Modern India has been shaped by centuries of European imperialism and colonialism, most notably the formal colonial rule by Great Britain, which governed almost all of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh during the 19th century. Perhaps the most destructive aspect of that rule was the British sowed religious divisions by defining communities based on religious identity and divided the Indian subcontinent into administrative units along religious lines.
Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan (which then included present-day Bangladesh) were eventually granted independence in 1947 as separate sovereign countries—an event that was marred by horrific sectarian violence and mutual genocidal mass killings between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. An estimated 200,000 to two million people were killed; between 10 million and 20 million people fled and migrated between the newly created countries, or were forcefully displaced in one of the largest dislocations of people in modern history.
This tragedy was perhaps the most defining moment for contemporary South Asia. It antagonized Hindus and Muslims and placed India and Pakistan on a hostile footing ever since, resulting in three separate wars and a nuclear arms race between the two countries. The conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir continues to be a constant source of tension and military confrontation today.
Of course, India remains a land of colossal proportions despite the partition. The country is, in a word, vast—it’s the world’s seventh-largest in terms of geographical area, stretching from the southern plains of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to the snow-capped Himalayas in the north. India borders Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan and features some of highest mountains on earth, the huge Thar Desert, 4,300 miles of coastline, and the famous and religiously important Ganges River. It has 36 states and territories, the largest of which are Uttar Pradesh (home to an estimated 219 million people) and Maharashtra (with approximately 119 million). To put it differently, India is a place where one individual state has more people than Pakistan or Nigeria, the world’s sixth and seventh largest countries in terms of population size.
Equally notable, there is tremendous ethnic, religious, and cultural variety across India’s states and territories. India’s constitution officially recognizes 1,108 castes and more than 700 tribes (formally called scheduled castes and tribes)—a degree of diversity that is mirrored by an astonishing assortment of languages that are spoken throughout the country.
While Hindi is the most widespread language, spoken as the mother tongue by 44 percent of the population, India’s 1991 census counted 1,576 mother tongues in total, with 184 of these languages spoken by more than 10,000 people. In terms of religious affiliation, Hindus make up the majority—almost 80 percent—of India’s population, but the country is also home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population after Indonesia—14.2 percent of the total population or about 172 million people identify as Muslims, as well as other religious minorities like Christians (2.3 percent), Sikhs (1.7 percent), Buddhists (0.7 percent), and Jains (0.4 percent).