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:. . South Asia

Early Civilization Began (Approx. 2500 BCE)
One of the earliest advanced civilizations began in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BCE (Before Common Era). In spite of developing very sophisticated civilizations, the inhabitants of the subcontinent were rarely united under the same government. The subcontinent was frequently invaded by less civilized peoples, empires rose and declined, and great religious systems like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism arose. These religions attracted believers and prospered for more than 1500 years.

Rendition of Arab Merchants Photo 1999 -www.arttoday.com

Then, Islam (see Peoples) was introduced by Arab merchants, who came to trade in India in the 8th century. The new faith was spread at first by peaceful methods of persuasion. At the beginning of the 11th century, Turkish-speaking Muslim tribes invaded the subcontinent from the northwest and frequently declared a Jihad (holy war against nonbelievers on behalf of Islam) to extend their control over the Indo-Gangetic plain and its people. They treated those who resisted with great severity by killing many, by creating harsh laws for the native peoples to follow, and by destroying Hindu and Buddhist temples.

The Mughals Reigned (1526-1858)
Early in the 16th century, the last of these Turkish Muslim tribes, the Mughals, invaded from the northwest and soon conquered much of India. The Mughals initially spread Islam by the sword. They destroyed Hindu temples and oppressed the non-Muslim population.

However, the third emperor, Akbar (r. 1556-1605), dramatically changed the existing policy to one of tolerance toward all faiths and fairer treatment toward all people. The Mughal dynasty established a powerful and efficient government. As a result of the government's efficiency, the economy developed and people prospered. The Mughal leaders had beautiful mosques and tombs built and generously sponsored writers and artists so that culture flourished. Portrait of Emperor Akbar. Photo 1999 -www.arttoday.com

In contrast, during the reign of Aurangzeb (r. 1659-1707), the sixth emperor, the Mughal dynasty began to decline. He strained his state's resources by getting involved in many wars to expand the empire's territory. He also alienated Hindus by pressuring them to convert to Islam, by destroying their temples, and by issuing government edicts discriminating against them.

Europeans Arrived (1498)
While the Mughals were seizing control of the subcontinent, Europeans were coming to India for the first time to trade for spices and other oriental luxuries and to spread the gospel of Christianity.

The British proved to be the most aggressive and successful of the Europeans in expanding trade and influence in the subcontinent. When the Mughal Empire began to decline, the British gained increased dominance in South Asia by making alliances with native rulers and extending directly controlled territory of the British East India Company. A rebellion by native troops who worked for the Company occurred in 1857-58. After the rebellion, the British government eliminated the Company and took over its assets and position in India. The British government ruled parts of India directly, but left large areas--called princely states--under the administration of some 580 Indian princes. The area of land under British control was called British India.

  • British Ruled (1858-1947)
    Under British rule, the people and the land of the subcontinent were tied together in many ways. The British
  • built modern means of transportation (railroads, roads, airports, postal networks) to move people and goods (these transportation methods helped to connect and integrate the subcontinent economically); (see transportation map)
  • helped the economies of the different areas of the region to become increasingly interdependent;
  • created new institutions (government bureaucracy, universities, civil service, and military);
  • created means of common communication (English language, telegraph, telephone, postal system, and the press); 
  • helped English to become a national language of government, business, and higher education; and
  • helped to provide South Asians with a shared history and civilization by studying and writing about the subcontinent. The British actions provoked the South Asians to respond to British beliefs, attitudes, writings, policies, and actions concerning the subcontinent and its people.

South Asians Opposed British Presence
South Asians opposed British racism and the resulting British policies that discriminated against natives receiving equal treatment in the army, universities, civil service, etc. British presence and policies also threatened local customs and values. In response to the British presence, nationalist movements such as the Indian National Congress Party (1885) and the Muslim League (1906) pressed the British for independence. Demanding that the British leave India, these movements were subcontinent-wide, political institutions. These institutions helped their members to think about the good of all of India and its people instead of just their own locality and its needs.

Many of the nationalists, who pressed the British to leave the subcontinent, had hoped that unity would be maintained. However, their hopes were soon shattered.

Many Islamic leaders of the independence struggle decided that since Muslims made up only 25% of the population of South Asia, Muslims would not be able to prevent the much more numerous Hindu population from dominating the new state. As a result, the Muslims demanded two separate states: one for Muslims and another for non-Muslims. To achieve their goal, the Muslims encouraged fear and anxiety among their followers and directed violence at Hindus. Soon the Hindus responded in like fashion toward the Muslims.

British Decided to Grant Independence
In July 1945, the British Labor Party won the general election in Great Britain and formed the new British government. The new British government decided that the South Asians' desire for independence was too strong to suppress and decided to grant British India its independence. Eventually, August 15, 1947 was chosen as the date to grant British India its independence.

Prior to independence, several events took place. Frequently, these events were motivated by self-interest among the different religious groups: Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs.

Muslim League Pushed for Partition
Leading up to the date set for independence, the Muslim League pushed hard for a partition of British India into two nations: one for the Muslims, and the other for all non-Muslims. Hindus and Sikhs, who were influenced by Mohandas Gandhi's and Jawharlal Nehru's vision (see Politics), were against separating–or partitioning–British India between Muslims and non-Muslims.

To support their position for two independent nations, Muslims named August 16, 1946 Direct Action Day. On this day, Muslims were encouraged to vigorously demonstrate their demands for partition. As a result, serious communal riots broke out in Calcutta, the major port city of eastern India. During the few days of rioting in Calcutta, more than 5,000 people were killed, and 100,000 became homeless. The fighting soon spread throughout British India.

Photo: Jan Temple in the port city of Calcutta. Photo 1999 -www.arttoday.com

After the riots ended, Hindus and Sikhs--especially in the Punjab--began to support the idea of partition. On March 22, 1947, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the dominant Sikh political movement, passed a resolution. This resolution called for the creation of an independent Sikh state (see Demands for Khalistan).

The British also began to favor the idea of partition. Violence among Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs had occurred leading up to the date set for independence. The principal causes of the violence were concerns over how British India would be partitioned and where each religious group would live. The British government established a boundary commission to partition British India.

The boundary commission was chaired by Sir Cyril Radcliffe. He was chosen for two reasons: he was a British legal expert and he had never been to India. The British government had hoped he would be impartial because of these two factors. He was to be assisted by eight men: four chosen by the Muslim League and the other four by the Indian National Congress. Radcliffe often had to make the hard decisions since the commission frequently split on communal lines.

British India Partitioned
On August 15, 1947, Great Britain granted British India its independence. The following day, Lord Mountbatten, Britain's last Viceroy of India, announced the boundary commission's decisions on borders for the newly created countries. Defining the borders for these new countries was especially complicated for the boundary commission concerning the fertile regions of Kashmir and the Punjab, which were located in northwestern British India. (Read the sections on Kashmir and the Punjab to learn how these regions were affected by the partition of British India in 1947). Photo: Lord Mountbatten. Photo 1999 -www.arttoday.com

The formation of borders to create new countries is known as the partition of 1947. As a result of the partition of 1947, the countries of India and Pakistan were established. India contained mostly Hindus and Sikhs, and Pakistan contained mostly Muslims. The partition not only created two countries of unequal size but it also subdivided Pakistan into two sections–East Pakistan and West Pakistan–on either side of India.

Violence persisted even after the partition of British India. Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh fanatical leaders, who were dissatisfied with the results of the partition, played on communal fears and suspicions. These fears and suspicions encouraged more than 4.5 million Muslims to migrate west from India into Pakistan, while 4 million Hindus and Sikhs fled east from Pakistan into India. Sectarian militias (Muslim Khaksars, Hindu R.S.S, and Sikh Jathas) became the principal instruments of communal violence that led to the deaths of more than one million people during the population migration.



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