The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Partition of India

The Partition of India was the process by which British dependencies and treaty states in the Indian subcontinent were granted independence in the 1940s. The divisions resulted in the creation of four new independent states—India, Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Pakistan (including modern-day Bangladesh)—and sowed the seeds for later conflicts between India and Pakistan.

The term partition is generally used only in reference to the independence of India and Pakistan in August 1947, which were created largely along religious lines. Ceylon and Burma were granted complete independence separately, on January 4 and February 4, 1948, respectively. For more information, see History of Sri Lanka and History of Burma.


Pakistan and India

Two self-governing dominions within the British Commonwealth legally came into existence at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. The ceremonies for the transfer of power were held a day earlier in Karachi, the capital of the new state of Pakistan, to allow the last British Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, to attend both the ceremony in Karachi and the ceremony in Delhi. Pakistan celebrates its Independence Day on August 14, while India celebrates on August 15.

Background of the partition

Seeds of partition

The seeds of the partition were sown long before independence, in the struggle between various factions of the Indian nationalist movement, and especially of the Indian National Congress, for control of the movement. Muslims felt threatened by Hindu majorities. The Hindus, in their turn, felt that the nationalist leaders were coddling the minority Muslims and slighting the majority Hindus.

The All India Muslim League (AIML) was formed in 1906 as a counterbalance to what it perceived as the Hindu domination of the Indian National Congress. A number of different scenarios were proposed at various times, but at the 1940 AIML conference in Lahore, League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah made clear his commitment to two separate states, a position from which the League never again wavered:

"The Hindus and the Muslims belong to two different religions, philosophies, social customs and literature . . . To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state."

However, Hindu organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha, though against the division of the country, were also insisting on the same chasm between Hindus and Muslims. In 1937 at the open session of the Hindu Mahasabha held at Ahmedabad, Veer Savarkar in his presidential address asserted:

"India cannot be assumed today to be Unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main - the Hindus and the Muslims."

Many of the Congress leaders were secularists and resolutely opposed division of India on the lines of religion. The extremely influential Mohandas Gandhi, widely perceived as the leader of the independence movement, was both religious and eirenic, believing that Hindus and Muslims could and should live in amity. He opposed the partition, saying,

"My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God."

For years, Gandhi and his adherents struggled to hold the independence movement together, in the process enraging both Hindu and Muslim extremists. (Gandhi was later assassinated by Nathuram Godse, who believed that Gandhi was appeasing Muslims at the cost of Hindus.) Politicians and community leaders on both sides whipped up mutual suspicion and fear, culminating in dreadful riots like the Calcutta riot of 1946, in which more than 4000 people were killed and many more injured. As public order broke down all across northern India and Bengal, British, Congress, and Muslim League negotiators finally agreed to the Partition.

State of affairs before the partition

The British colonial administration did not directly rule all of "India". There were several different political arrangements in existence:

Main political players

Political groupings


The process of division

The actual division between the two new dominions was done according to what has come to be known as the 3rd June Plan .

Expedited, controversial process

The Partition was a highly controversial arrangement, and remains a cause of much tension on the Subcontinent today. British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten not only rushed the process through, but also is alleged to have influenced the Radcliffe awards in India's favor.

Some critics allege that British haste led to the heart-rending cruelties of the Partition. Because independence was declared prior to the actual Partition, it was up to the new governments of India and Pakistan to keep public order. No large population movements were contemplated; the plan called for safeguards for minorities on both sides of the new state line. It was an impossible task, at which both states failed. There was a complete breakdown of law and order; millions (no one knows how many) died in riots, massacre, or just from the hardships of their flight to safety. What ensued was the largest population movement in history.

However, some argue that the British were forced to expedite the Partition by events on the ground. Law and order had broken down many times before Partition, with much bloodshed on both sides. A massive civil war was looming by the time Mountbatten became Viceroy. The only way the British could have maintained law and order would have been through martial law, and that could not have prevented communal violence throughout India, or the inevitable clashes that would come with partition. If Mountbatten had delayed partition and independence any longer, the death toll would have been in the millions. By rushing the process through, some say, Mountbatten saved more lives than were lost in the Partition.

Border definition

The border between India and Pakistan was determined by a British Government-commissioned report usually referred to as the Radcliffe Award after the London lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who wrote it. Pakistan came into being with two separate wings, East Pakistan (today Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, separated geographically by India. India was formed out of the majority Hindu regions of the colony, and Pakistan from the majority Muslim areas.

Legal arrangements

On July 18, 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act that finalized the partition arrangement. The Government of India Act 1935 was adapted to provide a legal framework for the two new dominions.

The Princely States

The 565 Princely States were given a choice of which country to join. Those states that chose a country at odds with their majority religion, such as Junagadh, Hyderabad, and especially Kashmir, became the subject of much dispute.

Population exchanges

Massive population exchanges occurred between the two newly-formed nations in the months immediately following Partition. Once the lines were established, roughly 12 million people crossed the borders to what they hoped was the relative safety of religious majority. Massive violence and slaughter occurred on both sides of the border—leading to the deaths of as many as five million people—as the newly formed governments were completely unequipped to deal with migrations of such staggering magnitude.

Division of assets

The assets of the legal entity that was “India” as of August 15, 1947, namely the British Indian Empire, were divided between the two dominions. The process became involved. Mahatma Gandhi went on hunger strike at one point to pressure the government of the Union of India to transfer funds, an action that is mentioned as one of the “grievances” cited by the group that assassinated him.


The partition of India created or exacerbated a number of issues which led to conflict in the region in subsequent years including:

See also

External links

  • Partition of India by A G Noorani.
  • Pre-Partition Map of India
  • The Story of Pakistan
  • The library of the University of California at Berkeley maintains a collection of pointers to online documents South Asian History: Colonial India , including numerous documents about independence and partition
  • Fordham University maintains an archive of relevant public-domain documents .

Further reading

  • Collins, Larry and Dominique Lapierre: Freedom at Midnight. London: Collins, 1975. ISBN 0006388515
  • Butalia, Urvashi (1998).The Other Side of Silence (2nd U.S. printing). Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2494-6
  • Gossman, P. (1999). Riots and Victims. Westview Press. ISBN 0813336252
  • David Page, Anita Inder Singh, Penderel Moon, G. D. Khosla, Mushirul Hasan (2001). The Partition Omnibus: Prelude to Partition/the Origins of the Partition of India 1936-1947/Divide and Quit/Stern Reckoning. Oxford University Press. ISBN 019565850-7
  • Qureshi, Ishtiaque Hussain. A Short History of Pakistan. University of Karachi Press.


Feature films

Garam Hawa (1973), directed by M. S. Sathyu  
Balraj Sahni 's last major role, and the first film on the Partition.
Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta (1998), IMDB entry  
A thoughtful examination of a circle of friends and acquaintances affected by the Partition. A scoundrel uses communal violence as an excuse for retaliation against a romantic rival. The film is based on Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India; Sidhwa co-wrote the screenplay with Mehta.
Jinnah, directed by Jamil Dehlavi (1998), IMDB entry  
A UK/Pakistan co-production, one of the few film treatments of this event to come from a Pakistani rather than an Indian perspective.
Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, directed by Anil Sharma (2001), IMDB entry  
Sensationalistic and nationalistic Indian movie about the Partition; notable for shocking scenes of riot and massacre. An unexpected major hit.
Hey Ram directed by Kamal Hassan (2000), IMBD entry  
Kamal Hassan wrote, directed, and starred in this film about the Partition and the assassination of Gandhi. Sentimental, egotistical, but strong production values.

Last updated: 02-10-2005 14:20:59
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55