What Was the Partition of India?

Indo Pak Border
Border guards from India and Pakistan ceremonially close the border for the night, 2007. Anthony Maw / Flickr Vision via Getty Images

The Partition of India was the process of dividing the subcontinent along sectarian lines, which took place in 1947 as India gained its independence from the British Raj. The northern, predominantly Muslim sections of India became the nation of Pakistan, while the southern and majority Hindu section became the Republic of India.

Background to Partition

In 1885, the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress (INC) met for the first time.

When the British made an attempt to divide the state of Bengal along religious lines in 1905, the INC lead huge protests against the plan. This sparked the formation of the Muslim League, which sought to guarantee the rights of Muslims in any future independence negotiations.

Although the Muslim League formed in opposition to the INC, and the British colonial government attempted to play the INC and Muslim League off one another, the two political parties generally cooperated in their mutual goal of getting Britain to "Quit India." Both the INC and the Muslim League supported sending Indian volunteer troops to fight on Britain's behalf in World War I; in exchange for the service of more than 1 million Indian soldiers, the people of India expected political concessions up to and including independence. However, after the war, Britain offered no such concessions.

In April of 1919, a unit of the British Army went to Amritsar, in the Punjab, to silence pro-independence unrest.

The unit's commander ordered his men to open fire on the unarmed crowd, killing more than 1,000 protesters. When word of the Amritsar Massacre spread around India, hundreds of thousands of formerly apolitical people became supporters of the INC and Muslim League.

In the 1930s, Mohandas Gandhi became the leading figure in the INC.

Although he advocated a unified Hindu and Muslim India, with equal rights for all, other INC members were less inclined to join with Muslims against the British. As a result, the Muslim League began to make plans for a separate Muslim state.

Independence From Britain and Partition

World War II sparked a crisis in relations between the British, the INC and the Muslim League. The British expected India once again to provide much-needed soldiers and material for the war effort, but the INC opposed sending Indians to fight and die in Britain's war. After the betrayal following World War I, the INC saw no benefit for India in such a sacrifice. The Muslim League, however, decided to back Britain's call for volunteers, in an effort to curry British favor in support of a Muslim nation in post-independence northern India.

Before the war had even ended, public opinion in Britain had swung against the distraction and expense of empire. Winston Churchill's party was voted out of office, and the pro-independence Labour Party was voted in during 1945. Labour called for almost immediate independence for India, as well as more gradual freedom for Britain's other colonial holdings.

The Muslim League's leader, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, began a public campaign in favor of a separate Muslim state, while Jawaharlal Nehru of the INC called for a unified India.

(This is not surprising, given the fact that Hindus like Nehru would have formed the vast majority, and would have been in control of any democratic form of government.)

As independence neared, the country began to descend towards a sectarian civil war. Although Gandhi implored the Indian people to unite in peaceful opposition to British rule, the Muslim League sponsored a "Direct Action Day" on August 16, 1946, which resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Calcutta (Kolkata). This touched off the "Week of the Long Knives," an orgy of sectarian violence that resulted in hundreds of deaths on both sides in various cities across the country.

In February of 1947, the British government announced that India would be granted independence by June 1948. Viceroy for India Lord Louis Mountbatten pleaded with the Hindu and Muslim leadership to agree to form a united country, but they could not.

Only Gandhi supported Mountbatten's position. With the country descending further into chaos, Mountbatten reluctantly agreed to the formation of two separate states and moved the independence date up to August 15, 1947.

With the decision in favor of partition made, the parties next faced this nearly impossible task of fixing a border between the new states. The Muslims occupied two main regions in the north on opposite sides of the country, separated by a majority-Hindu section. In addition, throughout most of northern India members of the two religions were mixed together - not to mention populations of Sikhs, Christians, and other minority faiths. The Sikhs campaigned for a nation of their own, but their appeal was denied.

In the wealthy and fertile region of the Punjab, the problem was extreme with a nearly-even mixture of Hindus and Muslims. Neither side wanted to relinquish this valuable land, and sectarian hatred ran high. The border was drawn right down the middle of the province, between Lahore and Amritsar. On both sides, people scrambled to get onto the "right" side of the border or were driven from their homes by their erstwhile neighbors. At least 10 million people fled north or south, depending on their faith, and more than 500,000 were killed in the melee. Trains full of refugees were set upon by militants from both sides, and all the passengers massacred.

On August 14, 1947, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was founded. The following day, the Republic of India was established to the south.

Aftermath of Partition

On January 30, 1948, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by a young Hindu radical for his support of a multi-religious state. Since August of 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three major wars and one minor war over territorial disputes. The boundary line in Jammu and Kashmir is particularly troubled. These regions were not formally part of the British Raj in India, but were quasi-independent princely states; the ruler of Kashmir agreed to join India despite having a Muslim majority in his territory, resulting in tension and warfare to this day.

In 1974, India tested its first nuclear weapon. Pakistan followed in 1998. Thus, any exacerbation of post-Partition tensions today could be catastrophic.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Partition of India?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 30, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-partition-of-india-195478. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2018, March 30). What Was the Partition of India? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-partition-of-india-195478 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Partition of India?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-partition-of-india-195478 (accessed May 24, 2018).