This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

After the East Indian Company was established, it gradually gained full control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent. Revolts against the imperialist rule reached its peak in 1857, when the Indian sepoys posed a considerable threat to the British rule, however, ultimately failed to attain its goals. Consequently, from 1858 until 1947, the territory became controlled by the British Crown. However, in the first major victory for the global decolonisation movement in the 20th century, India gained independence in 1947. It separated into two autonomous states, and millions of people were displaced in the transition. Partition caused the death of 2 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, 14 million people were forcibly transferred and 75,000 women were raped.  Different politicians and political factions played a major role in exaggerating and manipulating people’s fears and anxieties while attempting to pursue their own political ambitions.

A refugee train on the way to the Punjab, Pakistan, 1947.

India is considered one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world. It is the home of four world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It also has the second largest Muslim population and is inhabited by ancient settlements of Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews. This religious diversity decisively shaped Indian politics before Partition, with religious and political forces often interlinked. The philosophies of key figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (leader of the Muslim League) shaped nature of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Gandhi’s philosophy was based around the formation of an anti-colonial movement in order to free India from British rule. As the president of the Indian National Congress (INC), Gandhi’s post-independence vision was for a communitarian-pluralist nation compromising various religious communities. As he says: ‘all religions are almost as dear to me as my Hinduism.’ In terms of politics, he claimed that the state had no role in religious affairs. Gandhi’s ally, the first prime minister of India, and the leader of the INC during Partition was Jawaharlal Nehru. His modern ideas such as western education, universal citizenship individual rights and his vision of a united India was extremely popular. He advocated the separation of the state from religion and promised a prosperous and industrialized India with democracy. The INC was dominated by upper-caste Hindus, and was viewed as primarily a Hindu party. In opposition to it, Mohammed Jinnah’s Muslim League expanded at an unprecedented pace in the run up to independence as they fought for the creation of a separate Muslim state. They relied on the two-nation theory which argued that Muslims and Hindus are two separate, distinct nations with separate customs and religious practices. Muslims, they argued, should be able to have their own separate state in the Muslim majority areas of India, in which Islam could be practiced as the dominant religion. This served as the theoretical basis for British agreement to the separation of India and Pakistan in the run up to independence.

A map showing the dominant religions in each area of the British Indian Empire, 1901.

One of the earliest proponents of a separate Muslim state was Rahmat Ali, who, as independence approached, started lobbying British politicians for the creation of an independent Pakistan. He also advocated for the creation of a pan-Islamic, religious state from Pakistan to the Middle East. This often contradictory religious and ethnic philosophy served as a base to the partition. The central question was a political, as opposed to religious one: whether citizenship should be underpinned by a shared religious faith or national identity, or was it a universal right granted by a state to all its inhabitants that ensured equality and freedom for all. These were the central political questions at the heart of the conflict: religious division was merely a ‘false-consciousness’ which acted as a legitimiser of politically driven conflict. Therefore, it is not religion that formed the basis of the conflict, but rather the politicisation of religious identity. As mutual trust between Hindus and Muslims deteriorated, violence erupted in the Punjab. The province was brutally divided between opposing forces and turned into a bloody battlefield. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs turned against each other resulting in 8000 deaths. 40,000 Sikhs took refuge in camps. It was said that the violence was mainly spontaneous, however, it possesses some features of an organised genocide.In August 1947 when  Pakistan officially came into being, the elites that gained power in both India and Pakistan lacked political vision, and were unprepared for such a seismic change. THe process was chaotic and in some cases violent. Massive population exchanges took place, with 14.5 million people crossing the borders to what they hoped was the relative safety of a religious majority. These events have massively affected the relationship between the two states ever since, and the conflict has never been fully resolved. Since both nations have nuclear weapons, South Asia has undoubtedly become one of the most dangerous places in the world. Today, Kashmir, which holds valuable natural resources to both India and Pakistan, remains divided between their control. This unresolved conflict could yet descend into further bloodshed.