Around 3000 BC, the Dravidian inhabitants of the Indus Valley, in present-day Pakistan, built about a hundred cities, erected huge temples in larger urban centers, like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, created a written language, that has yet to be deciphered, and carved cylindrical seals of rare perfection. With their irrigated agriculture they developed a prosperous economy and maintained active trade from the Indian Ocean to the spurs of the Himalayas, using the Indus River as their main means of communication. Little is known about their culture, their political organization or development except that, after five centuries of existence, invaders devastated the whole region, exterminating the population and destroying their civilization.
Towards 1600 BC, waves of Indo-Europeans arrived from Afghanistan, gradually conquering the subcontinent. Armed with iron weapons, protected by armor and using war chariots, they subdued the local population and established numerous states. The civilization they created, later called Vedic, was based on a rigid caste system in which the conquerors constituted the dominant nobility. They were called the ariana or ayriana - nobility - giving rise to the term Aryan which was later generically used to designate all Indo-Europeans.
The Afghan-Greek invasions of the 6th-4th centuries BC (see Alexander via Afghanistan) did not reach Magadha in the Ganges River valley, the most powerful state in India. Under the rule of Ashoka, 274-232 BC, Magadha occupied the entire subcontinent, except for the extreme south. Indian civilization proper dates from this period. Ashoka and his descendants were the driving force behind a cultural unification that included the organization and diffusion of Buddhism, based on the preaching of Gautama Siddhartha, who lived from 563 to 483 BC, and was later known as Buddha. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, this civilization began to break up, fragmented by the development of the Seythian Kusana (see Afghanistan) and Ksatrapa states in the northeast.
When the Guptas of Magadha seized power in the 3rd-6th centuries AD, a new process of unification ushered in one of the most brilliant periods of Indian culture. The 8th century spread of Islam failed to take hold in India, but it was more successful four centuries later, when the Turks of Mahmud of Ghazni reintroduced the faith. Successive groups of Islamic migrants from central Asia invaded the subcontinent, ending with the Tatars of Timur Lenk (Tamburlaine). Between 1505 and 1525, one of their descendants, Babur, founded what later came to be known as the Empire of the Grand Mogul, with its capital in Delhi.
Babur’s descendants consolidated Islam, particularly in the northwest and northeast (see Pakistan and Bangladesh). Culture and the arts developed remarkably - the Taj Mahal was built around 1650 - but the European presence, which had been limited to coastal trading posts, began to mmake a deeper impression. In 1687, the British East India Company settled in Bombay. In 1696, it built Fort William in Calcutta, and throughout the 18th century, the Company’s private army waged war against the French competition, emerging victorious in 1784. From 1798, Company troops led by a brother of the Duke of Wellington methodically conquered Indian territory in various campaigns. By 1820, the English were in control of almost all of India, except for the Punjab, Kashmir and Peshawar, which were governed by their Sikh ally, Ranjit Singh. After his death in 1849, the British annexed these territories. The «loyal allies» retained nominal autonomy and were allowed to keep their courts, great palaces and immoderate luxury, much to the satisfaction of European visitors.
The Indian economy was completely dismantled. Its textile industry, whose exports of high-quality cloth had reached half the globe, was an obstacle to the growth of the British cotton industry.
The ruin of this industry, based on individual weavers, brought widespread impoverishment to the countryside. Peasants were also hard hit by the reorganization of agriculture for export crops. The early results of British domination were lower incomes and greater unemployment. Public accounts were conveniently arranged. All military spending, including the campaigns in Afghanistan, Burma and Malaya, was covered by the Indian treasury, 70 per cent of whose budget was earmarked for these «defense expenses». All British spending, however remotely connected with India, was entered as expenditures of the «Indian Empire».
«Divide and rule» was a motto of British domination. Mercenaries recruited in one region were used to subdue others. Such was the case with Nepalese Gurkhas and Punjabi Sikhs. Religious strife was also fomented; an electoral reform at the beginning of the 20th century stated that Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists could each vote only for candidates of their own faiths. Throughout the colonial period all this manipulation generated innumerable uprisings, both large and small, on local and national levels.
The most serious of these were the 1857-1858 rebellions by sepoys, Indian soldiers in the British army. These began as a barracks movement, eventually incorporating a range of grievances and growing into a nationwide revolt. Hindus and Muslims joined forces and even proposed the restoration of the ancient Moghul empire. This movement demonstrated that the East India Company was incapable of administering such a large domain and led the British crown, after violent repression, to assume direct government of India.
The educational system was based on the classic British model and was conceived to train «natives» for colonial administration in the civil service. However, it did not exactly fulfill this purpose. What it did do was create an intellectual elite fully conversant with European culture and thinking. The British had certainly never planned that the first association of civil servants in India, created in 1876 by Surendranath Banerjee, would take the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini as its patron and inspiration and not just quietly follow the Government line. Years later in 1885, it was this intelligentsia that formed the Indian National Congress which included British liberals and, for a long time, limited itself to proposing superficial reforms to improve British administration.
When Mohandas K Gandhi, a lawyer educated in England with experience of colonial methods in South Africa, returned to India in 1915, he became aware of the need to break out of the straitjacket of Anglo-Indian «cooperation». Gandhi tried to win Muslims over to the inmdependence cause. He reintroduced Hindu teachings that Ram Mohan Roy had reinterpreted in the 19th century, giving particular importance to mass mobilization. His ties with the Indian National Congress strengthened the movement’s most radical wing where young Jawaharlal Nehru was an activist. In 1919, the Amritsar massacre occurred; a demonstration was savagely repressed leaving, according to British sources, 380 dead and 1200 wounded. In 1920, in response to the Amritsar massacre, at Gandhi’s urging, the Indian Congress launched a campaign which showed the effectiveness of unarmed civilian opposition. The campaign tactics included the boycotting of colonial institutions; non-participation in elections or administrative bodies, non-attendance at British schools, refusal to consume British products, and passive acceptance of the ensuing legal consequences. The movement spread nationwide at all levels. Gandhi came to be called Mahatma (Great Soul) in recognition of his leadership.
A new campaign between 1930 and 1934 aimed to attain full independence and denounce the state salt monopoly. This demonstrated Gandhi’s ability to combine a key political goal with a specific demand affecting all the poor; one they would understand and support. For the first time the British saw women flocking to demonstrations. Jails overflowed with prisoners who did not resist arrest posing an immense problem to the colonial authorities. It was impossible not to negotiate with Gandhi, and after World War II the British were left with no option but to rapidly grant independence.
With the British withdrawal in 1947, the subcontinent was divided into two states; the Indian Union, and Pakistan, which was created to concentrate the Muslim population into one area (see Pakistan and Bangladesh). This «Partition» as it was called was a painful and often violent separation. The Indian Union brought together an enormous diversity of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups in a single federated state, consolidating the sentiment of national unity forged in the independence struggle that the British had never managed to stifle. The excitement of independence was clouded by the assassination of Gandhi less than a year later, on 30 January 1948.
After independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Sukarno of Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Tito of Yugoslavia, advanced the concept of political non-alignment for newly decolonized countries. In India, he applied development policies based on the notion that the industrialization of the society would bring prosperity.
In a few decades India made rapid technological progress, which enabled it to place satellites in orbit and, in 1974, to detonate an atom bomb, making India the first nuclear power in the non-aligned movement. However, the relevance of this kind of project to a country which had yet to feed all its people was widely questioned. Pakistan’s civil war and conflict with India over East Pakistan eventually led to the independence of this portion as Bangladesh, in 1971.