The Partition of India: Divisions & Violence in the 20th Century

The independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 came at an incredibly high price. The Partition of India was nothing short of a colossal human catastrophe that still reverberates

Sep 11, 2022By Stephanie Jelks, MPhil History, MA History, BA Political Science
partition of india 1947


Clashes between Hindus and Muslims occurred in the Indian subcontinent long before the British arrived, but tensions increased during British colonial rule. The partition of a single province in British India, done for administrative rather than religious reasons, fomented a Muslim desire for its own independent state. When it became clear that Britain could no longer maintain its status as colonial ruler, Britain wished to leave a united India behind. However, growing animosity between rival religious factions meant that the Partition of India was the solution chosen to accommodate the adversaries. Unimaginable horrors unfolded as two countries were born.


The Partition of Bengal: The Precursor to the Partition of India

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Partition of Bengal, 1905, via


More than 40 years before the Partition of India, the province of Bengal in British India was divided largely along religious lines. The Partition of Bengal wasn’t carried out for reasons of nationalism or because the inhabitants couldn’t get along, but for administrative reasons. Bengal was British India’s largest province with a population of 78.5 million. The British found this to be too large to manage effectively, so the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, announced the administrative reorganization in July 1905.


Ironically, the Partition of Bengal led to a rise in nationalism. The Bengali Hindu elite protested against this partition because the inclusion of new non-Bengali-speaking provinces to the north and south to create West Bengal meant that they would become a minority in their own province. Nationalists across India were appalled by the British disregard for public opinion and several incidents of political violence against the British occurred.


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The founders of the All India Muslim League, 1906, via


When the idea of the Partition of Bengal was first proposed in 1903, Muslim organizations denounced the decision. They too were opposed to a threat to Bengali sovereignty. However, when educated Muslims learned about the benefits that Partition would bring, they began to support it. In 1906, the All India Muslim League was founded in Dacca. Because Bengal’s educational, administrative, and professional opportunities were centered around Calcutta, the Muslim majority of the new East Bengal began to see the benefits of having their own capital.

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The Partition of Bengal only lasted for six years. The government, the British Raj, had been unable to quell the political disturbances during that time and instead reunified the Bengali-speaking districts. Muslims were disappointed because they believed that the British government had meant to take positive steps toward protecting Muslim interests. Initially largely opposed to the Partition of Bengal, Muslims began to use the experience of having their own separate province to participate more in local politics and even start demanding the creation of independent Muslim states.


Muslims Obtain Greater Political Participation in British India

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A photograph of a young Muhammad Ali Jinnah, via


World War I turned out to be a defining moment in the relationship between Britain and India. 1.4 million Indian and British soldiers who were part of the British Indian Army took part in the war. India’s massive contribution to the British war effort could not be overlooked. In 1916, the Lucknow Session of the Indian National Congress saw the Hindu-majority Indian National Congress and the Muslim League join forces in a proposal for more self-government. The Indian National Congress agreed to separate electorates for Muslims in provincial legislatures and the Imperial Legislative Council. The “Lucknow Pact” did not have the universal backing of Muslims, but it had the support of a young Muslim lawyer from Karachi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would later become a leader of the Muslim League and India’s independence movement.


Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a proponent of the two-nation theory. This theory held that religion was the primary identity of Muslims in the subcontinent rather than language or ethnicity. According to this theory, Hindus and Muslims could not exist in a single state without dominating and discriminating against each other. The two-nation theory also stated that there would always be constant conflict between the two groups. Several Hindu nationalist organizations were also supporters of the two-nation theory.


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An artist’s depiction of two-nation theory by Abro, via


The Government of India Act of 1919 enlarged the provincial and Imperial legislative councils and increased the number of Indians who could vote to 10% of the male adult population or 3% of the total population. A further Government of India Act of 1935 introduced provincial autonomy and increased the number of voters in India to 35 million or 14% of the total population. Separate electorates were provided for Muslims, Sikhs, and others. In the Indian provincial elections of 1937, the Muslim League achieved its best performance to date. The Muslim League investigated the conditions of Muslims who lived in Indian National Congress-governed provinces. The findings increased fear that Muslims would be unfairly treated in an independent India dominated by the Indian National Congress.


Britain’s Relations with Nationalists in India During World War II


At the start of World War II, the British Viceroy of India declared war on India’s behalf without consulting Indian leaders. In protest, the Indian National Congress’s provincial ministries resigned. However, the Muslim League supported Britain in the war effort. When the viceroy met with Indian nationalist leaders soon after the outbreak of war, he accorded the same status to Muhammad Ali Jinnah as he did to Mahatma Gandhi.


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Sir Stafford Cripps in India, March 1942, via


By March 1942, Japanese forces were moving up the Malayan Peninsula after the Fall of Singapore, while the Americans had publicly expressed support for the independence of India. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir Stafford Cripps, to India in 1942 to offer the country dominion status at the war’s end if the Indian National Congress would support the war effort.


Wanting the support of the Muslim League, Unionists of Punjab, and the Indian princes, Cripps’ offer stated that no part of the British Indian Empire would be forced to join the post-war dominion. The Muslim League rejected this offer because, by this time, they had their sights on the formation of Pakistan.


Choudhry Rahmat Ali is credited with coming up with the term Pakistan in 1933. By March 1940, the Indian National Congress had passed the Lahore Resolution, which stated that the majority-Muslim areas to the northwest and east of the Indian subcontinent should become autonomous and sovereign. The Indian National Congress also rejected this offer because it viewed itself as the representative of all Indians of all faiths.


India on the Path to Independence


After the war’s end, in early 1946, there were several mutinies in the armed services, including among Royal Air Force servicemen disheartened by their delayed repatriation to Britain. Mutinies of the Royal Indian Navy also occurred in various cities. The new British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who had supported the idea of India’s independence for years, gave the issue the government’s highest priority.


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Newspaper coverage of the mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy, February 1946, via


Also in 1946, new elections were held in India. The Indian National Congress won 91% of the vote in non-Muslim constituencies and a majority in the Central Legislature. For most Hindus, the Congress was now the legitimate successor to the British government. The Muslim League won most of the seats allotted to Muslims in the provincial assemblies as well as all the Muslim seats in the Central Assembly.


With such conclusive election results, the Muslim League could finally claim that it and Jinnah alone represented India’s Muslims. Jinnah understood the result to be a popular demand for a separate homeland. When British Cabinet members visited India in July 1946, they met with Jinnah because, although they did not support a separate Muslim homeland, they appreciated being able to speak to one person on behalf of India’s Muslims.


The British proposed the Cabinet Mission Plan, which would preserve a united India in a federal structure with two of the three provinces consisting of mostly Muslims. The provinces would be autonomous, but defense, foreign affairs, and communications would be governed by the center. The Muslim League accepted these proposals even though they didn’t offer an independent Pakistan. However, the Indian National Congress rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan.


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The aftermath of Direct Action Day, via


When the Cabinet Mission failed, Jinnah declared August 16, 1946, to be Direct Action Day. Direct Action Day’s goal was to peacefully support the demand for a Muslim homeland in British India. Despite its peaceful aim, the day ended with Muslim violence toward Hindus. The following day the Hindus fought back, and over three days, around 4,000 Hindus and Muslims were killed. Women and children were attacked while homes were entered and destroyed. The events rattled both the Government of India and the Indian National Congress. In September, an Indian National Congress-led interim government was put in place, with Jawaharlal Nehru chosen as united India’s prime minister.


The End of a United India Takes Shape

vallabhbhai patel indian national congress
Vallabhbhai Patel of the Indian National Congress, via


Prime Minister Attlee appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten as India’s last viceroy. His task was to oversee British India’s independence by June 30, 1948, but to avoid partition and maintain a united India. At the same time, he was given adaptable authority so that the British could withdraw with as few setbacks as possible.


Vallabhbhai Patel was an Indian National Congress leader who was among the first to accept the idea of the Partition of India. Although he strongly disapproved of the actions of the Muslim League, he knew that many Muslims respected Jinnah and that an open conflict between Patel and Jinnah could descend into a Hindu-Muslim civil war.


Between December 1946 and January 1947, he worked with an Indian civil servant, V.P. Menon, to develop the idea of a separate dominion of Pakistan. Patel pressed for the partition of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal so they would not wholly be included in the new Pakistan. Patel won supporters among the Indian public, but some of his critics included Gandhi, Nehru, and secular Muslims. The further communal violence that occurred between January and March 1947 entrenched the idea of partition in Patel’s beliefs.


The Mountbatten Plan 


Mountbatten formally proposed the Partition plan on June 3, 1947, at a press conference where he also stated that India would become an independent country on August 15, 1947. The Mountbatten Plan contained five elements: the first was that the multi-faith legislative assemblies of Punjab and Bengal would be able to vote for partition by a simple majority. The provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan (modern-day Pakistan) were allowed to make their own decisions.


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Lord Louis Mountbatten in India, 1947, via


The third point was that a referendum would decide the fate of the Northwest-Frontier Province and the Sylhet district of Assam. Separate independence for Bengal was dismissed. The final element was that a boundary commission would be established if partition were to take place.


Mountbatten’s intention was to divide India but to try to maintain the maximum possible unity. The Muslim League won its demands for an independent country, but the intention was to make Pakistan as small as possible out of respect for the Indian National Congress’s position for unity. When Mountbatten was questioned as to what he would do in the event of violent riots, he replied:


“I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot. I am a soldier, not a civilian. Once partition is accepted in principle, I shall issue orders to see that there are no communal disturbances in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt the sternest measures to nip the trouble in the bud. I shall not use even the armed police. I will order the army and air force to act and I will use tanks and aero-planes to suppress anybody who wants to create trouble.”


Neither Mountbatten nor any other Indian leader foresaw the violence that would occur with the Partition of India. Patel approved of the plan and lobbied Nehru and other Congress leaders to support it. The Indian National Congress gave its approval to the plan, although Gandhi was against it. Later that month, Indian nationalist leaders who represented Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and the Untouchables agreed to partition the country along religious lines; once again, Gandhi voiced his opposition. On July 18, 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act that finalized the arrangements for partition.


The Radcliffe Lines

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The Radcliffe Lines, via


The geographical line of the Partition was called the Radcliffe Line, even though there were two of them: one to demarcate modern-day Pakistan and the other to define the border of modern-day Bangladesh. Further communal violence occurred when the Radcliffe Line was published on August 17, 1947. The Dominion of Pakistan came into being on August 14 (with Jinnah as its first Governor-General), and India became an independent country the following day (with Nehru as its first prime minister).


Residents who lived near the Radcliffe Line were aware that the country was being divided, but the Dominion of Pakistan and the Dominion of India had come into existence before the publication of the Radcliffe line. With its publication on the 17th, people who had waited and people who were already in transit panicked. The violence that had begun earlier escalated, including the abduction of Hindu and Sikh girls by Pakistani Muslims and much bloodshed against Hindus and Sikhs who were trying to head to India.


Historians hesitate to use the word genocide to describe what happened in the Indian subcontinent after the partition. However, much of the violence was intended to “cleanse an existing generation and prevent its future reproduction.”


The Partition of India: Population Transfer & Reprehensible Violence

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Muslim refugees fleeing India, September 1947, via


Except for the province of Punjab, nobody had anticipated that the Partition of India would lead to massive population exchanges. Punjab was an exception because it had experienced significant communal violence in the months leading up to the Partition. The authorities had expected that religious minorities would stay in the new states they found themselves inhabiting.


Before the Partition, the population of an undivided India had been about 390 million people. After the Partition, there were approximately 330 million in India, 30 million in West Pakistan, and 30 million in East Pakistan. After the boundaries were established, roughly 14.5 million people crossed borders to what they hoped would be the safety of being within the religious majority. The 1951 censuses of India and Pakistan stated that between 7.2 and 7.3 million people had been displaced in each of those countries as a result of the Partition.


While population transfer had been anticipated in Punjab, nobody expected the sheer numbers. Some 6.5 million Muslims moved to West Punjab, while around 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs migrated to East Punjab. With the transfer of people came horrific violence. Punjab experienced the worst violence: estimates of death vary between 200,000 and two million people. With few exceptions, almost no Hindu or Sikh survived in West Punjab, and very few Muslims survived in East Punjab. Punjab was by no means the only province to go through such horrors.


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Riot victims being removed from the streets of Delhi, 1947, via The New York Times


Survivors of the aftermath of the Partition of India have told tales of kidnap, rape, and murder. Bungalows and mansions were burned and looted while children were killed in front of their siblings. Some trains carrying refugees between the two new nations arrived full of corpses. Women experienced a particular type of violence, with some choosing to commit suicide to protect their family’s honor and avoid forcible religious conversion.


Resettlement of Refugees & Missing People

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Homeless refugees at Tihar village, Delhi, 1950, via


According to the 1951 Census of India, 2% of India’s population were refugees, with 1.3% coming from West Pakistan and 0.7% coming from East Pakistan. The majority of Sikh and Hindu Punjabi refugees from West Punjab settled in Delhi and East Punjab. The city of Delhi’s population grew from less than one million in 1941 to just under two million in 1951. Many found themselves in refugee camps. After 1948, the government of India began converting campsites into permanent housing. Hindus fleeing East Pakistan were settled in eastern, central, and northeastern India. The most significant number of refugees in Pakistan came from East Punjab, roughly 80% of Pakistan’s total refugee population.


In Punjab alone, based on census data from 1931 to 1951, an estimated 1.3 Muslims left western India but never reached Pakistan. The number of Hindus and Sikhs who headed eastward in the same region but didn’t arrive is estimated to be 800,000 people. Throughout the entire Indian subcontinent, 1951 census data estimated that 3.4 million targeted minorities were “missing.”


Partition of India Migration Continues Today: Who is to Blame?

partition of india 1947
The Partition of India, 1947, via


The migration as a result of the Partition of India has continued into the 21st century. While 1951 census data recorded that 2.5 million refugees arrived from East Pakistan, by 1973, the number of migrants from this region numbered 6 million. In 1978, 55,000 Pakistani Hindus became Indian citizens.


In 1992, the Babri Masjid, or Mosque of Babur, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, was attacked and demolished by a Hindu nationalist mob. In response, at least 30 Hindu and Jain temples were attacked across Pakistan. Some 70,000 Hindus residing in Pakistan fled to India as a consequence of this religious violence.


As late as 2013, an estimated 1,000 Hindu families left Pakistan for India, while the National Assembly of Pakistan was told in 2014 that some 5,000 Hindus were migrating from Pakistan to India each year.


Much of the blame for the events of the Partition of India has been placed on the British. The commission that established the Radcliffe Lines spent more time determining the new boundaries than they did deciding on the partition. Additionally, the independence of India and Pakistan came before the Partition, meaning that it was the responsibility of the new governments of those countries to maintain public order, which they were ill-equipped to do.


However, others have argued that civil war was imminent in the Indian subcontinent even before Mountbatten became viceroy. With Britain’s limited resources after World War II, even Britain would have been hard pressed to maintain order. The Muslim League was a proponent of the Partition, and the Indian National Congress eventually acquiesced, as did other religious and social groups. The birth of the two nations, and the later independence of Bangladesh in 1971, carry a tragic history that still reverberates today.

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By Stephanie JelksMPhil History, MA History, BA Political ScienceStephanie is currently a writer based in Montevideo. She earned her MPhil and MA in History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, as well as a BA in Political Science (with a minor in International Studies) from Truman State University in the US. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends.