After over 100 years of British East India Company and another 90 years of British imperial rule, India had finally achieved its independence. What should have been a moment of joyful triumph turned into a year of unthinkable bloodshed. Indian freedom from Britain and the Partition took place on August 15, 1947. It created three separate, independent states: a Hindu majority India and Muslim majority West and East Pakistan. It was the final solution of the British Empire to secure an agreement on Indian independence. Few realized the violence that Partition would unleash.
The massive migrations that followed, on both sides in both directions, and the ensuing violence and bloodshed shocked the world. The provinces of Punjab and Bengal were effectively split in half. 7 million Hindus and 7 million Muslims suddenly found themselves in the wrong country. Many families packed up belongings and began a trek to either India or West & East Pakistan. The partition instigated one of the largest mass migrations in human history. There was nothing that could have prepared the 14 million refugees for the nightmare to come. Many never made it there alive.
Up to two million people died in the resulting ethnic violence.
How could intermixed Indian communities, with centuries of relative peace, have suddenly turned brutally against each another? The polarization of Hindus and Muslims arose during just a few decades at the start of the twentieth century. By the 1940’s, it was so divided that many on both sides believed it was impossible for the two religions to live together peacefully.
In the nineteenth century, India was still a place where traditions, languages, and cultures mixed freely across religious groups. People did not define themselves primarily by their faith. Many blame the British for the erosion of these shared traditions. Under British rule, they defined communities based on their religion and attached political representatives to them.
The main driver for independence was the Indian National Congress, lead by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. It argued for a single Indian state; though Muslim minorities were suspicious, thinking it would ensure political power with the Hindus (about 75% of the population). Under British imperial rule, Muslims had their status protected by reserved legislative seats and separate electorates. The prospect of losing this under independence bothered Muslims. Especially in the Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab.
Much of it came down to a clash of personalities between Muhammad Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, and Gandhi & Nehru. All three were lawyers who’d received some of their education in England. They could have been close allies for independence from Britain. But by the 1940’s, their relationship was so toxic that they could barely sit in the same room together.
Jinnah is the man most responsible for the creation of Pakistan. In Indian accounts, he is the villain; for Pakistanis, he is their hero. He was certainly a dogged negotiator with an icy personality. He drank heavily, rarely went to a mosque, and favored western suits. He even married a non-Muslim Parisian.
Jinnah resented the way Gandhi brought his spiritual beliefs into the political discussion. He also felt eclipsed by the fame of both Gandhi and Nehru. By 1940, Jinnah had steered the Muslim League to demanding a separate Muslim homeland.
Hindus and Muslims begun to turn on each other during the Second World War.
Britain took India into the war without consulting the Indian Congress, who opposed it. In 1942, Congress began a campaign of mass, non-violent, civil protests. Gandhi and Nehru were arrested as part of the “Quit India” movement. While they were in prison, Jinnah consolidated Muslim opinion behind himself. By the end of the war, violence between Hindus and Muslims had escalated. People moved away from mixed neighborhoods and into polarized districts.
The first series of widespread religious massacres took place in Calcutta, in 1946. Five thousand Hindus were killed. The American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, wrote that Calcutta’s streets “looked like Nazi Buchenwald.” As riots spread, Congress Party leaders began to see Partition as the only way to rid themselves of Jinnah and the Muslim League. Likewise, Britain realized that they had lost control of India and began to speed up an exit strategy.
After World War II, Britain no longer had the resources to control its empire. Its exit from India became hurried and poorly managed. In March 1947, a minor royal, Lord Louis Mountbatten, uncle of Prince Phillip, flew into Delhi as Britain’s final Viceroy. His mission was to hand over power and get out of India as quickly as possible. Parliament was worried that, if they didn’t move rapidly, Britain would end up with an Indian civil war. Gandhi was against partition along religious lines. Mountbatten deployed his royal charms to persuade both parties to agree to Partition as the only solution.
In June, the Viceroy announcing August 15, 1947, as the date for independence.
It was 10 months sooner than expected. Mountbatten thought the urgency would force the battling parties into cooperation. However, the rush only brewed further chaos. A British judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, was assigned to draw the new borders of the 3 new states, in only 40 days. Neither side was happy. Jinnah regarded the 2 West and East states that Muslims were given only a slice of India’s ‘extremities.’ He warned that the division of Punjab and Bengal “will be sowing the seeds of serious trouble.”
On August 14th at India’s Constituent Assembly, Nehru made his most famous speech. “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” The new borders were announced just two days after India’s Independence.
Across the subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for a 1000 years began attacking each other in violence, with Hindus & Sikhs against Muslims. The mutual genocide was both unexpected and unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—the provinces abutting West and East Pakistan, the carnage was exceptionally intense, with massacres, arson, abductions, and sexual violence. Some 75 thousand women were raped, many of them disfigured or dismembered.
Gangs of killers on both sides pillaged and set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men, children and the elderly, while raping the young women. Pregnant women had their babies hacked out of their bellies. Infants were roasted on spits.
As many as 16 million were displaced, travelling on foot and by train.
Millions moved to what they hoped would be safer territory – Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus & Sikhs towards India. In Punjab, walking caravans of refugees stretched for 50 miles in both directions. As peasants trudged along, guerrillas burst out of farmland, cutting them down like livestock. Bodies were simply left along the roadside to rot. Refugee trains, filled to bursting, suffered similar ambushes. Many later died from contagious diseases which swept through the refuge camps in both nations.
Britain was reluctant to use its troops to maintain law and order. The British Army marched out of the country with barely a shot fired and only seven casualties. Gandhi attempted to bring about peace by fasting, but was himself assassinated in January 1948 by a Hindu extremist who blamed him for supporting Muslims.
Both states faced huge problems accommodating Partition refugees, whose numbers only swelled when the two states went to war over the disputed territory of Kasmir in 1948. As the great migration drew to a close later that year, more than 15 million people had been displaced and two million were dead.
Since the Partition, many in India and Pakistan have held onto their mutual hatred.
They have fought two wars over the disputed region of Kashmir on their border. In 1971, they fought again, over East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. In 1999, Pakistani troops crossed into Kashmir again and the two countries, now each possessing atomic weapons, came dangerously close to a nuclear war. Periodic gestures toward peace made by various Prime Ministers have mainly gone nowhere. Politicians and the military continue to stoke the hatred of the 1940s for personal gains. Rabid media outlets on both sides are shrinking the voices of moderates.
Both countries remain vulnerable to religious extremism. Kashmir remains a flashpoint. Another unforeseen consequence was that Pakistan’s Muslim population ended up religiously homogeneous, leading to Islamization in the 1980s. Pakistan later became a safe haven for both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Seven decades later, well over a billion people still live in the shadow of the British Partition, as if the turmoil of the 1940’s had never ended.