Inside India #34: The Ghosts of Partition

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

We often think of the Partition of India in 1947 as a macro-level historical event involving nation states and major world figures. But the truth is that Partition had – and continues to have – an enduring effect on individual lives. Millions died, millions more lost their homes, their businesses, the lives they had known.

So what exactly happened?

Picture attribution: Technark-1, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1947, the Indian struggle for independence culminated with the departure of the British following a three-hundred-year presence on the subcontinent, the last ninety of which is remembered as the colonial era known as the Raj. Lacking the resources to continue occupying a nation of 300 million that, led by lawyer-turned-statesman Mohandas Gandhi, had turned non-cooperation into a revolutionary weapon, the British departed in a hurry, practically running out the door, with little regard to the mess they were leaving behind.

That mess was Partition.

Following agitation by the All-India Muslim League for a separate Muslim state, and communal riots that wracked the country, the British had agreed a Partition Plan and then, in a matter of months, slashed the country into three parts: Muslim-majority Pakistan and East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh), and Hindu-majority India.

There followed mass migrations between these states – migrations accompanied by murder on a colossal scale.

In a June 2015 New Yorker article, historian William Dalrymple tells us: “Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented.”

The violence was particularly intense in the states of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East, both of which, Dalrymple goes on to state, witnessed: “massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence.”

By the time the dust had settled in 1948, fifteen million were displaced, and anywhere from one to two million lay dead.

What was particularly horrendous was how individual communities that had lived together peacefully for decades – if not centuries – suddenly hurled themselves at each other’s throats in a murderous frenzy.

Why did this happen?

Muslims and Hindus had co-existed on the subcontinent for at least a thousand years since the arrival of Turkish and Arab traders and, later, invaders. That millennia saw a constant back and forth between Hindu and Muslim rulers across the vastness of the subcontinent, culminating in the Mughal empire which, with the exception of the markedly intolerant reign of Emperor Aurangazeb, was largely characterised by relative stability interspersed with bouts of military conflict.

With the coming of the British, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs found themselves thrown together in common cause against a mutual enemy. During the early years of the Independence struggle an unprecedented communal harmony rallied behind the likes of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the three men at the heart of India’s leading Congress Party.

But once these three political titans fell out, the path to divergence became inevitable.

Jinnah, once a strong supporter of Muslim-Hindu unity, eventually came to believe that a separate nation was the only solution to preventing Hindu dominance in the post-colonial India. He became the leader of the Muslim League and the country’s most vocal proponent of Partition.

Things came to a head when the political rhetoric turned to violence on the streets of Calcutta in August 1946. The so-called Direct Action Day riots led to five thousand dead in a paroxysm of savagery that shocked the British, reduced to the status of ineffectual referees.

In March 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Britain’s final Viceroy to India, arrived to sort out the mess. A few months later, unable to find consensus among the political factionalism, he shocked everyone by announcing that the British would transfer power on 15 August of that same year – well ahead of schedule – and that Partition would become a reality.

As Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs began to move between territories – both before and after Independence – the violence spiralled out of control. Villages were set alight, trains were attacked and their passengers murdered wholesale, refugees were waylaid and cut down by sword, scythe, and a savagery that later led Bombay-based writer Saadat Hasan Manto to lament that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry . . . slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.”

The chaos of Partition cannot be blamed solely on Mountbatten and British policy or even on the machinations of subcontinental politicians. Ordinary citizens must shoulder their share of the blame, those who allowed themselves to be incited into hatred and religious xenophobia, who set aside decency and longstanding neighbourliness, who took up sword and flame to terrorise their compatriots, to murder men, women, and children in a frenzy of bloodlust that even now is difficult to comprehend.

A generation of older Indians and Pakistanis who remember those times understand the hateful rhetoric that today pits the two neighbours against one another at regular intervals.

That is the true legacy of Partition. The way it has coloured the perceptions of two peoples who were essentially one, the way it continues to serve as a means by which political interests on both sides of the border can employ hatred and prejudice as a means of deflecting criticism of their regimes.

One can only hope that the wounds of history are healed in the fullness of time. Only then might the ghosts of Partition, the millions of dead and missing, find peace.

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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