Partition: 70 years of blood, faith and rivalry
Tomorrow it will be 70 years since India gained independence from Britain, and was split into two nations: Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. What is the legacy of partition?
“Ma.” It was March 1996, and with this one word, Anwar Sadeeqa fell into the arms of Dharam Kaur. The two women broke down in tears. They had not seen each other since Sadeeqa was separated from her mother at just four years old in 1947 — and they had finally been reunited. “Fifty years is a long time,” observed Kaur.
It has now been 70 years since the creation of the border that separated them. In 1947 the British empire was bankrupted by the second world war, and determined to leave India. So in August, after around 300 years of colonial rule, Britain divided the country into two new nations and handed over power.
Pakistan, which initially had land to the East and West of India, was designated a Muslim-majority state. India was largely Hindu. These dividing lines prompted one of the biggest migrations in history, outside of wartime. Millions of Muslims left India for Pakistan, while millions of Hindus left Pakistan for India. This is now referred to as “partition”.
It sparked terrible violence on both sides. Up to one million people were killed, while tens of thousands of women were abducted and raped. Countless families like that of Sadeeqa and Kaur were torn apart. Neighbours became enemies overnight.
Today India and Pakistan are fierce rivals. There are no direct flights between their two capital cities, and it is difficult to travel between the countries. In June, there was fury in India when Pakistan beat them in the Champions Trophy cricket tournament.
The countries have also been at war several times. The first broke out just two months after partition, over the disputed region of Kashmir. War flared up again 1965, and again in 1989.
In the 1990s, they both developed nuclear weapons. And violence continues — only yesterday, three rebels and two Indian soldiers were killed in a gunfight in Kashmir.
Will the countries ever be reconciled?
Crossing the line
It is hard to see how, say some. Most people alive now were born after partition; this rivalry is all they know. Hindu nationalism is surging in India under the prime minister, Narenda Modi, making true peace with Pakistan unlikely. Meanwhile Pakistan is busy trying to root out the terrorist groups responsible for a string of deadly attacks. The lines drawn 70 years ago feel deeper than ever.
There must be a way, say others. India and Pakistan have 1,000 years of shared history and culture. And there has been some progress: when Modi was first elected in 2014 he attempted to reach out to Pakistan. Earlier this month a Hindu politician entered Pakistan’s cabinet for the first time in more than 20 years. Partition was supposed to be the start of a peaceful south Asia; that dream is not dead yet.
- This week, should Indians and Pakistanis be celebrating independence, or mourning partition?
- Will the two countries ever overcome their differences?
- Draw and label a map of the Indian subcontinent, and use it to explain the history of the last 70 years.
- Go to Become An Expert and read the stories of families who were reunited after partition. Write your own short story which imagines how this would feel.
Some People Say...
“Partition was the most important event of the 20th century.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Britain was in a rush to leave India in 1947 — it brought the date of departure forward by 10 months. The borders were drawn up by Cyril Radcliffe, a British architect who spent just a few weeks in India in summer 1947. The borders divided up the regions of Punjab and Bengal, where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had been living together for generations.
- What do we not know?
- Why the violence was so extreme in the days and weeks following partition. It was certainly not expected by the departing British viceroy, or by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah (the subsequent leaders of India and Pakistan.) It is possible that it was a result of escalating religious tensions, the lack of government presence, or the speed with which people felt the need to leave their homes.
- British empire
- Britain first arrived in India in 1600, via the East India Company. This was a business which traded in commodities like cotton, silk and tea. It was essentially ruling India by the 1750s. After a rebellion in 1858, the British government established direct rule, creating the “British Raj”, governed by the Viceroy of India.
- Pakistan was established on August 14th and India granted independence from Britain on August 15th. However, the new borders were not announced until August 17th.
- East and West
- After a civil war in 1971, East Pakistan gained independence and was renamed Bangladesh.
- One million people
- No one knows how many people died in partition, but it is somewhere between 500,000 to one million.
- The region was not allocated to either India or Pakistan in the original partition. It is still a disputed territory, as both countries claim authority over it.
- Nuclear weapons
- According to the Arms Control Association, India has 130 nuclear warheads and Pakistan has 140.
- Deadly attacks
- Islamic State, the Taliban, and other sectarian groups are responsible.