History of India
India's first major civilization flourished for a thousand years from around
2500 BC along the Indus River valley. Its great cities were Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa
(in what is now Pakistan), which were ruled by priests and held the rudiments of
Hinduism. Aryan invaders swept south from Central Asia between 1500 and 200 BC and
controlled northern India, pushing the original Dravidian inhabitants south.
The invaders brought their own gods and cattle-raising and meat-eating traditions,
but were absorbed to such a degree that by the 8th century BC the priestly caste
had reasserted its supremacy. This became consolidated in the caste system, a hierarchy
maintained by strict rules that secured the position of the Brahmin priests. Buddhism
arose around 500 BC, condemning caste; it drove a radical swathe through Hinduism
in the 3rd century BC when it was embraced by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who controlled
huge tracts of India.
A number of empires, including the Guptas, rose and fell in the north after the
collapse of the Mauryas. Hinduism underwent a revival from 40 to 600 AD, and Buddhism
began to decline. The north of India broke into a number of separate Hindu kingdoms
after the Huns' invasion; it was not really unified again until the coming of the
Muslims in the 10th and 11th centuries. The far south, whose prosperity was based
on trading links with the Egyptians, Romans and southeast Asia, was unaffected by
the turmoil in the north, and Hinduism's hold on the region was never threatened.
In 1192 the Muslim Ghurs arrived from Afghanistan. Within 20 years the entire Ganges
basin was under Muslim control, though Islam failed to penetrate the south. Two
great kingdoms developed in what is now Karnataka: the mighty Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar,
and the fragmented Bahmani Muslim kingdom.
Mughal emperors marched into the Punjab from Afghanistan, defeated the Sultan of
Delhi in 1525, and ushered in another artistic golden age. The Maratha Empire grew
during the 17th century and gradually took over more of the Mughals' domain. The
Marathas consolidated control of central India until they fell to the last great
imperial power, the British.
The British were not, however, the only European power in India: the Portuguese
had controlled Goa since 1510 and the French, Danes and Dutch also had trading posts.
By 1803, when the British overwhelmed the Marathas, most of the country was under
the control of the British East India Company, which had established its trading
post at Surat in Gujarat in 1612.
The company treated India as a place to make money, and its culture, beliefs and
religions were left strictly alone. Britain expanded iron and coal mining, developed
tea, coffee and cotton plantations, and began construction of India's vast rail
network. They encouraged absentee landlords because they eased the burden of administration
and tax collection, creating an impoverished landless peasantry - a problem which
is still chronic in Bihar and West Bengal. The Uprising in northern India in 1857
led to the demise of the East India Company, and administration of the country was
handed over to the British government.
Opposition to British rule began in earnest at the turn of the 20th century. The
'Congress' which had been established to give India a degree of self-rule, now began
to push for the real thing. In 1915, Gandhi returned from South Africa, where he
had practised as a lawyer, and turned his abilities to independence, adopting a
policy of passive resistance, or satyagraha.
WWII dealt a deathblow to colonialism and Indian independence became inevitable.
Within India, however, the large Muslim minority realized that an independent India
would be Hindu-dominated. Communalism grew, with the Muslim League, led by Muhammad
Ali Jinnah, speaking for the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and the Congress
Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, representing the Hindu population. The bid for a
separate Muslim nation was the biggest stumbling block to Britain granting independence.
Faced with a political stand-off and rising tension, Viceroy Mountbatten reluctantly
decided to divide the country and set a rapid timetable for independence. Unfortunately,
the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country - meaning
the new nation of Pakistan would be divided by a hostile India. When the dividing
line was announced, the greatest exodus in human history took place as Muslims moved
to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs relocated to India. Over 10 million people changed
sides and even the most conservative estimates calculate that 250,000 people were
killed. On 30 January 1948, Gandhi, deeply disheartened by Partition and the subsequent
bloodshed, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.