Explainer: India at 75
Massive Celebrations In Tumultuous Times
India celebrates 75 years of independence on August 15, 2022. Escaping it is near-impossible, if you’re in the country: the official website of the festivities lists a whopping 56,572 events (and counting) held over the 75 weeks leading up to that date, to celebrate freedom from British rule and the rise of ‘India 2.0’ as Prime Minister Narendra Modi envisions it.
Numbers get large quickly, when talking about a nation of over 1.4 billion people.
On Independence Day, Modi will raise the national flag over the historic Red Fort in New Delhi. It’s a tradition that started with the very first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who hoisted the flag there on the morning of August 15, 1947.
Why was that the day India became independent? What happened the day before? And since?
This Explainer gives an overview of India’s recent past, where it stands now, and what the future might hold.
On August 15, 2022, it’s exactly 75 years since India gained independence from the United Kingdom. European traders started showing up regularly, establishing outposts more than 400 years ago.
- The British East India Company (EIC) uses overwhelming military strength to gain the upper hand over the Mughal empire, which rules most of the subcontinent. In 1757, after winning the Battle of Plassey, the EIC gains permanent control over Bengal. From there, it spreads its rule.
- In 1858, after the First War of Indian Independence, the British Crown takes over control from the EIC, making India an integral part of the British Empire.
- The call for self-rule increases after World War I, as Britain enacts ever more colonial reforms. Mahatma Gandhi leads a non-violent movement of civil disobedience.
- Directly following World War II, unrest in India increases and broadens with the All-India Muslim League surging on a wave of protests in which Muslims demand their own homeland, separate from India.
- Britain, exhausted of manpower and money after the war, doesn’t see how it can keep control of an India demanding independence. In February 1947, Prime Minster Clement Attlee promises the colony full self-governance before June 1948.
India’s first Independence Day isn’t all festive. A newspaper at the time writes: ‘Today’s celebration is a time for gladness in India — marred though it must be by the shadow of famine over so much of the country, and by the rioting in Calcutta and the Punjab.’
- The Indian Independence Act, passed by the British Parliament in July 1947, divides British India into present-day India and Pakistan (including what is now Bangladesh). This leads to millions of Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus moving to ‘their’ side of the new borders. Where the border divides existing regions, like in Punjab, violence erupts, leaving hundreds of thousands dead.
- Lord Mountbatten, viceroy of British India, doesn’t see a reason for the Crown to hold on to its restless pearl longer than needed. He suggests cutting India loose per August 15, 1947 – the second anniversary of the defeat of Japan in World War II.
- On August 14, 1947, the Constituent Assembly of India meets in New Delhi at 11pm. In his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech before his inauguration as first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru proclaims: ‘At the stroke of the midnight hour, India will awake to life and freedom…the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’ Early next morning, on August 15, Nehru raises India’s national flag at the Red Fort in New Delhi.
- One looming figure is absent at the ceremony: Mahatma Gandhi. In line with his vision of an independent, multi-religion India, he marks the day with a 24-hour fast and speeches in Calcutta, trying to quell the ongoing violence between Hindus and Muslims.
- Among Hindu nationalists, the idea takes hold that Gandhi is too defensive of Indian Muslims and newly formed Pakistan. On January 30, 1948, a militant Hindu kills Gandhi with three bullets to the chest.
- India’s process of independence is completed on January 26, 1950, with the adoption of the first Constitution. The country is now a full republic, with Rajendra Prasad as its first President.
Newly independent India doesn’t really get time to find its bearings. Unrest and violence, both within the country and vis-à-vis its neighbors, remain a continuous presence. Nevertheless, with the decades come economic growth and a booming population.
- Barely two months independent, India fights a war with the equally young nation of Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir. The first Indo-Pakistani war has an inconclusive ending. Three more wars would follow in the next decades, the last in 1999. The two countries are still at loggerheads over the territory. India repeatedly executes surgical strikes on targets in Pakistan in response to terrorist attacks inside India.
- Having fought a war with China over land in the Himalaya in 1962, this is another one of India’s unresolved conflicts with a neighbor. To this day, the two militaries stare each other down at altitudes of over 4,000 meters. Occasional skirmishes occur.
- Domestically, India sees increasing political unrest, caused by social and economic problems. While poverty remains widespread, there are increasing allegations of corruption in the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of first Prime Minister Nehru. Indira Gandhi rules hard-handedly from 1966 until 1977 and again from 1980 until 1984. That year she is killed by one of her bodyguards, a Sikh who is angered by Indian forces raiding the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine for Sikhs.
- Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv succeeds her as prime minister, at only 40 years old. He reforms and opens up the economy, focusing on building high-tech industries like software, telecommunications, and aerospace. In 1991, while campaigning, Rajiv is killed by a Tamil suicide bomber who strikes because Rajiv had sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka, where the government is waging an armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers.
- At the start of the 21st century, economic growth really takes off in India as the country passes the one-billion people mark. For the first time, it’s seen as a potential Asian superpower that could one day rival China in the region. Poverty remains rife though, which explains the anger many feel when the country hosts the 2010 Commonwealth Games, costing billions, while one-third of the population still lives under the poverty line.
ONE NATION, UNDER MODI?
‘Democracy in India is gasping for breath’, according to a leader of the opposition Congress Party. The Swedish independent V-Dem research institute sees ‘democratic backsliding’ in India starting in 2014: the year Narendra Modi became prime minister.
- Modi storms to power on a surge of populism and anger at corruption and weak growth. His party, the Hindu-Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins an all-out parliamentary majority in the 2014 elections, a first in thirty years. Campaigning on his economic successes as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he promises more jobs, more prosperity, and less red tape.
- Modi broadens the base of the once urban-elitist BJP, transforming it into a nationalist Hindu movement that appeals to rural Indians as well. Since 2014, the party has won more elections than it lost – each time doing better than before.
- Modi keeps telling Hindus they’re under threat – even though they make up 80% of India’s population. This fear-mongering, combined with actual policies against primarily India’s Muslims, plays a key part in him retaining power. The next national election is due before May 2024.
As India celebrates its 75th, it’ll wake up to a sobering reality once the party is over.
- Looking at the numbers, Modi hasn’t yet succeeded in replicating the economic success he had in Gujarat on a nationwide (or to be fair: subcontinental) level. Still, GDP per capita went up from USD 1574 in 2014 to USD 2277 last year.
- However, unemployment climbed to 6.1%, a 45-year high in 2017-18, the last year over which official numbers are available. Newer numbers won’t be better. Crises like the pandemic hit workers in countries with a large informal economy, like India, extra hard as they lack the support system of regular employment.
- Over 25 million people have lost their job since the start of 2021, while more than 75 million have fallen back into poverty. According to one expert, Modi’s government has created 4.3 million jobs a year over the past decade. But India needs 20 million new jobs annually to maintain healthy economic growth.
- The flagship ‘Make in India’ government program aims to promote local industry developing its own products, but even more to attract foreign investment looking for a good base of manufacturing.
- Modi’s strong-arm politics of Hindu-nationalism don’t work for you if you don’t agree with them. After his first national election victory, in 2014, Hindu lynch mobs were killing Muslims and lower-caste people suspected of slaughtering cows. In 2017, journalist Gauri Lankesh, whose work was critical of Modi’s BJP, was shot and killed. Such intolerance has only grown since.
- New evidence shows law enforcement has been planting tracking software and malware to fabricate evidence on computers and phones of activists through hacking. Some of the targets are facing terrorism charges, awaiting trial in jail since 2018.
- Bulldozers have become the latest symbol of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist rule. Formally combatting ‘encroachment’ in overpopulated cities, they have been levelling homes and shops without notice. The buildings almost always belong to Muslims. Hindu-Muslim violence has again been erupting in multiple cities, near 75 years after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
INDIA IN THE WORLD
In larger-than-life diplomacy, India’s government turned to Buddhism, spirituality, and well-being as one of the ways to promote the country’s standing in the world. In his very first speech in front of the U.N. General Assembly, in 2014, Prime Minister Modi called on the U.N. to formally recognize June 21 as International Day of Yoga. The U.N. obliged. But India, being a nuclear-armed power, can’t avoid hard-core, feet-on-the-ground dealings with other countries.
A few that stand out:
- Pakistan – It’s a wrought relationship ever since the partition of British India in 1947. The question of who should control Kashmir lurks over everything, and has so far led to four wars, terrorist attacks, and counterstrikes.
- China – Just like the ongoing border conflict in the Himalaya that sees over 60,000 Indian and Chinese troops stationed opposite each other, relations between Beijing and New Delhi are stuck at a fairly constant, albeit underwhelming level. The two giants emphasize they see each other as partners, not as threats. Their leaders shake hands during summits, their foreign ministers make proclamations about ‘four-pronged perseverance’. But real examples of them working together constructively on anything are scarce. And those 60,000 troops keep staring each other down up there.
- Russia – India has long been Moscow’s biggest buyer of weaponry. Modi sees Russia as a key ally against China’s dominance in Asia. Both explain why he was hesitant to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries seem to drift apart a bit, though, as India leans more on the Quad, in which it finds the U.S., Japan, and Australia as alternative partners offering a counterweight to China.
- U.S. – Over the past three decades, India’s relationship with the U.S. has grown a lot closer as realization sinks in that the two have more in common in the 21st century than India has with Russia or China. India right away joined the U.S. this past May in the newly-formed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, for example. The U.S. labeled India a ‘major defense partner’ in 2016, the only country in the world to get this marker, significantly increasing military and intelligence cooperation between the two.
- Switzerland – Within months of India’s independence, Switzerland signed a friendship treaty with the new Republic. Some 250 Swiss companies are active there. In 2020, Switzerland exported USD 12 billion worth of gold, pharmaceuticals, machinery, and chemicals to India. Export is increasing at about 10% annually. Imports from India were worth USD 1.79 billion in 2020, growing at about 7% a year.
Here are some sources to dive deeper into highly complex and diverse India, and to join its people in celebrating 75 years of independence:
- Geography Now. Don’t let the jokes fool you – this video is chock full of facts about India’s history, culture, food, and place in the world. A highly entertaining way to learn about NJ-9842, the Seven Sisters, and Tolly-, Golly-, Kolly-, and Pollywood, all in under twenty minutes.
- Asia Society celebrates this milestone year for India with our Spotlight on India initiative, the place to find all India-related events, research, and analysis from our global network.
- The official hub for anything you’d ever want to know on how India celebrates its 75th: Amrit Mahotsav.
- To watch the festivities live, tune into India’s national broadcaster Doordarshan via YouTube.
- In May 2022, we organized an Oxford Debate on the motion ‘India’s Democracy Is Under Severe Threat’. Read the arguments in favor and against and watch the debate here.