Old Civilization, Post-Colonial State: The Complex History of Modern India
India has been a place of great cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity for all of its history, which scholars date back to the third millennium B.C. India has two official languages, English and Hindi, but only a minority of Indian citizens speak each. There are 16 languages spoken by more than 10 million Indians and another 27 languages and dialects spoken by more than one million people. By 2025, India will replace China as the world’s most populous nation. In recent years, it has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It has a booming IT sector and possesses nuclear weapons. At the same time, a half billion Indians live in poverty comparable to much poorer countries. It is the world’s largest democratic state, but in recent years, a growing Hindu nationalist movement has challenged and even rewritten some of the secular political principles established in the country’s constitution.
The subcontinent has experienced the rise and fall of many empires, some of which include most of the current territory of the state of India. However, while India is the product of long and deep civilizational influences, its current borders are the products of colonialism and the challenges of independence from the British Empire. The most recent large empire to rule in the Indian subcontinent was the Mughal Dynasty, founded in 1526 by Muslim conquerors from what is contemporary Uzbekistan. Ruling an empire that stretched from portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan and almost all of modern India except a small region in the south, the Muslim rulers demanded tribute from local rulers but did not try to convert the population and left much of local Hindu cultures alone.
By the 18th century, the power of the Mughal rulers weakened and became fragmented among local rulers. In the absence of British colonialism, these conflicts would have perhaps led, as they did in Europe, to the emergence of larger and smaller states with varying degrees of power across the subcontinent. It is impossible to know exactly what the map of the region would look like, but it is doubtful the borders would be the same as the current ones. British colonialism left many negative legacies for modern India, but it did establish a much larger state than any local rulers would have been able to build on its own. The territory of modern India was never ruled in as unified a manner as occurred under the Imperial dynasties in China. Rather, it was comprised of small kingdoms divided by ethnic, linguistic, and religious identities. What’s more, a number of people practiced Hinduism, a very diverse religion with many local variants in how the caste system operated and governed local social hierarchies. Hinduism did not provide the kind of unifying cultural influence that Confucian principles did in China. It is only under the influence of nationalism that a broader and more unified conception of Hindu identity emerged, an issue we will return to later in this chapter. In these ways, European colonialism left a deep impact on modern Indian state’s borders and its political institutions.
The British East India Company and Reverse Development in India.
Trade between Europe and the Indian subcontinent had a long history but with the European exploration and conquest of the Americas, new sources of wealth led to further efforts by Europeans to expand their commercial interests in South and East Asia as well. India was of interest because of their large market, relatively developed port facilities, and internal trade routes. The British successfully entered into this market via the creation of the British East India Company, which was granted by royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I. Initially, the charter granted a monopoly to the British over exports from India to England, however, as time passed, the East India Company transformed from just a trade organization to an informal and eventually the formal governing power. The British were interested in the new markets, as well as the opportunity to control commodities such as tea, cotton, silk, and with extensive British capital, opium.
As British merchants expanded their operations in India, they also effectively exploited some of the weaknesses of Mughal rule. As noted, the Mughals left much of the local cultural and political systems in place. The British East India Company capitalized on this by strategically working with rival kingdoms, looking to grab hold of the power the Mughal’s were losing. They were able to establish control of a series of ports along the Indian ocean, establishing a foothold in India. After a series of military victories starting with the Battle of Plassy in 1757, the Company expanded its control in inland areas. It built an army of mostly paid Indian soldiers, a practice that had begun with the French East India Company, and was another benefit of the fragmented cultural and social context. These soldiers were known as Sepoys and by the early 19th century British commercial interests controlled most of the trade and commerce in India. Where they encountered resistance to its policy of using taxation and trade monopolies to expand its power, the Company applied military force directly through a private army that by 1778 was 67.000 strong. The BEIC built this army using mostly paid Indian soldiers. They were known as Sepoys, a term applied to professional soldiers of the Mughal Empire, but they became the largest armed force used by the British as it expanded control. By the middle of the 19th century, Indian soldiers outnumbered British almost 5-1.
This process had the result of undermining local enterprise and commerce, a process that MIT economists Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson referred to as “reversing development” in their book Why Nations Fail (Crown 2012). Prior to its transformation at the hands of the British East India Company, India had the largest textile industry in theworld and its cotton cloth had long been a valued luxury item in Europe. The development of the cotton industry in the Americas, powered by slavery and the cotton gin, provided British producers with a chance to develop their own textile industry. Parliament restricted imports of Indian cloth and British commercial enterprises used their economic and political power to undermine and ultimately destroy the Indian textile industry in global trade.
In areas that fell under British control, the British used taxation and crown-granted monopolies to ensure that, unlike in their colonies in North America, local economic enterprises could not develop, expand, or compete with British interests. When paying local rulers off against each other did not work, military force was used to consolidate British power. Finally, the level of British commercial and political dominance led to the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. A coalition of Sepoys and local princes revolted, motivated by increasingly aggressive British efforts to establish direct political control as well as the expanded efforts of missionaries to challenge Hindu practices and Christianize Indian. As in other regions, the British used the banner of modernization and expanded rights, including for women (while rejecting their expansion back in Britain), to justify these efforts. British forces won after a relatively short but very bloody conflict that led to the death of an estimated 800,000 Indians, most of them civilians killed by famine or British retribution for the killing of British settlers. Afterwards, the British East India Company was disbanded and the British government took over direct political control of the whole subcontinent, ruling a colony that included the modern nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This outcome partly reflected the cultural and regional diversity of India and the lack of unifying conception of Indian identity. The Indian soldiers in the rebellion were mostly higher caste Hindus from the Bengal region in eastern India. Sepoys in many western and southern regions, including Muslims and Sikhs, did not join the fight and in its aftermath the colonial army was dominated by soldiers from Punjab in western India.
The British Raj
From the beginning, Britain viewed India as a colony to exploit for its economic value, not a place to settle in the manner of what became Canada, Australia, or the United States. In ruling over a vast continent, the British government resembled its Mughal predecessors in making little effort to change the culture or institutions of most of rural India. In order to consolidate its new formal power, the British implemented three levels of rule over India. Most directly, in areas such as Bombay and Madras, the British established direct colonial rule, where British civil servants held legal power, maintained law and order, and collected land taxes. In the rural areas, the British left authority in the hands of traditional Indian Maharaja princes and other local elites who essentially became tax collectors for the colonial empires and kept the peace locally. Local leaders retained relative freedom to rule as they wished once they accepted British rule. As a result, British rule had little consequences for many Indians who continued to be shaped by the dynamics of local caste and cultural systems. In fact, the structure of village life and the caste systems that ruled them served the British goals in India well by providing a foundation of stability and a conservative social order. It also made large scale rebellions less likely.
At the same time, how the British ruled India did have a powerful influence on the independence movement that gradually emerged to challenge British rule as well as the political institutions that India’s leaders established after independence. In contrast to its practice in Africa, Britain established a more centralized and effective colonial bureaucracy. The deep roots of its economic interests in India made effective rule more of a priority, as did the development of internal infrastructure. The establishment of a civil service system provided opportunities for upper caste Indians, called Brahmins, to participate in the administration of India. In the process of working alongside their British colonial counterparts, this group began to push for greater rights and power. In 1885, a retired British civil service official, Allan Hume, founded the Indian National Congress (INC). Though he was a British citizen, Hume was sympathetic to Indians’ resentment about their lack of a voice in colonial rule. The initial demands of the INC were quite moderate and reflected the respect many educated Indians had for the British political system. The right to vote was still limited to upper and middle class males in Britain, and the upper class males of colonial India were asking for the same level of representation and citizenship within the Empire.
While Hume and a few other British officials viewed their colonial counterpart’s complaints with sympathy, the official response of the British government was consistently negative. By the early part of the 20th century, more militant INC members rejected the goal of greater autonomy within the empire, or “dominion” status comparable to Canada and pushed for independence. These sentiments deepened significantly in the wake of World War I. In spite of the fact that over a million Indians served in the British Army during the war, and Indian casualties totaled nearly 75,000, the British government continued to reject calls for expanded civil and political rights for Indians. While many INC leaders continued to admire British political institutions, it was clear that their colonial rulers refused to see them as political equals.
Gandhi and the Non-Violent Struggle for Independence.
World War I led to the end of three long running empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman. In their place, new countries emerged and the principle of “self determination of peoples” became an oft-repeated principle. It quickly became apparent however, that this principle would not be applied beyond Europe and especially not to the colonial empires of the victorious nations. Britain and France stripped Germany of its colonies in Africa and its spheres of influence in Asia but ignored calls for independence in their own colonies. In India, protests against colonial rule began almost immediately at the end of the war and a far broader and more organized movement emerged under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi. The massacre of over 400 Indians, including 40 children, by the British India Army at the town of Amritsar on April 13, 1919, was an especially galvanizing event. This show of force, while condemned by some within Britain, seemed to demonstrate Britain’s willingness to use its monopoly of military force to maintain colonial rule. It reinforced the fact that white rulers in Britain were generally not willing to see people of color in other regions as their equal. Racial hierarchies and notions of "the White Man's Burden" were simply too pervasive an influence on how European rulers viewed their colonial subjects.
In response, Gandhi called for a campaign of non-violent resistance to colonial rule. He believed this would generate sympathy within Britain and beyond for the independence cause. Gandhi rejected the idea that this kind of movement was passive. By actively encouraging peaceful acts of civil disobedience and non-compliance with the expectations of their colonial rulers, Gandhi and the INC forged a movement whose membership extended to lower caste and even non-caste or “untouchables.” They boycotted British legal and educational institutions and merchandise, instead promoting indigenous products and services.
In successfully mobilizing the masses from the diverse groups in society, the INC also laid the foundation to become a political party within a democratic India after Independence. One of the most important characteristics of the INC in this regard was its secular political philosophy. The INC worked with the other major anti-colonial movement, the Muslim League, and consciously sought to create a movement that transcended India’s deep divides of religion, culture, caste, and class. While some in the movement sought to build it around specifically Hindu identity, Gandhi, and most of the INC leadership, viewed that as a prescription for endless conflict in a land as diverse as India. The INC also operated in part as a democratic institution internally, with elections to determine leadership. In these ways, the INC laid many of the foundations for democracy in India. A famous though unconfirmed story recounts Gandhi being asked what he thought of western civilization. He is said to have replied "I think it would be a good idea." Whether he actually said this, the story rings true as it highlights the ways the Indian independence movement succeeded in part by mobilizing the ideals of the opponent against itself in much the same way that one of Gandhi's greatest admirers, Martin Luther King, Jr, later did when he invoked the Declaration of Independence as part of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
War, Conflict and Partition
Unfortunately, these hopes for a secular India were not fully realized. While Britain had been on the winning side of World War II, its economy was devastated and its citizens were ready for political leaders to focus on the home front. As serious independence negotiations moved forward, the divisions within the movement came quickly to the table. While the leadership of the Muslim League respected Gandhi and other INC leaders, they did not believe the INC could guarantee the security and full representation of India’s Muslims in a country in which they comprise only 25 percent of the population and in which some called for the establishment of India as a Hindu state and nation. The League, led by Ali Jinnah, called for an independent Muslim state. When INC rejected these demands, violence broke out. Unable to contain the growing violence, and facing political divisions at home, the British decided to grant the request of the Muslims, and hurriedly partitioned the subcontinent in 1947 by drawing arbitrary borderlines between a secular Indian state and the Muslim state of Pakistan, comprised of two regions, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, that were a thousand miles apart. The Muslim state was unstable from the start and East Pakistan would become the nation of Bangladesh in 1971, after a brutal campaign of repression by the East was ended by Indian intervention.
While the British government hoped the declaration would resolve the conflict, it caused the subcontinent to erupt in horrific violence and mass migrations in both directions. The areas of East and West Pakistan were majority Muslim, however, there were still millions of Hindus and Muslims on the "wrong" side of the new borders in the eyes of nationalists on each side. After the declaration, 10 to 12 million religious migrants crossed paths in migration, seeking refuge in their new designated states. In the end, over 1 million people died in the communal violence. For Gandhi, this violence was a crushing disappointment to his hopes for a secular India. He carried out several hunger fasts during the independence movement and tried one last time to end the violence. A Hindu nationalist, believing that Gandhi had betrayed Hindus, assassinated him in January 1948. While the communal violence was gradually brought under control, it established hostile relations between the two countries which have continued through four wars and seven decades.
Even had Gandhi lived, the uncontested leader of the INC as it prepared to become the Congress Party and rule India was Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru had worked with and was favored by Gandhi when he was still alive. As the only national political party, the Congress won a majority of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the new parliamentary body established by the Indian constitution. Nehru became the country’s first prime minister. In keeping with the principles of the INC, the Indian Constitutions, ratified by a Constituent Assembly in 1949, established the new country as a sovereign and secular democracy with a federal structure. Growing from 7 states when the country was founded to 29 today, India’s state structure was built around its cultural and linguistic diversity.
As a new democracy, India has some advantages over other post-colonial political systems that emerged in the decades after World War II. Its lengthy independence movement enabled the INC to build a national reputation and constituency across caste, religion, and region that bolstered its legitimacy as a ruling party. Nehru’s long participation in the independence movement gave him political connections across the country that helped resolve conflicts that emerged within some of India’s states. The movement also went a good ways towards fostering a sense of national identity while its inclusiveness and its roots in both urban and rural areas provided a foundation for participation in democratic elections. Moreover, the British established a bureaucratic structure that the new government could build upon.
While the nature of the independence movement and the limited forms of participation permitted by the British provided some political advantages, colonialism’s economic legacy was far more negative. Thus, while India’s political system was heavily influenced by Britain, its economic policies looked more to socialist and communist systems for guidance. Believing that colonialism had made India dependent on Britain and deepened the poverty and illiteracy of hundreds of millions, Nehru pursued the kinds of economic nationalist policies that many other post-colonial and developing countries did in the 1950s. “Import substitution” policies were designed to promote the development of domestic manufacturing. Import tariffs and various forms of government subsidy created a protected market in which Indian manufacturers could emerge as the principle producers of a wide array of consumer goods from trucks to everyday household items. An elaborate system of rules governed the granting of licenses for the creation of private enterprises. While these policies led to significant industrialization, it was mostly in the form of highly protected domestic industries with little incentive to become globally competitive. The “license raj” as this came to be known provided nearly endless opportunities for pervasive bureaucratic corruption.
Nehru also sought to make India self-sufficient in food production through the cultivation of new “green revolution” high yield seed varieties of rice and other basic grains. These policies helped India become more self-sufficient, but did not do as much to overcome India’s poverty. The advantages of new seed varieties went largely to landowning elites that were an important constituency within the Congress Party. Anti-poverty programs became tools for politicians to build patronage networks for mobilizing voters, but had little impact on overall levels of poverty and illiteracy. Land reform programs that gave peasants access to land did not challenge the market power of larger scale producers. Programs designed to help small farmers by providing credit often ended up simply creating high levels of debt. Huge gender inequities remained largely untouched by government policies.
After Nehru: Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party.
Nehru served as the prime minister until his death in 1964. His successor was a man named Lal Bahadur Shastri, however, he died from a heart attack in 1996. The INC then chose Jawaharla Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, to be their candidate, in hopes that her relation to Nehru would win the party support, and her being a woman would make her easily manipulated. This assumption proved quite incorrect. Indira Gandhi’s era changed Indian politics and left legacies that are present today. As noted, the economic system that Nehru established encouraged corruption and patronage, but was also successful at generating industrialization. At the same time, Nehru’s long involvement with the independence movement and his personal reputation enabled him to resolve internal party conflicts. Indira Gandhi took a much more heavy-handed approach which quickly antagonized her rivals in the Congress Party. Gandhi’s approach to her critics in the party was to force them out. In the process, she remade the Party more narrowly into a political machine for her own advancement. She accused her opponents of being conservatives and enemies of India while positioning herself as an advocate for India’s poor, though her policies in practice put very little dent into the poverty of nearly one half billion Indians.
In 1975, in the face of a serious challenge to her authority, Gandhi declared a state of emergency, suspending the constitution and declaring martial law. The move provoked massive resistance until it was lifted in 1977. In elections that year, the Congress Party lost its ruling party status for the first time since independence. The new Janata Party was a loose coalition of opposition parties and former Congress members. They shared a hatred for Indira Gandhi, but once in power were not able to agree on much nor govern effectively. As a result, Gandhi and Congress returned to power in 1980 and continued to centralize power around her with populist appeals to the poor as a strong part of her rhetoric. In practice that pro-poor discourse was undermined by an emphasis on promoting more foreign investment and economic liberalization. Even more significantly, Gandhi tried to use religious conflict to her advantage. Presenting herself as a leader who could resolve conflicts between Sikhs and Hindus in the state of Punjab, her policies cynically played off fears on each side. In the end, this all blew up in her face all too literally when she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard after she ordered the Indian army to attack the holiest Sikh temple and kill over 1000.
Her son Rajiv became Prime Minister after her death and deepened the liberalization policies that sought to open the Indian economy to foreign investment and global trade. He also sought to play down some of the ethnic and religious tensions his mother had inflamed. He had more success on the economic front, as India’s economy reached much higher levels of economic growth, but on the religious front, the genie was hard to put back in the bottle. Hindu nationalist forces, always present but politically marginal until the 1980s, became more prominent as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party seeking to rebrand India as a Hindu nation, gained power first at the state level, and then for a short time in 1997 at the national level. While the BJP's first time in power lasted mere weeks, the inability of the Congress Party to provide effective policies gave them another opportunity from 1998-2004 and then again in 2014, when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. While his promises to re-ignite economic growth to pre-2008 levels achieved only modest results, his efforts to promote Hindu nationalism have pushed India away from its secular roots.
In the 2000s, rapid economic growth led many to compare India and China and speculate on whether the dragon or the tiger would be the dominant global force in the 21st century. Over the past decade, however, India has not been able to maintain the pace set by China and its crushing levels of poverty and pervasive corruption seem as entrenched as ever. The BJP has sought to replace the secular national identity with a Hindu nationalist identity. If it is successful, the terms of democratic citizenship in India will have been fundamentally altered, with uncertain but potentially troubling consequences for the "world's largest democracy."
India and China: The Differing Responses to Foreign Intervention
Since India became independent two years before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the two countries present a fascinating comparative contrast. Both fell under foreign domination in the 19th century and yet they pursued quite different political paths in the middle of the 20th century. India embraced the parliamentary democracy model of its colonial masters while China is ruled by the Communist Party in a textbook version of Lenin's conception of the vanguard party. How to explain such different responses to foreign intervention and domination?
Part of the explanation can be found by looking more closely at the impact of foreign control in each society. In India, British colonialism led to de-industrialization and economic weakness, but it also unified a politically and culturally diverse region in a way it never had been before. Colonialism established borders that would likely have looked different if they had been determined, as they were in Europe, by local wars of competition and conquest. India's borders and the identity forged by the independence movement through non-violent civil disobedience were, in this way, products of colonialism, and from the standpoint of its post independence leaders, this proved quite productive. India leaders did not have to conquer or subdue its internal population in the way that European states did, or for that matter the Chinese Communist Party did. External sovereignty within the borders established by colonialism was granted to the new government. Having been built in this way, it would have been very difficult to impose one-party rule on such a diverse country without great violence. The violence of the partition provided a glimpse of what kind of carnage might have followed from any effort to impose a dominant ethnic, cultural or political identity. While the partition addressed fears across religious lines, there were many other fault lines and sources of identity, and they have occasionally flared up since 1949. India's border with Pakistan has been contested, especially in Kashmir.
While the country was never formally colonized, the consequences of foreign domination in China were far more devastating. Decades of bloody internal conflict before the end of dynastic rule was followed by almost four decades of warlord conflicts, civil war, and foreign invasion. The CCP had to battle for control of China on the ground. The bitterness of its attitude toward the west for the "century of humiliation" made liberal democracy and capitalism part of the problem that China had to overcome. China's long history of centralized rule and the desire to reject all forms of western control made communist and ideology with a powerful nationalist component. That's not to say that communist rule in China was inevitable. Without the Japanese invasion, the nationalist forces might have gradually destroyed their communist enemies. But given their corruption, continued ties to foreign powers, and inability to effectively rule the country, a more centralized political project that could restore the country's unity and power was far less likely to take democratic form. Some form of modernizing authoritarian government was the more likely outcome.