Why Did the Partition of India Happen?

Refugee at Balloki Kasur during the displacement endemic in the Partition of India.

This article is an edited transcript of The Partition of India with Anita Rani, available on Our Site TV.

Dan Snow and Anita discuss her family's heartrending experience living through Indian Partition.

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The Partition of India in 1947 is one of the great forgotten tragedies of the 20th century. It occurred when India became independent from the British Empire and the territory was broken into India and Pakistan.

As part of this process, the north-eastern Indian region of Bengal was split in half along religious lines into East and West Bengal. Muslim-majority East Bengal initially formed part of Pakistan but later became Bangladesh.

It was decided that India needed to be separated because it had ended up as a massive, sprawling empire. There was a precedent for such a move; both Burma (now Myanmar) and Sri Lanka had previously been separated from the Indian Empire. But then the decision came to separate it even further.

The British role

This table was used in the drawing up of the legislation that governed Partition. It is currently located in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, India. Credit: Nagesh Kamath / Commons

India was divided by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never visited the country before and had little time to grasp the social consequences of his decision.

In the north-west of India, Punjab was divided in half, with half of it becoming Pakistan and the other half remaining in India.

When India was one huge country, before Pakistan was created, Punjab was a really important state for the British Empire. It was one of the last states in India to be annexed by the British.

The scale of the tragedy

On the ground during Partition, there was incredible inter-communal violence and mass deportations and huge movements of peoples, probably the biggest in history.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during the division of India, which makes it the largest mass migration in human history.

These communities essentially had to get to the right side of what was an arbitrary line.

It was a tragedy. Almost 15 million people were displaced, while a million people died.

2017 was the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the Indian Raj which caused such an epidemic of bloodshed. Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor of History at Oxford University, and author of 'The Great Partition' draws on her research and family recollections to deliver the powerful story of partition.

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There were Punjabi Muslims and Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. But, although they had different faiths, the only thing that was different about them was the religion that they had chosen to follow; just the gods that they believed in.

They ate the same food. They spoke the same language. Culturally, they were identical; everything else was the same.

Then when Partition happened, these communities were weaponised and just went for each other. Absolute chaos ensued and hell broke out and neighbours were killing neighbours.

A map showing how India was partitioned. Credit: themightyquill / Commons

Women were used and people were kidnapping other people’s daughters and raping and murdering them.

Dan Snow and Anita discuss her family's heartrending experience living through Indian Partition.

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My grandfather’s family were living in what ended up becoming Pakistan, but he was away with the British-Indian Army down in Mumbai, so thousands of miles away.

His first family just couldn’t get across the border into India and they were all slaughtered.

Accounts of these events sound almost medieval, and their effects are still being felt in the divides between India and Pakistan today.

Indian Partition: A brief history of India and Pakistan on the 70th anniversary of independence

ugust 15 marks 70 years since the partition of India and the end of British colonial rule.

The sub-continent was once a key economic asset of the British Empire, ruled from London for almost 100 years.

But it paved the way for many other colonial countries by campaigning for independence and being granted it in 1947, when it was released from British parliamentary rule and partitioned into what would be known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Republic of India.

Here is a brief history of how it happened:


The British Raj:

At the start of the 19th century, India was ruled by the East India Company – a British trading organisation which had gradually taken over territory as the former Mughal Empire diminished.

In a bid to push out its rival the French East India Company, EIC gradually built its own private army and ruled much of the country through military and administrative powers or indirectly through local rulers.

In 1857, a mutiny of Indian soldiers in Meerut sparked a year of rebellions and revolts that came to be known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – an ultimately unsuccessful uprising against EIC rule.

Although the rebellion was contained, it forced the British Parliament to intervene and take control of the country out of the hands of the company and under direct rule of the Crown.

Through the Government of India Act in 1858, the British Raj was established.

Colonial rule:

The British Raj ruled almost all of present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It was governed through three platforms – imperial rule in London by a secretary of state, central government in Calcutta and provincial rulers in districts of the sub-continent.

In London, the cabinet formed a Council of India which had to be made up of people who had spent no less than ten years in the country. It would have to be consulted by the secretary of state on many decisions of governance.

Nevertheless, despite attempts at collaboration, many of the people ruling the country had no real experience or knowledge of it. Indeed the first acting secretary of state to visit the country was Edwin Montagu who travelled to India in 1917.

During the period of British rule, the UK invested huge capital expenditure in infrastructure such as railways and mines and developed a legal and educational system.

But it also drained India of much of its revenue to pay for the Empire’s army, destabilised cropping patterns through commercialised farming and did not reinvest revenue from capital investment into the country – leaving many poorer than before.

India and Pakistan Independence Day 2017 - In pictures

Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India.

What were the long term effects of the Partition on the relationship between Pakistan and India? Over a million people died, people were displaced, Britain lost India. Why was the colony of India divided into India and Pakistan in 1947? Where did most Muslims live?

Heavily pregnant EastEnders star Kellie Bright counts down the days to birth

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Late 1930s: Fear begins to dominate​

● The 1936–37 provincial election results have great historical significance. Despite separate electorates based on religion, the Muslim League (the major opposition party to Nehru’s Indian National Congress) fared badly even in Muslim majority provinces — a consequence of the fact that other than religion, it was considerations like class and language which defined identities for many Indian voters then. The Congress Party gained power in most provinces. Thus, one can say that even as late as in 1937, the majority of Muslims in India did not favor the Muslim League.

● However, for many of India’s Muslims, the subsequent experience of being ruled by Congress politicians (we should be careful not to confuse the colonial-era Congress party with its post-Independence avatar) who frequently behaved in ways that failed to inspire confidence in the Muslim population, struck a new fear of a “Hindu Raj.” In other words, even though prominent Congress leaders like Nehru, Patel, and Bose were broadly secular in their outlook, many other leaders nurtured regressive ideas regarding Hindu supremacy and were dismissive of the appeals of tolerance and religious harmony in the country. The words and actions of such bigoted leaders continued to make many Muslims fearful of their fate once the British left, a fear that was expressed politically by the Muslim League.

Who began the violence? The how and why of Partition

The partition of the Punjab in mid-August 1947 took place as part of a negotiated settlement brokered by the British between the Indian National Congress, the All-India Muslim League and the Sikhs of Punjab to partition India and transfer power to India and Pakistan.

The total population of the undivided Punjab Province was 33 million. It included territories directly administered by the British (pop. 28 million) and several princely states. The Punjab was a Muslim majority province while Hindus and Sikhs together made up a very large minority of 44-47 percent. The principle on which India and the Punjab were divided was that Muslim-majority areas were separated from the rest of India and given to Pakistan.

The demand to partition India was made by the main communal party of the Muslims, the All-India Muslim League. It insisted that Indian Muslims were not a minority (one-fourth of the total population of India) but a separate nation by virtue of their Islamic faith and culture.

When the Muslim League demanded the partition of India the Sikhs of Punjab demanded the same principle be applied to the Punjab. The Indian National Congress wanted to keep India united but realizing that the Muslim League was insistent on the partition of India, on March 8, 1947, it threw its weight behind the Sikh demand for the partition of the Punjab.

Viceroy Mountbatten came to the conclusion that the partition of India had become inevitable. Therefore on June 3, 1947, the Partition Plan was announced which required the Punjab and Bengal assemblies to vote on whether they wanted to keep their provinces united or partitioned. Both the assemblies voted in favour of partitioning their provinces.

The actual transfer of power to India and Pakistan proved to be bloody and bitter. Some people have described it as one of the ten great tragedies of the 20th century. The estimated loss of life during the partition of India is one million. Besides, 14-18 million people were forced to cross the international border in search of safe havens.

For the Punjab alone, the loss of life is estimated somewhere between 500,000-800,000 and 10 million people were forced to flee for their lives. More importantly, after World War II the first case of ethnic cleansing took place in the Punjab. Therefore, it bore the brunt of the partition violence. Thus at the end of 1947 all traces of a Muslim presence in the Indian East Punjab were wiped out, except for some Muslims remaining in the tiny princely state of Malerkotla (total population 88,000). In the Pakistani West Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs became conspicuous by their absence.

Given the fact that the pre-partition Punjab had a robust legacy of a 'live and let live' tradition bequeathed by the efforts of Muslim Sufis, Hindu Sants and Sikh Gurus, such an outcome at the end of 1947 was too drastic and traumatic and remained an intriguing and perplexing puzzle. There were some peculiarities which rendered the Punjab vulnerable to violence in case the competing parties and their leaders could not agree to keep their province united. Among them the main factor was that nearly a million Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had recently been demobilized from the British Indian Army.

Additionally there were criminal gangs operating all over Punjab. These two elements and partisan government functionaries, politicians and ethnic activists formed nexuses that began to coordinate attacks on the 'enemy community'. Once the British were gone and two partisan administrations came to power in the divided Punjab whole-sale attacks on the minorities started taking place. By the end of the year ethnic cleansing had been achieved.

The main argument set forth in this study ("The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts"/OUP) is that the partition of India was necessary but not a sufficient basis for the partition of the Punjab. In other words, if India had not been partitioned the Punjab would not be partitioned. However, there was no logical necessity for the Punjab to be partitioned if India was partitioned.

Why could not Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs agree to keep their province united? Why did the violence that took place in the Punjab dwarf the violence that took place in other parts of India? I explain these with the help of a theoretical framework developed in a chapter entitled 'A theory of ethnic cleansing'.

Fear of an uncertain future, lack of communication between the leaders of the estranged communities, the waning authority of the British and the consequent unreliability of the state institutions and functionaries created the social and political milieu in which suspicion and fear proliferated, generating angst among the common people. In such situations reaction and overreaction led to intended and unintended consequences which aggravated and finally resulted in the biggest human tragedy in the history of the Indian subcontinent.

There is the first holistic and comprehensive study of the partition of the Punjab. It covers chronologically the events which unfolded during 1947 and covers the whole of Punjab - the 28 districts and the princely states. During January 1 - August 14, 1947, it was under British rule. According to Sir Evan Jenkins, the last British governor of Punjab, only some 5,000 fatalities had taken place till August 4, 1947. From August 15 to December 31, 1947, those figures shot up to anything between 500,000 to 800,000.

No official documents are available from either India or Pakistan on that period. I have, for the first time in 65 years, brought to light the events on both sides with more than 230 first-person accounts. I also spoke to people now settled in other parts of India and Pakistan and in London, Stockholm and several US cities. It took me 12 years to collect the evidence to tell the story of what happened after power was transferred to the East and West Punjab administrations.

The conclusion I reached from my research is that in March 1947 the Muslims started large-scale violence, mainly against Sikhs but also against Hindus, in the Muslim-majority districts of northern Punjab. Yet at the end of that year more Muslims had been killed in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs together in West Punjab. How and why that happened is for the first time presented in this book of mine.

A nation divided

A partition of such a magnitude did not go by without backlash. Riots were started with mass casualties and a colossal wave of migration. Some 14 – 16 million people moved from one side of the border to the other.

The direction in which they travelled depended on their religion. Hindus and Sikhs came together in a conscious effort to separate themselves from the Muslims.

This chapter, unfortunately, did not go by without casualties. The death toll of the partition ranges anywhere between 200,000 to two million victims. Many were killed by members of their own communities and sometimes their own families.

Especially, women were targeted as a symbol of community honor. Reportedly, up to 100,000 women were abducted or raped.

One of the reasons why the partition sparked such extreme emotions was because many people were not only very deeply attached to religious identity, but also to territory. Furthermore, British troops were reluctant to maintain law and order.

Another unforeseen side-effect was the ultimate homogeneity of Pakistan. The Muslim League had anticipated that Pakistan would contain a substantial non-Muslim population, whose presence would safeguard the Muslim population remaining in India. Instead, in West Pakistan, non-Muslim minorities comprise only 1.6% of the population.

Pakistan was evidently created as a “safe land” for India’s Muslims, but not all Muslims supported its formation. Thus, many decided to remain in India and still form the largest minority group in independent India.

This led to ongoing conflicts. The nationally beloved icon, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated in January 1948 by a Hindu nationalist extremist who blamed him for being too supportive of the Partition.

The Partition

In August 1947, when independence was granted to the former imperial domain of British India, it was partitioned into two countries – India and Pakistan.

India had been the largest possession of the British and a subject of the British Crown since 1858, when the East India Company’s reign had been brought to an end in the wake of the Uprising and Revolt of 1857 against the Company rule.

Attempts to grant self-rule to the Indians was heavily debated since the early 1900s in the public sphere, the early results of which were the Indian Councils Act of 1909 and the Government of India Act of 1919. In 1935, the Government of India Act constituted a number of provinces with their own legislatures where representatives were elected on the basis of a limited franchise. It was planned that British India would be granted dominion status, i.e. self-government supervised by the Crown. If a majority of the princely states chose to join the scheme, India would have a confederate structure with powerful provinces and princely states and a weak center in charge of defence, foreign relations and currency.

This scheme never came into effect because the majority of the princely states refused to accept the 1935 Act and become a part of the proposed dominion. Provincial elections were held in British India in 1937. When war was declared between Britain and Germany in 1939, the British government declared India’s involvement in the war without consulting any Indian leaders. In protest against this unilateral decision-making by the British regarding Indian interests, the Congress Governments in the provinces resigned. They demanded full independence in return for Indian cooperation in the war. Under pressure from the American governments, the British sent the Cripps Mission to India in 1942 to secure full support and cooperation in the war against Germany by trying to negotiate better terms for transfer of power. But the pre-conditions of the Mission were not accepted by the Congress and the Muslim League, both of whom had different priorities and outcomes in mind. The failure of the Cripps Mission led to the Congress launching the Quit India Movement and demanding full independence from British rule. On the morning the Movement was to be launched, all Congress leaders were put behind bars where they were to remain until almost the end of war.

In 1945, the Labour Party came to power in Britain and pledged to grant independence to India. Their plan was developed on the basis of the 1935 Act. Elections were held in all the provinces of British India the results of which were that the Congress won in seven out of eleven provinces and the Muslim League won all the seats reserved for Muslims. In 1946, the British Government sent the Cabinet Mission to India to secure arrangements for a peaceful transfer of power. The Cabinet Mission proposed a confederation as previously detailed in the 1935 Act. It also proposed that provinces could group themselves into regions which would decide how power would be shared amongst them. Three regions were proposed, one comprising the North West provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, and the North West Frontier Province, the second comprising Madras, UP, Central Provinces, Bombay, Bihar & Orissa and the third comprising Assam and Bengal.

It was proposed that the provincial legislatures would elect representatives to a Constituent Assembly which would frame the Constitution of independent India. Although the Congress rejected the proposal for an interim government, they decided to join the Constituent Assembly in order to help frame the Constitution of independent India.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared 16 August 1946 as Direct Action Day as a show of force of support from the Muslim community for a separate nation. Riots spread through the cities of Calcutta and Bombay resulting in the death of approximately 5000-10,000 people with 15,000 wounded. On 9 December 1946, the Muslim League which had earlier accepted the proposals of the Cabinet Mission, now withdrew its support on the ground that there was no guarantee for proper safeguards of the rights of the Muslim minority in the Assembly.

The demand for a separate nation for Muslims had been raised by various Muslim leaders in the previous decades, most famously by Allama Iqbal at a Muslim League conference at Allahabad in 1930 where he articulated the idea of a Muslim nation within India. The term “Pak-Stan” had been coined by Choudhry Rahmat Ali in the 1930s while he was studying at Cambridge University. On 23 March 1940, at a meeting of the Muslim League in Lahore, Jinnah had endorsed such a demand, though without naming “Pakistan”.

The proposal of the Muslim League resolution, to unite the Muslim majority provinces and carve out a separate nation was resisted by the Congress at the outset. At that time, an interim government was in charge with the Congress and Muslim League sharing ministries and Nehru acting as the de-facto Prime Minister. But soon the arrangement broke down and Lord Mountbatten put forth the proposal to partition India using the three regions as had been suggested by the Cabinet Mission.

The first Partition Scheme was outlined in April 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru was against the idea of Partition itself. The revised scheme was sent to London and came back with the approval of the British Cabinet. On June 4, the scheme to Partition India was announced by Mountbatten and endorsed in speeches by Nehru and Jinnah on the All India Radio.

The Partition scheme, as announced, was largely in line with the proposals of the Cabinet Mission. The North-West region comprising Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province was as proposed by the Cabinet Mission. The Eastern region was redrawn without Assam or the North East provinces. East Bengal and the adjoining Sylhet district would be part of Pakistan. Partition came as a great shock to Mahatma Gandhi but the Congress leadership under Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel had accepted the proposition. However, the question of the final boundary was still undecided. The two largest provinces Punjab and Bengal had only a marginal superiority of Muslims over Non-Muslims – 53% to 47%. It was decided, therefore that the two provinces would be divided down the middle and the electoral register would be used to apportion some districts to Pakistan and the others to India.

The drawing of the boundary proved to be extremely contentious causing fear, uncertainty and widespread death and destruction. Cyril Radcliffe, KC, a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn, London was put in charge of drawing up the boundary with the help of local advisors in Punjab and Bengal.

The negotiations amongst the leaders proved a nightmare for the thousands of families who suddenly found themselves uprooted in a land they had inhabited for generations. Law and order broke down and there was large scale massacre and looting as families left their homeland to trudge across the new, arbitrarily drawn borders. Women were abducted, raped, mutilated and killed along with children, both born and unborn. Families abandoned their ancestral properties and crossed the borders, forced to find a new life as refugees. In the Punjab and Bengal, refugees moved from each side to the other, in search of safety. Many Muslim families left from UP and Bihar to end up as Muhajirs (refugees) in Karachi. The Hindus of Sindh arrived in Gujarat and Bombay.

The Partition of India was one of the most defining events in the history of the Indian subcontinent. With no accurate accounts of how many died or lost their homes, estimates suggest that perhaps up to 20 million people were affected by the Partition and somewhere between 200,000 – 1 million lost their lives. Yet, several decades after the event, there was a severe lacuna that no museum or memorial existed anywhere in the world to remember all those millions. It is their untold stories which the Partition Museum records and narrates.


In 1940, at the Lahore Session, the Muslim League had demanded the Partition of India to create a separate Muslim majority state in the north-west of India. In opposition to this demand, Sir Sikander Hayat Khan of the Unionist Party had forged links with the Sikhs and signed the Sikander-Baldev Singh Pact in March 1942. The pact provided for Jhatka meat in government institutions, the inclusion of Gurmukhi as a second language in schools and guaranteed 20 percent representation of the Sikh Community in the Executive Council supported by the Unionists. This was in strong opposition to Jinnah’s demand for a Muslim state. However, the situation changed with the unexpected death of Sikander Hayat Khan in 1942.

The Unionists and the Sikhs were unable to sustain the alliance.

The Akalis drew up a scheme of Azad Punjab which encouraged the creation of a new province of Punjab. Master Tara Singh emphasized that the scheme was conceived to act as an effective counter to the demand of Partition.

In the Punjab elections held in 1946, the Muslim League had won the most number of seats but fell short of a majority. It failed to form a coalition government with any of the other parties, and a coalition government headed by the Punjab Unionist Party’s Sir Khizr Hayat Tiwana came to power in Punjab.

In January-February 1947, the Muslim League called for Direct Action in the Punjab Province. This unnerved the Punjab Premier, Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana, whose coalition ministry included ministers from the Congress as well as Sikh Parties. The coalition fell on 2 March 1947.

On 3 March, Hindu and Sikh leaders met in Lahore where they vowed to oppose the establishment of Pakistan. On 4 March, Hindu and Sikh students came on the streets to protest. Communal clashes broke out in different parts of Lahore. By the evening of 4 March, communal violence broke out in Amritsar and on 5 March, in Multan and Rawalpindi. The governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, imposed Governor’s Rule on 5 March 1947 after the League failed to convince him that it had a stable majority in the Punjab Assembly. Punjab remained under Governor’s Rule until power was handed over to the Indian and Pakistani governments on August 14 and 15.

Lord Louis Mountbatten assumed the role of the last viceroy on 24 March 1947. He announced the Partition Plan on 3 June 1947, declaring that the British had decided to transfer power to the Indian and Pakistani governments by mid-August 1947. The announcement resulted in a further increase in violence as uncertainty over the future began the greatest forced migration in history. The Partition of Punjab proved to be one of the most violent acts in the history of humankind.

Between 15-17 August, there was great confusion about the actual boundaries between India and Pakistan. It was widely believed that Gurdaspur District would be given to Pakistan. Consequently, Pakistan dispatched Mushtaq Ahmed Cheema as Deputy Commissioner of Gurdaspur and the Pakistan flag flew over Gurdaspur for those days. Many cities, including Lahore, remained uncertain of their fate.

On 17 August 1947, the Radcliffe Award was made public. Three tehsils of Gurdaspur district on the Eastern bank of the Ravi were given to India while Shakargarh on the Western bank went to Pakistan. Many found themselves on the wrong side of the border suddenly. Lahore was awarded to Pakistan. The mass migration that followed saw the death of millions and displacement of many more. Families were torn apart. People migrating by trains were massacred and butchered. Women were killed, abducted and raped. Many were killed by their own families to ‘protect the family honour’. The tumultuous wave of migration largely ended by 1948, but the rebuilding of lives continued for decades.

Bengal and Assam

The movement of people across the border took a different form in Bengal as compared to Punjab. West Bengal had 5 million Muslims in a total of 21 million, while East Bengal had 11 million Hindus in a total of 39 million, almost equal percentages of the minority communities. Initially, cross-border movement was limited, with more Hindus moving westwards than Muslims moving Eastwards. The two governments came to an agreement about protecting minorities on each side in April 1948 with the specific aim of preventing violence similar to that seen in Punjab from occurring in Bengal. The flow of migration further reduced. This was also due to a strong Pan-Bengali identity.

However, communal riots later triggered migration a few years after independence. Between February and April 1950, riots led to a million and a half people migrating 850,000 Muslims moved eastwards, and 650,000 Hindus moved westwards. Nehru and Liaquat Ali decided to sign a revised agreement to protect minorities on both sides. But the atmosphere had deteriorated. Between April and July 1950, 1.2 million Hindus left East Pakistan and 600,000 Muslims from West Bengal moved eastwards.

Even beyond the riots, fear of discrimination against minorities also led to migration in the 1950s. The language movement of the 1950s made Bengali Hindus uneasy. The issuance of passports in 1952 led to the fear that the option of migration would not be available later. Incoming refugees also led to a scarcity of resources which prompted waves of migration. However, because a lot of migration in Bengal happened after 1947-48, this was viewed as economic migration by the government, reducing the official aid that displaced persons received.

In 1964-65, communal riots following tensions in Kashmir led to an increased flow of Hindus westwards. The final large-scale migration came in 1970-71 on the eve of the formation of Bangladesh.

Mountbatten’s Partition plan, announced on 3 June 1947, provided for a referendum to be held in the Sylhet district to decide whether it should remain a part of the Indian province of Assam or become a part of East Pakistan. In a meeting of District Officers convened to decide the dates of the referendum, it was suggested that the first fortnight of July be avoided due to heavy flooding which would curtail the ability of people to reach the voting booths. The British Referendum Commissioner, however, argued that based on the date of final withdrawal there was no negotiation possible with regard to the dates. The Sylhet Referendum was therefore held on 6 July 1947 and the results favoured a merger with Pakistan. Assam thus lost a wealthy district in terms of the thriving tea, lime and cement industries which in turn resulted in a serious loss of revenue.

Partition affected the politics and lives of the people in the North East in several ways. It physically separated them from the rest of the country save for a narrow passage commonly known as the Chicken’s Neck, which is only 17 km wide at its narrowest. Partition disrupted the natural channel of riverine communication, and rail and road networks that provided connectivity to this area and had adverse effects on the economy of Assam. It was forced to exist as a landlocked province, as its natural outlet to the sea since 1904 through the port of Chittagong became a part of East Pakistan. The adverse impact of Partition was noted in the Census Report of 1951, which observed that ‘the far-reaching effects of this loss will continue to be felt by Assam as well as India’.

Partition also affected the social and economic lives of the various tribal communities in the region. It disrupted the traditional links that tribal communities, such as the Khasis, Jantias and Garos, had with the East Pakistani districts of Sylhet and Mymensingh, leaving them split between India and Pakistan, based on their place of residence.


The experience of Partition in Sindh was different from that of other States. Sindh, unlike Punjab and Bengal, was not partitioned demographically, but rather the entire state went to Pakistan. The State experienced fewer cases of physical violence and more frequently, reports of looting, destruction and distress sale of property. In fact, when Acharya Kripalani, the Congress president visited Sindh three months after Partition, he noted the lack of communal fanaticism and the influence of Sufi and vedantic thoughts among the Sindhis which spread the message of tolerance. Sindhis did not migrate en masse to India in the months shortly after Partition.

However, by November 1947, with the arrival of a large numbers of refugees (Muhajirs) from Bihar and Bengal in Sindh, an atmosphere of fear unsettled the Hindus. These Muhajirs living in crowded refugee camps began to occupy the homes of the Hindu Sindhis. Two major incidents of violence in Hyderabad (Sindh) and Karachi on 17 December 1947 and 6 January 1948, respectively, triggered the decision of the Hindus to leave.

More than the violence, it was the loss of their homeland which had nurtured their culture for centuries that left a deep and lasting impact on the Hindu Sindhis who migrated to India. Partition left them not only without a home but also alienated them from their way of life. In an environment where survival was a major issue, with the well-off Sindhis helping those in more dire conditions, the nurturing of culture was not a priority.

During the first half of 1948, approximately 1,000,000 Sindhi Hindus migrated to India 400,000 more remained in Sindh. Evacuation continued for three more years, and by 1951 very few Hindu families remained in Sindh - about a scant 150,000 to 200,000. That trickle of migration has continued over the years and remains a continuing process.

On the issue of Sindhi culture and the reconstruction of their lives post-Partition, Saaz Agrawal in her book, “Sindh -- stories from a Vanished Homeland” writes, “The capricious river Indus ran through their lands and it changed course often. One day, you’d be by the river bank, the next, you’d be flooded. Their surroundings created a people prepared for change”.

How the Partition of India happened – and why its effects are still felt today

“Partition” – the division of British India into the two separate states of India and Pakistan on August 14-15, 1947 – was the “last-minute” mechanism by which the British were able to secure agreement over how independence would take place. At the time, few people understood what Partition would entail or what its results would be, and the migration on the enormous scale that followed took the vast majority of contemporaries by surprise.

The main vehicle for nationalist activity was the Indian National Congress, whose best-known leaders included Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Even before the 1940s, it had long argued for a unitary state with a strong centre even though Congress was ostensibly secular in its objectives, organisations representing minority interests increasingly viewed this idea with suspicion, believing that it would entrench the political dominance of Hindus, who made up about 80% of the population.

At around 25% of its population, Muslims were British India’s largest religious minority. Under imperial rule, they had grown accustomed to having their minority status protected by a system of reserved legislative seats and separate electorates. The British system of political control hinged on identifying interest groups willing to collaborate, a governing style often described as “divide and rule”.


The prospect of losing this protection as independence drew closer worried more and more Muslims, first in parts of northern India, and then, after World War II, in the influential Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab. In 1945-6, the All-India Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, won a majority of Muslim votes in provincial elections. This strengthened the party’s claim to speak for a substantial proportion of, but never all, the subcontinent’s Muslims.

Then came World War II – and suddenly, the political stakes in India were considerably higher.

The end of the Raj

When Britain took India into the war without consultation in 1939, Congress opposed it large nationalist protests ensued, culminating in the 1942 Quit India movement, a mass movement against British rule. For their part in it, Gandhi and Nehru and thousands of Congress workers were imprisoned until 1945.

Meanwhile, the British wartime need for local allies gave the Muslim League an opening to offer its cooperation in exchange for future political safeguards. In March 1940, the Muslim League’s “Pakistan” resolution called for the creation of “separate states” – plural, not singular – to accommodate Indian Muslims, whom it argued were a separate “nation”.

Historians are still divided on whether this rather vague demand was purely a bargaining counter or a firm objective. But while it may have been intended to solve the minority issue, it ended up aggravating it instead.

After the war, Attlee’s Labour government in London recognised that Britain’s devastated economy could not cope with the cost of the over-extended empire. A Cabinet Mission was dispatched to India in early 1946, and Attlee described its mission in ambitious terms:

My colleagues are going to India with the intention of using their utmost endeavours to help her to attain her freedom as speedily and fully as possible. What form of government is to replace the present regime is for India to decide but our desire is to help her to set up forthwith the machinery for making that decision.

An act of parliament proposed June 1948 as the deadline for the transfer of power. But the Mission failed to secure agreement over its proposed constitutional scheme, which recommended a loose federation the idea was rejected by both Congress and the Muslim League, which vowed to agitate for “Pakistan” by any means possible.

All the while, communal violence was escalating. In August 1946, the Great Calcutta Killing left some 4,000 people dead and a further 100,000 homeless.

By March 1947, a new viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, arrived in Delhi with a mandate to find a speedy way of bringing the British Raj to an end. On June 3, he announced that independence would be brought forward to August that year, presenting politicians with an ultimatum that gave them little alternative but to agree to the creation of two separate states.

Pakistan – its eastern and western wings separated by around 1,700 kilometres of Indian territory – celebrated independence on August 14 that year India did so the following day. The new borders, which split the key provinces of the Punjab and Bengal in two, were officially approved on August 17. They had been drawn up by a Boundary Commission, led by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who later admitted that he had relied on out-of-date maps and census materials.

Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. As many as 14-16m people may have been eventually displaced, travelling on foot, in bullock carts and by train.

Estimates of the death toll post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million. Many were killed by members of other communities and sometimes their own families, as well as by the contagious diseases which swept through refugee camps. Women were often targeted as symbols of community honour, with up to 100,000 raped or abducted.

What can explain this intensely violent reaction? Many of the people concerned were very deeply attached not just to religious identity, but to territory, and Britain was reluctant to use its troops to maintain law and order. The situation was especially dangerous in Punjab, where weapons and demobilised soldiers were abundant.

Another unforeseen consequence of Partition was that Pakistan’s population ended up more religiously homogeneous than originally anticipated. The Muslim League’s leaders had assumed that Pakistan would contain a sizeable non-Muslim population, whose presence would safeguard the position of Muslims remaining in India – but in West Pakistan, non-Muslim minorities comprised only 1.6% of the population by 1951, compared with 22% in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).


And even though Pakistan was ostensibly created as a “homeland” for India’s Muslim minority, not all Muslims even supported its formation, never mind migrated there: Muslims remained the largest minority group in independent India, making up around 10% of the population in 1951. Gandhi himself was assassinated in January 1948 by a Hindu nationalist extremist who blamed him for being too supportive of Muslims at the time of Partition.

Both states subsequently faced huge problems accommodating and rehabilitating post-Partition refugees, whose numbers swelled when the two states went to war over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-8. Later bouts of communal tension generated further movement, with a trickle of people still migrating as late as the 1960s.

Today, the two countries’ relationship is far from healthy. Kashmir remains a flashpoint both countries are nuclear-armed. Indian Muslims are frequently suspected of harbouring loyalties towards Pakistan non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan are increasingly vulnerable thanks to the so-called Islamisation of life there since the 1980s. Seven decades on, well over a billion people still live in the shadow of Partition.

Sarah Ansari is a professor of history, head of department at Royal Holloway. This article was originally published on The Conversation (

What really happened in August 1947

Why did Mountbatten suddenly declare that the Partition of India would take place with inexplicable haste on August 15, 1947, almost a year ahead of schedule?

Colonel Anil Athale (retd) explains the likely reasons for the British decision to hastily grant India independence.

O n August 14-15, 1947, according to Pakistan they got a 'Homeland' for the subcontinent's Muslims, Indians claim they got Independence, while the British called it the 'Transfer of Power' (those interested can see the huge volume published by the British with that title).

The two countries went on a very different political trajectory right from the word go. Mohammad Ali Jinnah chose to become the first governor general, with Liaquat Ali, the number two as his prime minister. As a consequence Pakistan, despite the 1973 parliamentary constitution, has always had a strong presidential bias.

In India, on the other hand, by choosing to retain Lord Louis Mountbatten, the post of the head of State was kept largely ceremonial. The roots of current religious extremism and violence against minority religions and minority Muslim sects were inevitable as despite Jinnah's own personal belief in secularism, the foundation of Pakistan was on Islam. Zia-ul Haq merely took it to the logical conclusion.

India chose to separate religion from nationality in deference to the plural ethos of its majority and long history of the Indian subcontinent where separation of the faith and nation was the norm. Possibly the only exception was during the reign of Ashoka. India becoming plural was as natural as Pakistan becoming an Islamic State.

Nehru chose to give his famous 'Tryst with destiny' speech in English and not Hindi or Hindustani. The number of English speakers and its influence has only increased after the British left.

Over 65 years ago, one of the enduring human tragedies occurred when the Indian subcontinent was divided on religious lines. Nearly one-and-half million innocent people lost their lives during Partition. Even till today, one fifth of humanity, living in South Asia, continues to pay the price of that division.

No Indian or British historian has yet attempted to explain that event satisfactorily. The first question is: Why did Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, on June 11, 1945, abruptly call off the Simla talks when all the political parties favoured the creation of a united India?

The second question arises from the British cabinet's statement that the transfer of power to Indians would take place by June 1948? (The British government's statement of June 3, 1947.) Lord Louis Mountbatten as viceroy had insisted on this cut-off date when he went to confer with the cabinet in London in May 1946.

Why, then, on his return from London a fortnight later, did he then suddenly declare that the Partition of India would take place with inexplicable haste on August 15, 1947, almost a year ahead of schedule?

To understand the events of 1947 one has to go back to 1942, when on August 9, Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for 'Quit India' and do or die. This came at a particularly decisive moment in World War II. The Germans were at Stalingrad and Japan ruled the Pacific.

The Americans were worried about the impact this would have on the war effort and President Roosevelt dispatched a personal emissary Colonel Johnson to India and brought immense pressure on the British to promise Independence to Indians in return for cooperation by the Congress in the war efforts.

The Cripps mission was borne out of this compulsion. Gandhi rejected this by dubbing it as 'post dated check issued on a falling bank'. But Churchill was unmoved and believed that Congress leaders were 'Men of straw' and that with the help of Jinnah the British would control the situation.

In the early hours of August 9, a massive British crackdown began. Congress leaders were arrested and taken to various high security prisons. On hearing news of their arrest, disturbances broke out in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Poona. But like all such movements, it was difficult to sustain action in the absence of a trained leadership and a proper organisation.

The British were helped by the fact that Indian Communists and Muslim League elements provided active help and information to the British police to round up the nationalists. There was no second rung Congress leadership to fill the vacuum created by the arrest of leaders, and no plans for an underground network.

Nearly 10,000 Indians died in police firing. In less than two months time the movement died down. A subsequent Congress appeal for mass non cooperation issued in November 1942 evoked no popular response.

The war effort, except for some minor hiccups, did not suffer greatly. When Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Asia in 1943, and the Japanese advanced into Burma, India was well under control. He was one year too late. In the event, the 1942 movement was a failure and had virtually no effect on the Allied war effort.

According to historian R C Muzumdar ( Advanced History of India ), the Congressmen neither did anything nor died for the country!

The acceptance of Jinnah's demand for Pakistan was the price the British were prepared to pay for this. A faction of the Congress and some revolutionaries did try to sabotage the war effort. But Gandhi and Congress had not thought through the consequences.

In the Tehran conference of November 1943, the future world organisation (the United Nations) was discussed and China was accepted as a Great Power along with the UK, the US, the USSR and France. The Indian contribution to the war effort, much greater than China's, was discounted.

An American delegate to the conference remarked that India was yet to win its 'Yorktown' ( the decisive battle of the American war of independence ) and as such had no right to sit at the high table of great powers.

The failure of the 1942 Quit India movement, change in the Allied fortunes of war made Pakistan a certainty. On May 12, 1945, Churchill, much before his later famous 'Iron Curtain' speech at Fulton (March 5, 1947), had written to Truman that an iron curtain has drawn down upon the front in Europe.

He predicted a future contest with the Soviet Union he was convinced that India would not side with the West. Thus the concept of Pakistan, the dream of Jinnah, acquired a new significance in the post-war world. Wavell's abrupt end to the Simla Conference in June 1945 can be understood in this backdrop of pressure from London.

On March 30, 1947, during the concluding session of a Muslim League working committee meeting, Jinnah suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the Breach Candy hospital. Dr Patel, his personal physician, declared that it was only the patient's timely arrival that had saved him.

By a unanimous decision the working committee decided to keep this occurrence secret. Jinnah regained consciousness soon and refused the doctor's orders to stay in the hospital. Jinnah's stubbornness ultimately overrode medical advice and he was discharged the very next day. It is most unlikely that the British did not come to know of this.

The British realised that without Jinnah, the creation of Pakistan was next to impossible. It was the news of Jinnah's illness that prompted the advancement of British departure from India, with tragic consequences.

Understanding these factors behind the events of 1947 helps us see the extraordinary influence the British have over American approach to the subcontinent. The British time and again have shown their almost 'paternal' love for Pakistan. This author has seen enough evidence in even JFK era papers of the kind of dependence the US has on UK as far as the subcontinent is concerned.

If seen objectively and not from the point of view of 'durbari' historians, the record of the past can teach us much about the present.

The date August 15 was also carefully chosen by the British. It was on this very day that Japan surrendered in 1945. What better way to thwart any possible Indo-Japanese linkage in future than to make India (and South Korea) celebrate while Japan remembers its humiliation! Specially relevant in the days of 1947 when the stories of Japanese support to Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army were a household word in India!

Based on the research conducted by the author and the late Lieutenant General Eric Vas for their book Unmaking of Pakistan: If Bose Had Lived?', published by Strategic Books as an e-book.

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