A Brief History of India

By Tim Lambert

Ancient India

The Indus Valley Civilisation

The first Indian civilization arose in the Indus Valley about 2,600 BC. It straddled northwest India and Pakistan. By 6,500 BC the people of the area had begun farming. By 5,500 BC they had invented pottery. By about 2,600 BC a prosperous farming society had grown up. The farmers used bronze tools. They grew wheat, barley, and peas. They also raised cattle, goats, and sheep. Water buffalo were used to pull carts. The people spun cotton and they traded with other cultures such as modern-day Iraq.

Some of the people of the Indus Valley began to live in towns. The two largest were at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Mohenjo-Daro probably had a population of 35-50,000. By the standards of the ancient world, it was very large. It consisted of two parts. One part was a citadel. It contained a public bath and assembly halls. It also held a granary where grain was stored.

The lower part of the town had streets laid out in a grid pattern. The houses were 2 or even 3 stories and were made of brick as stone was uncommon in the area. Bricks were of a standard size and the Indus Valley civilization had standard weights and measures. The streets had networks of drains.

Life in Mohenjo-Daro was highly civilized and ordered although most of the people of the Indus Valley civilization were farmers outside the towns. The Indus Valley civilization had a form of writing but unfortunately, it has not been deciphered so nothing is known of their political system or their religion. However many engraved seals and terracotta figurines have been found. The Indus Valley civilization was at its peak in the years 2,300-1,700 BC. Then after 1,700 BC, it broke down.

The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps there was a climatic change and the area grew cooler and drier. It has also been suggested that rivers changed course. In those days less rainfall or a change in the course of a river would have had severe consequences for farming and of course, like all early civilizations, the Indus Valley depended on farming.

Civilization was only possible if the farmers made a surplus. They could exchange their surplus with craftsmen for manufactured goods. They could also exchange some for goods from far away. However, if the farmers no longer made a surplus they could no longer support the craftsmen who lived in the towns. The populations of the towns would drift away to the countryside. Trade and commerce would decline. As society grew less prosperous people would return to a simpler way of life and the invention of writing would disappear. The Indus Valley civilization vanished and it was forgotten. It was not discovered until the 1920s.

The Aryans

After the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization, a new wave of people entered India. The Aryans came from central Asia and they probably entered India through Afghanistan after 1500 BC. There were probably waves of invasions over some time rather than just one. The Aryans were a semi-nomadic race of pastoralists.

At first, they wandered about with their herds of cattle rather than live in one place. They had 2-wheeled chariots which allowed them to subdue the native people. By 1,000 BC they had learned to use iron. However, in time the Aryans settled down and became farmers. Slowly a more ordered and settled society evolved Tribes became kingdoms. The Aryans became priests, rulers, warriors, free peasants, and merchants. The subdued people became slaves, laborers, and artisans. In time this stratified society crystallized into the caste system.

The Hindu religion also evolved at this time. The sacred literature called The Vedas was created. (At first, they were orally transmitted. Later they were written down.) In time the Aryans learned to farm rice rather than crops like barley. By 600 BC rice cultivation was flourishing in India. With a more settled and ordered society, trade and commerce flourished. In time people began to live in towns again and writing was re-invented. By 600 BC a highly civilized society had emerged in India.

Although Buddha was born in India in about 483 BC the religion he founded failed to take root in the country. At approximately the same time the Persians captured the extreme North-west of India. Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire and penetrated the far northwest of India.

However, after he died in 317 BC the Greeks withdrew. The Persians and Greeks had little effect on Indian civilization. The various Indian kingdoms had begun to conquer one another and after 322 BC the first great empire arose.

The Mauryan Empire in India

In 322 BC Chandragupta Maurya became king of the powerful and highly centralized state of Magadha in the North of India. Chandragupta founded a great empire. After Alexander the Great died his empire split up. Seleucus took the eastern part. He attempted to reclaim the Indian provinces once ruled by Alexander. However, his army was stopped by Chandragupta in 305 BC. Seleucus was then forced to cede most of Afghanistan to Chandragupta, who also conquered parts of central India.

This new empire was rich and trade thrived. Its capital was one of the largest cities in the ancient world. In 296 BC Chandragupta abdicated in favor of his son Bindusara who pushed the frontier of the empire further south. The greatest Mauryan ruler was Ashoka or Asoka (269-232 BC). He conquered Kalinga (modern-day Orissa). Afterward, he declared he was appalled by the suffering caused by war and decided against any further conquest.

Asoka also converted to Buddhism. He decreed that the Buddhist principles of right conduct should be engraved in stone pillars on rocks throughout his kingdom to teach the people how to live. Asoka set about pacifying and consolidating his empire. However, despite his conversion to Buddhism Mauryan rule was authoritarian and punishments for wrongdoers were severe.

After his death, the Mauryan empire declined, as all empires do. It suffered an economic decline and political instability as different brothers tried to become king. A general assassinated the last Mauryan ruler in 185 BC. The general then took over running the empire and founded the Shunga dynasty. However, in 73 BC the last Shunga ruler was, in turn, assassinated. They were replaced by the Kanva dynasty which ruled from 73-28 BC.

The influence of the Mauryans penetrated Southern India. In the time of the Mauryans, the farmers there became more advanced. By the first century, BC organized kingdoms had grown up and trade and commerce were flourishing there.

After Alexander the Great’s death, his empire was split between his generals. The various successor states fought each other until a strong state emerged in Bactria (roughly modern Afghanistan). The Greek rulers of Bactria attempted to control Northwest India.

About 185 BC King Demetrius invaded India. About 160 BC one of his successors, King Menander conquered most of northern India. However, after the death of Menander, this empire broke up into separate states, and Indian civilization developed without European influence.

The Kushan

India now faced a new invader. Nomads from Central Asia conquered Bactria in about 120 BC. They then settled down and gave up their nomadic lifestyle. They were split into 5 tribes. One of the tribes, the Kushans conquered the others. They then turned their attention to northern India. Gradually they conquered more and more territory. Successive kings carved out a bigger and bigger empire in Northern India.

The Kushan Empire reached its peak under King Kanishka (about 78 AD to 114 AD). During his reign, Northern India was prosperous and did much trade with the Roman Empire. Kanishka was also a patron of the arts, which flourished. However, after his death, the empire declined and broke up. By the early 3rd century AD India was once again split into small states.

India in the Middle Ages

The Gupta Empire in India

A new empire was founded early in the 4th century AD by Chandragupta. After he died in 335 AD, his son Samudragupta (335-375) conquered the whole of Northern India and much of Central India. India once again became prosperous and stable and much trade was done with China. Mathematics, astronomy, and medicine flourished. Literature also blossomed. This was the age of the great poet Kalidasa.

However, the Gupta rule was less strict than the Mauryan rule. Punishments were less harsh and provinces of the empire were given some autonomy. The Gupta Empire reached a peak under Chandragupta II 375-415 AD. However, it then went into decline. The Gupta Empire broke up in the early 6th century.

The Huns

In the mid-5th century AD, the Huns, a fierce and warlike people from Central Asia invaded Northwest India. However, in about 460 AD they were repulsed by Skandagupta (454-467). Nevertheless, the Huns returned at the end of the 5th century. This time they conquered most of North-western India. However, their rule lasted no more than about 30 years. About 528 AD the Indians, led by a ruler called Yashodharman defeated them in battle and drove them out.


The next great ruler in Indian history was King Harshavardhana (606-647). He created an empire to rival the Guptas. Harshavardhana began as ruler of the kingdom of Thanesar, north of India. He then carved out an empire in Northern India. However in 630, when he attempted to conquer southern India was severely defeated by a king called Pulakesin (610-643). (By this time the South of India was equal to the North).

Despite this setback, Harsha remained a powerful ruler. During his reign, his biography was written. It was called the Harshacharita. Nevertheless, Harsha’s kingdom depended on his personality to hold it together. After his death, it quickly broke up.

India once again became a land of several kingdoms, which were frequently at war with each other. The three most important dynasties were the Rajputs, the Pallavas, and the Chalukyas. However, in the 9th century, a new empire arose in Southern India – the Cholas.

The Cholas

In the late 10th century the Chola king Rajaraja I began to expand his kingdom. He conquered his neighbors and took Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The next king, Rajendra I took more territory including the Ganges and the Andaman Islands. The Chola was a prosperous empire with many merchants organized into guilds to protect their interests. Trade with Southeast Asia thrived. So did trade with the Arabs.

The empire of the Cholas, although powerful, was less centralized than older empires such as the Gupta. Rulers, once conquered were often reinstated as vassals called samantas and they were allowed a certain amount of autonomy. In some ways, this political system resembles European feudalism. Of course, there was always a risk that a samanta would rebel!

The Turks

In the 10th century, Turks from central Asia conquered Afghanistan. Under their ruler Mahmud 971-1030 they conquered Punjab. He led raids deep into India and plundered temples.

The Turks returned in 1191, this time as conquerors, not raiders. They were led by Sultan Muhammad. He was defeated in 1191 at the battle of Tarain but he returned the following year. This time he prevailed. The Turks were able to conquer large parts of northern India and they created a powerful state – the Delhi Sultanate n The Delhi Sultanate

Under the Sultans Qutubuddin 1206-1211 and Iltutmish 1211-1236, the Sultanate flourished. However, Iltumish was succeeded by his daughter Raziyyat. She reigned for only 3 years before she was deposed and later murdered. The Sultanate reached a peak under Alauddin 1296-1316. In 1298 he conquered Gujarat. In 1309 he invaded Southern India. He looted southern cities and forced rulers there to submit to him and become vassals.

Meanwhile, a new threat came from the North – the Mongols. In 1296-97 they raided Northwest India. The Mongols returned in 1299. This time they penetrated as far as Delhi then, like a swarm of locusts they disappeared. The Mongols returned in 1306 but this time they were repulsed.

Muhammad Tughluq 1324-1351 extended the Sultanatenstill further. He decided he wanted a new, more central capital and he moved it to Daulatabad. However, he was later forced to move his capital back to Delhi

The Sultanate of Delhi declined rapidly in the late 14th century.

The final blow came in 1498 when Timurlane, a descendant of Genghis Khan sacked Delhi and massacred many of the inhabitants.

In the early 15th century independent Sultanates appeared and the DelhinSultanate became one of several. Under Sultans Bhalul 1451-1489 and Sikander Lodhin1489-1517 Delhi revived to a certain extent but it never regained its former importance. Meanwhile, another empire arose in the South – the Vijayanagar.

The Vijayanagar

The Vijayanagar Empire was founded by 2 brothers, Harihara and Bukka. According to legend, they were officers of Muhammad Tughluq. They were sent to crush a rebellion in the South. Instead, they broke away and founded their own kingdom. Harihara was crowned king in 1346. His brother BukkanI ruled after him, 1357-1377.

The Vijayanagar Empire is named after its capital city (Its name means the city of victory). The rulers of Vijayanagar gradually conquered more and more territory and the empire reached a peak early in the 16th century. However, in 1564 Vijaynagar was utterly defeated in battle. By then a new empire had arisen – the Mughals.

The Mughal Empire in India

This great empire was founded by Babur 1483-1530, a descendant of Genghis Khan. From 1504 he was the ruler of part of what is now Afghanistan. From the Turks, he had learned to use cannons and muskets. Guns enabled him to win great victories over the Indians who were still using traditional methods of warfare. He had also learned new cavalry tactics from the Turks. Instead of charging straight at the enemy Babur’s cavalry rode round their flanks and attacked from the rear.

In 1526 Babur crushed the army of Ibrahim Lodhi at the battle of Panipat. Babur made a barricade of carts. Behind them, he positioned his cannons and musketeers. The enemy attacked but they faced withering cannon and musket fire. Babur’s cavalry then rode around the enemy army and attacked from the rear. The Indians were routed.

Other Indian rulers now united against Babur but they were crushed at the battle of Khanau in 1527. Babur placed his cannons and guns behind ramparts. The Indians attacked on horseback again and again but were mowed down. Babur then became ruler of Northern India.

He was succeeded by his son Humayun 1508-1556. However, in the 1530s, an Afghan ruler named Sher Shah attacked the empire. By 1540 Sher Shah prevailed and made himself ruler of much of Northern India. Humayan went into exile and wandered from place to place.

Then in 1542, his son Akbar was born. Humayan then moved to Persia. Sher Shah died in battle in 1545 and his empire split up. Humayan was then able, with Persian help to re-conquer the Mughal empire. He invaded India in 1554 and by 1556 was in control of the North. Unfortunately, he died after falling down some stairs.

However, his son Akbar 1556-1605 was, perhaps, the greatest Mughal ruler. He took Gujarat in 1574, Bengal in 1576, Kashmir in 1586, Orissa in 1592, and Baluchistan in 1595. Akbar also reorganized the government and created an efficient civil service. Akbar was a Muslim but he was tolerant in matters of religion. He abolished the tax previous rulers levied on non-Muslims. He also gave Hindus high office.

Akbar admired Persian culture and promoted it in India. Persian language literature flourished in India during his reign (although Hindu literature flowered too). Persian and Hindu styles of painting merged to form a new style of Mughal painting.

Akbar was succeeded by his son Selim, who called himself Jahangir. Under him, Mughal influence in the South of India increased and the empire flourished. His wife was named Mehrunissa (later she was called Nur Jahan or light of the world). She was Persian and because of her Persian culture became even more influential in the Mughal realms.

During the reign of Jahangir, the arts continued to flourish. An elaborate and intricate school of painting existed. It was also a great age for architecture. When Jahangir died in 1627 his wife was forced into retirement but she occupied herself by building a magnificent mausoleum for her father in Agra.

The Mughal Empire reached its zenith in the 17th century its only weakness being power struggles among the ruling family and occasional rebellions.

Shah Jahan became ruler in 1627. Under him, the empire prospered. He is famous for building the Taj Mahal, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It was erected as a memorial to his queen Mumtaz Mahal 1594-1630. Shah Jahan was devastated when she died. After her death, he began building the Taj Mahal. It took an ‘army’ of 20,000 craftsmen and laborers 22 years to build. It was begun in 1631 and completed in 1653.

Taj Mahal

Aurangzeb (1658-1707) greatly expanded the empire. He conquered almost all of southern India by 1687. Under him, the empire became so vast it was difficult for one man to rule.

However, he undid the religious toleration of his predecessors. In 1664 he banned the repair of Hindu temples and in 1669 he banned his subjects from building new ones. Also, in 1679 he reintroduced a poll tax on Hindus called the Jizira. Aurangzeb also taxed his subjects heavily. The result was a series of rebellions.

Aurangzeb’s greatest enemy was Shivaji, leader of the Marathas in southern India. Shivaji led a form of guerrilla warfare. His bases were in the mountains but mounted on horses his men could raid caravans and then fall back to the mountains.

In 664 his men raided the port of Surat. Aurangzeb sent an army to intimidate Shivaji then invited him to the capital, Delhi, and tried to come to terms with him by offering him a post in the empire. However, the two men fell out and Shivaji escaped from Delhi by hiding in a basket. He then returned to raiding. Shivaji was succeeded by his son Sambhaji. He was captured by the Mughals and executed in 1689 but the guerrilla war went on.

The Decline of the Mughal Empire

Aurangzeb was succeeded by his son Bahadur Shahn1707-1712. By his time cracks were appearing in the empire. Oppressive taxation caused more and more rebellions. After 1712 powerful nobles in the empire began to break away and form virtually independent states.

Meanwhile, the old enemy, the Marathas attacked the Mughal Empire led by a man named Baji Rao. The Mughals were forced to cede territory to them. Then in 1739 disaster struck when the Persians launched an attack on the Mughal Empire. They sacked Delhi. The empire continued but its power was rapidly fading. Delhi was sacked again in 1761, this time by an Afghan kingdom.

The decline of the Mughal Empire caused a vacuum into which the Europeans moved. The first Europeans to reach India by sea were the Portuguese who arrived in 1498 and began importing spices from India. They formed a base at Goa in 1510. However, in the 17th century, the Portuguese declined and the English and Dutch took their place.

The English East India Company was formed in 1600 to trade with India. In 1639 the English established a trading base in India. It grew into Madras. In 1662 the English king married a Portuguese princess and he was given Bombay. In 1668 it was sold to the East India Company. In 1690 the English established a base in Bengal, which grew into Calcutta. In the late 17th century the Dutch also declined and the French replaced them. In 1673 the French established a base at Pondicherry.

In the 18th century, French and English became bitter rivals and they both began to interfere in Indian politics. The Seven Years War between Britain and France began in 1756. With the outbreak of war the Nawab (ruler) of Bengal, Siraj-Ud-Daulah captured the British base at Calcutta. He forced captives into a small cell and most of them suffocated overnight. This became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The East India Company sent a force led by Robert Clive (1725-1774) to recapture Calcutta. They soon did so.

However, Clive was not satisfied and he decided to take the whole of Bengal. Clive won a great victory at Plassey in June 1757. (The battle was won largely because one of the commanders of the Bengali army, Mir Jafar changed sides and refused to join the battle). Clive then overthrew the ruler of Bengal, Siraj-Ud-Daula, and replaced him with Mir Jafar. However, Mir Jafar was only a puppet. In 1765 the company began to rule Bengal directly.

Clive’s victory at Plassey ensured that India would eventually become a British colony, not a French one. However, the Company did not take over India straight away. It was a gradual process, which took several decades. East India Company eliminated French influence in India and began to subdue other Indian states.

British imperialism was bitterly resisted by the state of Mysore under the two rulers Haidar Ali 1761-1782 and Tipu Sultan 1782-1799. The army of Mysore was a formidable fighting force. A series of wars were fought in the years 1767-1769, 1780-1784, 1790-1792, and 1799. The resistance of Mysore finally ended in 1799 and Mysore was forced to hand over half its territory.

The British then took over more territory in India. Indian states were forced to accept British ‘protection’. One state, Hyderabad made a treaty with the British in 1798 and retained some independence but other states were forced to accept British rule.

In 1803 war broke out between the British and the Marathas. The British were led by Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of
Wellington). Wellesley was Governor-General 1798-1805 and he was an unashamed imperialist. In 1803 the chiefs of the Marathas were disunited and the British were able to make some gains. They took Agra and Delhi. (At that time Delhi was still ruled by the last Mughal. When the British took the city the Mughal Empire was finally extinguished).

However, in 1804, the British suffered some defeats and they made peace. Another war broke out in 1817. This time the Maratha chiefs were all defeated and they were forced to accept British rule. By 1819 the East India Company was in control of most of India except the North West. Assam was annexed in stages between 1826 and 1838.

There were revolts in parts of India between 1819 and 1839 but most of it was at peace. The British now began to impose their culture on India. In 1829 the custom of suttee, which involved a widow throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre was abolished. In 1835 English was made the official language of Government and education.

Outside British control was a powerful Sikh kingdom. However, the leader of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh, died in 1839 and fighting began over the succession. In 1845-46 the British fought a war against the Sikhs. After bitter fighting they captured Lahore. The Sikhs were forced to surrender Kashmir and parts of Punjab. However, a second war was fought in 1848-49. The fighting was bitter but in March 1849 the East India Company took control of all of Punjab.

The Indian Mutiny

The East India Company had long employed Indians as soldiers. There were supposed to be not more than 4 Indian soldiers to every British one. However, the British had withdrawn troops to serve in conflicts elsewhere. By 1857 there were only 40,000 British troops in India and 311,000 Indians. The mutiny began on 10 May 1857. The spark that lit the fire was the fact that soldiers were issued with a new rifle – the Enfield. It was said that the cartridge was greased with fat from a cow (sacred to Hindus) or pigs (unclean to Muslims).

The mutiny began at Meerut or Mirat 60 miles from Delhi. The soldiers massacred the British and the uprising spread rapidly. The rebels took Delhi and proclaimed the restoration of the old Mughal Empire. The rebellion spread across Central and Northern India but the south did not rise. Soldiers in Madras and Bombay stayed loyal to the British. Eventually the British were able to re-establish control.

Rebels besieged the British in Cawnpore and Lucknow. The British in Cawnpore surrendered on 27 June 1857. They were then massacred. However, the British quickly sent reinforcements to India. Sir Henry Havelock led a force to relieve Lucknow. He defeated the rebel leader Hana Sahib at Cawnpore on 16 July 1857. Havelock reached Lucknow on 25 September 1857. However, he then found himself besieged by the rebels. A relief force was sent under Sir Colin Campbell (1792-1863). He reached Lucknow on 16 November and the garrison escaped. Campbell decisively defeated a rebel force outside Cawnpore on 6 December.

Meanwhile the British recaptured Delhi in September. The British recaptured Lucknow in March 1858. Sir Hugh Rose took the rebel stronghold of Jahnsi on 3 April. He decisively defeated a rebel leader, Tantia Topi, on 19 June 1858 at the battle of Gwalior. This blow broke the back of the rebellion. The British then ‘mopped up’ the remaining rebels. By the end of 1858, the rebellion was over. However, the East India Company lost control of India. On 1 September 1858 control was transferred to the British government.

After the lesson of the Indian Mutiny, the British became a little more respectful of Indian culture. However, the desire for independence did not die. On the contrary, it slowly grew. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885. The Muslim League was founded in 1906.

In 1861 legislative bodies were formed for India. However, the members were not elected. They were appointed by the governor-general or by provincial governors. Most of their members were British. Furthermore, after the mutiny, the ratio of British soldiers to Indians increased. In 1877 Queen Victoria was made Empress of India.

In the late 19th century the British created a network of railways in India. By 1900 there were 25,000 miles of railway in India. The first train made in India was built in Bombay in 1865.

The British also built new roads across India. Improved communications meant the different parts of India were brought closer together and Indians began to feel a greater sense of national identity. In the late 19th century many newspapers were founded and they helped to mobilize public opinion.

In 1905 the British divided Bengal. They did this to make it easier to rule. This move provoked unrest in Bengal. People demonstrated and boycotted British goods.

In the late 19th century India was an agricultural society. Jute, raw cotton, tea, and coffee were exported to Britain. In return textiles and other manufactured goods were imported from there. The Indian textile industry could not compete with cheap, mass-produced British goods. However, in the early 20th century, Indian industries began to develop. It was still an overwhelmingly agricultural country but it was just beginning to change.

At the same time, Britain was in decline. In the mid-19th century, Britain was the most powerful country in the world but by the end of the century, other powers such as Germany and the USA had caught up. Britain was weakened by the First World War and continued to decline in the 1920s and the 1930s. As Britain declined Indian nationalist feelings grew stronger.

Indian public opinion was embittered by the Amritsar massacre, which took place on 13 April 1919. A crowd of thousands gathered in a square named Jallianwalla Bagh to protest against recent legislation. General Reginald Dyer decided on a show of force. Dyer told his men to open fire. They did so, killing 379 people and wounding about 1200 more.

At this point, a man rose to be the leader of the struggle for independence. This was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948). Gandhi was a lawyer. For a time he lived in South Africa and became the leader of the Indians in that country.

In 1915 he returned to India and soon emerged as the leader of the nationalists. In 1920 he launched a campaign of non-co-operation with the British. This included boycotting British textiles and their schools. Against Gandhi’s wishes, some people turned to violence. Gandhi was arrested in 1922 and remained in prison for 2 years.

Not everyone agreed with Gandhi’s desire for peaceful campaigning. Nevertheless, his skill as a politician and his charisma ensured that he became the leader of the independence movement.

In 1930 he began a campaign to end the government’s monopoly on salt production. He led a march to the sea to collect salt. The British arrested Gandhi and tens of thousands of others. However, in 1931 they were forced to back down. They released Gandhi and most (not all) of the other prisoners. They also allowed people to make salt for their personal use. In 1932 the army began to recruit Indian officers.

Meanwhile, In 1931 the capital of India was moved from Calcutta to New Delhi.

Gandhi continued campaigning. He was arrested again in 1932 and in 1933 but both times was soon released.

By 1935 the British realized that Indian independence was inevitable, sooner or later. In that year they granted a new constitution. When it came into effect, in 1937, Indians were allowed to elect provincial assemblies. (Although the British retained control of the central government). In 1939 the Viceroy of India declared war on Germany, without consulting the Indians, much to their chagrin.

In 1942 the National Congress demanded that the British quit India. The British responded by imprisoning their leaders, including Gandhi, who was released in 1944.

Independent India

In 1946 the Viceroy appointed an interim cabinet with Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister. Mountbatten was then made viceroy. India became independent on 15 August 1947. Mountbatten agreed to stay in India as Governor-general for an interim period. Sadly Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948.

In December 1946 a Constituent Assembly met to draw up a constitution for India. The new constitution came into force in January 1950. India became a secular state. Prime Minister Nehru made the economy a ’mixed economy’ of some state-owned industries and some private enterprises. Industry in India was strictly regulated. Unfortunately, this restricted free enterprise.

Nevertheless in the 1950s, a series of 5-year plans were devised. The first increased irrigation and boosted agriculture. The second and third plans boosted Indian industry. On the other hand, India’s population grew rapidly. Poverty and illiteracy remained common.

In the 1960s India fought two wars. In 1962 there was a conflict with China. There were clashes along the border between India and Tibet in the late 1950s. Then on 20 October 1962, Chinese troops attacked along the Northeastern border of India. They quickly captured key mountain passes and redrew the border. On 21 November the Chinese declared a ceasefire.

Nehru died in 1964 and Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966. At first, she proved to be a popular politician.

In 1974 India exploded an atomic bomb.

However, in 1973 oil prices rose sharply triggering rapid inflation in India. That harmed agriculture by making fertilizer much more expensive. Indian industry also entered a recession. Growing discontent in India led to strikes such as a railway strike in 1974.

Then a High Court declared that Mrs. Gandhi’s election in 1971 was invalid because of election malpractice. However, Mrs. Gandhi persuaded the president to declare a state of emergency on 17 June 1975. Civil liberties were suspended and Mrs. Gandhi’s opponents were arrested. Her son Sanjay led a mass sterilization campaign in Northern India to combat the population explosion.

The emergency was lifted in January 1977. During it, inflation was curbed and industry revived. Elections were due to be held in 1976 but they were delayed until March 1977. However, Mrs. Gandhi lost anyway. The Janata party held power from 1977 to 1980 when Mrs. Gandhi returned.

In the early 1980s India, like the rest of the world, entered a recession. Worse was to come. Sikhs in Punjab were demanding independence. A man named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (1947-1984) and his supporters took over the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Then in May 1984, the Indian army surrounded the temple. They attacked the fundamentalists in the temple but in the process, they destroyed the holiest place in the Sikh religion. Two of Mrs. Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards killed her in revenge.

She was succeeded by her son Rajiv. He started to deregulate industry and the Indian economy began to grow rapidly. However, Rajivnwas assassinated in 1991.

In the 1990s the Indian economy was deregulated further and as a result, it boomed. In the early 21st century the economy of India grew rapidly. In the future, India will become a prosperous country. In 2024 the population of India was 1.4 billion.


Last revised 2024