Country profile

Saturday 6 December 2003, by BBC News World edition

The world’s second most populous country has emerged as a major power after a period of foreign rule and several decades during which its economy was virtually closed. It has developed the capacity to strike at China and arch-rival Pakistan with its own missiles, and has carried out a programme of nuclear tests in defiance of world opinion. However, India is still struggling with huge social, economic and environmental problems.


The vast and diverse Indian sub-continent - stretching from the mountainous Afghan frontier across to the jungles of Burma - was subject to foreign rule from the early 1800s until the demise of the British Raj in 1947.

But the subsequent partition of the sub-continent sowed the seeds for future conflict with three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947.

Communal, caste and regional tensions continue to haunt Indian politics, sometimes threatening its long-standing democratic and secular ethos.

In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering troops to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

And in 1992, widespread Hindu-Muslim violence erupted after Hindu extremists demolished the Babri mosque at Ayodhya.

Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, dreamed of a socialist society and created a vast public infrastructure, much of which became a burden on the state.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, India began to open up to the outside world, encouraging economic reform and foreign investment.

The country now has a burgeoning middle class and has made great strides in fields like information technology exporting its talented professionals abroad.

India also boasts one of the world’s biggest film industries, based in the huge commercial metropolis of Bombay, also known as Mumbai.

But the vast mass of the rural population remains illiterate and impoverished.

Their lives continue to be dominated by the ancient Hindu caste system, which assigns each person a fixed place in the social hierarchy.


Population: 1 billion (UN, 2003)
Capital: New Delhi
Major languages: Hindi, English and 17 other official languages
Major religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism
Life expectancy: 63 years (men), 65 years (women) (UN)
Main exports: Agricultural products, textile goods, gems and jewelry, software services and technology, engineering goods, chemicals, leather products


President: APJ Abdul Kalam
Prime Minister: Atal Behari Vajpayee
Mr Vajpayee has spent most of the more than 40 years of his political career in opposition.

Born in 1926 to an upper caste Brahmin family, he was imprisoned briefly as a teenager for taking part in the campaign against British rule in India. After a short-lived flirtation with Communism, he chose to support right-wing Hindu organisations that later went on to develop close links with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Mr Vajpayee became BJP leader, and led it to victory in elections in 1996. Today, he is viewed as the moderate face of the BJP, who keeps his distance from Hindu extremist groups. He is also widely regarded as a master orator, who holds crowds of thousands spellbound with his speeches in purest Hindi.


Broadcasting in India has flourished since state TV’s monopoly was broken in 1992, and the number of stations and channels is still growing.

Cable and satellite TV stations command large audiences for their multichannel offerings. STAR Plus - owned by the global media giant News Corporation - is one of the most popular non-state channels. Its version of the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionnaire?" proved to be one of the channel’s biggest draws.

News programmes attract large audiences and often outperform entertainment shows. Channels dedicated to 24-hour news are up and running and more are planned. India’s dynamic national film industry supplies material to many broadcasters.

Doordarshan, the public TV service, operates 21 services including its flagship DD1 channel, which reaches some 400 million viewers.

Private radio is a relative newcomer to India’s broadcasting scene. Since they were sanctioned in 2000, music-based FM stations have proliferated in India’s cities. But only public All India Radio (AIR) is permitted to broadcast news on the radio. In late 2002 the government gave the go-ahead to educational institutions to set up their own low-power FM stations.

India’s private press is independent and active. The Official Secrets Act has sometimes been used against journalists. In 2002 a Kashmir Times reporter was jailed under the act for several months before the case against him was withdrawn.

A Freedom of Information Act, approved in 2002, proposed to give citizens the right to access some state information.

India and neighbouring Pakistan regularly engage in a war of words via their respective media, occasionally banning relays of broadcasts from the other country.

India is expected to have 25 million internet users by 2005, up from 5.5 million at the beginning of 2001.

BBC News World edition Wed 3 Dec 2003

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