India: A Story of Contrast



The COVID crisis began setting tragic mortality records in India this past spring and the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Join Active Minds as we explore the current crisis in India as well as the political and historical backdrop against which it is set. The country has been led since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a controversial but widely popular leader from the BJP, a Hindu Nationalist party. His policies have alienated the Muslim minority within India, particularly in the disputed Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir. Additionally, tensions with China have sparked border skirmishes that reflect a challenging regional dynamic between the two largest countries in the world.

Key Lecture Points

  • India has the second largest population in the world—1.3 billion people. Its population is four times larger than the population of the United States, the world’s third largest country by population. In much of the country, the population density is almost 1000 people per square mile.
  • Archeological evidence suggests proto humans may have lived on the Indian subcontinent for millions of years. The Indus River Valley in northwestern India was home to one of the “cradles of civilization.”
  • The world’s major religions have all played a role in Indian history. Vedic religions, including Hinduism, evolved in India. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born and lived in India. There have possibly been Christians in India since the time of the apostles in the first century CE. Muslims held large areas of land in India for centuries.
  • Portugal’s Vasco da Gama inaugurated the European “Age of Discovery” by navigating around the Horn of Africa to arrive in Goa, India in 1498. The British East India Company held an exclusive royal charter for trade in India until it was replaced by viceroyalty called the British Raj in 1858. India was a vital asset to the British Empire. British rule over India led to the loss of livelihoods and deaths of millions of Indians; Britain also modernized India with new technologies like railroads and canals.
  • Britain granted India independence in 1947. At independence, the British government instituted the policy of Partition which divided British India into Pakistan, controlled by Muslims, and India, controlled by Hindu. 1000s of people died as a result of Partition and three resulting Indo-Pakistani wars. Tensions remain between the two countries, particularly over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Independent India implemented socialist policies, including a command economy. It was also allied with the Soviet Union until the fall of the USSR in 1991.
    India has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It faces many obstacles to continuing rapid growth including economic inequality, gender inequality, major health challenges, sanitation, pollution, global climate change, automation and strategic competition in the region, particularly with China.

Exploration Questions

  • What role has India played in world history?
  • What do you see as the biggest challenges to modern India? How can India’s leadership address those challenges? What are its major strengths?
  • What are the differences and similarities between the rapid economic growth of India and other BRIC nations—especially China?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you ever traveled to India? If so, what was your experience.
  • Are there elements of the Indian civilization that intrigue you? The food? The dress? The architecture?
  • Do you think India will surpass the U.S. as a superpower? What will this mean to the U.S.?
  • How will the relationships among India, China and Pakistan shape the region?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Khilani, Sunhil. Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. The history of India from the lives of 50 seminal Indians including the Buddha, Ashoka, Mohandas Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.
    Click here to order
  • French, Patrick. India: A Portrait. Knopf, 2011. 416 pages. French discusses India’s political, social and economic complexities.
    Click here to order
  • Luce, Edward. In spite of the Gods: the Rise of Modern India (paperback). Anchor, 2008. 416 pages. Luces work traces India’s emergence as a global peconomic presence.
    Click here to order
  • Giridharadas, Anand. India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. Times Books, 2011. 288 pages. Reversing his parents’ immigrant path, a young Indian-American returns to India.
    Click here to order
  • Meola, Eric. India: In Word & Image. Welcome Books, 2013. 288 pages. A beautiful, full-color collection of essays, stories and poems by contemporary and classical Indian writers.
    Click here to order
  • Ramachandra, Guha. India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. Harper, 2008. 944 pages. A chronicle of the triumphs and struggles of the world’s largest democracy.
    Click here to order
  • Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Random House, 2006. 536 pages. One of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and written by India’s greatest novelist, Midnight’s Children is a fictionalized story of Indian independence and partition.
    Click here to order