The bloody road to partition: 8 landmark moments in the turbulent story

On the 70th anniversary of the end of the British Raj, Yasmin Khan described eight of the images that define the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan. Then she explores some landmark moments in the turbulent story of India's partition...

A boy sitting on a rock ledge above a refugee camp, October 1947. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The last viceroy is sworn in 24 March 1947

Louis Mountbatten was the final viceroy of India after almost 200 years of British rule. The 1st Earl of Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina, arrived in India on 22 March 1947 and – as this image shows – were sworn in at a ceremony in the Durbar Hall of the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi two days later.

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A great grandson of Queen Victoria, Mountbatten enjoyed theatrical ceremonies, but he also had extensive powers. As head of the British administration in India, he was responsible for planning the departure of the British from India and for finding a solution to the deadlock between the different Indian political parties.

(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mountbatten had been dispatched to India by the British prime minister, Clement Attlee, with instructions to secure the fastest possible transfer of power. Within two months of his arrival, he had finalised a plan to partition the subcontinent into two separate states – Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India – and transferred power a year faster than anyone had expected.

Edwina also played a decisive role in the drama, developing an intimate personal relationship with Jawaharal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress, the party that was spearheading the move towards independence. The Mountbattens remained in the subcontinent after independence (until June 1948), and Louis acted as first governor-general of independent India.

Migrants After India Partitian

Mountbatten and Gandhi take tea

1 April 1947

(Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
(Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

With partition negotiations locked in deadlock, Mahatma Gandhi and Louis Mountbatten endeavoured to find a way forward over a cup of tea in the garden of the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi.

This image was a brilliant piece of propaganda, as the British needed to show to the world that they were consulting with the most important Indian nationalist leader. It shows the two men enjoying a drink that was grown on Indian plantations but had, by now, become quintessentially British.

The leaders had long discussions about Gandhi’s life in South Africa, but the conversation mostly focused on India’s political stasis. How should Mountbatten accommodate the different constitutional demands at the time of independence? Could Congress reach a compromise with the Muslim League?

The leaders’ meetings were cordial but Mountbatten was upset that Gandhi refused any possibility of partition as a solution (he described Gandhi as “Trotskyist” in private letters of the time). Gandhi continued to talk of British policies of ‘divide and rule’.

Although, ultimately, the Congress did reluctantly agree to the partition of India, Gandhi never endorsed it. On independence day in August the same year, he refused to celebrate, spending the day fasting and in silent prayer.

A partition of literature

Summer 1947 

This famous image, taken by the American photographer David Douglas Duncan, seems to show the division of a library, with stacks of books allocated to India and Pakistan. As the mountain of literature grows ever larger, the young librarian BS Kesavan struggles with his mammoth task.

(Photographer: David Douglas Duncan)
(Photographer: David Douglas Duncan)

The photograph – published in Time magazine in 1947 – seems to epitomise the petty yet momentous nature of the division between the two new countries. Many squabbles erupted in government offices about the fair allocation of goods. Mundane objects that belonged to the state, including cutlery, stationery and office furniture, were divided up between India and Pakistan respectively on a 4:1 ratio.

Yet this photograph may have been staged or doctored. As the writer Anhad Hundal pointed out, the books in the Imperial Secretariat Library in New Delhi, where the photograph was taken, were never actually divided. Nonetheless, there was a proposal to divide this library, and many others were unquestionably split up. Worse still, a huge number of archives and precious manuscripts were lost during the chaos that followed partition.

Indians and Pakistanis continued to contest lost property and possessions for many decades after 1947, and some residential property disputes continue to the present day.

Leaders thrash out a plan for partition

3 June 1947

(Photo by Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
(Photo by Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

This photograph marks the moment when fewer than a dozen men agreed to divide the whole of the Indian subcontinent, a population of 400 million.

On 3 June 1947, Abdul Rab Nishtar, Sardar Baldev Singh, Acharya Kriplani, Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan – representatives of the Muslim League, the Sikh parties and Congress – sat around a small table with the British viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, and Lord Ismay, Mountbatten’s chief of staff. They agreed that the plan to partition would go ahead.

The Indian leaders look tired and apprehensive, but Ismay (second left) smiles, perhaps with relief that an agreement has finally been reached.

The plan was announced in the House of Commons in London that evening. At the same time, Mountbatten and the leaders of the different parties took to the radio to explain the decision to an expectant and nervous south Asian population.

Many believed that, by agreeing to a final plan, further outbreaks of violence between the country’s Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities could be avoided. Mountbatten declared: “The whole plan may not be perfect: but like all plans its success will depend on the spirit of good will with which it is carried out.”

Jinnah marks the birth of Pakistan

14 August 1947 

(Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
(Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the leader of the Muslim League and hero-worshipped by many south Asian Muslims. It’s fitting therefore that he led the celebrations for the new state of Pakistan in Karachi, on 14 August 1947. Behind him stand members of the Muslim League National Guard.

Educated in Britain, Jinnah often wore Savile Row suits, but on this day he sported a white sherwani (a knee-length coat) and a north Indian hat called a karakul.

Despite the celebrations there was much uncertainty about the new state, and the role of religion within it. Jinnah himself was ambivalent about the territory that had been granted to Pakistan, describing it as “moth eaten”. In just over a year he would be dead, leaving Pakistan bereft of a leader who could unify many different competing ethnic groups.

A still from the 2017 film Viceroy's House

A desperate exodus

19 September 1947 

Trains overcrowded with refugees, packed onto the roof and clinging to the sides became the defining image of partition. At least 12 million people moved between India and Pakistan, with roughly equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims seeking new homes in addition to almost the whole Sikh population. Many travelled by train, but others walked in long foot columns, while some crossed the border by car or plane.

The scale of the migrations was unplanned, and caught the British and Asian politicians by surprise. Confusion followed, as some people were urged to return or to stay in their homes. In early September 1947, it became clear that the safest way forward was to exchange the populations across Punjab. This soon became official policy, organised by the military.

The majority of the refugees were from Punjab but hundreds of thousands also moved in both directions from other parts of India and Pakistan, including Bengal, Bombay, North West Frontier Province, Sind and United Provinces.

The “helpless sufferers”

October 1947 

(Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
(Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Partition proved a harrowing experience for millions of people – and perhaps no group suffered more than Punjab’s poorest villagers. This moving image, taken by the celebrated American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, shows a Muslim mother hugging a relative besides the grave of her child. The infant had died of starvation after the family’s train was halted by ethnic violence.

Bourke-White saw the refugee columns trudging across the new borders, photographed corpses on train tracks and toured cholera-afflicted hospitals. “The sight of these helpless sufferers had made me very angry,” she wrote in her account of her experiences of partition, Halfway to Freedom. “These were innocent peasants; some had been driven from their ancestral homes; the others had listened to the drumming of religious slogans and left home to pursue a dream.”

Rape was used as a weapon of ethnic cleansing in Punjab, and women often suffered in their own communities because of the stigma of sexual violence. Others were held captive by the ‘other’ community, while tens of thousands were forcibly repatriated by the new states of India and Pakistan. No wonder Gandhi described women as “the chief sufferers” of partition.

The despair of the refugees

October 1947

This iconic image of a young Muslim boy looking out over a New Delhi refugee camp with his head in his hands seems to define the confusion and anxiety of the partition period.

A boy sitting on a rock ledge above a refugee camp, October 1947. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
A boy sitting on a rock ledge above a New Delhi refugee camp, October 1947. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

A quarter of a million refugees – many of them Muslims leaving India – passed through New Delhi in the summer of 1947, using makeshift cloths and sheets to separate their temporary homes. Most would make new homes in Pakistan, although many perished from disease and violence along the way.

The camp in this picture was at Purana Qila, the old fort of New Delhi. The boy sits upon the fort’s ramparts while, on the horizon are the cupolas of the Red Fort, the seat of Mughal power in India, which had been a British barracks since 1857.

This image was also taken by Margaret Bourke-White, who travelled widely in India in 1947 for Life magazine, and took many of the defining images of partition.

Yasmin Khan is associate professor in 18th to early 20th-century British history at the University of Oxford. Her books include The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (Yale, 2007).


12 key milestones in the partition story…

1

The end of the Second World War

In 1945 India emerged from the Second World War a transformed nation – both economically and politically – and its people craved freedom from British rule. It was also a divided nation: the majority (about 70 per cent) of the British Indian population was Hindu, while Muslims, at around a quarter of the population, constituted a significant minority. Christians, Sikhs and other groups made up the remaining 5 per cent.

The Muslim League, which was calling for the establishment of Pakistan, surged in popularity in the 1940s. The nationalist Congress Party leaders – Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – claimed to represent all south Asians but – they were struggling to keep their movement non-violent, and had spent several of the war years in prison. In 1946 the British decided to leave Indian but could not settle the question of a constitutional settlement

(Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

2

26 June 1946: The ‘Cabinet Mission’ fails

Elections in early 1946 confirmed extensive support for the Muslim League among south Asian Muslims, while the Congress Party dominated the non-Muslim vote.

Later that year, a delegation from London of three members of the British cabinet came very close to achieving a united India. The ‘Cabinet Mission’ managed to get the Muslim League and Congress to agree for a brief time to a federal plan for a more decentralised constitution for a united India. The date 26 June was fixed for inaugurating a new government. However, with tensions between India’s religious groups rising, the plan fell apart. This was perhaps the best hope for a peaceful solution to Hindu-Muslim-Sikh relations in India. Ethnic relations deteriorated further after the delegation failed.

3

16 August 1946: Ethnic clashes kill 4,000

The Muslim League called for a day of ‘Direct Action’ in Calcutta in August 1946. It was a show of strength, as Congress was going ahead with the creation of an interim government without the League.

Politicians encouraged demonstrations and processions, but many were prepared for a fight. The direct action day backfired horribly, as Calcutta descended into violence: more than 4,000 were killed – both Hindu and Muslim – over the space of a few days in the worst episode of ethnic violence recorded at the time. This was the start of a cycle of partition violence that stretched over the following 18 months.

4

Late 1946: Violence blights north and east India

Extreme ethnic violence between Hindus and Muslims broke out in late 1946 in north India, particularly in the regions of Noakhali (Bengal), Bihar and the United Provinces. This was different to earlier episodes – not just in scale, but also because women and children were increasingly being targeted for killings and sexual violence.

Gandhi toured the afflicted regions to try and bring peace to the troubled areas.

He threatened to fast until death if the violence did not stop. Meanwhile, local political leaders and agitators from all communities were involved in spreading rumours and increasing ethnic tension.

5

14 August 1947: Bloodshed mars Pakistan’s birth

Pakistan marked its independence one day before India. The new state was made up of two wings, East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory.

While people celebrated the creation of the new nation state, parts of the country were engulfed in ethnic violence. Muslims poured into Pakistan while Hindus and Sikhs left. One in five people in the new state was a refugee, a fact that threatened Pakistan’s very survival.

6

17 July 1947: Boundary force proves toothless

A Punjab Boundary Force was created from units in the Indian army, with the aim of restoring law and order. But, such was its ineffectiveness, it was disbanded after just 32 days. Even at its peak, the force covered no more than the 12 most ‘disturbed’ districts of Punjab, and consisted of only 25,000 men. This meant that there were fewer than two men to a square mile.

British troops were still in India but – far from being used to contain the violence – were being demobilised following the Second World War.

7

3 June 1947: The plan to partition is unveiled

Mountbatten achieved the agreement to the partition plan that he so craved during meetings with south Asian leaders on 2 and 3 June. With this plan allowing people in Bengal and the Punjab to decide if they wanted to divide their provinces – and new borders not yet settled – there was great uncertainty about what the 3 June plan meant for ordinary people, and which areas would end up in India or Pakistan.

The plan also saw the British bringing forward the date of independence by an entire year.

8

March 1947: Refugees flee Punjab violence

After Attlee’s statement, violence intensified in Punjab. In early March, under intense pressure, the Unionist Party leader in Punjab, Khizr Tiwana, resigned from his role as prime minister of the province. With Tiwana gone, a bloody battle for Lahore – a city with a mixed population of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims – erupted.

The violence triggered the first wave of Punjabi refugees, as the more prosperous decided to move to safer parts of the country, and started to remove their valuables and assets.

9

15 August 1947: Independence day for India

India celebrated Independence Day 24 hours after Pakistan, in the capital, New Delhi. While the celebrations went ahead, nearby refugee camps continued to fill and the ethnic violence continued.

Older princely states were also being absorbed into the new state. The unsettled status of Kashmir – and whether it belonged to India or Pakistan – soon led to war.

Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s new prime minister but it would take another two years for India to write a constitution and over four years to hold a general election.

10

17 August 1947: Boundary judgment increases tensions

The British judge Cyril Radcliffe was asked to draw the boundary between the new states of India and Pakistan. He did so with the help of south Asian members of the Bengal and Punjab Boundary Commissions, but these quickly became polarised and partisan along religious lines.

Using the 1941 census, Radcliffe considered the majority and minority populations in the districts to be divided, but was also allowed to consider cultural and economic factors. The announcement of the boundary line was held back until after independence day. Inevitably, many were deeply disappointed by the decisions that Radcliffe made.

11

August–October 1947: 12 million people hit the road

In the early days of partition, many people believed that both India and Pakistan would retain large religious minorities, and politicians initially urged people not to move home.

But this policy soon fell victim to events on the ground. Many Sikhs across the Punjab – caught between the two new states – were soon calling for their own homeland. Soon the states were organising a formal ‘exchange of population’ in the Punjab, which would see 6 million people moving in both directions.

12

30 January 1948: Gandhi’s murder stuns India

On 30 January, Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist fiercely opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s demands for a secular, pluralist state, and his attempts to make peace with Pakistan, walked into a prayer meeting at Birla House in New Delhi and shot the leader in the chest three times.

Gandhi’s death was a massive shock to the Indian nation and helped to bring partition violence to a halt. Nonetheless, the subcontinent would continue to be afflicted by sporadic bloodletting, and refugees would continue to cross the borders of Bengal and East Pakistan for many years.

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This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine