Challenges to Modern India

Upon achieving independence, India built on the legacy of British rule to form a parliamentary democracy. Although India is today the world's largest democracy, it has faced many challenges. Ethnic and religious tensions threatened its unity. Its people speak over 100 languages and many dialects. Hundreds of millions of Indians lived in desperate poverty. Despite unrest and diversity, India has emerged as a major world power.

Strong Prime Ministers Set Goals

During its early decades, India benefited from strong leadership. The Congress Party, which had spearheaded the independence movement, worked to turn India into a modern nation. From 1947 to 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru (juh WAH huhr lahl NAY roo), leader of the Congress Party, was India's prime minister. He worked to build a modern, secular state dedicated to promoting economic growth and social justice. Under Nehru, food output rose, but so did India's population. The government encouraged family planning to reduce the birthrate, but with limited success.

Photo of an older woman in glasses and a sari, seated at a desk reading papers.

Indira Gandhi served as India's prime minister for almost 15 years, though not consecutively. She lost her election in 1977 due to unpopular policies, but won back the seat in 1980.

Although India's 1947 constitution banned discrimination against people in the lowest castes, discrimination based on caste continued. Nehru's government set aside jobs and places in universities for dalits, and other lower-caste Indians. Still, higher-caste Hindus generally got better schooling and jobs.

Later, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, served as prime minister for most of the years between 1966 and 1984. She had a global influence and challenged traditional discrimination against women.

Religious Conflicts Persist

India was a land of many religions. A majority of Indians were Hindu, but millions were Muslim, Sikh, Christian, or Buddhist. At times, religious divisions led to violence.

Some Sikhs wanted greater autonomy for Punjab, a prosperous, largely Sikh state in northern India. Sikh dissidents engaged in protests, most of them nonviolent, against government policies. These protests were organized from the Golden Temple, the most prominent Sikh house of worship. Indira Gandhi planned an attack to remove Sikh dissidents hiding in the Golden Temple.

Photo of a man standing in robes, speaking to a group of seated men in turbans.

Jawaharlal Nehru meets with Indian citizens of Pashtun ethnicity. Pashtuns are ethnic Afghans and are predominantly Muslim.

As news of this planned attack leaked, Sikh activists fortified the Golden Temple with arms and weapons. Indian troops attacked the temple in 1984. Over a thousand Sikhs were killed and many religious artifacts were destroyed. Soon after, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. In the state-sponsored anti-Sikh riots that followed, thousands more Sikhs were killed.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments