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:. . South Asia

British Rule
The Mughal Empire unified much of the subcontinent during the 16th century. When this empire began to decline in the 18th century, the British came in and replaced the Mughal rulers as the principal unifying agent on the subcontinent. The British directly ruled about 50% of the region and indirectly controlled native kings and princes through treaties and resident British advisors.

The area of land under British control was called British India. On August 15, 1947, Great Britain granted British India its independence (see History).

Two Competing Visions
When the British decided to grant British India its independence, the fundamental issue dividing most of the peoples of South Asia was what kind of political system and values should be created to shape their society for the future.

Jawharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah were two leaders with strong opinions concerning what to do about the political situation in South Asia at this time.

Jawharlal Nehru, who was the chief disciple of Mohandas K. Gandhi, became India's first Prime Minister in 1947. Nehru wanted an independent India that was politically a liberal democratic republic. Although a Hindu, he had hoped to keep the subcontinent of South Asia unified by keeping religion out of politics and by making India a secular state. He also wanted to industrialize to create needed prosperity, and he thought socialism would distribute India's economic wealth more fairly among its people. Photo: Mohandas K. Gandhi. Photo 1999 -www.arttoday.com

However, within India there were Hindu nationalists who rejected Nehru’s desire for a secular state and argued in favor of a Hindu-dominated state system. Until recently, these Hindu nationalists were kept out of power by those who supported Nehru’s vision for the subcontinent. Since independence was achieved, separatist movements have arisen in all of the countries in South Asia from gigantic India to the tiny Maldives.

Nehru’s vision was opposed by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was a Muslim and Pakistan’s founder. Mohammed Ali Jinnah believed that a good society could not be established without taking into account the religious beliefs and practices of the peoples. Peoples (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc.) of other religious beliefs shared Jinnah’s point of view. Jinnah also argued that British India was made up of two nations, by which he meant two major religious groups: Muslims and Hindus. He felt that both of these religious groups deserved their own separate homeland and status as independent nations.

To fulfill his vision, Jinnah led the Muslims in their demands to partition India so that they could have their separate state and create a society based upon Muslim values.

Two factors that worked against both of the above visions for the subcontinent were the differences in languages and religions (see Peoples). For those who followed the Gandhi/Nehru desire for a secular state, both language and religion provide a constant challenge. For Muslims, language diversity poses a continual threat to their unity.

The British made some efforts to reconcile these competing visions, but they were unsuccessful. As a result, the British hoped that the partition of 1947 (see History) separating India and Pakistan would resolve the problem.

Since the partition of 1947 (see History), India has been the world’s most populated democratic republic. Three generations of the Nehru family have served as the prime ministers of India for more than 40 years. They are

  • Jawharlal Nehru (1947-64),
  • Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi (1966-82 and 1982-84), and
  • Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1991).

Their ruling party is known as the Indian National Congress Party. In spite of the dominance of the Nehru family and the Congress Party, the country has held regular elections. In addition, Indian politics has been conducted within the framework of the Indian constitution so the Congress Party and the Nehrus have behaved like democratic politicians. Several times the Congress Party has been ousted from power for brief periods of time, and they are currently the opposition--not the ruling party.

The values underlying the Indian political system fit with Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision, but increasingly his values and vision are being challenged by ethnic and religious nationalists.

Pakistan and Bangladesh
Pakistan’s political development since independence has been much less consistent than India's. Until 1971, Pakistan consisted of two parts of the subcontinent on the opposite sides of India. The two parts--West Pakistan and East Pakistan--were separated from one another by more than 1,000 miles. East Pakistan was dominated by West Pakistan’s political elites, most of whom came from the military.

However, in 1971 with India's help, East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan to become Bangladesh. Since its independence, Bangladesh has

  • gone through several constitutions,
  • been under military rule on several occasions, and
  • is still struggling to establish itself as a democratic state.

Since 1971, Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan) has 

  • gone through several constitutions,
  • been under one long period of dictatorial rule by the military, and
  • has had several changes in leadership by presidential and military intervention rather than by elections.

Other Countries
The political experiences of the smaller countries of South Asia have varied considerably, but these countries share some common characteristics. All nations separated from Great Britain in a somewhat different fashion, but all have moved slowly toward greater participation of the people in governance. Sri Lanka has been the most democratic, followed by Nepal, and then the Maldives. Bhutan remains a monarchy, but now has a constitution and an elected assembly. Each of the countries has faced threats to their continued existence by rebels demanding greater political rights, autonomy (self-government), or independence for ethnic minorities.



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