This article is an edited transcript of The Partition of India with Anita Rani, available on History Hit TV.
The Partition of India in 1947 is one of the great forgotten tragedies of the 20th century. It occurred when India became independent from the British Empire and the territory was broken into India and Pakistan.
As part of this process, the north-eastern Indian region of Bengal was split in half along religious lines into East and West Bengal. Muslim-majority East Bengal initially formed part of Pakistan but later became Bangladesh.
It was decided that India needed to be separated because it had ended up as a massive, sprawling empire. There was a precedent for such a move; both Burma (now Myanmar) and Sri Lanka had previously been separated from the Indian Empire. But then the decision came to separate it even further.
The British role
India was divided by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never visited the country before and had little time to grasp the social consequences of his decision.
In the north-west of India, Punjab was divided in half, with half of it becoming Pakistan and the other half remaining in India.
When India was one huge country, before Pakistan was created, Punjab was a really important state for the British Empire. It was one of the last states in India to be annexed by the British.
The scale of the tragedy
On the ground during Partition, there was incredible inter-communal violence and mass deportations and huge movements of peoples, probably the biggest in history.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during the division of India, which makes it the largest mass migration in human history.
These communities essentially had to get to the right side of what was an arbitrary line.
It was a tragedy. Almost 15 million people were displaced, while a million people died.
There were Punjabi Muslims and Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. But, although they had different faiths, the only thing that was different about them was the religion that they had chosen to follow; just the gods that they believed in.
They ate the same food. They spoke the same language. Culturally, they were identical; everything else was the same.
Then when Partition happened, these communities were weaponised and just went for each other. Absolute chaos ensued and hell broke out and neighbours were killing neighbours.
Women were used and people were kidnapping other people’s daughters and raping and murdering them.
My grandfather’s family were living in what ended up becoming Pakistan, but he was away with the British-Indian Army down in Mumbai, so thousands of miles away.
His first family just couldn’t get across the border into India and they were all slaughtered.
Accounts of these events sound almost medieval, and their effects are still being felt in the divides between India and Pakistan today.