cold war. Imbued with a high dose of idealism, India pursued a dynamic policy in international politics. Acting as intermediary, India contributed to a lessening of tensions by hosting conferences like the Asian Relations Conference in 1947 and the Conference on Indonesia in 1949. The Bandung Conference (1955) was the high-water mark in Indian diplomacy. India became the chair of the peacekeeping machinery, the International Control Commission, after the end of the First Indochina War (1946–54). Nehru also played a pivotal role in establishing the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. India had maintained friendly relations with China and signed a friendship treaty in 1954. But there were boundary disputes with China, which resulted in the Sino-Indian War of October 1962. India’s humiliating defeat was a great shock to Nehru, and Indian foreign policy lost its momentum.
A planning commission was set up in 1950 headed by Nehru. Large sectors of the economy were modernized. The new policies aimed for an increase in agricultural productivity and industrialization within the framework of a socialist pattern of society. The government engaged itself in manufacturing, railways, aviation, electricity, communication, and infrastructural activities. The Indian Institutes of Technology, In tune with the scientific temperament of Nehru, research and educational institutions were established. Attempts also were made to change the social sector through legislation in parliament.
Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904–66) became the next premier. The debacle for India in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the death of Nehru prompted Pakistan to wage another war. The Indian army crossed the border, bringing Lahore under Indian artillery fire. A cease-fire was called by the United Nations on September 22, 1965. The Tashkent Agreement was signed on January 10, 1966, and the cease-fire line (CFL) became the defacto border between the countries.
With the initiation of Indira Gandhi as prime minister, another important era began in contemporary Indian history. Daughter of Nehru, she was prime minister of India twice, between 1966 and 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984. She unleashed a program of Garibi Hatao (abolish poverty), supported the Indochinese people in the Vietnam War, and moved closer to the Soviet Union with the signing of a 20-year treaty in August 1971. The liberation war in East Pakistan had started, and India was facing problems arising out of the exodus of 10 million refugees to provinces in eastern India. War became inevitable. On December 3, the air force of Pakistan began preemptive air strikes on eight Indian airfields. The Pakistan army surrendered on December 16 in Dhaka. The Shimla Accords prevented outbreaks of any major conflict between the two countries until 1999.
Scientific development went forward at a tremendous speed with the launch of a satellite into space. In May 1974 India successfully carried out an underground nuclear explosion at Pokhran. The program of the Green Revolution, which utilized new types of seeds, resulted in greater agricultural productivity and self-sufficiency in food production. There were demonstrations and strikes in protest against inflation and the poor standard of living. Indira Gandhi also was found guilty of violating election laws and she imposed a state of national emergency on June 26, 1975. Fundamental rights were suspended, censorship was imposed on the press, and opposition leaders were put behind bars. When Gandhi called for elections two years afterward, the Congress Party was badly trounced, and the combined opposition, the Janata Party, came into power.
Morarji Desai (1896–1995), the first non-Congress prime minister of India, headed a coalition that lasted for two years. The mutual bickering among coalition partners and unsolved economic problems witnessed the return of Gandhi to power with a large majority in January 1980. The rise of militancy in the Punjab was crushed by the Indian security forces, but Gandhi paid with the loss of her life at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. The violence that erupted against the Sikhs created another dark chapter in Indian history. Rajiv Gandhi (1944–91), the son of Indira Gandhi, was the next prime minister, and he took the country toward economic reforms and expansion of the telecommunication sector and information technology (IT).
India became involved in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The Indo–Sri Lankan Peace Accords were signed in 1987, and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was dispatched to Sri Lankan. Rajiv Gandhi was charged with corruption and the Congress lost the elections of November 1989. He was assassinated by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber in 1991.
The history of India since the last decade of the 20th century has been marked by the menace of terrorism, major economic reforms, tackling poverty, tremendous growth in IT, reservation to backward classes, and becoming a nuclear nation. The Janata Party ministry of Vishwanath Pratap Singh (1931– ) lasted less than a year, but reactions to the affirmative action by his government of reserving jobs and seats in educational institutions for lower classes divided India along caste lines. Politicians like Singh and others jettisoned merit-based awards for the quota system. Even after more than five decades of reservation, the various governments retained this system. The government of Manmohan Singh (1932– ) reserved seats for lower classes in some of the premier institutions of the country.
India shifted from its decade-old centralized planning model to a market-driven economy and joined the mainstream of globalization on an international level at the time of the Congress ministry of P. V. Narasimha Rao (1921–2004). Indian workers were sought after in IT fields globally. The educational infrastructure had developed so as to produce one of the world’s largest concentrations of technical personnel.
There had been communal violence between Hindus and Muslims following the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 over the question of the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya. Violence again erupted in 2002 after a train fire in Godhra, Gujarat, resulting in the massacre of Hindus and Muslims alike. Relations with Pakistan deteriorated over Kashmir, which has remained one of the major sources of conflict between the two countries. The conflict assumed dangerous proportions with the specter of a nuclear conflict after the Kargil War of 1999. Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee and the Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharif (1949– ) signed the Lahore Declaration in February 1999 to solve the Kashmir problem. But the fourth war between the two countries began on May 8 and lasted for 73 days.
In spite of the odds, India maintained a democratic system. The country maintains steady economic growth and a reduction in the poverty level. India also is striving for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Patit Paban Mishra