In August 1947, one of the largest and most ethnically diverse countries in the world became divided into two countries, India and Pakistan. People were forced out of the villages they had lived in for generations, in what became the largest mass migration in human history. For decades, Indians had fought to rid themselves of British rule but this movement had been kept in check by ruthless military force. In the aftermath of WWII, however, everything changed; Britain was bankrupt and the cost of maintaining an army in India was financially out of the question. India’s leaders were divided over what should happen when the British left.
Ancient prejudices between Muslims and Hindus ran deep and led to hostile relations. In the ancient city of Lahore, Muslims were forbidden from drinking from the same taps as Hindus. Muslim fears that Hindus, who made up the majority of the Indian population, would dominate an independent India, drove the demand for a separate Muslim homeland. It was championed principally by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a British-educated barrister. He, along with others, believed in the ‘two-nation theory’, the ideology that two nations should be created based on religion as the denominating factor, rather than language or ethnicity. For others, the idea that India would be divided based on religion was absurd.
In August 1946, Jinnah organised a ‘Direct Action Day’ in a bid to secure a separate state for Muslims. As the crowds of Muslims dispersed throughout Calcutta, the more radical elements headed to the Hindu parts of the city. What became known as the Great Calcutta Killings was four days of massive Hindu-Muslim riots, both the slaughter of Hindus by Muslims, and Muslims by Hindus. Around 4,000 people were killed. After Calcutta, the violence spread. In Bihar it was Muslims who were under attack by Hindus and vice versa in Noakhali. There is a consensus as to the magnitude of the killings yet controversy remains regarding the exact sequence of events, various actors’ responsibility, and the long-term political consequences.
The British will to remain in control of the country was severely diminished and they realised that the only way they were going to be able to withdraw from India was to partition the country and transfer power to two separate governments. One man thought he could bring the country together and maintain the dream of a united India -Mahatma Gandhi. He failed to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, however, who considered him a symbol of Hindu supremacy, and an idealist, who had no connection with reality.
In July 1947, the British Government passed the Indian Independence Act, ordering the separation of India and Pakistan. Regions with Muslim majorities were given to Pakistan, and those with Hindu majorities to India. The Punjab and Bengal provinces, however, were treated differently, despite their Muslim majorities. They were split in half and divided between India and Pakistan. It was then announced that Britain would be leaving nearly a year earlier than originally planned, which left law and order in the hands of the opposing sides. The exact borders of India and Pakistan were also still undecided, and various regions in the country became consumed by rivalries and fighting as communities tried to rid themselves of anyone they did not want in their area.
On 14th-15th August, 1947, the two new states gained independence, sparking the exodus of millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who found themselves to be on what they saw as the wrong side of the border. Communities which had lived with each other for centuries turned on each other in what became one of the most destructive mass movements of refugees. Millions of people were forced to endure appalling conditions, and thousands more died.
In the decades since partition, violence has been rife. The first Indo-Pakistani war took hold immediately, over the disputed region of Kashmir. The frontlines solidified into a ‘Line of Control’, across which the two sides have occasionally skirmished and fought low level wars. A major Indo-Pakistani war erupted in 1971 when the breakaway regime of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) successfully bid for independence from the Pakistani Government. They were given significant military assistance from India. The threat that the Indo-Pakistani rivalry poses has been heightened by the development of nuclear weapons by both states. By 2002 the crisis had developed so far that it was considered to be the closest two states had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis.