How was India 1000 years ago


Joachim Betz

Professor Dr. rer. soc. Joachim Betz, born in 1946, was a senior research fellow at the Institute for Asian Studies at the GIGA (German Institute of Global and Area Studies / Leibniz Institute for Global and Regional Studies) and is Prof. emeritus for Political Science at the University of Hamburg.
His specialist areas of expertise are politics and economics in South Asia, debt, raw materials policy, globalization and development finance.

Since independence, India has developed into an economic and military great power in South Asia. The democratically governed, populous country is an important partner in solving global challenges. But domestic and foreign political tensions harbor permanent potential for conflict.

In 1947 Lord Mountbatten (2nd from right) negotiates with Jawaharlal Nehru (2nd from left) and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (right) about the independence of British India. The result is a division into the states of India and Pakistan. In the following ethnic-religious clashes, a million people die and several million are displaced from their previous homeland. (& copy akg-images / AP)

With a population of currently (2016) 1.3 billion, the Indian Union is the second largest country in the world and will soon have overtaken China despite the slowing increase in population. The country is thus the largest democracy in the world and has maintained this character for over 70 years after independence, even if small to medium-sized democratic flaws cannot be overlooked. This is remarkable if only because of the pronounced diversity of Indian society, which has hardly any parallel anywhere in the world.

India has also become the fastest growing economy among the major developing countries in recent years. It has internationally competitive companies and is increasingly integrating itself into the global economy. Although the middle class is still relatively small, it is growing rapidly, while absolute poverty is still there, but it is showing a strong downward trend. However, economic growth is reflected in increasing environmental consumption and a significant contribution to the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

After decades of military restraint, India has also been a de facto nuclear power since 1998, has a large, technologically sophisticated military apparatus and defines its zones of influence quite generously. Due to the characteristics described, the country is an indispensable partner in solving global security, environmental and economic policy challenges.

Transition to independence

The whole of India was granted independence in a comparatively hasty way on August 15, 1947, although it was divided into India and Pakistan. Attempts by the British colonial government to at least maintain a loose unity had not been fruitful. The Congress Party, the leading movement of the Indian struggle for independence, and the Muslim League, which was working towards a state of its own, had already diverged too much. The division plan of the British viceroy Lord Mountbatten envisaged that the predominantly Muslim districts should be assigned to Pakistan, while the others should fall to India. The previously semi-autonomous princely states, including Kashmir, should decide to belong to one of the two countries.

The catch with this solution was, of course, that due to the mixed population in the formerly British India, considerable religious minorities remained in Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Accordingly, the actual division turned into a human tragedy: minorities in the two new states fell victim to an orgy of violence in the hundreds of thousands; Displacements took place on both sides, affecting a total of twelve million people. The political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, who had campaigned for a fair division of the British material legacy, was shot dead by a Hindu fanatic on January 30, 1948.

India was granted independence not only with problems: unlike many developing countries, it inherited from the outgoing colonial power an efficient bureaucratic apparatus, a professional army, an independent judiciary and, last but not least, a representative democratic system of government.

An immediate problem after the partition was the integration of the princely states. Hyderabad and Kashmir were particularly difficult cases. In Hyderabad, the Muslim ruler hoped for international recognition of his territory as an independent state, but failed to bring the unrest of its largely Hindu population under control. Indian troops invaded in August 1948.

In Kashmir, a Hindu maharajah ruled a predominantly Muslim population. The authoritarian ruler sought independence despite opposing interests of the national conference, the politically dominant party in Kashmir, and negotiated a standstill agreement with Pakistan and India. Pakistan used the ensuing internal unrest to smuggle in "volunteers" who were later replaced by regular troops. The prince solicited Indian support and signed an accession agreement. India then (successfully) intervened militarily; however, fighting with Pakistan continued until a 1949 United Nations-brokered ceasefire ended them. The armistice effectively split Kashmir in two. India agreed to hold a referendum in which the population would later decide on their affiliation.

The Constituent Assembly, which was still elected according to the old constitution, drafted the new constitution of the Indian republic after independence. This came into force in 1950 and created a federal state with strong centralized elements. The new states initially brought together populations of different mother tongues and cultural identities. When the desire to create homogeneous units grew in the 1950s, the government set up a reorganization committee to redefine the borders on the basis of the residents' native language. In 1952 the first free elections took place in India, from which the Congress Party emerged as by far the strongest political force.