The August 1947 partition of India divided the newly independent country into two new states: A Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The later was itself divided into western and eastern sections, more than 1000 miles apart: present day Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In the view of most historians, the partition of India was the central event in 20th century South Asian history. It precipitated one of the largest migrations in human history, as Muslims fled to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs to India. Up to 15 million people were uprooted, and this was accompanied by a vast outbreak of sectarian violence, as communities that had coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years massacred and killed each other. More than a million people are thought to have been killed.
The partition also marked the departure of the British from the subcontinent after 300 years in India
What led Britain to leave India?
India’s 30 year-long nationalist struggle had made it increasingly difficult and expensive to run, and after World War Two Britain no longer had the resources to control it. Indeed, Britain’s Labour government, elected in 1945, was firmly in favour of the idea of Indian self-rule. In early 1947, prime minister Clement Attlee appointed Louis Mountbatten as viceroy, instructing him: “Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out.”
Mountbatten proceeded at a speed that is now generally deemed to have been disastrous, but from a narrow British perspective he was fairly successful, the British marched out of the country with only seven casualties.
Why was partitioning India deemed to be necessary?
As a result of Muslim conquests dating back to the 11th century, a fifth of India’s population was Muslim at the time of partition. And thought Muslims and Hindus had been living side by side peacefully for centuries, the two groups became heavily polarised in the early 20th century. Prominent Muslims, feeling that the Indian National Congress, the main nationalist movement, was largely Hindu, formed the Muslim league in 1906. From the 1920s there were outbreaks of communal violence; and in 1940, the League, fearing the prospect of a Hindu-dominated India, committed itself to a separate Muslim homeland.
Congress initially opposed this idea, and negotiations between Congress leader Jawahatlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League became ever more poisonous. In 1946, a British mission proposed a loose federal structure, with three autonomous groups of provinces, but this was rejected and Mountbatten wen on to convince the major players that partition was the only option.
How was India divided?
A British barrister, Cyril Radcliffe, was given little more than a month of remake the map of India. His two boundary commissions, for Punjab and Bengal, had to draw a line through the two most divided provinces. He sat with four judges on each – two Muslim, two non-Muslim – but they split equally on contentious issues, leaving him the casting vote. The final borders were not agreed until two days after Independence. Few were happy. And very large numbers of people were left on the wrong side of the new line.
Why was partition so violent?
This question has been the subject of decades of historical debate. Indian nationalists generally blame Jinnah’s intransigence: the only India he’d accept would be a ‘divided India, or a destroyed India’, and the Direct Action Day he declared in August 1946 led to rioting and killing in Calcutta. Local politicians also stirred up violent prejudice, while landlords and businessmen paid and trained gangs of militias. ‘Divide and rule’ had ramped up tensions between different communities and the swift withdrawal of the forces of law and order left a dangerous vacuum. From August 1946 on, there were regular massacres across the country, which in turn sparked others, building to a climax in the summer of 1947.
Where was the violence worst?
It was particularly intense in Bengal and worst in Punjab, where there were massacres, forced conversions, mass abductions and rapes.”Gangs of killers set villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged, while carrying off young women to be raped,” writes Nisid Hajari in Midnight’s Furies, his history of the partition of India. “Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed the partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found roasted on spits.”
The Punjab was effectively ethnically cleansed, of Hindus and Sikhs in the west, and of Muslims in the east. Refugee trains were ambushed and sent on to the border full of the murdered and the maimed. Karachi, Pakistan’s first capital, was nearly half Hindu before partition, by the end of the decade, almost all its Hindus had fled. Some 200 000 Muslims were forced out of Delhi.
Those who suffered the most: the women
During the partition, women were abducted, raped and mutilated in vast numbers. Victims were tattooed with phrases such as ‘Jai Hind’ (victory to India) and ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ (long live Pakistan). Stories abound of men killing their own wives and children in order to spare them the shame of possible capture and rape.
The Indian government has estimated that 83 000 women were abducted in 1947, mostly from the vast columns of refugees known as Kafilas. Some 50 000 were Muslims and the rest Hindus and Sikhs. The larger number of Muslim victims is attributed to the actions of organised Sikh jathas, or armed bands. Rather than being abandoned, writes Yasmin Khan in The Great Partition, “tens of thousands of women were kept in the ‘other’ country, as permanent hostages, captives, or forced wives; they became simply known as ‘the abducted women’.”
In the eight-year period after partition, 30 000 women were eventually repatriated to the other country. More than 20 000 Muslim women were sent to Pakistan, and more than 9 000 Hindus and Sikhs to India. The rest never returned to their families.
What were the long-term effects of Partition of India?
India and Pakistan have existed in a state of permanent hostility as a result – they’ve fought three declared wars, two of them over Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority area to stay inside India. A decades-long insurgency there has left thousands dead. Today, a large Muslim minority of some 170 million people remains in India; a far smaller Hindu minority of around three million lives in Pakistan. Both groups face persecution.
Pakistan, as the smaller and weaker country, has been dominated by its army and intelligence services in large part due to the perceived threat of India. The Pakistan military has used its jihadi proxies to attack India, while India has in recent years elected intolerant Hindu nationalist leaders.
The wounds of 1947 have never healed.
Relevance of this case-study to A-level Sociology
- Can be used to illustrate how religion can be a source of conflict.
- Can be used to illustrate how conflict ‘retards’ development.
- Can be used to illustrate the relevant of feminist theory (probably difference feminism) – women seemed to have suffered more than men due to the partition.
- Can be used to illustrate the ‘ethnocentric nature’ the British history curriculum – most students will know nothing about the partition of India.
The Week, 12 August 2017.
Nisid Hajari: Midnight’s Furies
Yasmin Khan: The Great Partition
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