The world's largest democracy has a rich and diverse culture. Now, it is also achieving more rapid economic growth
India's vast territory can be divided into three main regions from north to south. The far north and north-east of India cover part of the Himalayas including Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain. To the south, these mountains descend to the second region, a broad northern plain formed by the deposits of a number of major river systems, the most important of which is the Ganges, which emerges from the southern slopes of the Himalayas, flowing slowly south-east across the plain before spreading out into a broad delta in the Bay of Bengal.
To the west, the plain becomes a desert that extends into Pakistan. To the east, beyond the Ganges delta, India's territory circles round that of Bangladesh. The third main region, to the south of the plain beyond the Narmada River, is the Deccan plateau, a triangular region of low hills and extensive valleys, bounded along the coasts by two mountain systems: the eastern and western Ghats.
India now has over one billion people and on present trends will be the world's largest nation by 2030. The population can be subdivided in many different ways. The broadest distinction is in terms of religion. India's constitution declares it to be a secular state, but religious intolerance, known here as ‘communalism’, is never far below the surface. Hindus now account for over 80% of the population and Muslims 12%, and there has always been tension between the two. In 2002, for example, communal riots in Gujarat killed 900 people. The other main source of friction has been with the Sikh community concentrated in the northern state of Punjab. Christians too have come under attack.
Beyond religious divisions, India is also a source of vast cultural and linguistic diversity. The national language, Hindi, is widely spoken in the north but elsewhere it is displaced by dozens of other languages, from Malayalam to Tamil to Bengali, many of which use different scripts.
Another way of dividing India is by caste—a hereditary social system that has Brahmins at the top and the ‘untouchables’, who perform the most menial social tasks, at the bottom. The latter, who are now referred to as ‘scheduled castes’, have specific allocations or ‘reservations’ of government jobs and parliamentary seats. Similar positive discrimination is exercised in favour of ‘scheduled tribes’— a smaller disadvantaged group of tribal communities.
In terms of average income, India is still very poor. But the population is so large that the top 10% of the population would on its own constitute one of the world's largest industrial nations. Another significant group are the 16 million or so Indians who now live abroad, whether as permanent residents or contract workers in the Gulf and elsewhere.
India has striking regional contrasts
At home, around one-third of the population live below the poverty line and around 40% are illiterate. But there are striking regional contrasts. Thus, one of the wealthier states, Punjab, has a per capita income twice that of West Bengal. And the state of Kerala, with many enlightened social policies, has a 90% literacy rate.