How the Idea of ‘India’ Came About

The story of India as a nation was written over millennia, symbolized in the emblem of a newly formed state

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How the Idea of ‘India’ Came About
Telangana state policemen march past the new state’s coat-of-arms during Formation Day celebrations on June 2, 2014/Noah Seelam/AFP via Getty Images

In June 2014, India created its 25th state, Telangana. Located in the heart of the south Indian Deccan Plateau, Telangana emerged from the larger state of Andhra Pradesh. For its official emblem, the new state chose a round logo with text and images that in many ways are emblematic of India’s history and diversity.

The phrase “Government of Telangana” in English, Telugu, and Urdu ring the emblem. These languages both highlight India’s linguistic diversity and reflect major periods of its past. Telugu, spoken by 85 million people, is part of the Dravidian language family of India’s southern peninsula. Urdu, a combination of Persian and north Indian languages, is written in the Perso-Arabic script and reflects India’s contact with West Asia and Islam. Finally, English stems from India’s two-century-long contact with British colonialism.

Inside the emblem, three images capture Telangana’s deep history that symbolically draws upon India’s history writ large. Dominating the imagery are the carved pillars and slabs of a gateway that once decorated the ancient capital city of Warangal. This city, larger than London at the time, served as the capital of the Telugu-speaking Kakatiya kingdom. Depicted within the gate is the Charminar, a minareted structure that was the central, iconic building of the Qutb Shahi sultanate. Finally, superimposed on the gate image is the four-headed lion statue that once stood atop a pillar that Indian ruler Ashoka commissioned in the third century BCE, subsequently adopted by the modern nation state of India as one of its official symbols. Thus, the linguistic and visual choices for the new state’s emblem embody India’s diverse peoples, faiths, languages, and histories.

Yet Telangana and India’s diversity are under threat. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads a Hindu chauvinist government that has adopted policies that leave religious minority communities — Muslims and Christians in particular — fearful for their safety. Urdu and the Perso-Arabic script are under attack as being “foreign” to India; assaults on the press have stained India’s secular and democratic identity; and attacks on women’s safety continue to make grim headlines. The ongoing pandemic affects all Indians but disproportionately hurts the poor who — along with India’s massive middle class — may yet reject Modi’s much-trumpeted campaign slogan, achhe din aane waale hain (better days are coming). While the future is unclear, Telangana and India’s rich history offer their own form of “better days” upon which to look back and seek solace and inspiration.

Humans have inhabited the Indian subcontinent for millennia, but “history” often starts with the Indus Valley civilization. Archaeologists and historians alike share this earliest period of Indian history. The Indus Valley period, circa 2500-1500 BCE, witnessed the use of script — still undeciphered — as well as urbanization, trade, and forms of social structure. The script combines shapes and sometimes animal figures. It appears on small stone “seals” thought to have been pressed into clay to identify bags of grain or other commodities. Seals have been unearthed in the urban cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, located near the Indus River and now in the heart of modern Pakistan. The cities sprawled out along neat, grid-shaped lanes. Homes were two stories tall, with evidence of indoor plumbing and running water.

Also evident are “leader” figures — a famous statue depicts a man sporting a decorated sash, broad nose, trimmed beard, and wide lips — as well as a “dancing girl” figure, cast in metal with her hands jauntily at her hips. So, too, have toys been unearthed, all indicating that the Indus Valley people reached new heights of sophistication in social structure, art, and leisure. Scholars previously argued that the Indus Valley people suffered an “invasion” circa 1500 BCE by Central Asian Aryans. However, the invasion theory has been dismissed by mainstream academics in lieu of a dual theory of migration combined with environmental factors that led to the decline of the Indus Valley peoples.

From the Vedic period, circa 1500-500 BCE, come the first written accounts of India. First composed orally and transmitted over centuries, these texts — together known as the Vedas — describe early conflicts between newcomers to north India and the “dark-skinned” people they encountered. The Vedic peoples brought with them Indo-European language that evolved to become Sanskrit. Over time Sanskrit produced an array of north Indian languages from Hindi to Bengali, from Punjabi to Marathi. Linguists have demonstrated the shared roots of Sanskrit and English; for instance, nava and matr in Sanskrit are “nine” and “mother” in English. The Vedic people dominated the Ganges valley region. They waged war in horse-drawn chariots, consumed a magical elixir (soma) that gave them energy and strength in battle, and developed increasingly sophisticated social structures, beginning with local chiefs who became kings and great kings (raja and maharaja), and hierarchies that placed the priestly caste (Brahmans) at the pinnacle of the social order.

This, perhaps, was the first time that much of India was conceived of — at least in Ashoka’s mind — as a larger polity

In the sixth century in north India, Gautama Buddha was born. This began the next phase of Indian history, the Buddhist period lasting from 500 BCE to 700 CE. During this time, Buddhism spread across many parts of India, with some prominent Indian rulers taking up its cause. The best known is the Mauryan ruler Ashoka, who spread Buddhist tenets through inscriptions posted across India. This, perhaps, was the first time that much of India was conceived of — at least in Ashoka’s mind — as a larger polity. Also during this time, India had first contact with Grecian powers. Greeks and their Indian counterparts commingled, resulting in new art forms, increased trade, and shared knowledge. Grecian influence is visible in the four-headed lion used both by Telangana state and the government of India. Under the Mauryan kings and their successors the Guptas, India witnessed a blossoming of the arts. Temples, statues, paintings, poetry, and literature — for instance, the Kama Sutra — all flourished.

Across India’s south-central plateau, the Deccan, and deep into the peninsula, regional kingdoms thrived. Here, kings commissioned elaborate capital cities and embellished them with monumental architecture. They waged war with each other, and in the 11th century, Chola kingdom warriors expanded India’s contact into Southeast Asia, setting off a new cultural direction in that region. By the mid-14th century, the Vijayanagar kingdom arose on the banks of the Tungabhadra River. It encompassed all the southern kingdoms that had preceded it. The Telugu language used in Telangana came to the fore at this time. Its kings waged almost constant war with its neighbors to the north, the Bahmani sultans and their descendants.

The Bahmanis were descendants of earlier Muslim sultanates of north India. Islam came to India in the early eighth century. Early contact consisted of annual springtime raids through the passes of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan and into the north Indian heartland. These ventures sought material wealth, not religious converts. At the time, Hindus stored much of their personal and community wealth in local temples, so these structures took the brunt of such attacks. That these were religious sites added spiritual motivation for Muslims and caused bitter resentment for Hindus. The Ghaznavids and Ghurids followed this pattern, and the latter settled in India, thus beginning a long history of Muslim sultanates and empires in India.

A series of sultanates ruled north India in the centuries before the Mughals, while in the south, kingdoms like the Kakatiya — whose architecture is so prominently featured in Telangana’s emblem — gave way to Deccan sultans. These rulers periodically confronted the Vijayanagar kingdom in the deep south while simultaneously embellishing the Deccan with forts, palaces, new cities, and an artistic renaissance. The Charminar of Hyderabad, also featured in the emblem, was a byproduct of the Qutb Shahi sultanate when they established the new city of Hyderabad at the end of the 16th century.

In the north, in 1526, the young Central Asian Prince Babur confronted the last of the Delhi sultans, Ibrahim, on a battlefield outside of modern New Delhi. Far from a “clash of civilizations,” here two Muslim princes waged a pitched battle. Babur triumphed and became the first of six great Mughals. For the Mughal rulers, whose control covered much of the subcontinent, India could be imagined as something close to a unified state. However, for the millions of people beneath their rule, no sense of a “nation” or being part of “India” is evident. Babur and his son Humayun established the Mughal toehold in the north, but it was the third Mughal, Akbar, who expanded the empire in every direction. Akbar ruled as a gifted administrator, military commander, and liberal thinker. He married across faith lines, taking a Hindu Rajput bride, and he explored new spiritual ideas. Succeeding Mughals — Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb — each enriched Mughal rule in their own way. Jahangir helped begin the “Mughal miniature” school of painting; Shah Jahan bequeathed India and the world the incomparable Taj Mahal; and Aurangzeb, through religious fervor and strategic stubbornness, was the last of the great Mughals.

In 1498, 28 years before Babur came to India, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, carried in a palanquin by his men, came ashore on India’s west coast. This marked the beginning of India’s contact with European powers. The Portuguese established their base at Goa and were soon followed by Dutch, French, and British representatives of their East India companies. All were looking for spices but also traded in textiles. Indian silks and cottons were so fine and of such high quality that when folded over multiple times, one could still read print through them. While other powers faded in India, by the mid-18th century, the British East India Company emerged as the sole survivor in the competition to capitalize on India’s vast resources.

At this time, a confrontation in Bengal in 1757 resulted in the British East India Company all but assuming full control over the lives of Bengalis. The Company fundamentally shifted from trading in India to ruling in India. With the last Mughal, Aurangzeb, dead in 1707, and a rapid-fire succession of heirs, British power worked itself into the growing cracks of the once-great Mughal Empire. The 18th century saw the rise of Mughal successor states; for instance, the Nizam of Hyderabad became one of India’s many independent princes. Company governor-generals in India each brought their own set of priorities: Under William Bentinck, a “Minute on Education,” penned by Thomas Macaulay, declared that the British should raise a class of Indians “in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It also disparaged Indian language and literature, and thus the effort to spread and prioritize English began in earnest. By 1857, the Company had made a series of strategic mistakes and faced an uprising that spread across north India. Once it was suppressed, Queen Victoria simultaneously dismantled the Company and brought India formally into the British Empire.

After the events of 1857-1858, several changes — both practical and ideological — swept across India. The British government rekindled interest and affection for India’s princely states. Their pomp, bunting, and general political conservatism fit well with ideas about the Raj. While bearing no truth, Muslims were generally believed to be behind the uprising, and their role and opportunities in government declined. Fraternizing between Indians and Britons also waned. While during the 18th century many Britons became enamored with all things Indian, by the 19th century, a chilling sense of racial superiority and separation marked many Britons’ interactions with Indians.

To better know, order, and classify their subjects, the British launched a census in 1871. For the first time, many Indians had to commit to paper their faith, caste, and other markers of identity. This resulted in new forms of social organizing, such as vernacular newspapers, pamphlets, clubs, and societies, as well as political groups. By 1885, a group of liberal Britons and their Indian counterparts established the Indian National Congress, which began as a type of association but later morphed into a political party, still active today.

Born in India, educated in London, and employed in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi returned to India in 1915, armed with fresh ideas about power and resistance. His power came from “soul-force” or “truth-force” called satyagraha, whereas his style of resistance was militantly nonviolent (encapsulated in the term ahimsa). He fasted, agitated, and marched to draw attention to the cause of Indian suffering and British misrule. Decades later, Martin Luther King Jr. would visit India to learn these techniques, and decades after that, Black Lives Matter activists would update them using recent technology to fight for social justice issues that Mahatma Gandhi would recognize today.

India faced critical social justice issues as the Second World War ended. Hindus — and especially Brahmans — chafed at the claims of the untouchable community championed by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. More menacing, relations between Hindus and Muslims deteriorated, and communal violence rocked India in the early 1940s. For Muslims, the end of British rule portended becoming a permanent minority in a Hindu-dominated country. Resisting such a fate, Muhammed Ali Jinnah took hold of the All India Muslim League — a counterpart to the Indian National Congress — and lobbied for a new homeland for South Asia’s Muslims: Pakistan.

On the one hand, since independence in 1947, India has charted an almost unbroken path of democracy, while on the other, it has endured multiple domestic and regional challenges. As the new nation moved past independence and Partition, which hived off India’s east and west regions into Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru faced multiple challenges. First, a war over the onetime princely state of Kashmir marred the immediate moment after independence. India and Pakistan would fight two more declared wars over Kashmir and engage in several undeclared conflicts, costing both countries untold financial burden, decimating Kashmir and its people, and stoking flames of communal violence. As conflict ensued in Kashmir, the largest princely state, Hyderabad, signed neither with Pakistan nor India at independence and had to be forcibly merged with the Indian union in 1948. Second, Nehru faced calls to redraw India’s postcolonial map to better reflect India’s linguistic composition. Telugu activist Potti Sriramulu led the charge and — following Gandhian techniques — fasted unto death for the creation of a Telugu state. In 1956, Nehru gave in, and the map of India was fundamentally redrawn.

Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, became prime minister in 1966. She inherited from her predecessors a country barely able to feed itself and thus invested heavily in grain technology (developed in the U.S.), which was mostly deployed in the north Indian state of Punjab. By 1975, Indira Gandhi’s control over the Congress party and the nation had considerably weakened. Rather than accepting defeat in an election, she declared a two-year-long Emergency that suspended the constitution and allowed her and her chosen successor, her son Sanjay, to run India by authoritarian means. When the Emergency was lifted, Indira Gandhi lost power in the election of 1977, but by 1980 — begging forgiveness — she made a political comeback.

In the early 1980s, Indira Gandhi played the “ethnic card” in domestic Indian politics, especially in Punjab. Having pitted political groups against each other, extremists emerged in Punjab and waged an insurrection against Indira Gandhi and her government. After ordering an attack on the Sikh holy Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi paid for her meddling with her life — gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards. Sanjay had died in a plane crash, and her other son Rajiv took power. Beyond India, Rajiv led the country into the civil war erupting in Sri Lanka, and after losing power among charges of corruption, Rajiv, too, paid for his interference with his life at the hands of a suicide bomber.

The 1990s saw the rise of Hindu nationalism across India. In December 1992, Hindu nationalists stormed the Babri Masjid in the north Indian town of Ayodhya. The mosque’s destruction unleashed a wave of communal violence across India and beyond. While those wounds began to heal in the 2000s, they were never far from the surface. The creation of several new states, the election of India’s first Sikh prime minister, and the election of India’s first female president could not displace uglier moments, such as the slaughter of Muslims in 2002 under Modi, who was Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time. Modi would rise to national fame and become prime minister in 2014, shortly thereafter signing the necessary paperwork for the creation of the new state of Telangana. Under his term, the economy has faltered, and communities (Muslims, Christians, Dalits) have all felt increasingly insecure in the world’s largest democracy. On Jan. 30, 2020, India reported its first COVID-19 case. Cities like Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana and once the capital of a unified Telugu-speaking Andhra state, shut down. Yet for millions unable to afford to stop working, the pandemic remains deadly.

How Telangana and India emerge from the pandemic is unclear. The economic damage wrought by the shutdown will not be easily repaired. Yet more troubling is the growing muscularity of India’s Hindu nationalist forces. Given shelter (if not encouragement) by Modi, they have made sweeping changes in federal, state, and local governments alike, from voter registration shenanigans that delegitimized the citizenship of Muslims in India’s northeast to replacing Urdu language signs at railway stations with Sanskrit. Telangana’s multilingual, multifaith emblem remains a symbol of diversity, but should changes be made — for instance removing the Urdu language component or the image of the Charminar — Telangana and India’s democratic, secular, and multicultural futures may yet falter.

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