A Very Short History of South Asia: Six Key Themes and a Timeline
by Dr. Dominic Vendell, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Exeter
Note: A shorter, edited version of "Key Themes," and other resources for the study of South and East Asia, may be found on the Asia for Educators website, which is hosted by the Columbia Weatherhead Institute for East Asian Studies.
Below are six themes that help frame the history of South Asia. The designation “South Asia” in this timeline refers to the area encompassed by the contemporary nation-states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. While Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka are also part of the South Asia region, and have rich histories in their own right, they will not be discussed in detail.
While the brief thematic descriptions provide a synoptic view of recurring dynamics in South Asian history, specific sections in the timeline will reveal how these themes manifested in different historical periods. To aid with lesson-planning, content in each sub-section of the timeline has been tagged with relevant themes.
South Asian civilization is the product of cultural patterns established over more than four millennia of global interaction, including successive waves of migration, conquest, and settlement. The most prominent sources of South Asian civilization are strikingly diverse: prehistoric, Mesopotamian, Indo-European, Greek, Arab, Turco-Mongol, Persian, and European among others.
Deliberate efforts toward synthesis and unification have been successful in creating distinctive and coherent South Asian religious and linguistic traditions. At the same time, a rich diversity of religious belief and practice as well as regional art, dress, cuisine, and language has continued into the present. Such diversity has persisted in part because dominant social, cultural, and religious orders have never been uncontested. In the domain of religion for example, Buddhism, Jainism, the bhakti or devotional movement, Sufism, Sikhism, and philosophical rationalism may all be regarded as challenges to the dominant Hindu pattern. While ritualists and religious preceptors from Hindu Brahmins to Jain and Buddhist monks to Sufi shaikhs have all been critical to the preservation of religious institutions, devout lay-people inspired followers with various kinds of anti-hierarchical and non-conformist ideologies.
There are two major language families in South Asia: the Sanskrit-derived languages of the north (broadly construed), including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, and the Dravidian languages of south India, including Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada. While deriving its script and much of its vocabulary from Persian and Arabic, Urdu has very strong links with Hindi, and indeed Hindi-Urdu is regarded by many as a single language. Some form of Hindi-Urdu is understood by South Asians in many parts of the subcontinent, and it is the first language of about one-third of the population. In addition, English is spoken by a thin but widely spread urban elite. Due to both state-led initiatives and popular media, Hindi-Urdu and English have become increasingly pervasive in contemporary South Asia in comparison to the regional language traditions.
Concepts of power in the history of South Asia have been strongly relational. Kautilya’s Arthashastra (4th century BCE) posits that any king who seeks to conquer new lands must navigate a circle of kings through the fourfold means of alliance-making (sama), gift-giving (dana), sedition (bheda), and force (danda). Pursuing these measures required resources, of which the most important was land. Hence state-formation in South Asia entailed clearing and cultivating land and capturing its products in cash and kind; concomitantly, the central action of the ruler was the grant of land, which enabled individuals and groups to share in the privileges and responsibilities of sovereignty. In practice, the state was a contingent assemblage of aristocratic, mercantile, and spiritual lineages and organizations. At the same time, the person and authority of the ruler - whether as a benefactor and devotee of the Brahmin ritualist, a patron of courtly arts, or a dispenser of justice - was critically important to the imagination of power for most of South Asia’s history. It was s/he whose (chariot’s) wheels moved (chakravarti) across the earth, who held the fly-whisk and umbrella (chhatrapati), and who might become a ruler of rulers (shahinshah, maharajadhiraja). More than a residue of these imaginaries of royal authority lingered in the governing practices of the British Raj, which at the same time elaborated different classificatory, enumerative and disciplinary functions. In the middle of the twentieth century, emerging nationalist leaders appropriated the concept of swaraj, which had in earlier royal cosmographies referred to the ruler’s own domain, to advocate for independence from foreign rule.
The contemporary nation-states of South Asia are constitutional, democratic republics built to enable, however imperfectly, the political participation of people of diverse religions, languages, and places of origin. For most of its history, however, the state in South Asia formed in and through the amalgamation of local power. From warrior clans and landed households to caste bodies and merchant guilds to temples, mosques, and burial-shrines, it is clear that the state could not collect taxes, resolve disputes, or punish crime without the cooperation of local institutions. But from at least the sixteenth century onwards, existing techniques of statecraft, including revenue collection, information-gathering, legal mediation, and diplomatic communication, began to support more centralized and bureaucratic structures of administration. In particular, the reproduction of state power increasingly involved mastery over multilingual written documentation whereby the realities of social life could be managed. Of course, such centralization - for example, in the transformation of village- and district-based judicial assemblies into the modern panchayat - also involved scaling up from local rule. Up to the present federal systems of state and provincial governments, rule of South Asia has required the sharing of power between center, region, and locality.
In Western social science, caste, a term most likely deriving from early sixteenth-century usages of the Portuguese word casta, has been considered the central building block of South Asian society; however, much older categories of social organization and hierarchy have also been historically significant. Most prominent are jati and varna.
The jati is a large, regionally based endogamous birth group; rooted in marriage, ritual, and commensality, it is the most important form of Indian social organization in practice. By contrast, varna is a textual model of society comprising four classes roughly differentiated by their hereditary occupations: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchant-pastoralists), and Shudras (ordinary workers). Members of the first three were said to be twice-born, and, traditionally, young men experienced their second, spiritual “birth” through an initiation ceremony (upanayana). Caste prohibitions intersected with gender hierarchies in numerous ways - for example, marriages between upper-caste woman and lower-caste man were expressly prohibited in Sanskrit legal texts. Falling outside of the varna hierarchy were Dalits (formerly known as untouchables), who were considered to be ritually impure and in the twentieth century, built a mass political movement to combat their historic marginalization. Varna and jati persist in the contemporary period while overlapping with additional concepts, such as gharana, or household, and samaj, or society, that have been vital to the theory and practice of South Asian social organization.
Historically, South Asian society has been predominantly agricultural. Exchange of goods and services between members of different castes and communities produced economic interdependence as well as power and domination at the local level. Extensive mercantile networks linking maritime and overland trade routes to urban emporia, market towns, and temple complexes in the subcontinent created relationships between South Asia and neighboring world regions, including, most prominently, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean arena. In the nineteenth century, British rule accelerated South Asia’s participation in the world system as it became an exporter of raw materials. Industrialization began gradually and rapidly expanded after independence in 1947.
While the Indian nation-state in its infancy strove for relative economic independence, it has played a more prominent role in the international market since relaxing restrictions on foreign commodities and investment in the 1990s. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the other heirs to the British Empire in South Asia, have been more dependent than India on external assistance. Most recently, Bangladesh’s economy has grown enormously - by 188% since 2009 according to one estimate - in large part by incentivizing foreign investment.
South Asia has had strong social, cultural and economic connections with other countries and regions throughout its history. Building on pre-existing contacts with Hellenistic and Persian culture in the Gandhara region in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Indo-Greek kingdoms came to dominate northwestern India at the beginning of the first millennium. Strikingly, Roman coins have been found as far afield as the southwestern coast. From the fourth century CE onwards, Indian missionaries and Chinese pilgrims transmitted Buddhist ideas and texts into East Asia, while extensive contacts with Southeast Asia allowed for the circulation of Sanskritic and Hindu culture. Arabs and Zoroastrians (today known as Parsis) settled in growing numbers on the western coast amidst the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries CE. Medieval South Asia’s incorporation into the Islamicate and Persianate worlds led to the migration of substantial numbers of Turks, Persians, Afghans, Jews, Armenians, and East Africans.
Building on this remarkable cultural diversity, India became "the jewel in the crown” of the vast British Empire from the mid-eighteenth century to 1947. Whereas small numbers of Britons and other Europeans settled in South Asia, thousands of Indians migrated to distant parts of the empire in East Africa and the Caribbean. Though some became traders, shopkeepers, and (as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi) highly educated professionals, many worked in indentured service. Following independence, the South Asian diaspora became more prominent in Britain and, more recently, in the United States. Since 1947, India has often assumed a dominant role among the new nations of Asia and Africa and generally pursued a policy of positive neutrality during the Cold War. As an ally of the United States, Pakistan has been a major recipient of American military and economic aid. Recurring territorial disputes between India and its neighbors, and particularly with Pakistan over control of Kashmir, continues to threaten the peace and security of the region.
The South Asian subcontinental land mass gradually emerged out of the breakup of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana about 150 million years ago. It features formidable natural barriers: to the north, the world's highest mountains, the Himalayas, formed out of the subcontinent’s collision with Eurasia; a desert to the west; and dense jungles and swampy marshes on the eastern frontier. Yet its northwest corridor through the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush as well as its proximity to the Indian Ocean to the west and the Arabian Sea to the east have allowed for considerable traffic in goods, peoples, and ideas from the earliest times. Within the subcontinent there are no insurmountable barriers to travel or communication despite being crisscrossed by numerous rivers, hills, and mountain ranges. The Indus and Ganges rivers flow from the Himalayas into the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, creating river valleys that have been a historic cradle of wheat-focused agrarian cultivation. Passing beyond the north-south dividing lines of the Vindhya and Satpura mountains and the Narmada river, the southern peninsula is dominated by the semiarid Deccan plateau. While the relatively dry uplands have typically been controlled by mobile pastoralists, the wetter lowlands of the deep south have been the primary site of rice-growing, sedentary settlement and, concomitantly, the agglomeration of economic and political resources. Driven by seasonal winds from the southwest, the monsoon from June to September brings rains that are critical to biodiversity “hot spots” and local and regional economies alike. Among South Asia’s endemic species of flora and fauna, a few of the most famous are the lotus flower (Nelum nucifera), the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis), the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris), the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus), and the Indian cobra (Naja naja).
Successive waves of human settlement in South Asia have wrought major changes to the natural landscape, including deforestation and pollution, yet the livelihoods of many South Asians have also depended upon the preservation of the environment and its resources. Hence, the environmental history of South Asia exhibits a pattern of both mutual reliance and conflict between sedentary cultivators and townspeople, mobile pastoralists, and forest-dwelling communities. For example, the very same forest-dwelling community that raided one’s village might furnish supplies and provide watchmen to guard against future depredations. Dependent upon hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn (or swidden) agriculture, forest-dwellers’ livelihoods have been shaped by shifting conditions of population density, land cover, and land use. Up to the present, their claims to natural resources have competed with the drive to clear new lands for cultivation, one which states have incentivized through tax relief, irrigation works, and other measures. In India, these communities today constitute between 8 and 9% of the population. They are generally considered to be both indigenous - via the term Adivasi, meaning “first inhabitant” - and socioeconomically marginalized. Due to the latter status, they have been entitled to education and employment benefits and special political representation through their classification as “Scheduled Tribes.”
The Themes in Context: A Timeline
Beginnings: the Indus Valley Civilization, c. 3000-1500 BCE
Evidence of wheat-based agriculture and animal domestication dating to as early as 7000 BCE have been identified at Mehrgarh in today’s Pakistan. More populous and organized urban centers in the Indus Valley emerged from roughly 2700 BCE. Reflecting the existence of a hierarchical and highly organized socioeconomic order, Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, and other cities featured fired brick and mud-brick houses; wells and baths; granaries and warehouses; and fortification and drainage systems [THEME 3, 4]. Studies of raw materials and found objects, including seals, shells, beads, pottery, and stone and copper tools, point to trading links with Balochistan, the Himalayas, the western coast, and Mesopotamia [THEME 5]. The pictographic Indus Valley script, though still undeciphered, reflects the use of writing for trade, storage, record-keeping, and religious rituals. Narrative seals and figurines represent worshippers processing, drumming, and presenting offerings to horned deities as well as tigers, buffaloes, elephants, and an enigmatic “unicorn” [THEME 1].
Between roughly 1800 and 1300 BCE, northwestern India began to experience a general pattern of de-urbanization, including the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization. Early theories of a so-called “Aryan invasion” have not been corroborated by the archaeological and physical evidence, though semi-nomadic pastoralist clans were present in the later stages of the Harappan period. Instead, the Indus Valley cities may have faced a series of environmental stresses, such as desertification, leading to population pressure and, ultimately, economic stagnation [THEMES 4, 6].
The People of the Vedas, c. 1500-500 BCE
Clans of semi-nomadic pastoralists migrated from the steppes of west-central Asia to Iran, Anatolia, and South Asia, where they settled in the Indus and Gangetic alluvial plains around 1500 BCE. They spoke an early form of Sanskrit, which belongs to the broader Indo-European family of languages [THEME 5]. Being mainly a cattle-keeping and horse-riding people, they moved in search of pasture and arable land via the northwest mountain passes into the flatlands of the Punjab and thence to the Indo-Gangetic basin [THEME 4]. Because archeological evidence is meager, most of what we know of their civilization is based on interpretation of the Vedic Sanskrit corpus, consisting of hymns and ritual texts passed down orally and committed to paper over many centuries. Following rules prescribed in Vedic texts, priests, or Brahmins, conducted rituals and sacrifices, many centered on fire, clarified butter (ghi) and the drink soma, which may have been pressed from a plant with hallucinogenic properties. It was believed that if followed precisely, these rituals could activate fundamental correspondences in the natural world to bring blessings to ritual patrons [THEME 1, 6]. Certain Vedic Sanskrit terms and deities, such as the sky-god Indra, recur in the Avesta, the sacred text of Zoroastrianism, suggesting shared origins with the societies of Iran and west Asia.
Central to Vedic narratives was a distinction between the members of these clans, who were known as aryans, and those who they encountered, the dasas. Often mistakenly attributed to mere physical difference, especially skin color, this distinction was more deeply rooted in differences in social and cultural customs. While the people of the Vedas raided cattle as one source of income, they also protected and learned from sedentary agricultural communities, building chiefdoms out of smaller family- and clan-based units [THEME 3]. The later period of Vedic Sanskrit texts from approximately 1000-500 BCE saw the elaboration of a more extensive physical geography centered on the “land of the Jambu trees (Jambu-dvipa)” with specific environmental features, such as forests (vana or aranya) and river-crossings (tirtha). Human settlements (jana-pada) too were part of this imagined ecosystem, which priestly elites may have sought to control by propounding a more fixed varna hierarchy [THEME 6]. Royal sponsorship of Brahmin-administered rituals, including the Ashwamedha horse-sacrifice, was key to legitimizing the authority of kings. Beyond earthly power, extensive philosophical dialogues, or Upanishads, explored the unity of all things, and specifically between the individual “soul” (atman) and the universal “soul” (brahman), in the context of the inexorable cycle of cosmic rebirth [THEMES 1, 2].
Heterodox Religions: Buddhism and Jainism, c. 6th-5th centuries BCE
The later Vedic texts and the early Upanishads (philosophical commentaries), composed between 900 and 500 BCE, were part of the “Axial Age” of religious and philosophical innovation encompassing both Europe and Asia. At the same time, Buddhism and Jainism challenged the scriptural authority of the Vedas and appealed to a wider range of practitioners. Founded by Mahavira (ca. 540-468 BCE) and associated with lineages of teachers, or tirthankaras, Jainism is a dualistic religion that stresses human perfectibility and spiritual liberation through asceticism, non-violence, and reverence for all living things. The most extreme Jain commitments to nonviolence entailed measures ranging from covering the mouth with cloth when breathing, straining water, and sweeping the ground to avoid harm to minute, invisible creatures. In the case of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or Enlightened One (ca. 563-483 BCE), was said to have been a prince who left his home in search of nirvana, or release from the cravings and sufferings of this world and the endless chain of rebirth. Likewise, he urged his followers to reach enlightenment by practicing a “middle way” of moderation. Jain and Buddhist ideas circulated through the activities of monks, nuns, teachers, and wandering mendicants. They preached in popular languages and received alms from rulers and ordinary lay people, including women patrons, with which they financed the construction of extensive monastic complexes, such as the rock-cut cave dwellings of Ajanta and Ellora [THEMES 1, 3, 6].
Jainism and Buddhism shared certain concepts with the earlier Vedic textual corpus, and in turn, certain elements of Jainism and Buddhism were absorbed into the religious tradition that gradually became identified as Hinduism. For example, the Buddha was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon of deities, and became an object of worship, despite his instructions to the contrary. With the diversification of the Hindu tradition, and especially the rise of Hindu devotional movements, Buddhism continued to be an important, if increasingly secondary, religion in India until about the twelfth century. Although it spread to Central and East Asia, it is not widely practiced in India today, with the important exception of a small community of Dalit Buddhists in Maharashtra whose origins may be traced to the conversion of the twentieth-century leader B.R. Ambedkar. Jainism continues to be practiced today with a majority of adherents in western India. Jain communities are notable for their relative material prosperity and high rates of education and literacy [THEMES 1, 5].
Early Empires and Exchanges, c. 4th-2nd centuries BCE
Countervailing trends of political unification and fragmentation have been evident throughout South Asian history. The former trend culminated in the formation of more centralized empires (Mauryan, Gupta, Mughal, British) with territorial ambitions extending across the subcontinent, while the latter saw the proliferation of regional kingdoms whose relations ranged from cooperation to co-existence to conflict. Controlling both the strategically important northwest passage and Indo-Gangetic plain from its base in the Magadha region, the Mauryan Empire (ca. 321-187 BCE) was notable for its sophisticated statecraft - expressed in the classical treatise Arthashastra of Kautilya - its centralized bureaucracy, and its attempts to formulate a universal moral law [THEME 2]. Diplomatic exchanges of gifts, envoys, and marriage partners with the Seleucids, the successors of Alexander, attest to the respect garnered by the Mauryan Empire [THEME 5]. Its most famous sovereign Ashoka (ca. 269-232 BCE), claiming to be inspired by a particularly gruesome campaign in Kalinga in eastern India, converted to Buddhism and spread the Buddha's teachings by inscribing edicts on pillars scattered across the realm [THEMES 1, 2].
With the dissolution of the Mauryan Empire under Ashoka’s successors, remarkable cultural and economic exchanges with varied regional patterns accompanied significant political fragmentation. In the northwest, the bilingual coinage of the Indo-Greek kings of Bactria and Parthia reveals the continuing interactions of Greek, Persian, and Indian cultural forms. Successive migrations of central Asian nomadic pastoralists facilitated the passage of ideas, goods and peoples between China and India, particularly via the desert oases of the Silk Road [THEMES 1, 5]. Meanwhile, pepper, textiles, semi-precious stones, and other luxury goods as well as valuable Roman coins used to pay for them flowed via trade routes connecting western India with the ports of the Red Sea. Linkages between maritime trade and artisanal and agricultural production in the Deccan hinterland - often associated with Buddhist guilds - demonstrate the economic differentiation of the post-Mauryan centuries [THEMES 4, 5].
Classicisms in Language, Religion, and Polity, c. 500 BCE-500 CE
In light of the establishment of enduring norms in kingship, literature, and religion, the end of the first millennium BC until roughly 500 CE is considered to be a classical age in South Asian civilization. Subsequent commentators looked to this period for ethical, aesthetic, and political standards, while at the same time, others offered competing visions of the good life. Coinciding with the zenith of the Gupta Empire (3rd century to 549 CE), classicism nevertheless partook in ideas and trends that pre-existed the Gupta maharaja-adhirajas, or great kings of kings, and persisted long after their demise [THEMES 1, 2].
Classicism is most clearly associated with the widespread diffusion of Sanskrit as the primary language of elite written expression in South and Southeast Asia, including today’s Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand [THEME 5]. Whereas in earlier periods Sanskrit had been restricted to closely guarded priestly rituals and abstruse philosophical commentaries, it was now marshalled for a wider range of literary and political uses. In particular, eulogies (prashasti) inscribed in stone praised the glory of royal conquests, while longer verse narratives (kavya) employed an increasingly impressive array of moods, emotions, and figures of expression. Most famously, the great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, both composed between 200 BC and 200 CE, told stories of heroic deeds to explore ethical, religious, and philosophical dilemmas [THEME 1]. Equally authoritative were ethical and legal codes (dharmashastra), of which the most well-known is the Manusmriti of the first-second centuries BCE, that prescribed rules for right conduct and punishments for their violation [THEME 3].
Central to epics and lawbooks alike was the concept of dharma. This concept refers to the set of obligations determined by one's age, sex, and membership in a particular collective body. Dharma teaches that the interests of the family, the clan, and varna or jati group take precedence over the wishes of the individual. In the Mahabharata, for example, the god Krishna instructs Arjuna to follow his dharma as a Kshatriya warrior by leading his followers into the legendary battle of Kurukshetra, rather than giving in to his personal reservations about the violence that will ensue. At the same time that dharma prescribed rules to form an ideal society, it also envisioned a pathway towards individual spiritual liberation. Individuals passed through four stages of life (ashramas): student, householder, hermit, and ascetic. In the process, they also pursued the four ends of man: dharma (moral obligation), artha (wealth and power), kama (sexual and aesthetic pleasure), and moksha (religious liberation, or freedom from the cycle of rebirth) [THEMES 1, 3].
In theory, only boys of the three highest varnas - the so-called twice-born - were eligible for initiation into the first stage of life on the road to liberation. Hence in its passage from generation to generation, and embodiment in specific rites and rituals tied to successive life-stages, the concept of dharma was deeply hierarchical in terms of both caste and gender. Yet this hierarchy was neither uniform nor stable. The fourfold varna model of dharmashastra texts co-existed with a regionally differentiated jati system. As a result, any local social order included many more than the four groups described in the varna model. New and ‘outsider’ groups were constantly incorporated; existing groups fragmented in response to political opportunity and sectarian affiliation; and economic needs created competing loyalties across the caste hierarchy. So while rigid rules for marriage and social intercourse did rank and separate people, demands for labor and patronage constituted a more integrative dynamic, encouraging members of different jatis to work together for the mutual benefit of a locality. Individuals could also develop strong supra-local ties to members of their caste, complicating the efforts of village- or town-based authorities to regulate the social order. Caste assemblies had jurisdiction over their members, but a ruler might become the final arbiter in a local dispute [THEMES 1, 3].
Regional Developments in Southern and Eastern India, ca. 500-1200 CE
While the Gupta emperors expanded in all four directions from their base in the Gangetic plain to distant parts of the Indian subcontinent, neither they nor their successors acquired permanent control over southern India. Notable among dynasties competing for dominance over the Deccan peninsula and trading entrepots on the coasts were the Pallavas (ca. 6th-8th centuries) and the Cholas (10th-13th centuries) in the southeast, and the Chalukyas (ca. 6th-8th centuries) and the Rashtrakutas (ca. 8th-10th centuries) in the southwest. These kingdoms traded with Southeast Asia and advanced the synthesis of Dravidian cultural elements of the south with the post-Aryan cultures of the north [THEMES 2, 5]. In comparison with the north, the political economy of the southern kingdoms allowed considerable autonomy to village- and district-based assemblies and merchant guilds that carried out extensive public works, including, most importantly, clearing land, building and repairing water tanks, and producing rice and other crops. Royal grants of tax-free land to individual Brahmins and Brahmin settlements as well as temples further supported the building of wells and reservoirs and the extension of agriculture. Massive temple complexes at Mahabalipuram, Pattadakal, and elsewhere became focal points for ecological transformation, economic exchange, artistic patronage, and religious worship. Raising and raiding cattle continued to be important features of the economies of the semi-arid zones of Karnataka and Maharashtra [THEMES 1, 4, 6].
While South Asian dynasts continued to enable Brahminical dominance of the socio-religious order, they were also compelled to adopt positions within a religious marketplace structured around Buddhism, Jainism, and competing sects of the religious tradition that came to be known as Hinduism. Vaishnavism, or worship of the god Vishnu; Shaivism, or worship of the god Shiva; and Shaktism, or worship of a variously named goddess, which became increasingly subsumed into Shaivism, were the most prominent sectarian affiliations. Grappling with this stunningly competitive religious landscape, the philosopher Adi Shankara (8th century CE) traveled around the subcontinent and founded monastic centers (mathas) to propound his non-sectarian, non-dualist vision of Hinduism known as Advaita Vedanta. Still, regional variation continued to be very important. Whereas Shaivism became dominant as far south as Tamil Nadu and as far north as Kashmir, the Pala rulers of eastern India were steadfast adherents of Buddhism. Finally, early interrogations of the authority of post-Vedic Brahminism appeared in Tamil-language hymns to Shiva and Vishnu, and such interrogations would become more important in later centuries [THEMES 1, 3].
Commerce and Conquest: The Beginnings of Islamic Rule in South Asia, c. 10th-11th centuries CE
In the centuries following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the Islamic faith - grounded in the Qu’ran, sunna (custom and practice), and shariʿa (law) - began to expand out of the Arabian peninsula and encounter the pre-Islamic literary and political traditions of Iran and Central Asia. Emerging out of this encounter was an Islamicate and largely Persianate cultural formation that became increasingly influential across diverse regions from the Balkans to Bengal [THEMES 1, 5]. At the same time, Arab, Persian, and Chinese navigators harnessed the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and South China Sea to build an extensive trade between numerous ports, including Aden and Muscat on the Arabian peninsula, Hormuz in Iran, Kilwa and Zanzibar in east Africa, Calicut and Masulipatnam in India, Malacca in today’s Malaysia, and Guangzhou in China [THEMES 4, 5].
Oceanic exchanges complemented a distinct set of overland routes. Beginning with Mahmud of Ghazni (970-1030 CE), the founder of the Ghaznavid dynasty, Turkic cavalrymen, many of whom were captured, enslaved, and trained to fight, began conducting periodic raids out of northwest India. While the violence of these raids, such as Mahmud’s looting of the temple at Somnath, became infamous in historical memory, both commerce and conquest were important vehicles for the diffusion of Islamicate and Persianate culture [THEMES 2, 5].
The Delhi Sultanate, c. 13th-16th centuries CE
Between the 13th and 16th centuries, a succession of Turkic and Afghan dynasties - namely the Ghurids, Khaljis, Tughluqs, and Lodis, known collectively as the Delhi Sultanate - capitalized on their access to key military resources, including horses and elephants, to make Delhi into a flourishing city famous across the Islamic world [THEMES 2, 5]. Some of their most enduring constructions were stepwells, reservoirs, and canals with which they captured water for irrigation, consumption, and sanitation [THEME 6]. The Delhi sultans established a centralized administration, chiefly by making grants of land (iqta’) to civilian and military officials in exchange for their loyalty and service. With the clearing of land and the extension of cultivation outside of the immediate Delhi area, the revenue surplus was increasingly diverted to support not only the thriving bazaars and workshops of the capital, but also fortified towns (qasbas) on the frontiers of the Sultanate [THEME 4]. Particularly in response to the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, substantial numbers of poets, scholars, and spiritual teachers from Persia and Central Asia migrated to South Asia. The mystical Sufi tradition of Islam, represented in South Asia chiefly by the Chishti brotherhood of north India, became extremely popular, winning converts and followers among ordinary people. Among the most famous disciples of the Chishti saint Nizamuddin Auliya was the poet and musician Amir Khusrau, the “parrot of India,” whose multilingual verses are exemplary of the very best of literary creativity of this period [THEME 1].
Sultan Muhammad Tughluq’s transfer of the capital of the Delhi Sultanate to Daulatabad in 1328 was only the most disruptive example of the diffusion of Islamic sultanate regimes across the subcontinent. With the establishment of breakaway dynasties in Bengal, Kashmir, Malwa and Gujarat, the constant interchange between Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Sanskrit and local Indian languages, often referred to as Hindvi, led to the development of hybrid forms of art, literature, religion, and legal and political practice. Such fragmentation and regionalization of Islamicate rule was accelerated by the Turkish warlord Timur’s sack of Delhi in 1398-9 and the subsequent weakening of Delhi as a political center. In the “long fifteenth century” between Timur’s invasion and the coming of the Mughals, bilingual inscriptions on mosques and reservoirs, coinage combining Indic and Islamicate motifs, the employment of local administrators, and the patronage of courtly literature, including translations between Persian and Sanskrit, all point to the ways in which Islamicate rule facilitated fusion between local and cosmopolitan cultures [THEMES 1, 2]. The dispersal of Sufi hospices to outlying regions, including the Deccan and Bengal, not only led to the expansion of Islam, but to the spread of hydraulic technologies critical to the cultivation of the land. [THEMES 4, 6].
Popular Movements and Mobilities in Society, Religion and Literature, 14-16th centuries CE
Alongside the continuing presence of military slavery and servitude, a robust military labor market developed amidst the dispersal of Islamic sultanates in South Asia. Recruitment of armed peasants on a seasonal basis was central to the ability to maintain armies on the battlefield. Young men looked to military employment as a source for steady supplies of food, cash, matériel, and permanent sources of income in the form of grants of land. In the region of today’s state of Rajasthan, this broader process of social mobility intersected with the gradual formation of Rajput clan identities. Initially the term “Rajput,” deriving from the Sanskrit raja-putra, or son of a king, was an open-ended status or title referring to those who had fought for a king or warlord, but over several centuries, it came to identify specific clans who had built up significant wealth, claimed territory and commissioned poetic genealogies to trace their descent to legendary kings. Much like the Turkish and Afghan groups who conquered Delhi, such clans had formerly eked out their living from nomadic pastoralism, rather than sedentary agriculture. Cultures of military service continued to be shared across ethnic and religious communities in South Asia [THEME 3].
At the same time that socioeconomic mobility shaped community formation, popular devotionalism became a new site for religious and literary expression in the centuries following Islamic conquest. Bhakti, or the devotional tradition of Hinduism, seems to have emerged in south India, but spread across all regions of the subcontinent between the 12th and 18th centuries. Its adherents espoused a personal and passionate relationship to their chosen deity, as exemplified by the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva (c. 12th century CE), a long poem describing the love between the god Krishna and female cow-herders (gopi), particularly his beloved Radha. Numerous bhakti verses produced in Maharashtra, Bengal, and Rajasthan also exhibited a disdain for social conventions, especially those pertaining to caste, gender and religion. For example, Janabai, a poet and member of the Varkari sect devoted to the god Vitthal of Pandharpur in Maharashtra, sang of the drudgery of labor that she was expected to perform as a woman and a domestic servant [THEMES 1, 3].
Bhakti devotionalism was a vehicle for the composition of new literature in Braj Bhasha, a language originating in the region near Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace, that was one of many to shape the modern language of Hindi. It was chiefly in this period that both popular religiosity and elite and royal patronage of courtly literature enhanced the reputation and influence of spoken regional languages, slowly putting them on par with classical languages like Sanskrit and Persian. Those languages related to Sanskrit included Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Gujarati, while in the south, the Dravidian language family, which was entirely distinct from Sanskrit, included Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam. In today’s India, these languages continue to be very significant not only as a criterion for defining administrative boundaries (e.g. the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were divided by language), but as one of many axes of identity- and community-formation [THEME 1].
Competing Cosmopolitanisms in the South, 14th-17th centuries CE
The synthesis of imperial and broadly Islamicate cultures of rule with local South Asian society and economy was not confined to north India. Two imperial, expansionist powers came to define the political landscape of peninsular India in the wake of the conquests of the Delhi sultans: the Bahmani sultanate and the Vijayanagara empire. While neither would succeed in unifying the south under a single regime, they won far-flung territories using more sophisticated military technologies, secured the loyalties of diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups, and continued to integrate South Asia into global circuits of trade and migration [THEME 1, 2]. Founded in the mid-fourteenth century by a general who served under Sultan Muhammad Tughluq, the Bahmani sultanate was another breakaway state, and at least initially, an extension of the axis between South Asia and the Islamicate world forged by the Delhi sultans. Yet the Bahmani sultans quickly established independent connections with Timurid Iran and Central Asia, facilitating the migration of thousands of Sufis, scribes, and soldiers proficient in Persian and Arabic. Bearing the title “prince of merchants,” Mahmud Gawan, born in Gilan, Iran, was one such immigrant and a man of many trades - commerce, administration, and diplomacy among them - who became the leading advisor at the Bahmani court at Bidar [THEME 5]. Among the various problems tackled by Gawan was the growing rivalry between Indian-born nobles, the so-called Deccanis, and those from Iran and Central Asia, the so-called Westerners [THEME 3]. Similar tensions continued to plague the three main successors to the Bahmani sultans that emerged soon after 1500: the Adil Shahi sultanate at Bijapur, the Qutb Shahi sultanate at Gulbarga, and the Nizam Shahi sultanate at Ahmadnagar [THEME 2]. Even as Bijapur became a center of Sufi settlement, its rulers relied on Hindu, Marathi-speaking civilian and military personnel to retain control over villages and towns lying at a distance from the capital, perpetuating the ongoing tension between local and cosmopolitan engagement that defined early modern South Asian states.
Though the main rival of the Bahmani sultanate, the Vijayanagara empire too can be viewed in certain ways as an Islamicate state. Its founders, the Sangama brothers, were upwardly mobile Karnataka-born warriors who served under Sultan Muhammad Tughluq before founding their own dynasty, which would come to be based at the vast “City of Victory,” or Vijayanagar (today known as Hampi) [THEME 2]. By improving on rain-fed agriculture through the construction of extensive canals and reservoirs, the Vijayanagara rulers accumulated wealth, which they donated to individual Brahmins, monastic centers, and major temple complexes dedicated to their family deity Virupaksha, a form of Shiva, as well as the Shri Venkateshwar complex at Tirupati [THEMES 4, 6]. But they also incorporated Islamic architectural motifs, such as domes and arches, into palace buildings; wore tunics and headgear fashionable in the Near East; and styled themselves as “sultan among Hindu kings” (hindu-raya-suratrana). Such grandiose honorifics were not entirely undeserved [THEMES 1, 5]. By incorporating new technologies like gunpowder and siege artillery, importing war-horses from the Persian Gulf, and recruiting soldiers from diverse backgrounds, Vijayanagara eked out impressive military achievements, most notably the subordination of the Gajapati kings of Orissa in the early sixteenth century. Vijayanagara coins held high value across the Deccan, attesting the economic success of the regime [THEME 4]. It was only by means of an extraordinary alliance that the fractious Deccan Sultanates were able to defeat Vijayanagara at the battle of Talikota in 1565.
The Mughal Empire, 1526-1707
Undoubtedly the most famous and consequential of the Muslim dynasties to leave its footprint on the Indian subcontinent was the Mughal Empire. The Mughals, or the Timurids as they were better known in their own time, claimed descent from both Timur and Genghis Khan. Their founder Babur was a Central Asian prince who fled rebellion in his home territories of Ferghana and Samarkand for political opportunity in what he called Hindustan [THEME 1, 2, 5]. Upon his arrival, Babur was struck by India’s unfamiliar climate and environment; in particular, he noted the absence of Persianate-style quadrilateral gardens (chahar-bagh), an aesthetic form of ecological transformation that gradually spread throughout the subcontinent [THEME 6]. With the exception of a short interlude of Afghan rule between 1540 and 1556, Babur’s successors managed a sprawling, yet relatively centralized empire through a combination of military might, personal and religious charisma, ingenious administrative know-how, and economic incentives for forest clearance and the transformation of waste-lands into cultivated fields.
Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the first of the four “great Mughals,” is credited with the consolidation of an administrative system dividing territory into provinces (subas) and districts (parganas) that were headed by centrally appointed and handsomely rewarded officers (mansabdars). By moving these officers from post to post, and transferring the assignments of land (jagirs) that they relied on for income, the Mughal government sought to prevent these officers from forming potentially dangerous loyalties with local populations. On the one hand, imperial service was rooted in an ideology of devotion to the emperor himself, one enriched by an iconography linking the emperor with the power of the sun. On the other hand, members of the imperial service could not collect the taxes that they relied on for income without the cooperation of local landlords (zamindars) who were incorporated into the Mughal administration [THEME 2]. While the highest echelons of the Mughal nobility were initially dominated by Central Asians, it came to include many Rajputs and locally powerful men from other Indian communities, and from Akbar’s time onwards, Rajput women began contracting marriages with the Mughal emperors [THEME 3]. Facilitating the creation of an open culture of imperial service was the spread of Persian as a lingua franca of both pragmatic and literary writing. Moreover, Akbar implemented a general policy of religious and cultural tolerance known as sulh-i kul (universal peace). Notable examples of this policy included inviting teachers of different faiths to debate in his “House of Faith” (ibadat-khana) and commissioning beautifully illustrated translations of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Akbar built a new architectural complex, Fatehpur Sikri, outside of Agra, to serve as his second capital and the burial place of the Sufi shaikh Salim Chishti, bu the most famous example of Mughal Indo-Persian architecture was the Taj Mahal in Agra, built as a mausoleum for Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz [THEME 1].
It is estimated that the population of the Mughal Empire in 1600 was between 110 and 120 million people, comprising roughly 75-80% of the total Indian population. Under the major emperors who succeeded Akbar, namely Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb, the empire continued to expand further southwards into the Deccan. The majority of the population was oriented towards agriculture, though the proportion living in towns or cities was comparable to or even higher than western Europe. On the one hand, a sizable percentage of the yield of agrarian cultivation was taxed by the elite, land-owning classes, leaving cultivators themselves with limited resources for improving their condition. On the other hand, certain incentives, such as differential rates of assessment on lands of different qualities, allowed for a degree of socioeconomic differentiation among the peasantry. In addition, because the supply of land generally exceeded demand, peasants could and did exercise the option to flee when they could not meet tax demands. Although Akbar’s minister Abu’l Fazl compiled revenue statistics and many other kinds of information about the empire in his Ain-i Akbari, centrally appointed Mughal tax collectors still relied on local landlords and more controversially, revenue farmers, to estimate and capture the agrarian surplus [THEME 4].
Even though the Mughals Empire was not a major sponsor of early modern maritime trade, a substantial portion of its income derived from customs and other means of tapping into mercantile wealth. Arabs, Persians, Armenians, and increasingly Europeans - first the Portuguese and the Dutch, and then the British and the French - settled in coastal enclaves, such as Surat in Gujarat, to pursue trade in manufactured goods. Textiles made in South Asia - for example, the calico, deriving its name from Calicut in south India - were popular around the world. Representatives of European governments and trading companies even appeared at the Mughal court to request special privileges, for which they sometimes exchanged globes, paintings, and other cultural and scientific artifacts. Sophisticated networks of lending and banking facilities, including the globally ubiquitous hundi, or bill of sale, became central to local and foreign merchants’ participation in the agrarian economy. The inflow of New World silver stimulated the economy, but it also caused disruptive bouts of inflation, just as the importation of capsicum, guava, okra, papaya, potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco (known as “the Columbian Exchange”) transformed diets and livelihoods [THEMES 4, 5, 6]. Emperor Aurangzeb’s conquest of the Deccan led to further expansion of Mughal power, but it also resulted in considerable financial and administrative stress. In addition, his personal piety and close relationship with orthodox Sunni Muslim clerics may have fueled several unpopular changes in policy, such as the suppression of ‘heretical’ Shi’a Muslim sects and the re-imposition of the jizya tax on non-Muslims. Yet it would be too hasty to conclude that Aurangzeb’s reign was especially zealous or intolerant, as many of his decisions with respect to religion and politics followed the pragmatic pattern of his forebears [THEMES 1, 2].
Mughal Decline and the Struggle for Dominance, 1707-1818
The decline of the Mughal Empire is typically dated to the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, though the Empire would persist in attenuated form until the end of the eighteenth century and in name only until the Rebellion of 1857. The emperors who followed Aurangzeb often fell prey to the machinations of various ‘king-makers,’ and the Delhi population in turn became more engaged in the spectacle of politics. But if the Mughal center was in a continual state of chaos, the provinces became sites for new ventures in political mobilization. Such ventures ranged from the creation of successor states at Awadh, Bengal and Hyderabad bearing the imprimatur of the emperor’s blessing to more insurgent movements for independence among the Sikhs in the Punjab and the Marathas in western India to the efforts of individual soldier-adventurers to legitimize their claims to rule small fiefdoms on the frontiers of Mughal power. Within this immensely more complicated political map, it was perhaps the Maratha state, founded by the rebel-turned-raja Shivaji Bhonsle (1630-1680), that came closest to exercising influence across the subcontinent. But its growth was halted, and Mughal decline was accelerated, by another instantiation of a recurring pattern in South Asian history: the intervention of political forces from the northwest. The Persian king Nadir Shah looted Delhi in 1739, and beginning in 1748, the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Durrani mounted a series of invasions of India, culminating in his victory in 1761 at Panipat over the combined forces of the Marathas fighting on behalf of the Mughal emperor [THEME 2].
By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the British and French East India companies too had become serious competitors for dominance. Both combined a desire for profit and territory with advanced military organization, financial backing from their home countries, and strategic relationships with Indian rulers, advisors, and merchants. But it was the British who with a major victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757 obtained the right to revenue collection, or diwani, in Bengal; in so doing, they began the gradual process of transforming a trading company into a company-state. For much of its history, the Company had only been responsible for the coastal, European-majority enclaves of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. But as it deployed armies to conquer the subcontinent piece by piece, it increasingly turned its attention to taxing and governing a much larger and more diverse population. The Company’s focus on maximizing revenue to fuel its massive war-machine was only the most successful instance of the military fiscalism that characterized late eighteenth-century Indian states, especially those of the Marathas and the upstart ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan (known by the British as “Tipu the Tiger”). With the defeat of Tipu in 1799 and the Marathas’ final capitulation in 1818, the British East India Company became the unquestionably dominant authority in South Asia [THEMES 2, 4, and 5].
British Raj, Indian Society
British rule would never entirely encompass all functions of government in all territories of South Asia. Most notably, roughly one-third of the subcontinent remained in the hands of local Indian rulers who exercised a degree of autonomy in ordering the social, economic, and cultural affairs of their subjects. Yet British paramountcy effectively stripped rulers and the numerous land-holding families who served them of any real political function. Moreover, two-thirds of the subcontinent fell under the direct authority of a Company-appointed British governor-general, the first of which, Warren Hastings, became fodder for scandal and the target of a spectacular impeachment trial between 1788 and 1795.
During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Company sought to reform perceived abuses within Indian society and government whilst preserving the overall spirit of the so-called “Mughal constitution.” While British officials held the highest ranking positions within what came to be formalized as the Indian Civil Service (ICS), knowledgeable Indian subordinates were recruited to collect, translate, and explain documents integral to evaluating systems of land tenure. Gradually, English replaced Persian as the language of administration [THEME 2]. Claims to tax-free landed property became subject to closer scrutiny. In Bengal, the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 aimed to transform landlords into improving gentleman-farmers; at the same time, the Company allowed the land market to operate freely, such that many insolvent zamindars were force to sell or auction off their lands. Subsequent land revenue settlements in different regions did not replicate the Bengal experiment. But in general, they tended to reduce the powers of the landed classes who had played a key role in pre-colonial governance [THEME 4].
Similar reforms occurred in the fields of law and education. Leaning into an existing textualism present within circles of Company officials, scholars, and teachers, separate and distinct “Anglo-Hindu” and “Anglo-Muhammedan” laws were codified on the basis of selective readings of classical texts. Along with the introduction of British judges, case law, and trial procedure, such codification tended to override local custom and usage. Early educational interventions were led by Protestant missionaries, who gained entry into India in larger numbers from 1813 onwards. Their influence fueled the British government’s decision in 1835 to restrict its funds to English-language education in Western subjects. In contradistinction to the “Orientalist” attitudes guiding previous Company administrations, the “Anglicist” orientation of this policy is summed up by Thomas Macaulay’s “Minute on Education,” which called for the creation of “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern -- a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” [THEME 1].
Inspired in part by the advocacy of reformers like Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), the British staged interventions impacting the lives of Indian women. In 1829, they abolished sati, a custom among certain Hindu upper castes in which a widow was expected to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. In later years, widow remarriage, marriage age, and female infanticide would also become issues of concerted government investigation and regulation. Because British officials and Indian reformers alike understood the “uplift” of women to be a barometer of civilizational “improvement,” such interventions became the subject of intense debate within the growing print-based public sphere. Some elite, educated Indians not only pursued professional opportunities with the colonial state, but also discarded certain social customs, pursued reformist versions of Islam or Hinduism or even converted to Christianity. Relationships between British officials and soldiers and Indian women resulted in the development of a small Anglo-Indian community. But growing racial anxieties led the Company to discourage intermarriage and social mixing. The British sahebs and memsahebs of this more insular and segregated domesticity increasingly behaved like a superior “ruling class” towards the Indians with whom they interacted [THEME 3].
Pacification and the Rebellion of 1857
As Company army officers and civil servants came to control more and more of the Indian interior, they sought to pacify and settle the nomadic traders, forest-dwellers, warrior-ascetics and mercenary cavalrymen who thrived in the dynamic pastoral economy of these dense, jungly regions. The Company accomplished this goal by imposing a new scientific regime for managing forests and implementing loan-based schemes to incentivize tribal peoples to take up sedentary agriculture. But it also turned to more violent and coercive means. The Thuggee campaign of the 1830s was designed to extirpate the so-called thags (from which derives the contemporary English word thug), highwaymen who robbed travelers and supposedly formed a larger criminal conspiracy. The criminalization of itinerant groups, many of whom were from poor, low-caste backgrounds, eventually took on formal, legislative form in the Criminal Tribes Acts of the 1870s. Forensic and investigative technologies like fingerprinting aided colonial authorities in effecting these pacification measures [THEMES 3, 4, 6].
Even whilst sedenterizing forest-dwelling pastoralists and gaining a monopoly over the military labor market, which had been deeply shaken by conquered states’ decommissioning of numerous armed retainers, the Company recruited Indian men to serve in its own armies. Known as sepoys, the initial recruits tended to hail from the high-caste Hindu peasantry of the eastern Gangetic plain. With the occurrence of repeated wars on the external and internal frontiers of British India, the colonial army gradually came to include men from many different backgrounds; however, the later “martial races” theory gave preference to communities believed to possess certain physical and mental advantages. A key moment in this shift in recruitment was the Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the Sepoy Mutiny and the First War of Independence). Its causes were multiple, but most notoriously included rumors that cartridges in the new Enfield rifle, which had to be bitten off, were greased in cow or pig fat, considered by Hindus and Muslims to be polluting substances. Beginning in Meerut in north India, the rebellion spread across the north and down into central and parts of western India and came to encompass a range of dispossessed and disaffected groups with very different reasons for deciding to revolt. Though certain deposed rulers led movements at the local level, the rebellion never became a coordinated all-India movement and was suppressed by the summer of 1858 [THEME 3].
The immediate effect of the Rebellion of 1857 was to prompt the British Parliament to transfer control over the government of India from the Company into the hands of the British Crown. To end all doubts as to who was sovereign, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had participated in the revolt, was tried and exiled to Rangoon. More broadly, 1857 marked a key turning-point in the theory of colonial rule in South Asia. Rather than aiming to effect liberal schemes of reform and improvement, the British government now sought to stabilize an imagined society-in-crisis by ruling through “natural leaders” who it took to be influential, albeit sometimes corrupt and oppressive. This model of “indirect rule” undergirded approaches to government not only in South Asia, but throughout the British Empire, including in Africa and the Middle East [THEMES 2, 5].
Colonial Economy, Infrastructure, and Technologies of Rule, c. 1850-1900
When the British arrived in South Asia as traders, they were primarily in search of exotic products and finished goods, particularly textiles, that they sold to elite and middle-class consumers with sophisticated tastes. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, the balance of trade between India and Britain had shifted with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a domestic textile industry. In an example of the classical colonial economy, South Asia became an exporter of raw materials and an importer of British-made manufactures. As the great weaving centers of early modern South Asia declined, commercial agriculture expanded, focusing on cash crops like cotton, indigo, jute, rice, tea, and opium. Combined with the substantial revenue demand, the linking of agriculture to overseas demand made peasants vulnerable to shifts in the global marketplace, frequently forcing them to turn to village-based moneylenders to make end’s meet. South Asia was also incorporated into a global imperial system by becoming a source of indentured labor for British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. Indian indentured laborers, pejoratively referred to as “coolies,” formed an important segment of an emergent South Asian diaspora.
To facilitate the creation of an integrated colonial economy, the British government built an impressive railway system, the fifth largest in the world by the end of the nineteenth century. In addition, the telegraph linked major cities within India as well as India and Britain; canals for irrigation were built in regions with significant agrarian potential like the Punjab; and a single low-cost government postal service was instituted. Yet these public works in infrastructure tended to redound to the overall financial benefit of British investors and the British industrial manufacturing sector. For example, the numerous machine-made goods necessary to build the railroads tended to be sourced from Britain. Most notoriously, the British government annually withdrew funds, known as the “Home Charges,” to cover debts, pensions, and office expenses, inspiring Indian nationalist leaders to decry the “drain of wealth” from India to Britain. In the late nineteenth century, Indian business families, some of whom, like the Tatas and the Birlas, are still prominent today, laid the foundations of Indian manufacturing by exploiting gaps in the colonial economy [THEMES 4, 5].
In conformity with the implementation of the latest technological changes in economy, communication, and transportation, the British colonial state relied on more systematic “technologies of rule” to enumerate and manage a population that it considered to harbor a inexorable potential for rebellion. The Census of India, conducted on a decennial basis from 1881, collected information about the food, dress, occupation specializations, marriage patterns, and religious sentiments of Indian castes and communities. Such information when paired with photographs and physiognomic data formed a much more fixed and concrete notion of caste identity than had prevailed in pre-colonial South Asia. While this notion aided the colonial state in policing practices viewed as “backward” or “dangerous,” such as hook-swinging, it also inspired upwardly mobile communities to petition the state for modification of their classification within the census schema. Efforts were also made to form separate British areas, known as “civil lines” and “cantonments” for civilian and military personnel, and to establish “hill stations” for British officials to escape the supposedly diseased air of dense urban localities. Because the theories behind such sanitation measures were often first developed with British working-class populations in mind, some historians view India as a colonial laboratory for forms of social control in the metropole [THEMES 2, 3].
Education, Civil Society and the Beginnings of Indian Nationalism, c. 1880-1910
Increasing access to English education and, for a select few, advanced training in Western law, science, and medicine and opportunities to study abroad in Britain would have dramatic effects on the relationship between the British colonial state and its Indian subjects. By and large, Western education in English was only made available to upper-caste elites, which would lead to vocal demands for educational, economic, and political reform on behalf of the lower castes in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time, a robust Indian-language print culture, including Indian-owned and -operated newspapers with wide circulation, enabled debates about government policies, social and religious norms, and the new popular literatures being produced in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, and other languages. Among the most renowned of the cohort of writers who emerged in this period was the Bengali poet, novelist, and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, whose 1916 novel Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) depicted the elite Indian’s conflicted relationship with Western culture.
Fostering the development of a robust public sphere and print culture in multiple languages was an active civil society composed of caste- and community-based organizations, voluntary associations, and educational and literary initiatives. Certain bodies, such as the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and the Prarthana Samaj in Maharashtra, spoke out against social ills within elite Hindu society, including child marriage, infanticide, and caste prejudice, while others, such as the Arya Samaj in north India and Punjab, coupled reformist views with a desire to convert lower classes back to a “purer” Hinduism free from the encroachments of Christian and Western influence. Language and education too were sites for the revival of “traditional” culture. While the Benares-based litterateur Bharatendu Harischandra promoted a Sanskritized Hindi as the ideal language for the educated Hindu middle class, the Muslim ʿulama of the Deoband school in Uttar Pradesh encouraged a return to classical Islamic disciplines [THEMES 1, 3].
With the growth of civil society came a slow, but steady movement towards formal political representation for Indians. In the wake of the Rebellion of 1857, the British colonial state encouraged Indian “natural leaders” to remain loyal to Queen Victoria, now styled as “Empress of India.” Such relationships were paraded in full regalia in the imperial “durbars” held periodically in Delhi. Beyond these relatively empty displays of imperial unity, community leaders and wealthy philanthropists acquired a greater, though still subordinate role on municipal boards, dealing with issues of sanitation, policing, education, and public works, and subsequently on legislative and provincial councils with broader jurisdiction. These experiments in limited representative government were meant to direct public opinion towards the virtues of British imperial rule; instead, they worked to solidify caste and community bonds and to generate interest in increasing opportunities for Indian self-government. In 1885, these developments culminated in the formation of the Indian National Congress. While its elite, English-educated founders were by no means rebels, they sought a greater role for Indians in the civil service, legislative councils, universities, and governmental bodies at all levels [THEME 2].
Communalism and Revolutionary Nationalism to World War I
Politics was not only an elite affair. Starting in the 1890s, mass organization and protest around religious symbolism and ideology, a phenomenon known as communalism, swept through multiple regions. In Maharashtra, the upper-caste traditionalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak organized a festival to celebrate the birth of the Hindu god Shiva’s son, Ganapati (Ganesh), in 1893 and a couple years later, he established another festival in honor of the regional founding figure Shivaji. During these events, music, dance, and spectacle in the streets built on an existing male-dominated culture of sport, especially wrestling, and military training, imbuing the festivals with a restive political spirit. In the north, societies emerged to protect the cow, an animal sacred in the Hindu tradition but part of the diet of ordinary Muslims and Christians. Numerous other perceived insults, such as the playing of music in front of mosques during Hindu marriage processions, were debated, but cow-protection was the major issue that focalized Hindu-Muslim tensions. In 1893, more than 100 people were killed in some of the worst communal riots in India’s history.
The British governor-general Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905 was the catalyst for a new phase in the evolution of mass politics. Justified on the basis of administrative convenience, the partition, which produced a Muslim majority in eastern Bengal, was widely viewed within the educated, upper-caste Hindu Bengali class as a “divide and rule” strategy aimed at limiting their power. In response, they organized the swadeshi movement to encourage a boycott on British-made products, and correspondingly, a return to goods produced at home. The organization and symbolism of the movement was not neutral with respect to religion. The movement’s unofficial anthem, “Bande Mataram,” a composition of Rabindranath Tagore’s, compared the nation to a Hindu mother-goddess, and secret societies organized to carry out terrorist actions took Shiva’s mate Kali as their patron.
The British colonial government addressed the eruption of a general boycott and individual terrorist acts of violence most immediately by reversing the partition of Bengal. More broadly, it began to more actively limit civil liberties and court leaders sympathetic to its position. On the one hand, outspoken leaders like Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh were arrested for sedition, a charge that had long been used to censor anti-British critique in the Indian press. On the other hand, Curzon’s successor, Lord Minto, was open to further political reforms, specifically cultivating the loyalties of a group of upper-class Muslims who felt that the interests of the Muslim community were not adequately represented. In the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 (also known as the India Councils Act) that resulted from these negotiations, more Indian representatives with greater powers of consultation were added to the existing provincial and central legislative councils. Most important was the introduction of the principle of separate Muslim electorates who would elect leaders to reserved seats to guard their interests. In 1906, the All-India Moslem League, or Muslim League, was formed [THEMES 1, 2, 3].
Gandhi and the Nation, 1914-1919
Several developments on the international stage would shape the next stage in the evolution of the Indian independence movement. War between Russia and the Ottoman Empire as well as revolts against Ottoman rule in Greece and the Balkans led to calls among Muslims worldwide for protection of the Ottoman emperor as the living successor, or khalifa, of the Prophet. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to the recruitment of over a million Indians to serve in the British army. Even the nationalist movement itself was increasingly international. The Ghadar Party, consisting mostly of Punjabi Sikh immigrants, showed its support for Indian independence all the way from California. Inspired by the example of Ireland, the Home Rule League, led by the Anglo-Irish woman Annie Besant, was an important new organization dedicated to the nationalist cause [THEME 5]. Finally, this period was one in which Hindu-Muslim rapprochement seemed like a real possibility, represented most concretely by the “Lucknow Pact” between the Indian National Congress and Muslim League on several issues related to the expansion of political representation.
Most significant of all was the return of the English-educated Hindu Gujarati barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (better known as Mahatma Gandhi) to India in 1915. Previously, Gandhi had been politically active in South Africa, where he developed the concept of passive resistance called satyagraha (grasped by the truth, in Sanskrit). Drawing heavily on the New Testament, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Ruskin as well as Hindu tradition, including the Bhagavad Gita, he advocated for a return to an idealized Indian past, free from the materialist failings of the West. He attempted to embody this way of life through his dress and diet and to set up model communities around village-based crafts like the production of hand-spun cloth (khadi). Rather than committing individual acts of violence, Gandhi focused on building a non-violent mass movement, including nation-wide protests against British rule in 1918 and 1921-22. He quickly became the de facto leader of the Indian National Congress, which remained the most important nationalist organization until 1947, when it became the dominant political party (hereafter referred to as the Congress) [THEMES 1, 2].
Although Gandhi with his staff and loin cloth aimed to present himself with utter humility, and protested on behalf of debt-ridden peasants and mill-workers, his movement consisted primarily of middle-class, upper-caste Hindus. Moreover, some of his core concepts, such as ram-rajya, or the kingdom of Ram, evoked an image of a Hindu polity. At the same time, he made efforts to incorporate Muslims and lower-caste Hindus into the nationalist coalition. His vocal support of the Congress’s alliance with the Khilafat movement among Indian Muslims to prop up the Ottoman emperor was perhaps the most successful of these efforts. Less fruitful and more controversial in the long-run was his use of the term harijan, or child of god, to refer to Dalits in an attempt to shame upper-caste Hindus into renouncing the practice of untouchability [THEME 3].
Non-Cooperation and Challenges to Congress Leadership, 1919-1935
By the end of World War I, the British colonial government recognized the validity of Indian nationalists’ demands for swaraj, or self rule, even if it was slow to act on these demands. But two events in 1919 would prompt nationalists to ratchet up the pressure for substantive action. The first was the passage of the Rowlatt Acts extending “emergency” powers assumed by the government during the war, including trial without a jury. Even more shocking was the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, in which a British garrison commanded by Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians in a garden in the Punjabi city of Amritsar. Approximately 350-400 people were killed and 1,000 more injured. Quickly becoming a symbol of the violence of the British Raj, the massacre lent urgency to the Congress’ 1920 declaration of non-cooperation, a measure spearheaded by Gandhi and co-signed by the Muslim-led Khilafatist groups. Popular rallies and agitations for non-cooperation continued until 1922 when a mob attack on a police station in the village of Chauri Chaura in the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) led Gandhi to call off the movement. He was tried and jailed for sedition shortly thereafter [THEME 2].
Non-cooperation found widespread support, especially among the urban mercantile and professional classes, but different regions had different political organizations that did not always acknowledge Congress’ claim to national leadership. In Punjab, both tenants and landlords gravitated towards the Unionist Party, while in the Tamil-speaking south, the association of mainstream nationalism with Brahmin dominance led to the formation of the Justice Party, representing the issues of relatively prosperous non-Brahmins. More radical and revolutionary movements, often along class lines, continued to proliferate. The Bengal-born thinker M.N. Roy, who had lived in Mexico and attended the Second Communist International in the Soviet Union, established the Community Party of India in 1928. Communist activists began to organize textile and steel mill workers in Bombay and other cities in the 1920s. Perhaps the most iconic revolutionary of this period was Bhagat Singh. After his assassination of a British police official and bombing in Lahore, he was tried and hanged in 1931, becoming a symbol of the self-sacrifice demanded by the struggle for freedom [THEMES 2, 5].
The most serious challenge to Gandhi’s moral leadership occurred during the second round of non-cooperation, which included his internationally famous “salt march” in protest against the British tax on salt, and a fresh bout of arrests of Congress leaders. Since the late 1920s, B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) - educated at Columbia University and the London School of Economics - had been leading public actions against discrimination against Dalits at Hindu temples and communal water tanks. In addition, he advocated for the creation of separate electorates for lower castes, an idea now familiar from discussions around Muslim electoral representation. But when the British government floated the 1932 Communal Award to create such electorates, Gandhi mounted a “fast to the death” from his jail cell in Pune. The resulting compromise, known as the “Poona Pact,” preserved a unified Hindu electorate, but Ambedkar would continue to call attention to the marginalization of lower caste people and denounce Congress as an organization serving the interests of upper-caste Hindus. In addition, he was one of the main authors of the Indian constitution. Viewing the caste system to be inextricably linked to Hinduism, he converted to Buddhism just before his death [THEMES 2, 3].
The Demand for Pakistan and the Road to Independence and Partition, 1935-1947
The passage of the Government of India Act (1935) maintained a federal center while conceding substantial provincial autonomy, and in so doing, it accelerated participation in provincial elections. Both Congress and the Muslim League participated in the 1937 elections but with vastly different results. Whereas Congress won majorities and formed governments in several provinces, the Muslim League won a majority in none of the Muslim majority provinces, losing out to far more popular regional parties formed on the basis of class and caste solidarities. Hence after more than three decades of negotiation, the problem of the political future of India’s Muslims remained to be solved. But with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British government unilaterally committed India to the war effort, prompting the Congress ministries in the provinces to resign. Over 87,000 soldiers from South Asia perished in various theaters of the war. Along with severe economic dislocation, including shortages of rice and grain leading to the 1943 Bengal famine, extreme loss of life added to the urgency of the movement for independence. Taking matters into his own hands, the disaffected Congress leader Subhas Chandra Bose joined the Axis Powers and formed a provisional independent Indian government in Southeast Asia, leading an army of 30,000 Indians in fighting alongside the Japanese [THEMES 2, 5].
Negotiations to gain Congress’ participation in the war effort failed. In 1942, Gandhi, now working closely with the Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), demanded that the British immediately “Quit India. He was once again jailed. Without clear leadership, the associated August “uprising” was far more violent and spontaneous than previous mass actions, sweeping through most of north India as well as major cities like Bombay. Meanwhile, the Muslim League led by the barrister Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) proposed an independent Muslim nation, Pakistan, in 1940. Conceived as an idea in the early 1930s - the name both meant “land of the pure” and supposedly stood for the provinces it was meant to include (Punjab, the Afghan region, Sind, Balochistan) - Pakistan only became a serious political goal once a federal scheme acceptable to both Congress and the League became untenable. Up to the moment of Partition, it was not at all clear what the precise borders of Pakistan would be. Wide swathes of territory divided certain Muslim majority areas (e.g. Bengal, Hyderabad) from those in northwest India; regional parties remained strong; and not all Muslim leaders supported the idea of forming a separate state.
After the end of the war and the failed Simla conference of June 1945 between Jinnah, Gandhi, and Nehru, the elections of 1945-6 confirmed that the Congress and the Muslim League were the sole political players at the national level. Fearing that Congress would not abide by the terms of ongoing negotiations for a federal scheme with strong Muslim provincial powers, Jinnah in July 1946 called for a general strike and direct action. Mass riots in Bengal and Bihar in August, known as the Great Calcutta Killing, led to thousands of deaths and prefigured the violence that would accompany the transfer of power. As Britain's last viceroy in India, Lord Mountbatten presided over final negotiations, which had now become a priority for a seriously cash-strapped postwar British government. It was agreed that a division of the country into the new nations of India and Pakistan would take place on August 15, 1947. The new Muslim nation would be composed of two parts, separated by India: East Pakistan (East Bengal) and West Pakistan (comprising part of the Punjab, Sind, the Northwest Frontier Province, and Balochistan) [THEME 2].
The Reality of Partition and Problems of National Integration
Uprooting almost 12 million people, Partition was one of the most significant instances of mass migration in twentieth-century world history, and a defining event for post-colonial South Asia. The rapidity of the transfer of power from British to South Asian hands combined with existing communal tensions led to both coordinated and spontaneous acts of violence across the countryside. The situation was especially grim in the Punjab, where some 5 million Hindus and Sikhs moved inside the new borders of India and an equal or larger number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan. As immortalized in Khushwant Singh’s 1956 novel Train to Pakistan, unarmed refugees travelling via train were vulnerable to ambush. Because the “purity” of women was commonly understood to index the honor of the community, Partition violence was deeply gendered. In its aftermath, both sides mounted campaigns to “restore” abducted women to their purported homelands, whether or not these women wanted to return. While Hindu majorities were created in both Punjab and Bengal (and Muslim majorities in the corresponding provinces of West Pakistan and East Pakistan), many Muslims did not migrate to Pakistan. Even today, about 14% of the Indian population is Muslim, the largest population outside of Muslim-majority countries [THEME 3].
Partition was only the greatest of many problems of national integration facing the new South Asian nation-states. In addition to dividing Punjab and Bengal from West and East Pakistan, approximately 500 princely states also had to be integrated into one or the other of the new nations. Most joined either India or Pakistan voluntarily; however, the Muslim-ruled, Hindu-majority Nizamate state of Hyderabad acceded only after being invaded by the Indian army on the orders of India’s Home Minister, Vallabhai Patel (1875-1950). Prior to Independence, a Communist-led rebellion among the peasants of the Telangana region against both local landlords and the Nizam’s government attested to the difficulties of defining new administrative boundaries. Because the States Reorganisation Commission of the 1950s used language as the primary criterion for forming state boundaries, all regions with a majority of Telugu-speakers, including Telangana, were combined into the state of Andra Pradesh. But in 2014, the state of Telangana was formally divided from Andhra Pradesh with Hyderabad serving as a joint capital for both states.
Kashmir has proven to be the most intractable legacy of the troubled history of nation-state formation in South Asia. Though a majority of Kashmir’s inhabitants were Muslim, its ruler, a Hindu raja of the Rajput Dogra dynasty, joined India in October 1947 only at the threat of Pakistani invasion. Because Kashmir’s boundaries abut both India and Pakistan as well as China and Afghanistan, the question of the region’s future has been shaped as much by international politics as by religious conflict. Following an initial clash between India and Pakistan in 1948, the United Nations brokered a territorial division along the so-called line of control wherein India would control roughly two thirds of the region and Pakistan would control one third (a smaller portion was eventually claimed by China). But this arrangement has been troubled by recurring overt military engagements, including the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, and more subtle political interventions. For example, the Indian government jailed Sheikh Abdullah, a popular Muslim politician and the first prime minister of the new Indian territory of Jammu & Kashmir, on trumped-up charges of conspiracy in 1953. Most recently, in 2019, the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi suspended Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had provided a measure of internal autonomy to Kashmir. In the late 1980s, the clear lack of a legitimate vehicle for expressing the will of the Kashmiri people fueled the emergence of a popular armed insurgency. Though Kashmiri political self-determination was the insurgency’s initial goal, the emergence of more Islamist organizations with financial and ideological links to Pakistan has allowed the Indian state to brand Kashmiri insurgents, known as mujahideen, as “terrorists” who must be suppressed by force of arms. As a result, the periodic imposition of strict martial law and surveillance measures has been a fact of life for ordinary Kashmiris. [THEMES 1, 2].
1971: Pakistan’s Internal Divides and the Creation of Bangladesh
Like India, Pakistan was beset by intersecting linguistic, cultural and regional tensions that complicated the project of national integration. While roughly 50% of the Pakistani population consisted of Bengali-speakers who primarily lived in the province of east Pakistan, the civilian and military bureaucracy was dominated by Urdu-speaking Punjabis and north Indians. Likewise, economic resources to meet key human development goals tended to flow disproportionately to West Pakistan. The Bengali language movement of the early 1950s, which opposed making Urdu the national language, provided a fillip to political assertion. But General Ayub Khan’s imposition of martial law in 1958 deferred any outright conflict between center and province until the early 1970s. After Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League called for greater provincial autonomy and won a decisive electoral majority in East Pakistan in 1970, the central government leadership ordered the army to suppress the opposition in March 1971. Open rebellion quickly escalated into full-fledged war, especially as several million Bengali Hindu and Muslim refugees flooded across the border to India, and Bengali leaders called for international intervention. Still smarting from years of wrangling over Kashmir, the Indian government in December invaded in support of the Bengali guerrillas and won a decisive victory over the Pakistani army.
1971 marked not only the founding of another new nation-state, Bangladesh, but also the emergence of India as the dominant power in the South Asian subcontinent. The human cost of these developments was enormous, though the total number of casualties in the war remains a contested matter. While Pakistani official figures put the death-toll at 26,000, Bangladeshi figures can be as high as one or two million. But any quantitative reckoning with the violence of the war would be insufficient. As numerous survivors’ oral accounts have attested, violence against non-combatants, especially women, was rampant. Many Bengali women endured atrocities committed by men of the Pakistani army, and Urdu-speakers in the region quickly became a stateless people vulnerable to retaliation at the hands of Bengali guerrillas. Hundreds of thousands ended up in refugee camps in Bangladesh with no nation-state to call home. Because the atrocities of 1971, like those of 1947 before it, occurred along clear, albeit multiple axes of identity, including gender, language, religion and ethnicity, they form an integral part of the history of modern genocide and mass violence. At the same time, competing memories of these events continue to be central to the narratives of national identity and difference propounded by the governments of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh [THEMES 1, 2].
Contemporary Politics and Government
Borrowing heavily from the British political tradition, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all democratic parliamentary systems by constitutional design. In practice, they have had variable success in maintaining these systems, as will be discussed on a case-by-case basis below.
India: From Congress Raj to Modi Sarkar, 1947-present
Having been the main steward of the nationalist cause, the Congress Party dominated national politics in the decades following independence. Serving as the first prime minister from 1947 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure coincided with several major events, including the reorganization of states and the skirmishes with Pakistan described earlier; however, the Nehruvian state is perhaps best known for its commitment to a roughly socialist model of economic development and a foreign policy of non-alignment, both of which will be detailed in later sections. The early dominance of the “Congress Raj” would receive its first challenge after Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi assumed office in 1966. Shirking the entrenched Congress leadership who sought to control her, Mrs. Gandhi, as she was popularly known, instead pursued a politics of populist authoritarianism. Facing a mass oppositional movement and a high court decision against her 1971 electoral victory, she declared a state of emergency in 1975 and suspended all civil liberties until 1977. After a brief interlude out of power, she again served as prime minister from 1980 until her assassination in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards. Like many of their co-religionists, they were outraged by “Operation Bluestar,” in which thousands of Sikhs assembled in Amritsar’s Golden Temple in support of a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, were massacred by the Indian army. Her son Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her, only to be replaced after the Congress’s electoral defeat in the 1989 election by coalition leader V.P. Singh.
Along with the gradual fragmentation of Congress’ hegemony, Indian politics has been shaped, particularly in the last three decades, by the rise of Hindu nationalism. While the ideal of secularism was enshrined in the Indian constitution, a counter-ideology equating the nation with a presumed Hindu essence, or Hindutva, existed from the earliest days of Independence. Drawing on this core idea, which was outlined in V.D. Savarkar’s book of the same name, as well as tactics popular in Fascist Europe, K.B. Hedgewar founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925 as a youth organization devoted to military training and ideological education. The RSS was banned for many years following former member Nathuram Godse’s assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1944; however, it was revived in the early 1990s in the wake of Congress decline. Along with the other members making up the“Sangh Parivar” - namely, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Hindu nationalist movement, and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the movement’s international organization - it mobilized around a set of claims centering on the town of Ayodhya. In brief, these were that Ayodhya was the birthplace of the god Ram, or ram-janmabhoomi, and the site of a temple that had been demolished by the Mughal emperor Babur to build a mosque, the Babri Masjid. In 1990, the BJP leader L.K. Advani went on pilgrimage to drum up support for building a new temple, and two years later, Hindu volunteers descended upon Ayodhya and tore down the mosque. After this shocking event, massive anti-Muslim riots erupted in Mumbai, instigated in large part by the Shiv Sena, a local Marathi nativist party that has periodically allied with the Hindu right. The BJP took advantage of these grassroots organizing efforts to become the dominant partner in a new governing coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in 1999.
Today, Hindu nationalism remains an important force in Indian politics. In 2014 and again in 2019, the BJP-led NDA won majorities in the lower house of the legislature, the Lok Sabha, and elected Narendra Modi, a former RSS member and Gujarat chief minister, to the office of prime minister. Claiming to represent the “ordinary Indian” - his often-touted biographical detail is that he is the son of a tea-seller - Modi’s administration has in fact combined a big business-oriented economic strategy with significant attacks on the civil liberties of non-Hindus, especially Muslims, which will be discussed more below. At the same time, significant demographic variation along lines of language, caste, and religion, and the constant need to form coalitions with local parties commanding reliable voting blocs, has enabled certain states to break from the Congress-BJP dichotomy of national politics. To take but one example, even though Communism has little presence on the national stage, Communist parties have been able to form governments in West Bengal and in Kerala. International media attention and financial support from the Indian diaspora too play a role in elections, such as in the recent success of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. [THEMES 1, 2].
Pakistan: Struggling Towards Democracy, 1947-present
Early in Pakistan’s history as an independent nation-state, its constitutional process was hampered by the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1948 and the assassination of the first prime minister Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951. Initially governed by a Constituent Assembly (later renamed the Legislative Assembly), Pakistan’s constitution-writing was delayed until 1956 (and first direct elections until much later) due to disagreements over apportionment of resources between West and East Pakistan and crises at the border with India. Finally in 1958, the Assembly was dissolved, and General Muhammad Ayub Khan instigated the country’s first military coup. Opposition among segments of the population not favored by the regime, including communists and Urdu-speaking immigrants from India (muhajirs) who concentrated in the province of Sindh, crystallized under the former defense minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Following Pakistan’s defeat in the Bangladesh war, civilian rule was re-established in 1972 under Bhutto. Despite re-writing the constitution again in 1973 along more democratic lines, Bhutto continued to rely on military might, sending in the army to quell secessionist uprisings in Balochistan. After a contested national election in 1977, General Zia-ul Haq in 1977 deposed Bhutto and ordered his imprisonment and execution two years later.
Under Zia, the existing dominance of the military was paired with an Islamist ideology, which had hitherto been a relatively minor phenemenon in Pakistani politics. As exemplified by the “Objectives Resolution” section of the constitution, the Pakistani government had long struck a balance between affirming the rectitude of Islamic principles whilst avowing basic secular ideals, such as the protection of religious minorities. Yet critics of this vision like Abul Ala Mawdudi, who founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941, called for an Islamic state governed in strict accordance with a narrow understanding of Islamic law, or shariʿa. Looking to distinguish itself from previous regimes, Zia’s administration implemented numerous new policies under the guise of shariʿa, including new criminal offenses and punishments impacting women disproportionately (see more below) and more cosmetic changes like re-naming interest as “profit and loss” payments to accord with the Qur’an’s prohibition on usury. In addition, he incorporated many Islamic clerics and scholars, collectively known as the ʿulema, into governing bodies to legitimize these reforms and added the Eighth Amendment to the constitution, which gave the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly and thus pushed Pakistan closer to a fully authoritarian state.
Following Zia’s mysterious death in an air accident in 1988, Pakistan held its first open elections in more than a decade. Benazir Bhutto capitalized on her status as the daughter of the beloved liberal politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to turn out a close, but broad victory across the provinces. But Bhutto’s tenure as prime minister was a very short one. Unable to win the support of various groups who had propped up the Zia regime, including fiscal conservatives and Islamists, she and the PPP lost heavily to Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi industrial magnate, and his Islamic Democratic Alliance in 1990. Over the course of the next several years, Bhutto and Sharif competed for political control, each serving multiple terms as prime minister (Bhutto from 1988-90 and 1993-6 and Sharif from 1990-3, 1997-9, and 2013-7). Neither were able to substantively address the issue of corruption, with accusations of fraud, embezzlement, nepotism, and concealment of funds routinely lobbed at both leaders’ administrations. Moreover, Pakistan’s continuing reliance on a political economy based on dependence on foreign aid and outsized spending on military equipment continued to hinder the civilian government in establishing its independence.
Much diminished by his perceived bungling of the Kargil War with India, Nawaz Sharif was deposed by his former army chief Pervez Musharraf in 1999. So began yet another period of military rule in Pakistan. For several years, Musharraf narrowly suceeded in pulling off a delicate balancing act of backing the United States’ “war on terror” while allowing Islamist networks, many associated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, to establish a much more robust local presence in the frontier provinces. In what was perhaps the most egregious challenge to the nation’s relatively independent judiciary, he dismissed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in anticipation of his refusal to approve his second term as president. The eruption of nationwide protests re-affirmed that Pakistan had a robust democratic tradition and vocal press, even if it could not sustain a fair and transparent constitutional government. In light of these protests, Musharraf was forced to hold elections in which many speculated about the potential for Benazir Bhutto’s return to office; however, in the midst of the campaign, she was killed by a suicide bomber, though as with the case of Zia ul-Haq, the precise reasons behind her assassination remain a mystery. In 2007-8, the PPP under prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and president Asif Zardari, Bhutto’s husband, returned to power. While struggling to suppress Islamist militancy at the frontier, which was often clandestinely abetted by Pakistan’s Inter-Intelligence Services (ISI), the administration managed to remove the extraordinary powers granted to the president the Eighth Amendment and complete its term without military intervention. In 2013, the cricket star Imran Khan and his centrist Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party (PTI) made their debut in electoral politics. Capitalizing on critiques of corruption and election rigging made by the law professor Tahir u-Qadri and others, Khan was a vocal part of the opposition and in 2018, he became Pakistani’s 22nd prime minister [THEMES 1, 2].
Bangladesh: Military Rule and Patrimonial Democracy, 1971-present
Bangladesh too has experienced alternating periods of civilian and military rule in its efforts to transform an oppositional freedom struggle into a stable system of government. Nationalist hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, returned from imprisonment in Pakistan to become prime minister and then president. Partly in response to pressure from India, the Awami League government struck a moderate course, nationalizing banks and some industries while leaving unequal land tenurial arrangements untouched. At the same time, it did not make an effort to incorporate its ideological opponents into government, instead allowing party loyalists to control the delivery of key economic resources. The 1973 general elections were widely viewed to be rigged in favor of the Awami League, leading to general strikes and rallies that in turn provoked a harsh crackdown. The Special Powers Act of 1974 formalized the state’s assumption of extraordinary power to censor the press and restrict the opposition; an outright state of emergency was declared in the same year; and Rahman moved to establish a one-party system. But in August of 1975, he was assassinated, and a series of military coups resulted in the installation of Major-General Ziaur Rahman, popularly known as Zia.
For the next fifteen years, military generals, first Zia (1975-1981) and then Hussain Muhammad Ershad (1982-1990) would rule Bangladesh. They severely limited civil liberties and banned political opposition while breaking with the Awami League’s more democratic socialist leanings by pursuing a private sector-led, export-oriented model of development. Widespread agitation in 1990, including student protests against a proposal to impose Arabic as a mandatory subject in primary schools, toppled the Ershad regime and brought a return to parliamentary democracy. Strikingly, the two leaders who dominated Bangladeshi politics in subsequent elections were women: Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziadur Rahman, representing the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, representing the Awami League. Both combined their own personal charisma with their family’s outsized reputations to dominate what had become a highly patrimonial two-party system.
At the same time, democratization in the early 1990s gave air to Islamist political parties, which had been relatively dormant despite the military autocracy’s symbolic appropriation of Islam. In 2001, the Jamaat-e-Islami - the same organization mentioned earlier - entered into its first government coalition in Bangladesh. In addition, clerics became more active and politicized; perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon is their demand for the death of feminist writer Taslima Nasrin in reponse to her novel Lojja shedding light on anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. National integration has also been a persistent issue, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In the wake of independence, the government denied autonomy to the hill people of the region, sent in the army to suppress an armed insurgency, and settled Bengalis to effect demographic transformation. Many today hail Bangladesh’s “economic miracle,” yet it remains a democracy in name only. Between 2006 and 2008, the caretaker government charged with overseeing electoral transitions could not manage the Awami-BNP conflict, and it was only through military intervention that the crisis was resolved. Moreover, through the current administration of Sheikh Hasina, electoral transparency has been a constant concern with absurdly high returns for victorious candidates widely attributed to vote rigging and violence against opposition activists [THEMES 1, 2].
Population Growth and Economic Development
Finding the most effective ways to participate in an increasingly global marketplace while meeting the fundamental needs of a growing population has been the central task of economic development in South Asia. In 1911, the population was approximately 252 million; by 1951 the population of India alone had reached 361 million and is about 1.35 billion today, second only to China. With about 212 million people in Pakistan and 161 million in Bangladesh, the population of the subcontinent is slowly approaching 2 billion. Although there has been significant economic development in all three nation-states, this progress has been constrained by the increase in population. While India’s GDP is second only to the U.S. and China, over twenty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Food security too remains a problem in the region. According to current FAO data, about a fifth of Pakistan’s population is undernourished, and income inequality has been entrenched since Independence. While Bangladesh in recent years has made great progress in reducing poverty, a quarter of its population still lacks a secure and nutritious supply of food.
India: From Nehruvian Socialism to Market Liberalization, 1947-present
Since the beginnings of industrialization in the years leading up to Independence, India’s economy has undergone a series of transformations. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, the government followed a broadly socialist model of central economic planning, implementing a series of five-year plans to promote heavy industry, particularly in iron and steel, and the allocation of resources to public sector needs, such as transportation and energy production. Certain state-sponsored products, such as the Hindustan Ambassador car, were notoriously stagnant in their design and performance, and a formidable “license Raj” made construction a corrupt and ponderous business. Sweeping agrarian reform projects, such as zamindari abolition, were floated; however, by and large, the wealthy cultivating castes in most states were able to protect their land rights. In addition, they were allowed to dominate village panchayats that controlled the distribution of government funds, and in return, they were expected to deliver votes to Congress Party candidates.
Facing severe drought and famine in the mid-1960s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to accept U.S. grain subsidies. At the recommendation of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, she adopted a suite of new agricultural methods, including the use of chemical fertilizers and high-yielding grains, to effect a so-called “Green Revolution.” Food production as well as national income rose in the late 1960s; however, its profits were distributed unevenly, with affluent farmers of the wheat-growing areas of Punjab and Haryana reaping the lion’s share in comparison to poor villagers who continued to rely on government ration-shops. By the global energy crisis of 1974, it was clear that Mrs. Gandhi’s policies had not structurally transformed the economy, even if overall food grain levels continued to rise. Worse still, her son Sanjay Gandhi’s disastrous turn to slum clearance and forced sterilization made it clear that the government was not a friend to the urban poor, contrary to its populist rhetoric.
Given the dark legacy of British colonialism’s “drain of wealth,” the Congress-led government had been reluctant to allow foreign capital to penetrate the industrializing Indian economy or to force Indian-made goods to compete in an open marketplace. But beginning in the mid-1980s under Rajiv Gandhi and rapidly accelerating in the early 1990s with the ascendancy of the economist Manmohan Singh to the position of Finance Minister (and eventually Prime Minister), the Indian government began to lift restrictions on capital accumulation and open up to foreign investment and import of foreign goods. It was encouraged to move towards economic liberalization by the global rise of a gospel of “free markets” and “open borders” in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In exchange for a $1.4 billion International Monetary Fund loan, the government committed to a structural adjustment reform package, including the lowering of tariffs, the privatization of state-controlled industries, and the dramatic simplification of the licensing regime. As Indian middle-class consumers gained access to new foreign-made products, they also developed new specializations in the technology and IT services sector, with Pune, Bangalore, and Hyderabad becoming hubs for “call center” jobs. The availability of mobile phones, including cheap internet data plans, across both rural and urban Indian populations has dramatically expanded access to information and communication. On other hand, rising GDPs have neither resulted in equal benefits for all Indians nor led to the elimination of all human development problems. Child mortality and adult illiteracy rates remain high in many states; farmer suicides have haunted drought-stricken parts of Maharashtra; and recent state-led economic initiatives, such as demonetization under Narendra Modi, have been highly disruptive for people with limited access to capital [THEMES 4, 5].
Pakistan: External Dependencies and Internal Inequalities, 1947-present
After Independence, Pakistan too adopted a five-year plan to manage the challenge of accelerating industrial production and expanding banking and financial services; however, it broke with India and the U.K. in refusing to follow their lead in devaluing its currency, resulting in a temporary halt on trade with India. Being largely agricultural, and having only a small portion of the financial resources of pre-Partition South Asia, the Pakistani economy was ill-equipped to meet the enormous defense expenditures that accrued in the early border conflicts with India. Hence in the early 1950s as part of its mutual defense agreement with the United States, Pakistan began to accept hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid, part of which went to supplement a famine-depressed grain supply. Between 1951 and 2011, such assistance totaled some $67 billion. Its consistent delivery has been closely tied to U.S.-Pakistan relations. For example, all aid was revoked by the Carter administration in 1979 when it was learned that Pakistan was developing a uranium enrichment facility. It has also had to accept millions of dollars from the World Bank and the IMF to service its debt obligations, to meet its energy needs through oil imports, and to provide basic services, particularly electricity. Finally, the remittances of migrants working in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East has bolstered the spending power of the ordinary Pakistani population and accounted for a substantial portion of the banking system’s foreign exchange reserves.
Exacerbating the issues associated with these external economic dependencies have been persistent inequities between the wealthy and the poor, and between the center and the provinces. Taxation policies and development priorities led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of families with investments in heavy industry and agro-business and substantial influence in government decision-making. Up to 1971, per capita income in West Pakistan far exceeded that in East Pakistan. Moreover, East Pakistan’s export income on products like raw jute contributed to the overall national income without yielding substantial industrial investment in the East. With fiscal policies set by a central government dominated by Urdu-speaking Punjabis, there was little support for correcting this imbalance of resources between the provinces. With the loss of Bangladesh and the rise of the more populist and socialist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the government began to nationalize certain industries, public utilities, and insurance firms, though it generally lacked the expertise to manage these operations effectively. Persistent foreign debts, diversion of government funds, and the amassing of untaxed profits in overseas bank accounts has put the lie to periodic rhetoric presenting a more autonomous economic agenda rooted in the interests of the Pakistani people. Since the 1980s, the Pakistani army and bureaucracy has also abetted a growing drug industry involving the production of heroin for both domestic and international consumption as well as drugs and arms trafficking through the areas bordering Afghanistan [THEMES 4, 5].
Bangladesh: An Economic Miracle?, 1971-present
Situated on a major delta created by the flowing of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers from the Himalayas to the sea, Bangladesh’s economy has been shaped by both its natural fertility and its vulnerability to flooding in the monsoon season. In 1970 and again in 1991 and 2007, cyclones killed thousands of people and caused untold damage to the livelihoods of many more. Yet the silt of the Bengal floodplain has also accommodated a highly productive rice-based agricultural economy supporting a dense population. In fact, with over 1,000 people per kilometer, Bangladesh is still one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Prior to its independence, roughly 90% of the East Pakistani population was rural and agricultural, with the bulk of state support for industrialization projects as well as foreign aid channeled to West Pakistan. Jute grown in the East and exported abroad for the manufacture of rope, bags, and various industrial products financed the central government’s foreign reserves. Yet East Pakistani farmers received little in the way of funds for development, education, and health care. Moreover, economic linkages cutting across the Bengal delta were severed by Partition, and until the 1950s, there were no direct flights between East and West Pakistan.
Following the 1971 war, foreign assistance to Bangladesh skyrocketed from less than $5 per person to a high of $20 per person by 1990. As Bangladesh became a prime target of the human development industry, foreign governments, international bodies and especially non-governmental organizations (NGO) began to play a greater role in shaping economic policy. Of the thousands of NGOS, large and small, that pursued development projects in Bangladeshi villages, perhaps the most famous was the Grameen Bank, founded by Muhammad Yunus in the 1970s to make credit available to poor rural women. The “micro-credit” or “microfinance” model popularized by the Grameen Bank, which handed out billions of dollars in small loans over several decades, became a centerpiece of rural development worldwide. Foreign remittances from migrant laborers working in the Gulf States, Southeast Asia, and India also grew in the post-1971 years and eventually came to exceed foreign aid in their contribution to the national income.
Most recently, the Bangladeshi government has begun to tout the country’s “economic miracle.” Referring most directly to the country’s rapidly increasing GDP per capita - from approximately $300 in 1991 to $1500 in 2017 - the transformation has also encompassed important human development indicators. For example, the average life expectancy is now in the late 60s and early 70s, equaling and perhaps even exceeding that of India and Pakistan. In addition to rural development, most economists point to the extraordinary growth in the garment manufacturing industry, primarily for export to the West. Often employing low-skilled women migrants to dense urban centers, garment factories have been notoriously prone to occupational and health hazards. Despite the ubiquity of unsafe working conditions, child labor, and low wages, the government has been reluctant to improve its labor laws, and thereby jeopardize Bangladesh’s status as an attractive site for low-cost manufacturing. Meanwhile, urban population growth - exemplified by Dhaka, the capital city and the sixth most populated in the world - has exacerbated problems from homelessness to water scarcity to pollution and environmental degradation [THEMES 4, 5].
The Struggle for Equity and Human Rights
The leaders of the emergent nation-states of South Asia in the years leading up to independence tended to sublimate the so-called “social question” into the cause for national sovereignty; however, even their calls for unity were met with competing demands for equal representation and social justice. Such demands have become increasingly vociferous since the mid-twentieth century, as women, lower caste people, religious minorities, and most recently, LGBTQ groups, have sought to become full-fledged members of the polity, both in the eyes of the law and in terms of access to socioeconomic resources. While real change has been incremental in South Asia as in any region, social movements have been aided by the righteous precedents established during the fight for independence. In addition, they have taken advantage of new frameworks for articulating their claims, most notably that of human rights, cultivated within international organizations and transnational activist networks. Whenever South Asian governments have sought to suppress these movements, their resistance too has contributed to a culture of political dissent vital to the preservation of a democratic political system. Below, the shared themes of equity and human rights, and their intersections with political freedom, will be discussed in the context of the distinct histories of the nation-states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
India: Dalits, Muslims, and Others, 1947-present
Drafted in 1950 by a committee headed by the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, the Indian constitution took a major step towards equality in the eyes of the law by outlawing the practice of untouchability. More practically, it reserved special legislative seats for those who fell into the categories of “Scheduled Castes (SC)” and “Scheduled Tribes (ST).” Subsequent provisions were made for the reservation of government jobs and seats in higher educational institutions, in effect creating a system of “positive discrimination” to redress historic inequities affecting groups excluded from caste Hindu society. More controversially, the Mandal Commission (1979-1983) recommended making additional reservations for “Other Backward Classes (OBCs),” who constitute about 40% of the Indian population. The government’s decision in 1989-90 to implement the Commission’s recommendations led to widespread student protests, with some students even resorting to self-immolation. The backlash against reservations for lower castes has contributed to ongoing neglect of the problem of caste violence. Despite the passing of the Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989, violent retribution against perceived Dalit assertion, especially in rural areas, continues to occur. At the same time, lower-caste political leaders have won great success at the state level, the most notable case being the Bahujan Samaj Party of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.
While eligible for the same state protections and benefits as Dalits, the indigenous peoples of India, also known as adivasis, have suffered at the hands of Indian developmentalism. Beginning in 1979 with funds from the World Bank, the construction of massive electricity-generating dams on the Narmada River, which flows through Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh, without consultation with local inhabitants sparked the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Led by Medha Patkar, the movement has brought together tribal and environmental activists to call attention to the links between development, displacement and environmental degradation. Similarly, the Chipko Andolan, led in large part by rural women, succeeded in slowing the deforestation of the Himalayas caused by commercial logging operations. Continuing marginalization of tribal communities has fueled numerous separatist movements in northeastern India calling for various forms of ethnic and regional autonomy. Growing alignment from the late 1960s onwards between Marxist ideology and armed insurgency in the countryside took shape in the Naxalite movement of central India. While the movement has made just claims to protecting tribal rights to land and forest produce, its use of violence was met with equal force by the Indian military. The state’s success in delegitimizing the movement has been so successful that today “Naxal” has become a byword for an enemy of the people.
Ongoing concerns about the state of human rights in India have focused on the treatment of Muslims, women, and LGBT people and the protection of free speech. While campaigns for women’s rights and significant government efforts to combat female infanticide and dowery murder have existed since Independence, sexual assault and sexual harassment against women have come under increased scrutiny since the 2012 gang rape of a young woman publicly known as Nirbhaya. Amendments to criminal law expanded the definition of what constitutes rape; however, marital rape is still not a crime. Moreover, local police do not always swiftly address accusations of sexual assault and sometimes put pressure on survivors to reach extra-judicial settlements. In a major victory for LGBT people, the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had been used to criminalize same-sex sexual activity and non-heteronormative livelihoods. The consolidation of BJP power at the national level under Narendra Modi has provided cover for periodic violence against Muslims accused of butchering cows or eating beef. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 36 Muslims were killed for these reasons between 2015 and 2018. In 2016, student-led protests against the execution of Kashmiri separatists led to a crackdown at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Again, in 2020, the eruption of Hindu riots against Muslim residents of east Delhi escalated into violent police action against students at Aligarh Muslim University. Along with the murders of activists like Gauri Lankesh and Narendra Dabholkar, such incidents call into question the liberal-secular credentials of the Indian nation-state [THEMES 1, 3].
Pakistan: Women and Minorities in a Secular Islamic Republic, 1947-present
Debates about human rights in Pakistan have revolved around the status of women and religious minorities in a state defined by its commitment to broadly conceived Islamic principles. From the beginnings of its history, the issue of the Ahmadiyya, a minority community whose origins lie in an Islamic messianic movement of the late nineteenth-century Punjab, has been especially difficult to resolve. Taking advantage of the fact that many Ahmadis had found positions in the Pakistani government, conservative clerics and activists, some associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, declared that Ahmadis were not merely non-Muslims, but also agents of foreign influence. In 1974, Bhutto’s PPP government capitulated to increasing anti-Ahmadi agitation and violence by passing a constitutional amendment making the Ahmadis into a minority. The Islamist regime of Zia ul-Haq intensified exclusion of Ahmadis, but it also broadened minority exclusion with the enforcement of blasphemy laws deriving from the colonial Penal Code. It became punishable by life imprisonment, and then by death, to desecrate the Qur’an or utter deprecations against the Prophet Muhammad. Between 1987 and 2018, approximately 1500 individuals, including Muslims, Ahmadis, Christians, and Hindus, have been accused of blasphemy. In 2011, the liberal politician Salman Taseer was assassinated after voicing his opposition to blasphemy law.
Women’s rights too were severely limited by the Islamization of the Pakistani state in the late 1970s, specifically by means of the 1979 Hudood ordinances. Among these laws was the zina ordinance declaring that anyone found guilty of adultery - even in the case of rape - would be stoned to death. Simple fornication would be punished with one hundred whippings in a public place. Because of the requirement that four male Muslim witnesses had to attest to the crime, such punishments have been almost non-existent. Instead, the effect of the law has been to obscure the distinction between consensual and non-consensual sex, resulting in the imprisonment of many women who have brought forward accusations of rape. In certain legal cases, women’s testimony was to count for half of a man’s. Educated, upper-class women formed the Women’s Action Forum and marched in the streets in response to these legal exclusions. At the forefront of this movement, the lawyers Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani provided legal aid to women and advocated in international fora. To this day, hundreds of women per year are victims of murder and sexual assault committed on the basis of “honor” claims, principally in matters of marriage [THEMES 1, 3].
Bangladesh: Indigenous Autonomy and the Rohingya Crisis, 1971-present
Like India and Pakistan, the new nation-state of Bangladesh has not afforded full and equal rights to women and religious minorities; however, it has also failed to protect the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts south of the Indian states of Tripura and Mizoram. Failing to acquire constitutional guarantees, the people of this region, known as the Jumma, organized under the United People’s Party (Jono Shonghoti Shomiti) with an armed wing, the Shanti Bahini. With frequent clashes between the Shanti Bahini and the Bangladeshi army in the mid-1970s, the Hill Tracts became militarized. At the same time, the government subsidized the formation of new Bengali settlements. The combined disruptions of war and population transfer led to tens of thousands of Jumma refugees fleeing to India. In 1997, the JSS and Dhaka came to an agreement for peace, but in subsequent years, the basic provisions of the agreement have not been implemented. As a result, the Hill Tracts remain under tense military rule with attacks and kidnappings, like the 1996 abduction of the activist Kolpona Chakma, a reality of life.
In the last few years, Bangladesh has faced a new refugee crisis in response to Myanmar’s attempted genocide of its Rohingya population. The government and army of Buddhist-majority Myanmar in August 2017 began to encourage violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim community who identify themselves as descendants of Arab traders and other groups with a long history in the region. Claiming to be a response to Rohingya militancy, the government crackdown in fact included attacks on civilians, who fled in droves across the border into Bangladesh. Currently, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees reside in cramped settlements in Bangladesh, which since March 2018 has refused to accept more people. The humanitarian crisis has only worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic, as Rohingyas who have attempted to flee Bangladesh have been stranded at sea with neither country willing to open its borders to new migrants [THEMES 1, 3, 6].
South Asia and the World into the Twenty-First Century
The foregoing sections have attempted to outline the history of the South Asia region in global context as well as to recognize the distinct histories of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh following decolonization, independence, and Partition. Yet there are many issues that these nation-states cannot address without regional and international cooperation, a fact that drove the formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985. In considering the shared problems confronting South Asia as a region in the twenty-first century, we will focus on the following: foreign policy, nuclear power, and national security; migration and diaspora; and environmental health and climate change.
Foreign Policy, Nuclear Power, and National Security
Independent India and Pakistan have charted very different paths in their foreign policy and overall orientation to the international community. Within an increasingly bipolar international system during the Cold War of the late 1940s and 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru formulated a policy of positive nonalignment in which India as the largest newly independent nation would play an active role to mitigate rivalries between US- and USSR-aligned states. For example, it was active in efforts to end the Korean War and served as chair of the Control Commission for Indochina established by the Geneva Conference of 1954. Under Nehru's leadership, India was also instrumental in founding the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) consisting mainly of the new nations of Asia and Africa, who famously met at Bandung in 1955 and formulated a 10-point declaration to promote world peace. India was unwilling to join any military alliance but did accept economic assistance from both the United States and the Soviet Union.
Pakistan pursued a different course. Finding that the United States was in search of a military partner to contain the threat from the USSR, it initially sought to exchange its strategically located bases and airfields for military equipment to press its claim to Kashmir. Following the assassination of prime minister Liaqat Ali Khan in 1950, Pakistan more actively pursued the U.S. alliance. Accepting the condition that American aid not be used for aggression towards India, it formalized the alliance by entering the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955. Whereas India went to war with China over a border dispute in 1962, Pakistan signed a border agreement with this neighbor in 1963; however, it pursued a short war with India in 1965, for which it was punished by the US with a temporary suspension of military aid. In the 1971 confrontation between India and Pakistan over the issue of Bengali refugees in India and self-determination for East Pakistan, China and the United States again took the side of Pakistan, while the USSR supported India’s position. Since the war, each of the South Asian countries has tried to cultivate friendly relations with these three world powers.
In addition to their cultivation of bilateral ties within the international community, the collective destiny of South Asia has been shaped by the global issue of nuclear power. India conducted its first nuclear bomb test at Pokhran in 1974. When it did so again in 1998, the BJP government openly framed the pursuit of nuclear power as a means for re-affirming India’s dominant position in the region. Its adoption of this position added a new valence to the constant specter of war with Pakistan, whose alliance with the US included an “Atoms for Peace” program to fund the development of expertise in nuclear science. While the US publicly sanctioned Pakistan’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, both the Bhutto and Zia administrations were able to divert US funds and acquire materiel from Europe to support uranium enrichment, which lead to another temporary suspension of US aid in the early 1990s after the conclusion of the Pakistan-backed Afghan war against the Soviets. In 1998, Pakistan fired an intermediate-range missile, provocatively named the Ghauri after Muhammad Ghori who invaded India in the twelfth century. After the Pokhran tests, it exploded six devices to match India’s. Both countries have refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while continuing to pursue nuclear energy and weapons projects and exchange supplies and information through nuclear agreements with other powers.
Another key set of issues shaping the role of South Asia in the international system is that of terrorism and border security. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, a US- and Pakistan-supported war of resistance led by the Afghan mujahidin fueled the migration of some three million Afghan refugees to Pakistan’s Northwestern Frontier Provinces (NWFP, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Family and tribal networks and drugs and arms trafficking across the Afghan-Pakistani border increasingly supplemented the ISI and Pakistani army’s existing links with Afghan fighters. It was in this period that the NWFP and FATA became a major center of Sunni Deobandi rhetoric and training associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami, out of which future leaders of the Afghan Taliban regime would emerge in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, the ISI’s complicity with Kashmir-related terrorist activities - such as the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane - continued to exacerbate tensions on the India-Pakistan border. Despite the Musharraf government’s official endorsement of the US “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan has not severed its ties to terrorist networks. The revelation that the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which killed over 170 people, were coordinated by the Pakistan-based Laskhar-i Taiba with support from the ISI - not to mention the discovery that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been hiding in the town of Abbottabad - added to Pakistan’s image as a refuge for Islamist terrorist organizations. Drone attacks in the frontier provinces carried out by the Obama administration too have contributed to the deterioration in US-Pakistani relations in recent years [THEMES 1, 5].
The South Asian Diaspora
Migration overseas has been a feature of the history of South Asia since the medieval and early modern periods, with particular significance in the development of the Indian Ocean trade. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the numbers of South Asians who left to live and work in other places dramatically increased. While small numbers of educated elites were able to pursue opportunities for advanced study, employment, and friendship in Europe and the United States, many of these migrants were indentured laborers who filled a labor shortage caused by the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Between the mid-1830s and the British prohibition of the indenture system in 1917, over 1 million Indians were transported across the fearsome “dark waters,” or kala pani, to work in sugar plantations and other industries in the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa. Another key example of the intersection between the South Asian diaspora and the world economy was the circulation of trading communities, including most notably, Shikarpuri traders who created networks linking the Sind region to Russia, Central Asia, and Iran and Hindu and Muslim Gujaratis who settled in south and east Africa and participated in the ivory trade as well as in local retail trade and moneylending. Efforts to restrict the rights of Indian traders in the white settler colonies of southern Africa became the grounds for Gandhi’s early education and experience in political organization.
In the twentieth century, increasing numbers of South Asians emigrated to the United Kingdom and the United States. Punjabi Sikhs came to Canada and the west coast of the U.S. to work on farms, in mines, and on the railroads. Like many Asian immigrants to the U.S., their experience of racism and imperialism shaped their political sentiments, and in 1913, a group of Punjabi Indians started the Ghadar movement in support of Indian independence. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis too, who constituted an important segment of the working-class neighborhoods of British cities, faced racist, anti-immigrant attitudes, often intersecting with white working-class grievance politics. As of 1984, there were at least twelve million Indians and large numbers of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living and working abroad. The largest groups today are in Mauritius, Malaysia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and the Arab Gulf states, where the construction and service industries depend upon South Asian migrant labor. There is also a large Indian Tamil population in Sri Lanka. From the second half of the twentieth century, the South Asian diaspora has increasingly involved the migration of highly skilled and educated individuals working in scientific, medical, and technological fields. Access to these fields has been expanded in part through the liberalization of immigration regimes - such as in the US’ Immigration and Nationalist Act of 1965 - and the preferential treatment given to highly skilled personnel. While some complain of the problem of “brain drain,” the South Asian diaspora has been key to the building of more diverse and democratic societies. Today, many Britons and Americans of South Asian descent are elected representatives - sometimes to very high office - as in the case of Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach (prime minister) in Ireland from 2017-20, and Sadiq Khan, who became mayor of London in 2017 [THEMES 3, 5].
Climate Change and Environmental Health
Among the most pressing issues facing South Asia as a region is climate change, and the attendant effects on public and environmental health of deforestation, species extinction, rising sea levels, pollution, and extreme weather events. Since the early 1990s, the governments of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have participated in international treaties aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and lowering the average global temperature, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and the Paris Agreement (2016). As part of the latter agreement, they submitted their nationally determined commitments (NDC) for GHG reductions. Qualifying these submissions was their assertion that they both historically had not contributed to the problem of climate change at the level of more developed economies, and that its mitigation should not impede the development agendas required to support their populations. Current climate data demonstrates the complexity of the issue. For example, India is the world’s third largest emitter of GHG (between 6-7% of the world’s total, behind China and the United States), but its carbon emissions per capita is between 1-2%, far below that of more developed economies. Hence South Asian nation-states have stressed the need for international cooperation in meeting GHG reduction goals through direct loans, technology transfers, investments in sustainable technologies, and other forms of capacity building. Competing international economic projects, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in the transportation and energy sectors, further complicate South Asia’s position in the global environmental order.
While climate change has become more prominent in recent years, deforestation is an issue that historically defined the question of environmental health in South Asia, particularly in India and Bangladesh. Currently, forest constitutes around 6-7% of the total land cover in India, and much lower at ~1.5% in Bangladesh; however most historians agree that in previous eras this percentage was higher, with the grasslands of the Deccan, for example, being the result of slash and burn agriculture and more systematic forest clearance. The Indian Forest Acts of 1856 and 1878 paid lip service to the idea of forest conservation, but in reality, they maximized state and commercial exploitation of forest resources, such as timber for railway construction, and stripped indigenous communities of their historic rights to common lands. In addition to deforestation, Bangladesh has had to cope with the problems of repeated cyclones and rising sea levels, which are projected to rise from 0.4 to 1.5 meters and to produce multiple extreme weather events per year by the end of the century. While Bangladeshis have relied on sea walls, saltwater-resistant crops, and seaonal migration to survive, such measures will not be adequate in the longer term.
Another major area of environmental concern in South Asia is air and water pollution. In Delhi, levels of particulate matter, particularly in the winter months, have become extremely hazardous due to a combination of factors, including vehicular pollution, construction, and the burning of crop stubble in neighboring regions. In 2016 and again in 2019, the Aam Aadmi Party municipal government instituted an odd-even traffic scheme, in which vehicles with registration numbers ending with even and odd digits are allowed to drive on even and odd dates, respectively. Such measures have not been shown to be very effective without more widespread changes in land use and energy production. Beyond air pollution, Narendra Modi’s much-touted Swachh Bharat campaign to eliminate open defecation and install toilets in rural areas has been somewhat effective in improving cleanliness, though the government has tended to overestimate its impact. Water scarcity and water quality have also come under public scrutiny, with rationing of drinking and cooking water becoming a reality of life for more and more people [THEMES 4, 5, 6].