India, Pakistan’s independence
India, Pakistan’s independence Photographs taken at that moment reveal the haunted and nervous faces of Kalahari Nehru, the Indian National Congress leader soon to become independent India’s first prime minister, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, head of the Muslim League and Pakistan’s first governor-general and Louis Mountbatten, the last British viceroy.
Yet the public also greeted this agreement with some cautious hope. Nobody who agreed to the plan realized that partition was unleashing one of the worst calamities of the 20th century. Only weeks later, the full scale of the tragedy was apparent.
The north-eastern and north-western flanks of the country, made up of Muslim majorities, became Pakistan on 14 August 1947. The rest of the country, predominantly Hindu, but also with large religious minorities peppered throughout, became India. Sandwiched between these areas stood the provinces of Bengal (in the east) and Punjab (in the north-west), densely populated agricultural regions where Muslims, Hindus, and Punjabi Sikhs had cultivated the land side by side for generations. The thought of segregating these two regions was so preposterous that few had ever contemplated it, so no preparations had been made for a population exchange.
“Do you foresee any mass transfer of population?” one journalist asked Mountbatten at a press conference in Delhi after the plan was announced. “Personally, I don’t see it,” he replied. “There are many physical and practical difficulties involved. Some measure of transfer will come about in a natural way … perhaps governments will transfer populations. Once more, this is a matter not so much for the main parties as for the local authorities living in the border areas to decide.”
However, people took fright and, in the face of mounting violence, took matters into their own hands. Many did not want “minorities” in their new countries. Others did not want to become “minorities” with all the attendant horrors this now implied. Refugees started to cross over from one side to the other in anticipation of partition. The borderlines announced on 17 August – two days after independence – cut right through these two provinces and caused unforeseen turmoil. Perhaps a million people died, from ethnic violence and also from diseases rife in makeshift refugee camps.
The epicenter was Punjab, yet many other places were affected, especially Bengal (often overlooked in the commemorations), Sindh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kashmir and beyond. Lahore – heir to the architecture of Mughal, Sikh, and British rule, and famed for its poets, universities, and bookshops – was reduced in large quarters to rubble. In Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, and also known for its carpet and silk weavers, it took more than five years to clear the wreckage. There were more than 600 refugee camps all over the subcontinent, 70,000 women had suffered sexual violence and the issue of the princely states, especially Kashmir, remained unresolved. Many hopes had been cruelly dashed. The act of partition set off a spiral of events unforeseen and unintended by anyone, and the dramatic upheavals changed the terms of the whole settlement.
The stories make us flinch. Bloated and distorted bodies surfacing in canals months after a riot, young pregnant women left dismembered by roadsides. One newspaper report tells of an unnamed man from a village “whose family had been wiped out”, who on meeting Jinnah as he toured the Pakistani camps in 1947, “sobbed uncontrollably”. Up to 15 million people left their homes to begin a new life in India or Pakistan, and by September 1947 the formal exchange of population across the Punjab borderlines had become government policy.
Conscious of the fact that time is running out to record eye-witness testimony from the survivors of 1947, many people have collected memories and oral histories in the past decades. These can be downloaded at the click of a button, and have been collected by volunteers, family members, and historians. Partition history used to be all about the high politics and the relative responsibilities of Mountbatten, Jinnah, Gandhi, and Nehru – these four men have always towered over the story, and ultimately their animosities and the reasons they failed to agree on a constitutional settlement make them the leading actors of an enduring and gripping drama – but today many historians are far more interested in the fate of refugees in the camps, the ways in which villagers experienced the uprooting of 1947, or how they rebuilt their lives in the aftermath.
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