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Seventy years of Partition

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.

Learn more

  • 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.

The Birth of Bangladesh

When Pakistan gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, it consisted of two dissimilar and discontiguous Muslim-majority territories, separated by a thousand miles of Hindu-dominated India. West Pakistan, made up of Sindh, Baluchistan, western Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Provinces, and part of the disputed region of Kashmir, dominated Pakistani politics. East Pakistan was much smaller but had a larger population than the West; it consisted of the Muslim-majority districts of Bengal, as well as the Assamese district of Sylhet. The two “wings” of Pakistan were united as one country solely on the basis of religion. By all other considerations—linguistic, ethnic, cultural—East and West Pakistan were separate nations.

The West Pakistanis maintained control of their country by curtailing popular sovereignty; the government in Rawalpindi refused to hold popular elections for twenty-three years. In 1970, the first fully democratic elections in Pakistan favored the East Pakistani Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Pakistani president Yahya Khan rejected the election results, jailed Mujib, and took full control of the government.

Mujib’s imprisonment set off a revolt in East Pakistan. Yahya Khan sent West Pakistani troops to the eastern wing to crush the revolt. These troops and the local police forces carried out a systematic extermination of any suspected rebels. Over the course of 1971, hundreds of thousands or possibly even millions of Bengalis died in this genocide. To escape the killings, millions of refugees poured into the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam.

The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, hoped to detach East Pakistan as an independent state, Bangladesh (Land of Bengal), thereby weakening Pakistan. In border regions, the Indian government secretly trained and equipped a Bengali insurgent army, the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). India waited for Pakistan to make its first military move, which it did on December 3, 1971, launching preemptive attacks on Indian airfields. Using this as a pretense for intervening in East Pakistan, the Indian Army moved into Bengal. Ignoring United Nations ceasefire arbitration, the Indians overwhelmed the West Pakistani troops. On December 16, Lieutenant-General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered the West Pakistan army forces in Dacca1 to the Indian Army. When the Indian forces under Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora entered Dacca on that same day, the local Bengali population cheered and offered flowers and embraces to the soldiers.

The most important outcome of the 1971 conflicts was birth of Bangladesh, which as a nation celebrates forty years of independence this month. In the past forty years, Bangladesh has made strides toward modernization and development, but the country still struggles to overcome poverty, disease, high infant mortality, and other problems common to the postcolonial world. The Indo-Pakistani War also had strategic implications for South Asia. Just nine years after its humiliating defeat by the Chinese, India’s decisive victory over Pakistan established India as the major military power of the region.

The effects of the Indo-Pakistani War were felt as far away as the United States. Throughout the conflict, the President Richard Nixon staunchly supported the United States’ strategic ally, Pakistan. At the same time, the American public grew steadily more alarmed by the genocide in East Pakistan and the refugee problem in India. This was a demonstration of the increasingly visible divergence between public will and government action in American politics. Watergate and Nixon’s resignation were yet to come, but by the end of 1971, the era of the “perception gap” in American politics had already begun.

  1. Then the capital of East Pakistan; now Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. []

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