It was seventy years ago today that India won its independence from the British Empire. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of the new country, described the winning of independence as India’s “tryst with destiny,” the culmination of decades of struggle.
Yet not one but two nations emerged from British India that fateful week in August 1947: India and Pakistan. The Indian National Congress of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru had called for a unified secular state for all Indians, regardless of religion. The Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted a separate homeland for South Asian Muslims, out of fear that Muslims would be a marginalized minority in a unified India.
Bending to pressure from the Muslim League, the British and Congress agreed to the partitioning of India on religious lines, with the two Muslim-majority regions becoming the eastern and western wings of Pakistan. (East Pakistan would become Bangladesh in 1971.) For Bengal and Punjab, states on the border, a commission led by British judge Cyril Radcliffe drew a new international boundary running between Muslim-majority and Hindu-majority districts within the states. The Radcliffe Commission consulted no other data aside from population statistics, and they conducted no field surveys.
The partitioning of India caused a refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale, as Muslims left India and Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan. Ten million people were displaced and between 250,000 and one million killed.
Why so much bloodshed? Partition corresponded with a surge of violence between the religious communities. This violence was not spontaneous, as it is often remembered (when it is remembered at all). The Indo-British co-production Gandhi, released 35 years after Partition, includes a scene of refugees on the move near the new border. One column of Muslims trudges and rides bullock-carts toward Pakistan; the other, of Hindus and Sikhs, heads the opposite direction. One of the refugees flies into a rage and hurls a rock at the people heading the opposite direction. This unhinges an avalanche, and in short order both sides have fallen on each other and are cutting one another to pieces.
Episodes like this may have happened on occasion in real life, but the majority of the violence was premeditated, not spontaneous. It was also perpetrated not by amateurs, but by professionals—veterans of the Indian Army from World War II, with training and weapons that they could use for ethnic-cleansing.
The final episode of the British miniseries The Jewel in the Crown (based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet) has a more authentic portrayal of the violence of Partition. A band of Hindu militants stops a train and murders all the Muslim passengers. The militants know where to look because one of their conspirators left chalk marks on the exterior of the carriages at an earlier station stop.
Only a small minority of Indians, Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis are old enough to remember Partition; but the scars of the event are almost everywhere in South Asia. There is of course the Indo-Pak border, and the seventy years of suspicion and hatred that it represents. In Pakistan, the province of Sind lost its business class, almost all Hindus, who migrated to India. (Some of them ended up in Jaipur, where their descendants run shops in the old city.) In India, Uttar Pradesh (formerly the United Provinces) lost its Muslim upper class to Pakistan. Hindustani, the common language of northern India, was split definitively into Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan. Urdu and the Muslims who spoke it were second-class citizens in India. Jinnah’s prediction had in a way become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- The Great Partition, by Yasmeen Khan, is an account of the human toll of Partition. Not for the faint of heart.
- Midnight’s Descendants, by John Keay, begins with an excellent discussion of Partition. (The rest of the book, alas, is not so good.)
- The works of Urdu short-story writer Sa’adat Hasan Manto are still read on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. (Hindi speakers read Devanagari transcriptions.) Some of them have been translated into English (including my favorite, “Toba Tek Singh”). Manto’s life story is itself a parable of Partition: Formerly comfortably ensconced in Bombay, he moved to Pakistan for his wife’s family, where he wrote stories of Partition and drank himself to death.