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India Is? A Subcontinent
Fifty million years ago the giant island that became India was rammed into the Asian mainland, heaving the Himalayas up to their icy heights and unfurling fertile, river-threaded plains at their base. This was the birth of the subcontinent. With the world's highest mountains to the north and the Indian Ocean washing its coasts, it undergoes the extreme weather cycles of the monsoon winds. For three months of the year they bring essential rains that sometimes swell into devastating floods. If they fail, there is drought, although the tragic famines of only a few decades ago are being avoided because the infrastructure is better. Within this immense territory of more than a million square miles (a third of the size of the United States, 13 times larger than the U.K.), live around a billion souls, fatalistic and fervent, Hindu and Muslim, peasant and industrialist, rich and poor. No other country incorporates such a dazzling kaleidoscope of humanity.
Dust, poetry, sweat, human misery, splendor, belief: these are just some of the threads that have combined to make India over the last 5,000 years or so. Deeply woven into the tapestry are the shadows of past invaders: Greeks, Turks, Persians, Afghanis, Portuguese, and British -- all left their mark on the social fabric and psyche. In the background rise minarets, domes, impregnable forts, churches, palaces, and extravagant train stations, each pointing to a cultural priority that may or may not have endured. What has remained, despite the horrors of partition that saw the world's greatest migrations, is a mesmerizing multiculturalism. Veiled Muslim women flitpast Hindus weaving perfumed garlands of flowers outside a Siva shrine; pork is eschewed by the one and beef by the other; turbanned, bearded, sword-bearing Sikhs chant from their sacred scriptures, the Granth, while pacifistic Buddhists and Jains meditate and pray. Religious belief is omnipresent, and occasionally omnidivisive.
Life of the Land
In the north are the mighty Himalayas, with their colonial hill stations, Buddhist monasteries, and lakes (notably in turbulent Kashmir). Skirting the mountains is the Gangetic plain, India's most populated and industrialized region. Stretching between the contrasting cities of Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta), it includes Hinduism's holiest cities, the Mughals' greatest monument -- the Taj Mahal -- and the place where Buddhism began. To the west unfolds the Thar Desert, home of the Rajputs, and Gujarat, a Jain stronghold.
South of the plains are the forested Aravalli and Vindhya hills, which shelter wildlife sanctuaries and majestic forts.
Halfway down the subcontinent starts the vast, boulder-strewn Deccan plateau, which embraces the cultural highlights of Ajanta, Hyderabad, Hampi, and Mysore, as well as the burgeoning city of Bangalore. Along the coastline to the east is culturally rich Orissa; to the west lie Mumbai (Bombay) and Goa. Finally comes the magical deep south, home to India's ancient Dravidian people. Here Hindus built astounding temples, early Christians erected churches, the British created Madras (Chennai), and the Keralans revel in lush garden of Eden. The subcontinent ends at Kanniyakumari, where each April the moon can be seen rising as the sun sets.
India Is? A Democracy
Intent on creating an egalitarian socialist nation, Nehru embarked on abolishing prejudice against lower caste Hindus or "untouchables" (one of Gandhi's pet aims), improving women's status and, above all, building up industry and agriculture through a series of Five Year Plans. By his death in 1964, India's food production was booming. For 17 years, Nehru had been a popular figurehead, whose honesty and dedication to his country were undisputed, but he was dogged by external problems that continued under the premiership of his daughter, Indira Gandhi. The still unresolved Kashmir issue led to three wars with Pakistan; in 1948 (resulting in Kashmir's "temporary" division), 1965 and 1971 (which led to the creation of Bangladesh). Despite the repeated negotiations, the situation remains potentially explosive. Relations with China, complicated by the occupation of Tibet, resulted in a Chinese invasion in 1962. Nehru's greatest achievement in foreign policy was the promotion of non-alignment with world powers, and the principle that the developing countries should choose their own destinies.
The euphoria that met Indira Gandhi's election victory in 1967 gradually evaporated. With a divided Congress party losing votes to the right wing, a Marxist coalition ruling Bengal, and Naxalite terrorist activities, India was nearing crisis. Social unrest was fueled by nationalizations, drought, the cost of the 1971 war against Pakistan, the oil crisis, and Indira Gandhi's high-handedness. In 1975 she imposed a dictatorial state of emergency. The press was censored and more than 10,000 people were arrested, including opposition leaders. Indira's youngest son, Sanjay Gandhi, assumed increasing powers, implementing a controversial sterilization program. Although the 1977 elections gave the Janata party a majority and even saw a humiliated Indira arrested for corruption, the phoenix rose again to carry off the 1980 elections. However, her political astuteness had faded, and an assault on Amritsar's Golden Temple, leading to the massacre of 700 Sikhs, resulted in her assassination in 1984.