India is the world's largest democracy and according to UN estimates, its population is expected to overtake China's in 2028 to become the world's most populous nation.
As a rising economic powerhouse and nuclear-armed state, India has emerged as an important regional power.
But it is also tackling huge, social, economic and environmental problems.
Home to some of the world' s most ancient surviving civilizations, the Indian subcontinent - from the mountainous Afghan frontier to the jungles of Burma - is both vast and diverse in terms of its people, language and cultural traditions.
President: Ram Nath Kovind
Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit - one of India's lowest castes - was picked by an electoral college to become president in July 2017.
He is a Supreme Court lawyer and has earned widespread respect as the governor of the northern state of Bihar.
India's presidency is largely ceremonial but can play a significant role if, for example, no party wins an outright majority in national elections.
Prime Minister: Narendra Modi
Hard-line Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi stormed to power on a surge of popular expectation and anger at corruption and weak growth.
Despite Mr Modi's polarising image, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scored an unprecedented landslide victory in the May 2014 parliamentary elections.
It was the first time in 30 years that a single party had won a parliamentary majority on its own.
Mr Modi fought his campaign on his record as chief minister of the economically successful state of Gujarat, promising to revitalise India's flagging economy.
But his time as chief minister of Gujarat was overshadowed by accusations that he did too little to stop the religious riots in 2001 which saw more than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, killed.
India has a burgeoning media industry, with broadcast, print and digital media experiencing tremendous growth.
There are more than 180 million TV households, many of them using satellite or cable. FM radio stations are plentiful but only public All India Radio can produce news.
The press scene is lively with thousands of titles. There are more than 462 million internet users.
Some key dates in India's history:
2500 BC - India has been home to several ancient civilisations and empires.
1600s - The British arrive in India and establish trading posts under The British East India Company - by the 1850s they control most of India.
1858 - The British Raj: India comes under direct British government rule.
1920 - Independence Struggle: Nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi heads a campaign of non-violent protest against British rule which eventually leads to independence.
1947 - Partition: India is split into two nations both gaining independence, secular but Hindu-majority India and Muslim-controlled Pakistan. Both countries fight the first of three wars over Kashmir.
1950 - India becomes a republic. The Indian National Congress becomes the dominant party.
1962 - India and China fight a brief border war.
1971 - India and Pakistan go to war over East Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
1974 - India conducts its first underground nuclear test.
1990s - Government initiates a programme of economic liberalisation and reform, opening up the economy to global trade and investment.
2000 - India's population tops 1 billion.
2014 - Hindu nationalist BJP party scores biggest election victory by any party in 30 years.
Population 1.3 billion
Area 3.1 million sq km (1.2 million sq miles), excluding Kashmir
Major languages Hindi, English and more than 20 other official languages
Major religions Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism
Life expectancy 67 years (men), 70 years (women)
Since coming into power in May 2014, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government has issued a number of official orders, circulars and notifications that it claims are meant to promote the Hindi language. For example, the new rupee notes issued by the Reserve Bank of India after demonetization in November 2016 carry numerals in the Devanagari script (used to write in Hindi, among a number of other languages). In March 2017, milestones on national highways in Tamil Nadu suddenly changed from English to Hindi. Most recently, in April 2017, the president of India gave “in principle” approval to the recommendation made by a Parliamentary panel that the “HRD [Human Resource Development] Ministry needs to make credible efforts for making Hindi a compulsory subject,” and that Hindi should be “compulsorily taught in all CBSE [Central Board for Secondary Education] schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas [Central Schools] until Class X.”
In non-Hindi speaking areas, all these steps are considered as a part of plan to impose Hindi over them. The government has justified its actions by saying that it is promoting the language and not imposing it.
Hindi-Hindu IssuesEnjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Historically, the use of Hindi has not only been an issue between speakers and non-speakers but has also polarized the religious communities in India. Claimed to be the mother tongue of only 25 percent of Indians, Hindi is a regional language spoken in many dialects. During the British rule in India, Hindi — in Khari Boli form — was considered the language of Hindus. This sense still prevails in the minds of many individuals and find support from some religious organizations.
One of the early steps toward communal division of language was taken after the setting up of Fort William College in 1800. Under the director of the College, John Barthowick Gilchrist, reading materials were prepared for the trainees in two different scripts: For Muslims, Urdu written in Persian script was used, and for Hindus, Hindi written in Devanagari script.
Decades later, after the fall of Mughal Empire in 1857, as a part of the divide-and-rule policy, the British promoted Hindi language as an effort to erect Hindi-based Hindu nationalism against the declining Mughal elites. One Hindi supporter was Sir Anthony MacDonnell, lieutenant governor of the North-Western Provinces and chief commissioner of Oudh. In 1900 MacDonnell issued an order, which, according to Alok Rai, allowed the “permissive — but not exclusive — use” of Devanagari in the courts of the province.
During the anti-colonial movement, in an attempt to unite Hindus and Muslims over language issue, the Indian National Congress insisted on the use of Hindustani, a hybrid language that mixed Hindi and Urdu and was written in either Urdu or Devanagari script. To promote the Hindustani language for communal unity, the Indian National Congress leadership, under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi, came up with the Wardha Scheme of Education in 1937. Under this plan, which was endorsed at the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, education was to be promoted in Hindustaniwritten in both Hindi and Urdu script.
The Wardha scheme was opposed by the Muslim League, which came out with the Pirpur report in response. The report was critical to the Wardha Scheme of Education and dismissed Hindustani as non-existent language. Both the report and the Muslim League’s leadership asserted that Urdu was a language of Indian Muslims, which had to be promoted at the national level. The effect of this religion-based linguistic identity was so strong that even Muslims from non-Urdu speaking provinces favored Urdu (one strong supporter was A.K. Fazlul Haq, a Bengali-speaking leader of the League).
In the 1940s, when the Indian constituent assembly was discussing the language issue, a majority of Hindu members were initially willing to give Hindustani the status of a national language. However, many changed their positions due to the then ongoing violence related to the partition. The sense of “otherness” and “their language” became stronger. As a result, Hindu lawmakers started demanding that Hindi be declared as the national language of India. Late historian Granville Austin has written that partition killed Hindustani and endangered the position of English and the provincial languages in the constitution. According to K. Santhanam, a member from south India in the constituent assembly, “If there had been no partition, Hindustani would without doubt have been the national language, but the anger against Muslims turned [members] against Urdu.”
Post-independence, attempts to “Sanskritize” Hindi and “Arabize” Urdu have further deepened the rift between the two languages.
Hindi Versus Regional languages
The issue of Hindi versus other regional languages also cropped up during the anti-colonial movement. In 1921 the Indian National Congress accepted the idea of political units based on vernaculars and also of linguistic provinces. In the constituent assembly there was a difference of opinion among the members on the issue of Hindi. The case for Hindi as a national language was strongly supported by the majority members from Hindi-speaking north and central India. On the other side was a group from east and south India in favor of English and local languages.
According to Austin, the central points of the controversy were the length of time English should continue to be used as the language of government and the status to be accorded to other regional languages. Supporters of Hindi believed that Hindi should not only be the “national” language, by virtue of inherent superiority over other Indian languages, but that it should replace English for official purposes immediately or in a very short time. Supporters also held that Hindi should soon replace English as the second language of the provinces. The second group, and some moderates including Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that English, as the de facto national language, should be replaced slowly and cautiously. Their differences were resolved by Munshi-Ayyangar formula, where it was accepted that the official language of the Union was to be Hindi with the Devanagari script, but that international numerals would be used. However, English was to be used for Union affairs for 15 years. Parliament could extend the period of English use or mandate the use of Devanagari numerals.
In 1963, the Official Languages Act was passed. It maintained that from 1965 English “may” still be used along with Hindi in official communication. In 1965, as the due date was approaching, a state-wide protest was called in Tamil Nadu against what was seen as the imposition of Hindi language. In solidarity with the protesters, on February 11, 1965, two Union ministers from Tamil Nadu resigned from their offices.
To manage the growing effect of the anti-Hindi movements in Tamil Nadu and stop its spread to other non-Hindi speaking states, then-Indian Prime Minister Lal Bhadur Shastri made a public statement saying that he would honor Nehru’s assurance that English would be used as long as the people wanted. The government of the day ruled out its earlier position on replacing the use of English language with Hindi.
The prime minister’s assurance on the issue was taken as an assurance from the Congress party as a whole. This was one of the reasons why, for years afterward, the party won significant number of seats in south India, including in the 1977 general elections (despite committing brutalities during Emergency days from 1975 to 1977). The fear was still there that the rival Janta Party might impose Hindi on south India.
In subsequent years steps were taken by the succeeding Union governments to spread the use of Hindi in non-Hindi speaking parts of India. Yet Hindi has not been conveniently accepted as their “own” language by people beyond north India. Though there has been an increase in the number of non-native Hindi speakers who can speak or understand the language, this may be due to cultural factors rather than government policy.
Language flourishes by attracting people and not through imposition from the above. One major attraction has been the Hindi film industry, which has popularized the Hindi language in non-Hindi speaking areas of India. As historian Ramachandra Guha writes, Hindi cinema, over time, “made the Hindi language comprehensible to those who previously never spoke or understood it. When imposed by fiat by the central government, Hindi was resisted by the people of the south and the east. When conveyed seductively by the medium of cinema and television, Hindi has been accepted by them.”
Amit Ranjan is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. The views expressed in the piece are of the author and do not reflect those of the institute the author is associated with.