Mar 22, 2017 | 19:40 GMT

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Why Uttar Pradesh Is India's Heart and Soul

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Why Uttar Pradesh Is India's Heart and Soul

Uttar Pradesh's central importance to India is hard to overstate. It is the country's steering wheel; anyone who wishes to control India must control Uttar Pradesh. Its importance stems from the Ganges River, whose vast drainage basin is the country's heartland. Uttar Pradesh dominates the center of this fertile alluvial plain. All streams converge here. The Ganges not only feeds a multitude but also creates a unity among its residents that isn't seen in the more fractured south, with its rugged terrain, numerous rivers and varied languages. By comparison, a large portion of the north shares a language, Hindi, while the religion that sprung up upon the Ganges' banks — Hinduism — has the river woven deeply into its spiritual values.

Uttar Pradesh has also lain at the heart of most of the biggest Indian empires. The Mughals based themselves out of the Uttar Pradesh city of Agra, while the British placed the utmost importance on the Grand Trunk Road, which ran alongside the Ganges from Delhi to Calcutta. In fact, events in Uttar Pradesh marked the beginning of the end for the British Raj. In 1856, the British annexed the Muslim kingdom of Awadh in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. This, along with other problems, proved too much for Indian citizens to bear, and in 1857 large numbers of native Indian troops rebelled across the northern plain. The incident signaled the start of the Indian struggle for independence, which largely centered on the Indo-Gangetic Plain until its goal was finally achieved in 1947.

In some ways, Uttar Pradesh even represents a cross section of India and its politics since independence. Like the whole, Uttar Pradesh is 80 percent Hindu, but within that figure lie extremes. In a country where caste is all-important, Uttar Pradesh hosts 40 percent of India's Brahmins, the priestly upper caste. Taken together with Thakurs — a warrior caste previously known in the area as Rajputs — higher castes make up around 20 percent of Uttar Pradesh's population. But as in other states, the political clout of the lower castes has risen since independence. The "backward caste" Yadavs (8.5 percent) and the "untouchable" Jatavs (11.5 percent) in particular have grown more prominent in the state. Uttar Pradesh also has proportionally more Muslims than the Indian whole. This sizable Muslim population has increased the risk of communal friction arising in the state.

And so the history of India rests on Uttar Pradesh, and it remains the bellwether for the country's future. The state's recent re-affirmation of its support for the Bharatiya Janata Party in its 2017 elections, for example, will enhance and accelerate the spread of Hindu nationalism in India, which in turn will likely exacerbate friction between Hindus and Muslims, north and south.

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