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A Brief History of India

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T he Portuguese had traded in Goa as early as 1510, and later founded three other colonies on the west coast in Diu, Bassein, and Mangalore. In 1610 the East India Company, a private company of traders from Britain, created its own outpost at Surat. This small outpost marked the beginning of a remarkable presence that would last over 300 years and eventually dominate the entire subcontinent. Once in India, the British began to compete with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French. Through a combination of outright combat and deft alliances with local princes, the East India Company gained control of all European trade in India by 1769.

How a tiny island nation, thousands of miles away, came to administer a huge territory of 300 million people is one of history's great spectacles. A seemingly impossible task, it was done through a highly effective and organized system called the Raj. Treaties and agreements were signed with native princes, and the East India Company gradually increased its role in local affairs. The Raj helped build infrastructure and trained natives for its own military, though in theory they were for India's own defense. In 1784, after financial scandals in the Company alarmed British politicians, the Crown assumed half-control of the Company, beginning the transfer of power to royal hands.

In 1858, it became known among the Hindu soldiers that the British were greasing their bullets with the fat of cows and pigs, the former sacred animals to Hindus and the latter unclean animals to Muslims. A year-long rebellion against the British ensued. Although the Indian Mutiny was unsuccessful, it prompted the British government to seize total control of all British interests in India in 1858, finally establishing a seamless imperialism. Claiming to be only interested in trade, the Raj steadily expanded its influence until the princes ruled in name only.

The Raj's demise was a result of its remarkable success. It had gained control of the country by viewing it as a source of profit. Infrastructure had been developed, administration established, and an entire structure of governance erected. India had become a profitable venture, and the British were reluctant to allow the Indian population any power in a system that they viewed as their own accomplishment. The Indians did not appreciate this, and as the 20th century dawned there were increasing movements towards self-rule.

Along with the desire for independence, tensions between Hindus and Muslims had also been developing over the years. The Muslims had always been a minority, and the prospect of an exclusively Hindu government made them wary of independence; they were as inclined to mistrust Hindu rule as they were to resist the Raj. In 1915, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came onto the scene, calling for unity between the two groups in an astonishing display of leadership that would eventually lead the country to independence.

The profound impact Gandhi had on India and his ability to gain independence through a totally non-violent mass movement made him one of the most remarkable leaders the world has ever known. He led by example, wearing homespun clothes to weaken the British textile industry and orchestrating a march to the sea, where demonstrators proceeded to make their own salt in protest against the British monopoly. Indians gave him the name Mahatma, or Great Soul. The British promised that they would leave India by 1947.

Independence came at great cost. While Gandhi was leading a largely Hindu movement, Mohammed Ali Jinnah was fronting a Muslim movement through a group called the Muslim League. Jinnah advocated the division of India into separate Muslim and Hindu states. He was able to achieve his goal. When the British left, they created the separate states of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and violence erupted when stranded Muslims and Hindu minorities in the areas fled in opposite directions. Within a few weeks, half a million people had died in the course of the greatest migration of human beings in the world's history. The aging Gandhi vowed to fast until the violence stopped, which it did when his health was seriously threatened. At the same time, the British returned and helped restore order. Excepting Kashmir, which is still a disputed area, the division reached stability.

India's history since independence has been marked by disunity and intermittent periods of virtual chaos. In 1948, on the eve of independence, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. His right-hand man, Jawarhalal Nehru, became India's first Prime Minister. Nehru was a successful leader, steering the young nation through a period of peace that was contrasted by the rule of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who fought Pakistan after it invaded two regions of India. Shastri died in 1966 after only 20 months in power, and he was succeeded by Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi.

With the name Gandhi (though no relation to Mahatma), Indira was a powerful, unchallenged leader, and opposition remained negligible until she abused her power by trying to suppress the press. When the rising opposition began to threaten her power, she called a state of emergency and continued to reform the nation, actually making some positive economic and political changes despite her questionable tactics. Her most unpopular policy was forced sterilization, and she was eventually defeated at the polls in 1977 by Morarji Desai of the Jenata party. She won back power in 1979, however, but was later assassinated in 1984 by a Sikh terrorist. Although India's political climate remains divisive, the country has attained apparent stability in recent years. Today, India seems poised to realize its potential as an international economic power.

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