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Partition of India

The partition of India refers to the creation in August 1947 of two sovereign states of India and Pakistan when Britain granted independence to the former British Raj including treaty states. It also refers to the partition of Bengal and Punjab, the two main provinces of the would be Pakistan.

Ceylon was part of Madras Presidency from 1795 until it was made a separate Crown Colony in 1798. Burma was annexed by the British gradually during 1826-1886 and was governed as a part of British Indian administration until 1937, when it was established as a Crown Colony separate from India. Burma was granted independence on January 4, 1948 and Ceylon was granted independence on February 4, 1948.

Pakistan and India

Two self-governing dominions within the British Commonwealth legally came into existence at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. The ceremonies for the transfer of power were held a day earlier in Karachi, the capital of the new state of Pakistan, to allow the last British Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, to attend both the ceremony in Karachi and the ceremony in Delhi. Pakistan celebrates its Independence Day on August 14, while India celebrates it on August 15.

Background of the partition

The seeds of partition were sown long before independence, in the struggle between various factions of the Indian nationalist movement, and especially of the Indian National Congress, for control of the movement. Muslims felt threatened by Hindu majorities. The Hindus, in their turn, felt that the nationalist leaders were coddling the minority Muslims and slighting the majority Hindus.

The All India Muslim League (AIML) was formed in 1906 by Muslims who were suspicious of the mainstream, secular but Hindu-majority Indian National Congress. A number of different scenarios were proposed at various times. Among the first to make the demand for a separate state was the writer/philosopher Allama Iqbal, who, in his presidential address to the 1930 convention of the Muslim League said that he felt a separate nation for Muslims was essential in an otherwise Hindu-dominated subcontinent. The Sindh Assembly passed a resolution making it a demand in 1935. Iqbal, Jauhar and others then worked hard to draft Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had till then worked for Hindu Muslim unity, to lead the movement for this new nation. By 1930, Jinnah had despaired of Indian politics, particularly getting mainstream parties such as the Congress (of which he was once a member) to be sensitive to minority priorities. At the 1940 AIML conference in Lahore, Jinnah made clear his commitment to two separate states, a position from which the League never again wavered:

"The Hindus and the Muslims belong to two different religions, philosophies, social customs and literature . . . To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state." 

However, Hindu organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha, though against the division of the country, were also insisting on the same chasm between Hindus and Muslims. In 1937 at the open session of the Hindu Mahasabha held at Ahmedabad, Veer Savarkar in his presidential address asserted:

"India cannot be assumed today to be Unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main - the Hindus and the Muslims." 

Many of the Congress leaders were secularists and resolutely opposed the division of India on the lines of religion. The extremely influential Mohandas Gandhi, popular among both Hindus and Muslims, was both religious and irenic, believing that Hindus and Muslims could and should live in amity. He opposed the partition, saying:

"My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God." 

For years, Gandhi and his adherents struggled to keep Muslims in the Congress Party (a major exit of many Muslim activists began in the 1930s), in the process enraging both Hindu and Muslim extremists. (Gandhi was assassinated soon after Partition by Nathuram Godse, who believed that Gandhi was appeasing Muslims at the cost of Hindus.) Politicians and community leaders on both sides whipped up mutual suspicion and fear, culminating in dreadful events such as the riots during the Muslim League's "Direct Action Day" of August 1946 in Calcutta, in which more than 5,000 people were killed and many more injured. As public order broke down all across northern India and Bengal, the pressure increased to seek a political partition of territories as a way to avoid a full-scale civil war.

Right until 1946, the definition of Pakistan as demanded by the League was so flexible that it could have been interpreted as a sovereign nation Pakistan, or as a member of a confederated India. A few historians believe that this was Jinnah's doing and that he intended to use Pakistan as a means of bargaining in order to gain more independence for the Muslim dominated provinces in the west from the Hindu dominated center.

Many other experts believe that Jinnah's real vision was for a Pakistan that extended into Hindu-majority areas of India, by demanding the inclusion of the East of Punjab and West of Bengal, including Assam, all Hindu-majority country. Jinnah also fought hard for the annexation of Kashmir a Muslim majority state with Hindu ruler; and the accession of Hyderabad and Junagadh Hindu-majority states with Muslim rulers. Such political devices bring into question Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory by his interest in areas with heavy Hindu populations.

The process of division

The actual division between the two new dominions was done according to what has come to be known as the 3rd June Plan or Mountbatten Plan.

The border between India and Pakistan was determined by a British Government-commissioned report usually referred to as the Radcliffe Award after the London lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who wrote it. Pakistan came into being with two separate wings, East Pakistan (today Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, separated geographically by India. India was formed out of the majority Hindu regions of the colony, and Pakistan from the majority Muslim areas.

On July 18, 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act that finalized the partition arrangement. The Government of India Act 1935 was adapted to provide a legal framework for the two new dominions. The 565 Princely States were given a choice of which country to join. Those states that chose a country at odds with their majority religion, such as Junagadh, Hyderabad, and especially Kashmir, became the subject of much dispute.

Expedited, controversial process

The Partition was a highly controversial arrangement, and remains a cause of much tension on the Subcontinent today. British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten not only rushed the process through, but also is alleged to have influenced the Radcliffe awards in India's favor.

Some critics allege that British haste led to the cruelties of the Partition. Because independence was declared prior to the actual Partition, it was up to the new governments of India and Pakistan to keep public order. No large population movements were contemplated; the plan called for safeguards for minorities on both sides of the new state line. It was an impossible task, at which both states failed. There was a complete breakdown of law and order; millions (no one knows how many) died in riots, massacre, or just from the hardships of their flight to safety. What ensued was the largest population movement in recorded history.

However, some argue that the British were forced to expedite the Partition by events on the ground. Law and order had broken down many times before Partition, with much bloodshed on both sides. A massive civil war was looming by the time Mountbatten became Viceroy. The only way the British could have maintained law and order would have been through martial law, and that could not have prevented communal violence throughout India, or the inevitable clashes that would come with partition. If Mountbatten had delayed partition and independence any longer, the death toll would have been in the millions. By rushing the process through, some say, Mountbatten saved more lives than were lost in the Partition.

Population Exchanges

Massive population exchanges occurred between the two newly-formed nations in the months immediately following Partition. Once the lines were established, about 14.5 million people crossed the borders to what they hoped was the relative safety of religious majority. Based on 1951 Census of displaced persons, 7.226 million Muslims went to Pakistan from India while 7.249 million Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from Pakistan immediately after partition. About 11.2 million or 78% of the population transfer was on the west, with Punjab accounting for most of it; 5.3 million Muslims moved from India to West Punjab in Pakistan, 3.4 million Hindus and Sikhs moved from Pakistan to East Punjab in India; elsewhere in the west 1.2 million moved in each direction to and from Sind. The initial population transfer on the east involved 3.5 million Hindus moving from East Bengal to India and only 0.7 million Muslims moving the other way.

Massive violence and slaughter occurred on both sides of the border as the newly formed governments were completely unequipped to deal with migrations of such staggering magnitude. Estimates of the number of deaths vary from two hundred thousand to a million.


Violence between Hindus and Muslims, or between India and Pakistan, did not end with the Partition. India has been driven by clashes between Hindus and Muslims; the Hindus remaining in Pakistan have complained of persecution. The two neighbors have also fought three full-scale and one limited war in Kargil.

Integration of refugee populations with their new countries did not always go smoothly. The Urdu speaking Muslims who migrated to Pakistan have complained that they are discriminated against in government employment. Municipal political conflict in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, often pitted native Sindhis against immigrants. Immigrant Sindhis and Punjabis in India also experienced poverty and discrimination. However, fifty years after the Partition such conflicts have largely subsided.

India and Pakistan have also gone to war four times:

  • 1947 

  • 1965 

  • 1971 

  • 1999 Kargil Conflict 

These wars have been generally inconclusive with both sides claiming victories.They have also engaged in a nuclear arms race which has at times threatened to erupt into nuclear war.

The British-Tibetan border, winding as it did through the Himalayas, had never been definitively surveyed or marked. India, as the inheritor of a long stretch of the British borders, and the People's Republic of China, as the conqueror of Tibet, eventually clashed, leading to the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

All of the four nations resulting from the Partition of the British Raj have had to deal with endemic civil conflicts. These include:

  • In 1971, Bangladesh Liberation War between Bangladesh and Pakistan (called the Pakistani Civil War by Pakistan) earned independence for the new country of People's Republic of Bangladesh 

  • The Sikh separatist movement in the Punjab, resulting in the Golden Temple Raid in 1984 and the Punjab insurgency 

  • Insurgency in Kashmir 

  • The Mohajir movement in Pakistan and riots in Karachi 

  • Civil conflict in Sri Lanka between Sinhalese and Tamils 

  • Civil conflict between the Burmese central government and hill tribes such as the Karen 

Some political scientists, like Ernest Gellner, would argue that this is due to an imported Western political theory, nationalism. The same theory that justified Indian rebellion against the British could also justify minority rebellion against the four new governments formed from the Raj particularly as they were new and lacked the legitimacy of custom and antiquity.

This article is licensed under GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Partition of India"

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