The Partition of India and Pakistan

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Podcast Transcript

In 1947, India and Pakistan became independent countries after almost 200 years of British colonial rule. 

However, this wasn’t just a case of a former colony becoming independent. It was a single colony which was partitioned into two separate countries.

That partition had wide-ranging implications, many of which are still being felt today. 

Learn more about the partition of India and Pakistan, the reasons for it, and its legacy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Modern India and Pakistan are rather recent creations. Historically speaking, there never was such a division.

To understand the partition of India and Pakistan, we have to go way back in time. India was a term used to describe the greater region in South Asia, which is today occupied by multiple countries. 

One of the great early ancient civilizations was the Indus Valley culture. This was considered to be an early progenitor of Indian civilization, but it is in what is today Pakistan.

When Alexander the Great invaded India in the 4th century BC, most of the land he conquered was actually in modern-day Pakistan. He really didn’t get much further than the Indus River. 

Hinduism arose in India, and it became a region with multiple kingdoms and empires that rose and fell over time. Sometimes, there would be large empires that ruled most of the subcontinent, and other times, it broke into smaller kingdoms. 

The beginnings of partition can be traced back to the rise of Islam in the 7th century. 

Arab traders brought their religion with them by sea, and the Islamic caliphate conquered lands in Central Asia and Persia by land. Hindus in many areas converted to Islam, and Islam spread throughout the subcontinent. 

However, it wasn’t even growth. Most areas in greater India remained Hindu, but some areas became staunchly Mulsim, particularly in the west around the Indus River and in the east in the region known as Bengal. This remained the case even after centuries of rule by the Muslim Mughal Empire.

However, and this needs to be stressed, Hindus and Muslims could be found almost everywhere across India, regardless of whether their community had a majority of one religion or the other. Also, for the most part, these people were ethnically the same. Muslims and Hindus in a city would have probably spoken the same language 

When the British arrived in the 18th century, this was roughly the situation that they inherited. 

British rule grew and deepened throughout the 19th century, and there was one thing that united both Hindus and Muslims….a desire to remove the British. 

In 1885, the Indian National Congress was established, also known as the Congress Party, which was a broad-based Indian movement to try to achieve independence. This group largely advocated Hindu-Muslim Unity and included people later involved in partition, including Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The initial fracture in this united front occurred in 1905 when the British decided to partition Bengal into two halves, with a Muslim majority in the east and a Hindu majority in the west.

The partition of Bengal, although it only lasted for a few years, animated both Hindu and Muslim interest groups. One of the groups which sprang out of the partition of Bengal was the All-India Muslim League. 

The All-India Muslim League was originally founded as an organization to advance the interests of Indian Muslims in British India. The organization did not initially work at odds with the Congress Party.

As the independence movement began to pick up steam in the 1930s, there was also an uptick in what was known as the two-nation theory. This held that Hindus and Muslims, despite living near each other, were functionally two separate nations and that India, as it was at the time, wasn’t an actual nation.

This was a minority view, but some Muslims and some Hindu nationalists, such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, expoused it. 

However, there were both Hindus and Muslims who were against the two-nation theory as well. This included one of the Muslim leaders at the time, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was called the Frontier Gandhi. 

Prior to and during the Second World War, independence started to appear achievable, and what was once a dream was now becoming more of a reality. In 1935 the British devolved more power to local provinces.

In 1939, at the start of the war, the British Viceroy of India declared war on Germany without consulting any Indian leaders. The Hindu members of the Congress Party resigned in protest, but the Muslim League supported the British. As such, the British rules began to view the Muslim League on a par with the Congress Party.

As independence became more real, the idea of turning the British Colony of India into two separate countries, one Hindu and one Muslim, gained in popularity, especially amongst the Indian Muslim elites. 

In particular, in 1940, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, came out in favor of a separate country dubbed Pakistan.  That year, the Muslim League adopted the Lahore Resolution. The Lahore Resolution explicitly called for the creation of a Muslim-majority nation separate from India.

It said, “That geographically contiguous units are demarcated regions which should be constituted, with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of (British) India should be grouped to constitute ‘independent states’ in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign.”

The name Pakistan was first used in 1933 by Choudhry Rahmat Ali, one of the founders of the Pakistan Movement. The name originally had a double meaning. In both Urdu and Persian, it means land of the Paks. ‘Paks’ means pure, and ‘stan’ means land.

However, Rahmat Ali also intended for Pakistan to be an acronym. He said, “It is composed of letters taken from the names of all our homelands, Indian and Asian, Panjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan.

The tipping point for independence occurred in 1945, immediately after the conclusion of the war in Europe. Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party lost the election in the UK, and the Labor Party took control. The new Labor government under Prime Minister Clement Atlee supported Indian independence and put it on the fast track.

The question now wasn’t if India would become independent or even when, but rather on what terms. 

Congress wanted a united India, but the Muslim League wanted the creation of Pakistan. Muslims constituted approximately 25% of the population of India prior to independence.

Muslims had been given special rights and protections under the British and feared that they would lose their status after independence. Moreover, the Muslim League used the time during the war to bolster support for the creation of Pakistan.

In 1946, the specter of civil war rose between Hindus and Muslims. Violence broke out in cities around India in spates of anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu violence. In August 1946, the Great Calcutta Killing left some 4,000 people dead and a further 100,000 homeless. This was far from the only example of sectarian violence.

In February 1947, the British appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten to be the last British Viceroy of India and gave him a directive to develop a plan for independence by June 1948.

On June 3, 1947, Mountbatten announced a plan for the partition of India into two countries: India and Pakistan. Pakistan would be a country with two geographically separated areas. East Pakistan and West Pakistan. 

The entire process was to be completed in just two months, with the date for the handover and independence to be on August 15. 

The Congress Party accepted this reluctantly, and Gandhi didn’t agree with it at all. 

Creating a border between the two countries proved challenging. Some provinces, like Baluchistan in the far west, were over 90% Muslim. However, other provinces like Punjab and Bengal were divided. This resulted in the partition of these provinces along predominantly religious lines. 

The line diving Punjab and Bengal was the Radcliffe Line, which was drawn by a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe. He later admitted that the line was created with outdated maps and census data. 

The official handover ceremony was conducted in Karachi just before midnight on August 14 and in Delhi just before midnight on August 15. 

The official handover wasn’t the end of partition. Everyone had assumed that once the lines were drawn, people who were in minority religious groups would just continue to live where they were.

However, that didn’t happen. The next few months saw the greatest single migration of human beings in such a short span of time. Millions of people move from one country to the other depending on their religion. 

Riots broke out throughout India and Pakistan, with religious minorities being attacked in both countries. 

The impact of partition in terms of human lives is debated, but the estimates are that between 200,000 and two million people may have died during this period. 

Refugee camps that were set up often suffered from outbreaks of disease that killed those looking for sanctuary. 

The British, for the most part, did nothing to prevent or stop any of the violence, as once the handover took place and both countries became independent, they felt they had no ability to take military action anymore. 

The massive migration of people also upset many of the original assumptions made by those who advocated partition. They assumed the presence of a Hindu minority in Pakistan would protect the Muslim minority in India and vice versa. 

While most of the migration occurred in 1947 and 1948, there were still people moving between countries as a result of partition as late as 1960. 

The humanitarian crisis that developed was not the end of the story either. 

One of the unresolved land issues had to do with the princely states which existed in India. Each state was able to pick which country to join or whether to become independent. 

The largest princely state was Jammu and Kashmir, which had a Hindu ruler and a majority Muslim population.  The ruler of Jammu and Kashmir initially wanted to become independent, as joining India would anger his Muslim subjects, and joining Pakistan would anger his Hindu and Sikh subjects. 

Both India and Pakistan wanted Jammu and Kashmir, and the region became caught up in the sectarian violence that engulfed India and Pakistan. 

Pakistan began sending in military units from tribal provinces to protect the Muslims in the region. The Maharaja then requested aid from India, who refused to send help until the Maharaja agreed to join India, which he did on October 26. The agreement to join India was conditional on a referendum, which would take place once the region had been pacified. 

The end result was a war between the two newly independent countries and former countrymen, which lasted from October 1947 until early January 1949, until a cease-fire was agreed to.

The issue of Jammu and Kashmir has never really been resolved. India and Pakistan fought another war in 1965 over the same region. 

Today, the region that was the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is divided between Pakistan, India, and China, and the region is still disputed. 

Pakistan itself became separated in 1971 when East Pakistan broke away to form the nation of Bangladesh. This resulted in a very brief Third Indo-Pakistani War, but the story of Bangladesh is a story for another episode. 

The trauma of the partition of India and Pakistan can still be felt today. For almost 80 years, a cold tension has existed between the two countries. There are occasional small border flare-ups that occur from time to time, but for the most part, both countries have learned to accept the status quo, even if it is one that both sides are not totally pleased with. 

The partition of India and Pakistan was one of the most significant events to have occurred in the 20th century, outside perhaps the world wars. It was the event that shaped two of the world’s largest countries, and its repercussions can still be felt today.