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.

Fast Facts: the Partition of India

  • Short Description: At the time of Indian independence from Great Britain, the subcontinent was broken into two parts,
  • Key Players/Participants: Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi, Louis Mountbatten, Cyril Radcliffe,
  • Event Start Date: End of World War II, the ouster of Churchill, and the ascension of the Labour Party in Britain.
  • Event End Date: Aug. 17, 1947.
  • Other Significant Dates: The Jan. 30, 1948, the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi; Aug. 14, 1947, the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; Aug. 15, 1947, the creation of the Republic of India.
  • Little-Known Fact: In the 19th century, sectarian Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities shared India's cities and countryside and cooperated to force Britain to "Quit India"; it was only after independence became a potential reality that religious hatred began to roil. 

Background to Partition

Beginning in 1757, the British commercial enterprise known as the East India Company ruled parts of the subcontinent beginning with Bengal, a period known as the Company Rule or Company Raj. In 1858, after the brutal Sepoy Rebellion, the rule of India was transferred to the English crown, with Queen Victoria proclaimed as Empress of India in 1878. By the latter half of the 19th century, England brought the full force of the Industrial Revolution to the region, with railroads, canals, bridges, and telegraph lines providing new communication links and opportunities. Most of the jobs created went to the English; much of the land used for these advances came from the farmers and were paid for by local taxes. 

Medical advances under the Company and British Raj, such as smallpox vaccinations, improved sanitation, and quarantine procedures, led to a steep rise in population. Protectionist landlords depressed agricultural innovations in the rural areas, and as a result, famines broke out. The worst was known as the Great Famine of 1876–1878, when between six million and 10 million people died. Universities established in India led to a new middle class, and in turn, social reform and political action began to rise. 

The Rise of Sectarian Separation 

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 led 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." As historian Yasmin Khan has described, political events were to destroy the long-term future of that uneasy alliance. 

In 1909, the British gave separate electorates to different religious communities, which had the outcome of hardening of boundaries among the different sects. The colonial government emphasized these differences, by such activities as providing separate restroom and water facilities for Muslims and Hindus at the railway terminals. By the 1920s, a heightened sense of religious ethnicity became apparent. Riots broke out at such times as during Holi festival, when sacred cows were slaughtered, or when Hindu religious music was played in front of mosques at prayer time. 

World War I and Afterward

Despite the growing unrest, 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 one 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 1919, a unit of the British Army went to Amritsar, in 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 the 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.

World War II

World War II sparked a crisis in relations between the British, the INC, and the Muslim League. The British government 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: the cost of the war had severely depleted Britain's coffers. 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.

A Separate Muslim State

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. The INC leaders such as Nehru were in favor of a united India since Hindus would have formed the vast majority of the Indian population and would have been in control of any democratic form of government. 

As independence neared, the country began to descend toward 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.

Indian Independence Act of 1947

In February 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 leaders 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. 

Mountbatten proposed that the new state of Pakistan would be created from the Muslim-majority provinces of Baluchistan and Sindh, and the two contested provinces of Punjab and Bengal would be halved, creating a Hindu Bengal and Punjab, and Muslim Bengal and Punjab. The plan gained agreement from the Muslim League and the INC, and it was announced on June 3, 1947. The date for independence was moved up to Aug. 15, 1947, and all that was left was "fine-tuning": determining the physical border separating the two new states.

Difficulties of Separation

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 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.

Partition of India, 1947
 Ravi C.

The Radcliffe Line

To identify the final or "real" border, Mountbatten established a Boundary Commission under the chairmanship of Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge and rank outsider. Radcliffe arrived in India on July 8 and published the demarcation line a mere six weeks later on August 17. Punjabi and Bengali legislators were to have a chance to vote on a potential split of the provinces, and a plebiscite for or against joining Pakistan would be necessary for the North-West Frontier Province. 

Radcliffe was given five weeks to complete the demarcation. He had no background in Indian affairs, nor did he have any prior experience in adjudicating such disputes. He was a "confident amateur," in the words of historian Joya Chatterji, chosen because Radcliffe was supposedly a nonpartisan and thus apolitical actor. 

Jinnah had proposed a single commission made up of three impartial persons; but Nehru suggested two commissions, one for Bengal and one for Punjab. They would each be made up of an independent chairman, and two people nominated by the Muslim League and two by the INC. Radcliffe served as both chairs: his job was to put together a rough-and-ready plan for dividing each province as soon as possible, with the fine details to be resolved later. 

On Aug. 14, 1947, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was founded. The following day, the Republic of India was established to the south. On Aug. 17, 1947, Radcliffe's award was published. 

The Award

The Radcliffe line drew the border right down the middle of Punjab province, between Lahore and Amritsar. The award gave West Bengal an area of some 28,000 square miles, containing a population of 21 million people, of whom about 29 percent were Muslims. East Bengal got 49,000 square miles with a population of 39 million, of whom 29 percent were Hindu. In essence, the award created two states in which the ratio of the minority population was almost identical.

When the reality of the Partition hit home, residents who found themselves on the wrong side of the Radcliffe line felt extreme confusion and dismay. Worse still, most people did not have access to the printed document, and they simply did not know their immediate future. For more than a year after the award was made, rumors spread through the border communities that they would wake up to find the borders had changed again. 

Post-Partition Violence

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 the passengers massacred.

On Dec. 14, 1948, Nehru and the Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan signed the Inter-Dominion Agreement in a desperate attempt to calm the waters. The tribunal was ordered to resolve the boundary disputes growing out of the Radcliffe Line Award, to be headed by Swedish judge Algo Bagge and two high-court judges, C. Aiyar of India and M. Shahabuddin of Pakistan. That tribunal announced its findings in February 1950, clearing up some of the doubts and misinformation, but leaving difficulties in the definition and administration of the border. 

Aftermath of Partition

According to historian Joya Chatterji, the border ruptured agricultural communities and divided towns from the hinterlands that they had habitually relied on to supply their needs. Markets were lost and had to be reintegrated or reinvented; supply railheads were separated, as were families. The result was messy, with cross-border smuggling emerging as a thriving enterprise and an increased military presence on both sides. 

On Jan. 30, 1948, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by a young Hindu radical for his support of a multireligious state. Separately from India's partition, Burma (now Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) gained independence in 1948; Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Since August 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.

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