Partition of India

Colonial India
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Dutch India 1605–1825
Danish India 1696–1869
French India 1759–1954
British India 1613–1947
East India Company 1612–1757
Company rule in India 1757–1857
British Raj 1858–1947
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Princely states 1765–1947
Partition of India 1947

The Partition of India (Hindi: भारत का विभाजन Bhārat ka vibhajan), (Urdu: ہندوستان کا بنٹوارا Hindustān kā ban̐ṭvārā) was the partition of British India on the basis of religious demographics that led to the creation, on 14 August 1947 and 15 August 1947, respectively, of the sovereign states of the Dominion of Pakistan (later Islamic Republic of Pakistan and People's Republic of Bangladesh) and the secular Union of India (later Republic of India).

The partition was promulgated in the Indian Independence Act 1947 and resulted in the dissolution of the British Indian Empire. The partition displaced up to 12.5 million people in the former British Indian Empire, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million.[1]

The partition of India included the geographical division of the Bengal province of British India into East Pakistan and West Bengal (India), and the similar partition of the Punjab province into West Punjab (later the Pakistani Punjab and Islamabad Capital Territory) and East Punjab (later the Indian Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh). The partition deal also included the division of state assets, including the British Indian Army, the Indian Civil Service and other administrative services, the Indian railways, and the central treasury.

In the aftermath of Partition, the princely states of India, which had been left by the Indian Independence Act 1947 to choose whether to accede to India or Pakistan or to remain outside them,[2] were all incorporated into one or other of the new dominions. The question of the choice to be made in this connection by Jammu and Kashmir led to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 and other wars and conflicts between India and Pakistan.[3]


Pakistan and India

Two self governing countries legally came into existence at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947. The ceremonies for the transfer of power were held a day earlier in Karachi, at the time the capital of the new state of Pakistan, so that the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, could attend both the ceremony in Karachi and the ceremony in Delhi. However another reason for this arrangement was to avoid the appearance that Pakistan was seceding from a sovereign India. Therefore Pakistan celebrates Independence Day on 14 August, while India celebrates it on 15 August.

Another reason for Pakistan celebrating independence on 14 August is the adoption of new standard time in Pakistan after partition. The new standard time of West Pakistan (modern 'Pakistan') was behind Indian standard time by 30 minutes and the new standard time of East Pakistan (modern 'Bangladesh') was ahead of Indian standard time by 30 minutes, so technically on the stroke of midnight falling between 14 August and 15, when India became independent, it was still 11:30 p.m. on 14 August in West Pakistan.


Late ninteenth and early twentieth century

Train to Pakistan being given a warm send-off. New Delhi railway station, 1947

The All India Muslim League (AIML) was formed in Dhaka in 1906 by Muslims who were suspicious of the Hindu-majority Indian National Congress. They complained that Muslim members did not have the same rights as Hindu members. A number of different scenarios were proposed at various times. Among the first to make the demand for a separate state was the writer/philosopher Allama Iqbal, who, in his presidential address to the 1930 convention of the Muslim League said that a separate nation for Muslims was essential in an otherwise Hindu-dominated subcontinent.

The Sindh Assembly passed a resolution making it a demand in 1935. Iqbal, Jouhar and others then worked hard to draft Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had till then worked for Hindu-Muslim unity, to lead the movement for this new nation. By 1930, Jinnah had begun to despair of the fate of minority communities in a united India and had begun to argue that mainstream parties such as the Congress, of which he was once a member, were insensitive to Muslim interests.

The 1932 communal award which seemed to threaten the position of Muslims in Hindu-majority provinces catalysed the resurgence of the Muslim League, with Jinnah as its leader. However, the League did not do well in the 1937 provincial elections, demonstrating the hold of the conservative and local forces at the time.


In 1940, Jinnah made a statement at the Lahore conference that seemed to call for a separate Muslim 'nation'. However, the document was ambiguous and opaque, and did not evoke a Muslim nation in a territorial sense. This idea, though, was taken up by Muslims and particularly Hindus in the next seven years, and given a more territorial element. All Muslim political parties including the Khaksar Tehrik of Allama Mashriqi opposed the partition of India[4] Mashriqi was arrested on 19 March 1940.

Hindu organisations such as 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 19th session of the Hindu Mahasabha held at Ahmedabad, Veer Savarkar in his presidential address asserted:[5]

India cannot be assumed today to be Unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main — the Hindus and the Muslims.
Rural Sikhs in a long ox-cart train headed towards India. 1947. Margaret Bourke-White.
An old Sikh man carrying his wife. Over 10 million people were uprooted from their homeland and travelled on foot, bullock carts and trains to their promised new home.

Most of the Congress leaders were secularists and resolutely opposed the division of India on the lines of religion. Mohandas Gandhi and Allama Mashriqi believed that Hindus and Muslims could and should live in amity. Gandhi 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 keep Muslims in the Congress Party (a major exit of many Muslim activists began in the 1930s), in the process enraging both Hindu Nationalists and Indian Muslim nationalists. (Gandhi was assassinated soon after Partition by Hindu nationalist 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 events such as the riots during the Muslim League's Direct Action Day of August 1946 in Calcutta, in which more than 5,000 people were killed and many more injured. As public order broke down all across northern India and Bengal, the pressure increased to seek a political partition of territories as a way to avoid a full-scale civil war.


Viceroy Lord Mountbatten of Burma with a countdown calendar to the Transfer of Power in the background

Until 1946, the definition of Pakistan as demanded by the League was so flexible that it could have been interpreted as a sovereign nation Pakistan, or as a member of a confederated India.

Some historians believe Jinnah intended to use the threat of partition as a bargaining chip in order to gain more independence for the Muslim dominated provinces in the west from the Hindu dominated center.[6]

Other historians claim that Jinnah's real vision was for a Pakistan that extended into Hindu-majority areas of India, by demanding the inclusion of the East of Punjab and West of Bengal, including Assam, a Hindu-majority country. Jinnah also fought hard for the annexation of Kashmir, a Muslim majority state with Hindu ruler; and the accession of Hyderabad and Junagadh, Hindu-majority states with Muslim rulers.

The British colonial administration did not directly rule all of "India". There were several different political arrangements in existence: Provinces were ruled directly and the Princely States with varying legal arrangements, like paramountcy.

The British Colonial Administration consisted of Secretary of State for India, the India Office, the Governor-General of India, and the Indian Civil Service. The British were in favour of keeping the area united. The 1946 Cabinet Mission was sent to try and reach a compromise between Congress and the Muslim League. A compromise proposing a decentralized state with much power given to local governments won initial acceptance, but Nehru was unwilling to accept such a decentralized state and Jinnah soon returned to demanding an independent Pakistan.[7]

The Indian political parties were:

The Partition: 1947

Mountbatten Plan

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

The border between India and Pakistan was determined by a British Government-commissioned report usually referred to as the Radcliffe Line after the London lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who wrote it. Pakistan came into being with two non-contiguous enclaves, 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.

Countries of Modern Indian subcontinent

On 18 July 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. Following partition, Pakistan was added as a new member of the United Nations. The union formed from the combination of the Hindu states assumed the name India which automatically granted it the seat of British India (a UN member since 1945) as a successor state.[8]

The 625 Princely States were given a choice of which country to join.

Geography of the partition: the Radcliffe Line

The Punjab — the region of the five rivers east of Indus: Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej — consists of interfluvial doabs, or tracts of land lying between two confluent rivers. These are the Sind-Sagar doab (between Indus and Jhelum), the Jech doab (Jhelum/Chenab), the Rechna doab (Chenab/Ravi), the Bari doab (Ravi/Beas), and the Bist doab (Beas/Sutlej) (see map). In early 1947, in the months leading up to the deliberations of the Punjab Boundary Commission, the main disputed areas appeared to be in the Bari and Bist doabs, although some areas in the Rechna doab were claimed by the Congress and Sikhs. In the Bari doab, the districts of Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Lahore, and Montgomery (Sahiwal) were all disputed.[9]

All districts (other than Amritsar, which was 46.5% Muslim) had Muslim majorities; albeit, in Gurdaspur, the Muslim majority, at 51.1%, was slender. At a smaller area-scale, only three tehsils (sub-units of a district) in the Bari doab had non-Muslim majorities. These were: Pathankot (in the extreme north of Gurdaspur, which was not in dispute), and Amritsar and Tarn Taran in Amritsar district. In addition, there were four Muslim-majority tehsils east of Beas-Sutlej (with two where Muslims outnumbered Hindus and Sikhs together).[9]

A map of the Punjab region ca. 1947
The claims (Congress/Sikh and Muslim) and the Boundary Commission Award in the Punjab in relation to Muslim percentage by Tehsils. The unshaded regions are the princely states.

Before the Boundary Commission began formal hearings, governments were set up for the East and the West Punjab regions. Their territories were provisionally divided by "notional division" based on simple district majorities. In both the Punjab and Bengal, the Boundary Commission consisted of two Muslim and two non-Muslim judges with Sir Cyril Radcliffe as a common chairman.[9]

The mission of the Punjab commission was worded generally as:

"To demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab, on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. In doing so, it will take into account other factors."[9]

Each side (the Muslims and the Congress/Sikhs) presented its claim through counsel with no liberty to bargain. The judges too had no mandate to compromise and on all major issues they "divided two and two, leaving Sir Cyril Radcliffe the invidious task of making the actual decisions."[9]

The communities in the disputed regions of the Upper Bari Doab in 1947.

Independence and population exchanges

Massive population exchanges occurred between the two newly-formed states in the months immediately following Partition. Once the lines were established, about 14.5 million people crossed the borders to what they hoped was the relative safety of religious majority. Based on 1951 Census of displaced persons, 7,226,000 Muslims went to Pakistan from India while 7,249,000 Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from Pakistan immediately after partition.

About 11.2 million or 78% of the population transfer took place in the west, with Punjab accounting for most of it; 5.3 million Muslims moved from India to West Punjab in Pakistan, 3.4 million Hindus and Sikhs moved from Pakistan to East Punjab in India; elsewhere in the west 1.2 million moved in each direction to and from Sind. However, the net flow of Muslims since partition is from Pakistan to India. More Muslims in Pakistan have chosen to come and stay in India than Muslims in India have chosen to move to Pakistan.[10]

A crowd of Muslims at the Old Fort (Purana Qila) in Delhi, which had been converted into a vast camp for Muslim refugees waiting to be transported to Pakistan. Manchester Guardian, 27 September 1947.

The newly formed governments were completely unequipped to deal with migrations of such staggering magnitude, and massive violence and slaughter occurred on both sides of the border. Estimates of the number of deaths range around roughly 500,000, with low estimates at 200,000 and high estimates at 1,000,000.[11]


The Indian state of Punjab was created in 1947, when the Partition of India split the former Raj province of Punjab between India and Pakistan. The mostly Muslim western part of the province became Pakistan's Punjab Province; the mostly Sikh and Hindu eastern part became India's Punjab state. Many Hindus and Sikhs lived in the west, and many Muslims lived in the east, and so the partition saw many people displaced and much intercommunal violence.

Lahore and Amritsar were at the center of the problem, the British were not sure where to place them - make them part of India or Pakistan. The British decided to give Lahore to Pakistan, whilst Amritsar became part of India. Areas in west Punjab such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan, Gujart, had a large Sikh population and many of the residents were attacked or killed by radical Muslims. On the other side in East Punjab cities such as Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Gurdaspur had a majority Muslim population in which many of them were wiped out by Sikh guerrillas who launched an all out war against the Muslims.


The province of Bengal was divided into the two separate entities of West Bengal belonging to India, and East Bengal belonging to Pakistan. East Bengal was renamed East Pakistan in 1955, and later became the independent nation of Bangladesh after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

While Muslim majority districts of Murshidabad was given to India, Hindu majority district Khulna and the Buddhist majority Chittagong division was given to Pakistan by the award.


Hindu Sindhis were expected to stay in Sindh following Partition, as there were good relations between Hindu and Muslim Sindhis. At the time of Partition there were 1,400,000 Hindu Sindhis, though most were concentrated in the cities such as Hyderabad, Karachi, Shikarpur, and Sukkur. However, because of an uncertain future in a Muslim country, a sense of better opportunities in India, and most of all a sudden influx of Muslim refugees from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajputana (Rajasthan) and other parts of India, many Sindhi Hindus decided to leave for India.

Problems were further aggravated when incidents of violence instigated by Indian Muslim refugees broke out in Karachi and Hyderabad. According to the census of India 1951, nearly 776,000 Sindhi Hindus moved into India.[12] Unlike the Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs, Sindhi Hindus did not have to witness any massive scale rioting; however, their entire province had gone to Pakistan thus they felt like a homeless community. Despite this migration, a significant Sindhi Hindu population still resides in Pakistan's Sindh province where they number at around 2.28 million as per Pakistan's 1998 census while the Sindhi Hindus in India as per 2001 census of India were at 2.57 million.

Kashmir conflict

The Princely state of Kashmir and Jammu had a majority Muslim population in the Kashmir valley and a majority Hindu population in Jammu and sparse population elsewhere. The Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India at the outbreak of violence. This Kashmir conflict lead to the 1947 war between India and Pakistan in that region.


TIME Magazine 27 October 1947 cover Boris Artzybasheff depicting a self-hurting goddess Kali as a symbol of the partition of India. The caption says: "INDIA: Liberty and death."

The Partition was a highly controversial arrangement, and remains a cause of much tension on the subcontinent today. The British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma has not only been accused of rushing the process through, but also is alleged to have influenced the Radcliffe Line in India's favour since everyone agreed India would be a more desirable country for most.[13][14] However, the commission took so long to decide on a final boundary that the two nations were granted their independence even before there was a defined boundary between them. Even then, the members were so distraught at their handiwork (and its results) that they refused compensation for their time on the commission.

Some critics allege that British haste led to the cruelties of the Partition.[15] 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 border. It was a task at which both states failed. There was a complete breakdown of law and order; many died in riots, massacre, or just from the hardships of their flight to safety. What ensued was one of the largest population movements in recorded history. According to Richard Symonds[16]

at the lowest estimate, half a million people perished and twelve million became homeless

However, some argue that the British were forced to expedite the Partition by events on the ground.[17] 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. After World War II, Britain had limited resources,[18] perhaps insufficient to the task of keeping order. Another viewpoint is that while Mountbatten may have been too hasty he had no real options left and achieved the best he could under difficult circumstances.[19] Historian Lawrence James concurs that in 1947 Mountbatten was left with no option but to cut and run. The alternative seemed to be involvement in a potentially bloody civil war from which it would be difficult to get out.[20]

Conservative elements in England consider the partition of India to be the moment that the British Empire ceased to be a world power, following Curzon's dictum that "While we hold on to India, we are a first-rate power. If we lose India, we will decline to a third-rate power."

Delhi Punjabi refugees

An estimated 25 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs (1947–present) crossed the newly drawn borders to reach their new homelands. These estimates are based on comparisons of decadal censuses from 1941 and 1951 with adjustments for normal population growth in the areas of migration. In northern India - undivided Punjab and North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) - nearly 12 million were forced to move from as early as March 1947 following the Rawalpindi violence.

Delhi received the largest number of refugees for a single city - the population of Delhi grew rapidly in 1947 from under 1 million (917.939) to a little less than 2 million (1.744.072) between the period 1941-1951.[21] The refugees were housed in various historical and military locations such as the Old Fort Purana Qila), Red Fort (Red Fort), and military barracks in Kingsway (around the present Delhi university). The latter became the site of one of the largest refugee camps in northern India with more than 35,000 refugees at any given time besides Kurukshetra camp near Panipat.

The camp sites were later converted into permanent housing through extensive building projects undertaken by the Government of India from 1948 onwards. A number of housing colonies in Delhi came up around this period like Lajpat Nagar, Rajinder Nagar, Nizamuddin East, Punjabi Bagh, Rehgar Pura, Jungpura and Kingsway Camp.

A number of schemes such as the provision of education, employment opportunities, easy loans to start businesses, were provided for the refugees at all-India level. The Delhi refugees, however, were able to make use of these facilities much better than their counterparts elsewhere.[22]

Refugees settled in India

Many Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis settled in the Indian parts of Punjab and Delhi. Hindus migrating from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) settled across Eastern India and Northeastern India, many ending up in close-by states like West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. Some migrants were sent to the Andaman islands.

Hindu Sindhis found themselves without a homeland. The responsibility of rehabilitating them was borne by their government. Refugee camps were set up for Hindu Sindhis.

Photo of a railway station in Punjab. Many people abandoned their fixed assets and crossed newly formed borders.

Many refugees overcame the trauma of poverty, though the loss of a homeland has had a deeper and lasting effect on their Sindhi culture.

In late 2004, the Sindhi diaspora vociferously opposed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India which asked the Government of India to delete the word "Sindh" from the Indian National Anthem (written by Rabindranath Tagore prior to the partition) on the grounds that it infringed upon the sovereignty of Pakistan.

Refugees settled in Pakistan

In the aftermath of partition, a huge population exchange occurred between the two newly-formed states. About 14.5 million people crossed the borders, including 7,226,000 Muslims came to Pakistan from India while 7,249,000 Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from Pakistan. About 5.5 million settled in Punjab Pakistan and around 1.5 million settled in Sindh.

Most of those refugees who settled in Punjab Pakistan they came from Indian Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan. Most of those refugees who arrived in Sindh came from northern and central urban centers of India, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan via Wahga and Munabao border, however a limited number of muhajirs also arrived by air and on ships. People who wished to go to India from all over Sindh awaited their departure to India by ship at the Swaminarayan temple in Karachi and were visited by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.[23]

The majority of Urdu speaking refugees who migrated after the independence were settled in the port city of Karachi in southern Sindh and in the cities of Hyderabad, Sukkur, Nawabshah and Mirpurkhas. As well the above many Urdu-speakers settled in the cities of Punjab mainly in Lahore, Multan, Bahawalpur and Rawalpindi. the number of migrants in Sindh was placed at over 540,000 of whom two-third were urban. In case of Karachi, from a population of around 400,000 in 1947, it turned into more than 1.3 million in 1953.

Former President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, was born in the Nagar Vali Haveli in Daryaganj, Delhi, India. Several previous Pakistani leaders were also born in regions that are in India. Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan was born in Karnal (now in Haryana). The 7-year longest-serving Governor and martial law administrator of Pakistan's largest province, Balochistan, General Rahimuddin Khan, was born in the pre-dominantly Pathan city of Kaimganj, which now lies in Uttar Pradesh. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who came to power in a military coup in 1977, was born in Jalandhar, East Punjab. The families of all four men opted for Pakistan at the time of Partition.

Artistic depictions of the Partition

In addition to the enormous historical literature on the Partition, there is also an extensive body of artistic work (novels, short stories, poetry, films, plays, paintings, etc.) that deals imaginatively with the pain and horror of the event.

See also


  1. Metcalf & Metcalf 2006, pp. 221–222
  2. Revised Statute from The UK Statute Law Database: Indian Independence Act 1947 (c.30) at
  3. Alastair Lamb, Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, 1846-1990, Roxford Books 1991, ISBN 0-907129-06-4
  4. Nasim Yousaf: Hidden Facts Behind British India’s Freedom: A Scholarly Look into Allama Mashraqi and Quaid-e-Azam’s Political Conflict
  5. V.D.Savarkar, Samagra Savarkar Wangmaya Hindu Rasthra Darshan (Collected works of V.D.Savarkar) Vol VI, Maharashtra Prantik Hindusabha, Poona, 1963, p 296
  6. Jalal, Ayesha Jalal (1985). The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League and the Demand Pakistan. Cambridge University Press. 
  7. Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India.
  8. Thomas RGC, Nations, States, and Secession: Lessons from the Former Yugoslavia, Mediterranean Quarterly, Volume 5 Number 4 Fall 1994, pp. 40–65, Duke University Press
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 (Spate 1947, pp. 126-137)
  10. "In India, Muslims Find Fair Treatment". The New York Times. 
  11. Death toll in the partition
  12. Markovits, Claude (2000). The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947. Cambridge University Press. pp. 278. ISBN 0521622859. 
  13. K. Z. Islam, 2002, The Punjab Boundary Award, Inretrospect
  14. Partitioning India over lunch, Memoirs of a British civil servant Christopher Beaumont
  15. Stanley Wolpert, 2006, Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-515198-4
  16. Richard Symonds, 1950, The Making of Pakistan, London, OCLC 245793264, p 74
  17. "Once in office, Mountbatten quickly became aware if Britain were to avoid involvement in a civil war, which seemed increasingly likely, there was no alternative to partition and a hasty exit from India" Lawrence J. Butler, 2002, Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a Post-Imperial World, p 72
  18. Lawrence J. Butler, 2002, Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a Post-Imperial World, p 72
  19. Ronald Hyam, Britain's Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968, page 113; Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521866499, 2007
  20. Lawrence James, Rise and Fall of the British Empire
  21. Census of India, 1941 and 1951.
  22. Kaur, Ravinder (2007). Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195683776. 
  23. Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar (2007). The long partition and the making of modern South Asia. Columbia University Press. Retrieved 22 May 2009.  Page 52

Further reading

Academic textbooks and monographs

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