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Twentieth-Century India: An Overview

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a montage illustration of several men speaking, bollywood sign, and crowds of people
Montage illustration created by Willa Davis from the following sources: Candhi by Peter Ruhe, Phaidon Press Limited (2001): Gandhi and Nehru, 1946; Gandhi visiting Muslim refugees, September 1947; The Amethi Parliamentary Constituency ( Indira Gandhi; Goa Today ( Shobha De; India Wildlife (; USAID ( Indian women and child.

Twentieth-century India is chronologically almost symmetrical, with 1947-the year of independence as the dividing line. With independence came partition, as British India was divided into India and Pakistan, the farmer becoming constitutionally secular and the latter an Islamic state. In 1971 the east wing of Pakistan, with somewhat delayed military intervention from India, became the independent nation of Bangladesh. It might also be noted that while India has remained a democracy, both Pakistan and Bangladesh have had a succession of military takeovers.

This article will be in two parts. The First will focus primarily on developments toward independence in the pre-1947 period. The second will deal in a general manner with socio-economic developments, in the widest sense (e.g., including culture, environment), within India occurring in the period since 1947. Pakistan’s history is part of India’s before 1947, and since then has been largely consumed by failed civilian governments removed by military takeovers. Pakistan and the other nations of South Asia will not be dealt with in this brief overview, other than to note, here, that they are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives constitute the membership of SAARC, which is designed to further regional socio-economic matters, but by its nature affords opportunity for behind-the-scenes political discussions.


The events before 1947 involved dual purposes: removal of British rule and the forging of a nation. The latter was necessary, for as the British had somewhat aptly observed, India was not a nation. In its long history its constituent parts had never been united into one political unit. Even under the British, quasi-independent princely states existed (albeit with a tight British rein) and were often culturally dissimilar from one another, much as were the nations of Europe. Like Europe, there was a wide range of languages. The language of communication for the leaders of the independence-nationalist movement was English.

In 1835 the Governor-General of India (in Cakulla) agreed (to somewhat oversimplify the situation) that English-rather than Arabic or Sanskrit (for Muslim and Hindu schools, respectively)-should be the medium of education for a certain class of Indians, the members of which, his advisor on education noted, would become English in every thing but blood and color, and thus make a buffer and communicator between the rulers and the ruled. It was, instead, to result in a class of Indians knowledgeable in English and in English constitutional history, including parliamentary democracy. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi ( 1869- 1948) and Jawaharlal Nehru ( 1890-1964), probably the two most important leaders, studied law in England. A great many others did as well. They also absorbed the concept of nationalism- to the extent that another English-trained lawyer, Muhammad Ali Jinnah ( 1875-1948), became the leader of the nationalist (and separatist) Muslim movement that led to Pakistan. These leaders, and there were many, had commitment, ability, and the knowledge of how to bring about a nation based on parliamentary democracy. (It was an ideal of Pakistan at first, but one that failed.)

We need to go back a bit to see what the British were doing in India. They came as merchants, not conquerors. They also came as representatives of a private company, not the British government.

In the seventeenth century a corporation chartered by the crown, the East India Company, established “factories” (coastal administrative posts where trading goods were kept in warehouses), at what are now Madras (recently renamed Chennai), Bombay (Mumbai), and Calcutta (Kolkata). A fourth city, New Delhi, was built (next to “old” Delhi) by the British government as the capital of India (begun in 1911 and dedicated in 1931).1

With the decline of the Mughal dynasty, the factory settlements became forts and the company found itself a player in the ensuing power vacuum, or at least t0ok advantage of the struggle for power among various factions. There was not a sense among these ethnic and regional groups of being “Indian,”‘ and the British were viewed as just another party in the territorial struggles. In 1803 General Gerard Lake took Delhi, the Mughal capital, and in effect made the emperor a pensioner of the British. The fox was in the henhouse, and the date can be viewed as symbolic. An uprising against the British in I 857, confined to north-central India, was savagely put down and
led to severe estrangement between British and Indians. In 1858 Parliament dissolved the company, and the Crown took over rule. By then hegemony lay with the B1itish, both in territory under direct control and dominance over “princely” states, which were independent in name only. The Indian population was about 200 million, the British only 100.000.

The use of  English as an educational medium didn’t quite work out as the British had hoped it would in 1835. The remarkable civil service system benefited, but so did the independence and nationalist movement, which was led largely by lawyers educated in English law (often in England itself. such as with Gandhi and Nehru). The structure in which they operated was the Indian National Congress, also referred to simply as Congress.

Founded in 1885, Congress was at first almost merely a debating society, but under the leadership of dedicated nationalists it developed into the primary instrument of revolution-a revolution which for the most part used nonviolent means, largely under the leadership of M. K. Gandhi.

Gandhi had developed his philosophy and method of satyagraha (literally, grasping toward truth) in South Africa. He rn~ed it as a means of addressing grievances. It puzzled the British, not only for its use of nonviolence but its focus upon specific grievances (often with symbolic implications). The most famous is the 1930 Salt Satyagraha (also referred to as the Salt March), which challenged the British monopoly on salt. After a long march from his ashram near Ahmedabad, accompanied by about seventy followers (the number grew as the march progressed), Gandhi simply scooped some salt from the seashore. The march drew publicity; the salt, inedible, was symbolic. It put the British in an untenable situation about whether or not to arrest him.

There were previous satyagrahas (not always against the British). One, the 1919 “Nationwide Satyagraha Against the Rowlatt Act.”2 resulted in a massacre at Amritsar, an event that stands out as a turning point for the independence movement, which was to become much more strident and demanding.

Indians had generally supported the British war effort, for several reasons, including a sense of duty. Many hoped for improved status of Indians as citizens of the empire. The British responded with the Rowlatt act, which included items of repression such as sequestering without charge.

For Gandhi, who had mostly responded to the British in terms of his rights as a loyal citizen, it was a telling moment. As one biographer put it, “Gandhi was rescued from his dilemma- was he to be a loyalist or a rebel?”3 He called for a national satyagraha, a closing down of the nation. The act was too big and unwieldy and violence erupted at various places. Gandhi was to refer to it as his Himalayan miscalculation. Its historical importance, however, is in the British reaction in Amritsar, where an English bank manager and his assistant were slain, and a schoolteacher injured. Martial law was declared within the city, but the declaration was not heard in the outskirts. It was a holiday, and a crowd had gathered in Jallianawala Bagh, a large quadrangle surrounded by high walls. General Reginald Dyer marched troops into the only opening (the armored vehicles wouldn’ t fit in), and without warning opened fire. In ten minutes 1,650 rounds were fired, with about live hundred killed (the British official figure was 379) and 1.200 wounded. Since curfew was on, the wounded were not allowed to be tended. In an official inquiry, Dyer’s response was that he wanted to inflict a moral lesson and prevent another 1857 from happening. In retrospect, even though it took almost another three decades to get the British out,  there was no turning back after Jallianawala Bagh. Demands for full independence were irrevocably to replace calls for rights within the empire.

In the next two decades, until the Second World War, the British responded to pressure by involving Indians in nearly meaningless and powerless government positions. Each concession for constitutional reform-acts, plans. and commissions-was too little, too late (as Gandhi put it about one, a post-dated check on a failingbank). The emptiness of all promises and gestures was significantly demonstrated when the viceroy took India into the war without consulting with a single Indian leader, most of whom (although agreeing with the war effort) spent a great part of the duration in jail.

In a sense, during much of this period India was “fractured.” The Muslim League developed a move for a separate nation, Pakistan, Gandhi, upset and disappointed with the violence of 1919, went into retreat until the Salt March. But demonstrations and repression continued, including preventive detention (jailing without charge). Indira Nehru Gandhi was later to reminisce that at one time both her parents and both sets of grandparents were in jail.

With the end of World War II a Labour government came into power in Britain. Lord Louis Mountbatten (war leader and cousin of the king) was appointed viceroy with the charge of arranging Indian independence-which was to develop into the partition, resulting in two independent nations and deaths numbering in the hundreds of thousands, as Hindus and Sikhs fled one way, Muslims the other. Muslims in the south were largely unaffected, and many in north India elected to stay with India, albeit often at risk of life and property. Mountbatten had moved the date for independence ahead by months, but was unable to get Congress and the Muslim League to reconcile regarding a united nation.

SINCE 1947

Within a few months, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a cabal of right-wing Hindu extremists. They viewed him as too sympathetic to Muslims in general and to Pakistan in particular. This antipathy to Muslims by Hindu extremists continued to be a major problem, becoming increasingly so in the 1990s. Relations with Pakistan remained precarious, with two wars over Kashmir (which both countries claimed), in 1948 and 1965, and yet another war involving Bangladesh breaking away from Pakistan in 1971.

Nehru was the first prime minister, and from 1947 until his death in 1964 he embarked India on an accelerated economic and industrial development program, with private companies mixed into governmental leadership. Problems of over-regulation, unresponsive and inefficient bureaucracy, and discouragement of foreign investment impeded rather than strengthened development.

Nevertheless, Nehru’s abilities and charisma resulted in a long tenure of political stability during which parliamentary democracy was put on firm footing and India took its place in international affairs. His hopes for a third-world bloc (outside the Soviet and US camps) collapsed in 1962 when hostilities broke out with China over borders in the Himalayan region.

Subsequent leadership fell short, perhaps far apart, of Nehru’s example. His successor died a little over a year later, and was succeeded by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (her husband was a Parsi, and no relation t0 M. K. Gandhi). An old-boys club of Congress leaders tried to control her, but she out-maneuvered them, captured the party, and was re-elected in 1971. That year she came to the aid of the rebels in East Pakistan. The Pakistani army was quickly routed and the new nation of Bangladesh came into being. The Indian victory was so fast that hostilities were over before the US fifth fleet, sent into the Bay of Bengal, could get situated. President Nixon had tried to get China to intervene on behalf of Pakistan, but was rebuffed.4  Such actions resulted in chilly relations between India and the United States that lasted until the end of the century.

Citing civil unrest and disintegration, in 1975 Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency-national martial law and suspension of some basic rights. It was constitutional, but was abused at many levels in settling old scores. When she lifted it a year and a half later, her government was defeated in a general election by a composite of five minority parties, which, however, were not able to agree for long, and Congress was returned to power in January of 1980. In October of 1984 she was assassinated by two Sikh members of her bodyguard, upset with her having sent troops into the Sikh holy temple in Amritsar to dislodge separatists.

Separatism-ethnically and regionally based-was a major issue also for her son, Rajiv, who followed her as prime minister, himself assassinated by Tamil Tiger terrorists from Sri Lanka, angry with his support for the Sri Lankan government. The Nehru dynasty had seemingly run its course (although his widow is head of the Congress party), and a succession of prime ministers followed Rajiv, mostly of parties other than Congress. In the late 1990s the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power-a Hindu nationalist party many of whose leaders had ties to right-wing groups, including the one from which M. K. Gandhi’s assassins came.

Culturally, socially, and economically, much has been accomplished since independence-but there are serious problems as well, in large part due to the population explosion. A great deal of information is available on the Internet, but for purposes here two totals will do. In 1901 the population was 294 million, which included areas that are now Pakistan and Bangladesh. The estimate for the truncated India, July 2000, was over a billion: 1,014,003,817. This has wreaked havoc on the environment: water table disruption, deforestation, erosion, floods.5

Symbolic of the environmental crisis is the plight of the tiger. In Smiska, a national park and tiger reserve near Delhi, poachers have wiped out the tiger population. Valmik Thapar, an expert with thirteen books on tigers as well as newspaper and journal articles, stated in The Indian Express (February 8, 2005). ”There are hardly any tigers left in twen1y-five percent of our most important tiger reserves.” The Times of India reported (May 7, 2005) that 3,500 to 3,700 tigers are left, “according to official estimates that are increasingly in dispute.'” The Pioneer (April 4, 2005) stated that “pessimistic figures” put the total at “around 1.000.” In addition to poaching, Thapar blames bureaucratic officials conniving with private business interests for many wildlife problems.6

The population explosion has crushed urban infrastructure, much to the dismay of the burgeoning information technology companies, some of which have set up their own campuses and power sources. It has resulted in slums literally beyond description in Bombay and Calcutta, the latter city going virtually bankrupt late in the century. Bureaucracy has hampered relief of poverty in both countryside and city.

Besides the frequent maladies accompanying poverty and slums, an AIDS pandemic has developed. The first case of HIV surfaced in Madras. According to the United Nations Development Program, by 2000 there were 3.86 million cases of AIDS (the estimate for 2003 is 5.1 million). The spread has been through truck drivers, rape, and prostitutes.

The situation for women generally varies by class, wealth, and family. Dowry is against the law, but is circumvented by the groom’s family asking for gifts. Brides have been killed by cooking “accidents” from kerosene stoves (bride burning) due to unacceptable dowry or for desire to obtain a new dowry. There is also trafficking in women-forced prostitution. However, many professional women are working through non-governmental organization to remove social evils. One magazine in particular, Manushi, has been in the forefront in addressing wrongs directed at women.7

Gurcharan Das, retired CEO of Procter & Gamble India and author of a book on the Indian economy, has argued that India’s economic doldrums have not been due to poverty, but to the failure to create a middle class-until now. His optimism is fueled by the development of information technology: “Before 1990, India was floundering, looking for a leading sector to drive and transform the whole economy. Now we’ve found it: It’s the whole IT sector.”8

There is no doubt that information technology is a boon. Agricultural technology through the Green Revolution had much to do with making India self-sufficient in food. Nuclear technology, particularly by the development of a nuclear weapon, helped India get the increased respect from the West which it sought. Most helpful has been the quality education afforded by the Indian Institute of Technology (started under Nehru), now with seven campuses. It has been featured on 60 Minutes as “maybe the most important university you’ve never heard of.”9 However, there is widespread concern about the quality of other higher education institutions. At the turn of the century, the highly respected journal/magazine Seminar devoted an issue to the problem under the title ” Unviable Universities: A Symposium on the Crisis in Higher Education.”10 Further, illiteracy remains a major problem, especially among women and the poor. 11

Despite Das’s optimism, some have voiced concern about the middle class. It has been criticized for being too consumption-oriented, selfish without a sense of social responsibility. Said to be unable to see beyond their own short-term self-interest, members have been described as unethical and insensitive in regard to the vast majority
of Indians.12

Communalism, or antagonism toward another group, particularly in regard to religion, is not new to India; but in the later twentieth century it intensified under the guise of hindutva, or ”Hinduness.” It has affected politics and education, with the maxim that Hinduism and Indianness are one and the same. The party with control at the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party, from 1999 to 2004 (it had been gaining power in the late 1980s and the 1990s), is tied to hindutva ideologically. Although during its supremacy at the national level it depended on a coalition in order to govern, it nonetheless was able to exercise its will upon education. Textbooks and even scholarly works were condemned for not being Hindu enough, therefore unpatriotic. The propaganda spread on the internet, and was answered by scholars.

On December 6, 1990, a frenzied mob of 75,000 hindutva men tore down an unused mosque erected in 1528, on the assertion that it had been built on the site of an ancient temple marking the birthplace of the god Rama (or Ram), in the town of Ayodhya in north India. Riots bordering on pogroms resulted, extending far beyond Ayodhya and well into the new century.13

Several developments in pop culture are worth noting.14 The most significant is cinema. For decades India has been the largest producer of feature films, turning out 800 to 1,000 yearly, mostly from “Bollywood,” the movie capital in Bombay (although there are other sites). Mostly these have been potboilers, but there have been notable exceptions (especially the films of Calcutta-based Satyajit Ray, which were better received abroad than in India). A comprehensive and entertaining article in the National Geographic put it this way: “The grim social realities of India are simply not ingredients in the Bollywood formula.”15

In the 1980s and 1990s a few producers made some serious films, which contained better acting, better scripts and plots, and skillful directing. There had been few precursors.16 Some of the more recent ones are available in libraries and video stores.

Until the satellite phenomenon, television consisted of one state-controlled network, Doordarshan, which paralleled the radio monopoly. All India Radio. Aided by deregulation in industry and economics, there are a myriad of radio and television offerings now, including some coming from outside the country.

Pop music is determined by movies, and there is an Indian MTV, But traditional music is still in (e.g., the works of Ravi Shankar). Art is modern, traditional in style, and everything in between.17 Toward the end of the last century, Indian fashion took off, going from the curious and exotic to mainstream, affecting fashion not only in India but in Europe and the United States as well.

A fitting conclusion to this brief account is Shobha De, representative of and a leader in pop culture at the end of the twentieth century and beyond. She is a columnist, editor, has directed a film, and is a best-selling author of thirteen novels, the nature of which have led to her being dubbed the Jackie Collins of India and the smut queen. That she is very attractive certainly hasn’t hurt the aura surrounding this mother of six, who is also actively involved in community affairs in Bombay. It has been suggested that ”Hinglish” (a vernacular
fusion of Hindi and English), popularized in her columns, might be her “biggest contribution to pop culture.”18


The following were each chosen for several reasons: readability, no assumption of prior knowledge, general interest, information, and relevance.

Blackwell. Fritz. India: A Global Studies Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004. This reference work provides a short historical introduction, followed by chapters on the economy, institutions, society, and contemporary issues. Also included are pieces on people, places, and events; languages; food and etiquette: Indian impact on American culture; and an annotated bibliography.

Das, Gurcharan. India Unbound. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. A highly acclaimed presentation of the social and economic changes taking place in India, told by a former business executive in an autobiographical and literary manner (he is also a playwright). The book is well worth reading just for the author’s experiences, and he has an optimistic insight into India’s developing economy and democratic future.

Khilnani. Sunil. The Idea of India. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999. The author states in the preface to this collection of insightful essays: ”This is a book about India’s public life in the twentieth century.” The broad topics are: ”Ideas of India” (various perceptions of what is India), “Democracy,” “Temples of the Future” (political developments since independence), “Cities,” “Who is an Indian,” and “The Garb of Modernity.”

Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. This book, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, was named book of the year by The Economist. It’s an autobiographical exploration of Bombay at the end of the twentieth century, by a journalist born in Calcutta anil raised in Bombay and New York.

Sofri, Gianni. Gandhi and India, translated by Janet Sethre Paxia. New York: Interlink Books, 1999. A small elementary study that treats Gandhi within the development of the independence movement, thus providing an overview of the first half of the twentieth century. It includes a chapter on India after independence, and a summation entitled “Gandhi’s Legacy.”

Tharoor, Sashi. India: From Midnight to the Millennium. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. A personal and cultural account of India in the last half of the century, by an essayist, novelist, and newspaper columnist who is also a United Nations official. The observations address central questions about Indian society and politics (e.g .. viability of democracy).

Varma, Pavan K. The Great Indian Middle Class. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1999. An emphatic, critical, historical account of the development, nature, and importance of the middle class from 1885 (the founding of the Indian National Congress) through the twentieth century. Varma is the author of several books on Indian culture and is a member of the Indian Foreign Service.


1. A magnificent work- lucid essays and many beautiful photographs-is The Millennium Book 0n New Delhi, edited by B, P. Singh and Pavan K. Varma (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001). The story of New Delhi’s formation and development is related in Robert Grant Irving’s Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988). Today the terms Delhi and New Delhi are used interchangeably. The histories, with a focus on the architecture of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, are recounted (along with Delhi) in Norma Everson’s The Indian Metropolis: A View Toward the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), in which they are referred
to as “Three Hybrid Cities.”

2. Conquest of Violence; The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict (several editions published by Princeton University Press and by 1he University California Press, 1958-1988). The title was bestowed by Joan Bondurant, and the work is probably the best presentation on satyagraha (which is affecting-and effecting- social or political change by assertive nonviolence), and includes concise analyses of five satyagrahas (including Salt).

3. David Arnold, Gandhi (London: Pearson Education, 2001), 109.

4. This is according to State Department documents recently released. The Statesman
(Calcutta), Internet edition, May 8, 2005.

5. See Fritz Blackwell, India: A Global Studies Handbook (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 161- 167.

6. Also, The Telegraph (Calcutta), April 9, 2005; The Indian Express, February 8, 2005. The Indian Express Internet edition for July 19, 2005, reponed poachers, having ‘”confessed 10  separate incidents… where 10 tigers and four leopards were killed between June 2002 and July 2004″ in the Sariska sanctuary. The skins were sold to a family group of smugglers. It is feared that no tigers are left in the sanctuary. Among his 13 books, Valmik Thapar’s Land of Tiger: A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent ( Berkley: University of California Press, 1997) is a lavishly illustrated study that focuses on other wildlife as well.

7. This matter is treated somewhat more intensively in  Blackwell, Indian, 145-152.

8. New York Times Magazine, April 15, 2001; quoted in Web site: archives. econ. See also Gurcharan Das, India Unbound (New York: Anchor Books, 2000).

9. March 2, 2003. See Blackwell, India, 96–98.

10. #494. October, 2000, available on the Internet at

11. For statistics, see Blackwell, India, 99-101.

12. These concerns have been emphatically addressed by Pavan K. Varma, The Great Indian Middle Class (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1999).

13. A clear account is provided by Kristen M. Romey, “Flashpoint Ayodhya.” Archaeology, July/August, 2004, 48-55, including the attempts by hindutva adherents t0 influence an archaeological investigation. In a broader sense of the overall problem, see articles in Seminar #484, December, 1999, “Multiculturalism: A Symposium in Culturally Diverse Societies,”

14. Also worth noting is a book scheduled for publication in December 2005: Asha Kasbekar, Pop Culture India! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO). See also Seminar#501, May, 2001. “Culrurescape: A Symposium on Changing Values and Lifestyles,”

15. Sukeru Mehta, ”Welcome to Bollywood.” National Geographic. February, 2005, 52-69. The quote is from page sixty-four. The popularity of Bollywood films m the countryside (conveyed by bus and projected in tents) is illustrated in Mother Jones, April, 2005, 78-79. See also Blackwell, India. 156-161; also Seminar #525. May, 2003. “Unsettling Cinema: A Symposium on the: Place of Cinema in India.” A recolleclion by the late Ismail Merchant is My Passage from India. A Filmmaker’s Journey from Bollywood to Hollywood (New York: Viking Studio, 2002).

16. See Web site: for “‘Bollywood films that dared to dream.”

17. E.g ..;; dir.

18. Most of what is available on the lnternet is at the spelling of her first name as Shobhaa. For a concise introduction see from which the quote is taken.