The Partition of India was one of the most violent episodes in Indian history. At its heart, it was a process whereby India would become independent from the British Empire. It involved the division of India into India and Pakistan, with Bangladesh separating later. It ended in disaster and, due to large numbers of demobilised troops in the region, among other factors, violence spiralled out of control.
Almost 15 million people were displaced and a million people died in the largest mass migration of humans in recorded history. There were both Hindus and Muslims driving for Partition, but the British role was far from exemplary.
This article is an edited transcript of The Partition of India with Anita Rani, available on History Hit TV.
Drawing the line
The man chosen to create the line dividing India and Pakistan was a British civil servant, a British lawyer called Sir Cyril Radcliffe who had been flown out to India.
He’d never been to India before. It was a logistical disaster.
He might have been a lawyer, but he certainly wasn’t a geographer. He had six weeks to draw a line of partition, dividing the vast sub-continent of India into what became India and Pakistan and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. Then, basically, two days later, that was it. The line became reality.
One of the main regions that Partition affected was the northern state of Punjab. Punjab was actually one of the last states to be annexed by the British.
My great-grandfather had decided to up sticks from where his family had lived and go to a region in the Punjab, Montgomery District, for work, because the British were building canals to irrigate the area. He set up a shop and did quite well.
Punjab is the breadbasket of India. It has luscious, fertile land. And the British were in the process of constructing a large canal network which still exists to this day.
Prior to Partition, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs had all lived side by side as neighbours. A village in the region might be majority-Muslim, say, but it might also be next to a majority-Hindu and Sikh village, with the two only separated by a short distance.
My grandfather would do business with lots of villages around, selling milk and curd. He was a moneylender as well, and he would do business with all of the surrounding villages. They all shared a unified Punjabi culture. They ate the same food. They spoke the same language. Culturally, they were identical.
The only thing that was different about them was the religions that they chose to follow. Everything else was the same. Then, overnight, Muslims were sent one way and Hindus and Sikhs were sent the other.
Absolute chaos ensued and hell broke out. Neighbours were killing neighbours and people were kidnapping other people’s daughters and raping and murdering them.
The inactivity of British troops
It’s a stain on British history as well. It might have been difficult for the British to fully prevent the violence, but they could have taken some action.
The British troops were in their barracks up and down the north-west of the new states of India while this intercommunal violence was going on. They could have intervened and they didn’t.
My grandfather was serving in the south, and he wasn’t even allowed to leave to visit his family in the north. They were dividing up the town where he lived, and his whole family was going to be displaced, and he had to stay at his posting with the British army.
The British cut and run after 200 years of ruling India, and a million people died or, rather, a million Indians died. There were only a handful of British casualties.
Questions could be asked, and should be asked. But that is history.