This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Partition of British India. 1 Partition refers to the British transfer of power to two separate states – India (Hindu majority) and Pakistan (Muslim majority). It included the making of a Muslim homeland by partitioning the two provinces of Punjab and Bengal along Muslim and non-Muslim lines.
This momentous event in world history, still so poorly understood or taught, led to the killing of over 1 million people and the displacement of many millions more.
It has been referred to as a communal holocaust, and also an example of ethnic cleansing where one group attacked another often simply on the basis of the religious group they were seen as belonging to.
At The National Archives, we will be highlighting existing resources and other records from our collection which help add to people’s understanding of what went on. There will be a display in the Keepers Gallery from August-December 2017, an outreach programme and a special event at The National Archives. We are also supporting a theatre production by Bhuchar Boulevard (Child of the Divide by Sudha Bhuchar) with various outreach activities and providing copies of our records to the newly opened Partition Museum in India.
My mother was 11 when Partition started. Her family, who were non-Muslims (Sikh), had safely made the transition from their home in Rawalpindi (Pakistan) to Dehra Dun (India) in 1946. She can still recall the violence of the time; it still upsets her greatly. My father, aged 16, from a Muslim family, was studying in Allahabad (India) at the time of Partition and was recalled by his father to a Muslim majority town as a precaution.
Both my parents were the lucky ones, unlike many millions caught in the borderlands and towns and cities where the exodus across a still fragile border took place.
I have lived with this dual heritage, aware from a very young age of the divide between people who in so many respects were extraordinarily similar. Therefore this opportunity to mark this very important anniversary means a lot to me.
Addressing unanswered questions
According to the historian Gyanendra Pandey, Partition is for South Asia what the First World War is for Britain. And without an understanding of what went on, it is difficult to appreciate the stories of many from South Asian communities based today in the UK. Partition still casts a long and dark shadow – what the historian Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar refers to as ‘Partition effects’ – that leaves many questions painfully unanswered, including how and why Partition happened.
It’s with these questions in mind that the Outreach team at The National Archives are embarking on a programme of work this autumn including with groups and individuals affected.
Our collection focuses on the high politics of Partition. Working with partners in the community we aim to reflect both on the story from the official records and the story from testimonies and histories from below: bringing to light the very human dimensions of this story.
The background to Partition
The British announced the plan for Partition at the end of an extraordinary period of negotiations to find a way to keep India united.
A 1946 Cabinet mission, headed by three senior British representatives, aimed to find a workable compromise, including a constitutional set up that would allow power to be distributed between an All-India Union government and the provinces. This mission ultimately failed, providing a catalyst for the decision to transfer power to two separate states.
Questions posed by the historian Yasmin Khan about the planning for partition remain pressing, and are helping inform an investigation using our documents that forms the basis of our 70th anniversary commemoration.
‘Even those inside the limited loop of political information in 1947 were shocked by the speed with which Partition was imposed, the lack of clarity and reassurance provided to those living on the borderlines, the paucity of military protection written into the plan, the complete abnegation of duty towards the rights of minorities and failure to elucidate the questions of citizenship’ (Khan, The Great Partition)
The Cabinet endorsed the plan at a meeting in May 1947. And the Cabinet agreed with the Viceroy’s view that:
‘the only hope of checking widespread communal warfare was to suppress the first signs of it promptly and ruthlessly, using for this purpose all the force required, including tanks and aircraft, and giving full publicity throughout India to the action taken and the reasons for it.’
The plan, which was to affect a country thousands of miles away with a population in the hundreds of millions, was announced in the British parliament on 3 June. The expected date of British withdrawal from India had been brought forward a whole year. Any final attempts by leaders on all sides to find a compromise had broken down (the two most significant political parties were the Congress Party and the Muslim League, however there were other political parties representing specific interests, faiths and regions).
Ill-thought-out and poorly implemented, the plan for Partition went devastatingly wrong. The violence that ensued saw many millions made refugees and over a million dead.
The violence was truly shocking: looting, arson, abduction, murder and rape, with the most vulnerable suffering most.
The June plan was approved with the express caveat that robust action would need to be taken to stop excessive communal violence; it lacked any detail about arrangements for security and safety of those likely to be most affected. The plan highlighted the necessity for power to be transferred speedily.
Independence was granted to the new nations of Pakistan on 14 August and India on 15 August. For many millions the reality of Partition only dawned on them after the celebrations had ended. Leaving ancestral lands, people fled, uncertain of their destination on a border that was still very fragile.
Those witnessing the violence were stunned by its ferocity. At the same time those charged with providing safe passage and stemming the worst excesses were overwhelmed and heavily compromised. Lord Ismay (Chief of the Viceroy’s Staff) writing in October 1947 said:
‘The last two months have been so chaotic that it would be difficult to find two people who agree as to how the trouble started, why it was not checked, what has actually happened, and what is to be the outcome.’
In the immediate aftermath of Partition the two new states sought to settle disputes on a whole host of areas, including what each owed the other for those who had been displaced as evacuees.
India claimed that property left by Indians in Pakistan was worth three times that of those who left to settle in Pakistan. Pakistan claimed that the property left by those coming to settle in Pakistan had been heavily undervalued by India.
Many questions are still unanswered: how come British India at the end of colonial rule ended in such a human catastrophe with over 1 million dead? How was it possible that Partition was able to disrupt so forcefully and seemingly incurably far older, more complex and more intricate relationships between peoples who had lived side by side for generations?
It would be wrong to imagine an idyllic pre-Colonial period 2 but what staggered people at the time, and remains staggering, is that people who had lived, worked and traded with one another for generations were now such fatal enemies. And it is today interesting to note how it is those in the South Asian diaspora who are trying somewhere to recover and play their part in healing these deep and painful wounds.
We would like to invite others to join me, Mandeep, Sonyia Jamal (volunteer, The White Line Heritage Project) and A’Ishah Waheed (Patchwork-Archivists) at an event at The National Archives on Thursday 16 November 2017, to mark both this important anniversary and to help continue work to develop a legacy programme and learning resources that can help people better understand this momentous event in world history.
Classroom resource: The Road to Partition, 1939-1947