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Why the Partition of India and Pakistan led to decades of hurt

The border, hastily drawn along religious lines 74 years ago, makes Muslims and Hindus resentful neighbours.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

13 August 2021

IN THE DEPTH of a mid-August night in 1947, both India and Pakistan won freedom after two centuries of British rule. Yet while Pakistan celebrates independence on August 14th, India does so on the 15th. The difference is petty but telling. As much as the date marks a triumph shared between the neighbours it also marks a tragedy: Partition.

The British Raj is not remembered fondly on the Indian subcontinent, with the exception of one achievement. By hook or crook Britain did unite more of historic India, the land between the Himalayas and Indian Ocean, under a single flag than any previous ruler. As two world wars and rising nationalism shook this imperial construct, those struggling for independence assumed that the India they would inherit should include the whole territory.

This was not to be. Britain tried to appease its increasingly restive subjects with small doses of democracy, but this stoked tension. The quarter of Indians who were Muslim feared being perpetually outvoted by Hindu majorities. Some Muslim leaders broke with the wider independence movement, arguing that Muslims made up a separate nation and deserved a state of their own. This view gained traction during and after the second world war when Indians suffered multiple hardships, including inflation, famine and communal riots. As war-weakened Britain realised it could not hold onto its Raj, some in London suggested that splitting India on religious lines might prevent wider violence, and at the same time create a compliant new buffer state against the Soviet Union. In the end Britain decided to speed its exit, drawing a hasty line to demarcate Pakistan, a new state joining two Muslim-majority areas that were 2000kms apart (see map). Indians who opposed this partition, among them many Muslims were faced with a fait accompli.

Although Pakistan did indeed join the anti-Soviet camp in the Cold War, its creation did not forestall violence. As many as 2m people of all faiths died, and as many as 15m lost their homes during the chaotic exchange of people that accompanied its birth. Partition left pockets of disputed territory such as Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region whose Hindu ruler opted to join India rather than Pakistan. The two states have clashed repeatedly over Kashmir, which remains one of the world’s most heavily militarised regions. The terrible violence that accompanied the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was also a legacy of Partition, as the Bengali Muslims of “East Pakistan” revolted against the culturally alien Muslims of West Pakistan.

At the time of Partition, few imagined that India and Pakistan would be enemies, or that the minorities living in each would be insecure. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, spoke of retiring to his house in the Indian city of Bombay (now Mumbai). Alas, the logic of Partition—the defining of nations by religious identity alone—has emboldened those who cling most strongly to that identity at the expense of everyone else. Plotting Pakistani generals, rabble-rousing Indian politicians and religious extremists on both sides have made careers from stirring animosity. Pakistan and India now point nuclear weapons at each other, periodically exchange artillery fire and shadow box using spies, diplomats and, sometimes, by sponsoring terror attacks such as a suicide bombing that killed 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir in 2019. Despite all that Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis share—an immensely long history as well as languages and customs and tastes—they remain wary and resentful neighbours.


(c) 2021 The Economist


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