Indian Government: Historical vs. Contemporary

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Indian subcontinent has contained settled civilizations for roughly 5000 years. That's a lot of time to develop various forms of government. In this lesson, we'll explore India's governments from the first to the most recent.

The Governments of India

The subcontinent of India is huge. It has also consistently been one of the most populated places on Earth. And it's old, as in one-of-the-first-settled-civilizations-in-the-world old. My point is that India has basically had chances to try out nearly every system of government that humans have come up with. You can do things like that when your civilization is over 5000 years old. So, let's take a tour through India's history and see what their government looked like across time.

The Indus Valley Civilization

Let's start with India's first settled civilization. Originating sometime between 3000 and 2600 BCE, India's first civilizations appeared around the Indus Valley. We often call them the Harappan civilization after their largest city, Harappa.

The Indus Valley societies lived in complex cities, which suggests that there were highly-organized governments. However, we know very little about these governments because we cannot read Harappan writing. Due to the lack of obvious palaces or other indicators of a strong social hierarchy, some scholars think that these societies were largely egalitarian, or perhaps operated as republics. Other scholars think that this much organization in an early society would require a strong central government, likely a monarchy, and that we just haven't uncovered all of the evidence yet.

The cities of the Indus Valley suggest an organized government

Indian Kingdoms and Empires

The Indus Valley civilizations developed in the northwestern corner of the subcontinent. Its important to remember that for most of India's history, there was no single Indian kingdom or identity. There were several governments operating at any given time, most of them small kingdoms and empires.

In fact, the next major rise of cities after the Indus Valley was called the Mahajanapadas, also known as the period of the sixteen kingdoms that started around 600 BCE. While generally monarchies, some of these kingdoms may have been essentially republics, operating with a semblance of a representative government.

The first real attempt to unify the entire subcontinent under a single government came with the rise of the Maurya Empire around 322 BCE. Under this empire, India gained more unified systems of trade, art, and government and grew in wealth and population. After extensive military campaigns, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great became adamantly opposed to violence, and embraced Buddhism, generating the first substantial spread of the philosophy-religion.

The Maurya Empire was the first time most of the subcontinent was unified

For the two millennia, the Indian subcontinent was divided between various kingdoms, empires and, after Muslim conquests of the subcontinent, sultanates. The entire subcontinent was never completely controlled by a single government, and different regions of India developed their own distinct identities.

British Raj

The big change to this came in the 19th century. The ever-expansive British East India Company invaded the subcontinent in order to gain access to trade routes running through Asia. In 1858, the subcontinent was handed over to the British Empire and formally organized as a unified British colony, which they simply called India.

The period of British rule over India was called the British Raj, which means 'rule' in Hindi. While some of the subcontinent was directly administered by the British, many Indian kingdoms were recognized as princely states, which meant that they were recognized as having a level of autonomy and self-governance, providing they paid taxes and recognized the British monarch as their ultimate ruler.

To give you an idea of how diverse India was, by the end of the colonial period there were over 560 princely states still being ruled by native Indian rulers as miniature kingdoms within the greater British Empire.

India Today

British control of India was weakened by world wars and rising independence movements in the 20th century. In 1947, the British Raj was formally dissolved, and India became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. Indian independence was fully secured in 1950. The new nation adopted the Constitution of India, making India into a constitutional, democratic republic.

To this day, the Republic of India is guided by that same constitution, although there have been a few changes along the way. The current Indian government, centered in New Delhi, features a separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, a format copied by local state governments.

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