On January 26, 1950, the Indian constitution takes effect, making the Republic of India the most populous democracy in the world.
Mohandas Gandhi struggled through decades of passive resistance before Britain finally accepted Indian independence. Self-rule had been promised during World War II, but after the war triangular negotiations between Gandhi, the British and the Muslim League stalled over whether to partition India along religious lines. Eventually, Lord Mountbatten, the viceroy of India, forced through a compromise plan. On August 15, 1947, the former Mogul Empire was divided into the independent nations of India and Pakistan. Gandhi called the agreement the “noblest act of the British nation,” but religious strife between Hindus and Muslims soon marred his exhilaration. Hundreds of thousands died, including Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic in January 1948 during a prayer vigil to an area of Muslim-Hindu violence.
Of Gandhi’s death, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere.” However, Nehru, a leader of the Indian struggle for independence and Gandhi’s protege, persisted in his efforts to stabilize India, and by 1949 the religious violence began to subside. In late 1949, an Indian constitution was adopted, and on January 26, 1950, the Republic of India was born.
With universal adult franchise, Nehru hoped to overcome India’s “caste-ridden” society and promote greater gender equality. Elections were to be held at least every five years, and India’s government was modeled after the British parliamentary system. A president would hold the largely ceremonial post of head of state but would be given greater powers in times of emergency. The first president was Rajendra Prasad.
Nehru, who won his first of three subsequent elections in 1952, was faced with staggering challenges. A massively underdeveloped economy and overpopulation contributed to widespread poverty. Nehru also had to force the integration of the former princely states into the Indian union and suppress movements for greater autonomy in states like Punjab.
In his years of struggle against Britain, he always advocated nonviolence but as prime minister sometimes had to stray from this policy. He sent troops into the Portuguese enclaves of Goa and Daman and fought with China over Kashmir and Nepal. He died in 1964 and was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri. Later, Nehru’s only child, Indira Gandhi, served four terms as a controversial prime minister of India.