Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The partition of India

Often described as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, India occupied a special place in the imperial psyche. Direct rule from London began in 1858 as a result of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the rule of the British East India Company. British influence in the subcontinent began much earlier. Although the Company had initially gained its foothold in India in the early 17th century it was not until the turn of the 19th century that period of territorial expansion lasting two decades substantially increased its influence. The rebellion, although caused by a number of grievances, was essentially sparked by a Company failure to understand the cultural and religious practices of Indian soldiers. The rebellion would ultimately cause the downfall of the East India Company and the transfer of power to the Crown.  This began the system of government known as the Raj.

The position of the governor-general was replaced by the Viceroy who acted as the representative of the reigning monarch. Queen Victoria and her heirs subsequently assumed the title Empress or Emperor of India in 1876, the last of which to use the title King-Emperor being George VI, our present Queen’s father. The British Raj would last from 1858 until August 1947, upon which date India and Pakistan would achieve independence from the British Empire. The exact form an independent India would take was subject to much debate in the preceding months, with Viceroy Mountbatten preferring a united India against the arguments of Muhammad Ali Jinnah advocating the creation of a Muslim state of Pakistan.

By 1946 it was becoming clear that British rule in India was slipping away. The summer of 1946 was marred by communal riots and massacres in Calcutta which soon began to spread through Bengal and beyond.  India no longer held the same importance to the British as it had done in previous decades save for a romantic attachment, or even obsession still harboured by many British Conservatives.  With the looming prospect of independence, violence began to increase fears and rivalries stemming from the problem of the distribution of power. With the dominance of the Raj diminishing, the Muslim community in India began to fear domination by the Hindu majority.

The process of granting independence to India and Pakistan became known as the Mountbatten Plan, or the 3rd of June Plan; this was the name given to agreement reached by representatives of the Indian National Congress, the Sikh Community, the Muslim League and the Viceroy. The agreement formed the basis of the Indian independence Act of 1947 which created the two new dominions of India and Pakistan. On the instruction of the Atlee government in London independence was to be achieved swiftly. A date was set by which an agreement was to be made, without which Prime Minister Clement Atlee believed that there would be endless procrastination around the issue. Lord Mountbatten set the date for agreement at June 1948. Once the date had been set a scramble for positions of power and influence by politicians and other parties ensued. To prevent a slide into potential anarchy the date was brought forward by ten months and independence was granted at midnight on the 14th August 1947.

The creation of the two new states set in motion a great migration of more than 14 million people who found themselves living on the wrong side of the border.  Over 7.2 million Muslims travelled across the border into Pakistan while roughly the same number of Sikhs and Hindus journeyed in the opposite direction seeking to settle in Indian controlled Punjab.  The division of India and Pakistan along what became known as the Radcliffe line was not as neat or clean cut as Jinnah had expected and thus left one third of the Muslim population of the former British India remaining in India. This mass migration turned into a bloody and panic stricken event in which more than half a million people lost their lives

Soon after independence India and Pakistan opted to become members of the Commonwealth of Nations, Pakistan later being suspended from the organisation between 1999 and 2004 following a coup d’état. In the decades following partition and independence India and Pakistan have had a fraught relationship. Continuing border disputes, most notably in Kashmir, have brought the two countries to war four times between the first in 1947 and the last in 1999. Both countries have developed nuclear weapons much to the consternation of the international community.  The reverberations of the partition of the former British India are still being felt across the region to the present day. Border disputes, terrorism and mutual suspicion continue to mar the relationship between the two nations.

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