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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Indian Partition

As the months turned to mere weeks, the question of what would come next hung ominously in the air. When the British Prime Minister announced to the House of Commons on 20th February 1947 that Britain would formally withdraw from India, leaving an independent nation that had never before included so much land and so many people, it was broadly met with exaltation across the sub-continent. 

The yoke of British rule that had hung painfully on India’s shoulders to some degree or another for over three hundred years, was finally being flung off. As joy swept the land, a surging optimism rippled through the general public. India was ready to take its place on the world stage. 

But this bursting anticipation came crashing down shortly after the British left. Their hastily planned and enforced partition of the country to create a land for India’s Muslim minority may have come with good intentions in some twisted roundabout way, but what happened next became one of India and Pakistan’s darkest episodes. With between 200,000 and 2 million deaths and anywhere between 10 million and 20 million people displaced, the Indian Partition created chaos on an unimaginable scale, with its scars still raw to this day. 

The Independence Movement

India’s smouldering independence movement stretched as far back as anybody could remember. Often poorly organised and frequently bludgeoned by the British, it never really gained momentum until the 20th Century and in particular after Britain’s hellish experience during World War I – in which 1.4 million Indians fought for the Empire, and just over 74,000 lost their lives. 

In the years following the war, India’s confidence grew and a series of reforms took place, in particular the 1916 Lucknow Pact in which the Muslim League agreed to join the Indian National Congress’ calls for further autonomy from Britain, in return for assurances that religious minorities would be allowed to operate within the provincial legislatures.

However, despite this, the religious divide remained a nagging thorn in the side. In the 1920s, the two-nation theory first emerged, the brainchild of the Pakistan Movement, a political organization pushing for an independent Muslim state separate from India. 

During the 1930s, the British ceded a series of concessions in India that saw the number of eligible voters rise to 35 million – still only a fraction of the real population that was around 300 million at the time. In 1937, provincial elections left the Indian National Congress able to form governments in 8 out of the 11 provinces, but the Muslim League had performed much better than expected, even if they still paled in comparison to the Congress numbers.

As new regional governments settled in across India, a series of investigations by the Muslim League into the conditions of Muslims living in Congress controlled areas, painted a damming picture and enflamed a mistrust that was already bubbling away.   

The End of the British Raj 

After the outbreak of World War II, Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India, formally declared war on Germany on behalf of all of India, which I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you went down like a lead balloon – although the Muslim League supported it, but perhaps simply to spite and stand apart from the Indian National Congress. 

As the war dragged on, the Indian Army became the largest volunteer army in history with roughly 2.5 million men in uniform. With fighting raging in Europe and even coming close to the Indian border when the Japanese troops surged through Burma, intense discussion over the future of India gathered pace. 

The Lahore Resolution, sometimes considered the declaration of independence of Pakistan, was a political statement adopted by the All-India Muslim League on 24th March 1940 after a conference in Lahore and which formally called for an independent Pakistan state. 

Britain was in a sorry state as she limped victoriously from World War II and it was clear for all to see that independence was now or never. In January 1946, a series of mutinies broke out in India, including both British and Indian servicemen. Though they were all subdued relatively quickly, the screw was tightening. Prime Minister Clement Atlee dispatched a cabinet mission to India to organize a peaceful transfer of power. Whether that would include a unified India, as the Indian National Congress desired, or the partition that would create two independent countries as the Muslim League craved, nobody was quite sure. 

Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946 

the great calcuta killings
The great Calcutta killings

The events of 16th August 1946 were an eerie foretelling of the horror that would engulf parts of the country almost exactly a year later. What began as a nationwide protest by the Indian Muslim community called for by the Muslim League descended into chaos, reportedly after Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League gave a speech in Calcutta that either incited violence purposely or, according to some, gave the impression that the police had been told to pull back and let events run their course. 

Later that evening, carnage erupted as rioting and violence spread around the city, with Hindus specifically targeted. The following day, once the news had spread, Hindus sought revenge and the city exploded once again. It’s generally thought that at least 4,000 people died over the two days, although some claim that figure was closer to 10,000. 

But the violence was not constrained to the city. It gradually spread over the coming months with a particularly horrific episode playing out in the Noakhali region in the east of the country between October and November 1946 in which 5,000 Hindus were murdered and rape became endemic. Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Noakhali shortly after and camped in the region for 4 months trying to restore communal harmony. But the damage had been done and many of the survivors now packed up their belongings and fled. 

India had experienced religious violence before, but what had started in Calcutta felt like something entirely different. The frenzied bloodshed had spawned something truly ugly and it was the first time the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ began to be heard. 

How to Partition? 

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.enLouis Mountbatten The Earl Mountbatten of
Burma. By Allan warren, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

When Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, was appointed he was given the mandate to avoid a partition if at all possible, but to facilitate the transfer of power no later than June 1948. But while his boss’ interpretation of things back in London was one thing, events on the ground were quite another. It now seemed clearer than ever that a partition was the only way forward. 

But how or where do you partition a land with such a richly diverse group of people scattered? Broadly speaking, there were several western provinces such as Punjab which had a Muslim majority, while the same good be said for a small section in the east, which included Bengal. Everything else, more or less, included a Hindu, or sometimes Sikh, majority. And this was pretty much how things were divided. 

In July 1947, the Indian Independence Act 1947 passed parliament in the UK and stated once and for all that Britain would withdraw entirely the following month – a year earlier than had initially been planned. The job of partitioning a piece of land stretching to 175,000 square miles (450,000 km2) and including 88 million people fell to Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been east of Paris, and what’s more, he had just 5 weeks to do it. 

The now infamous Radcliffe Line was the boundary demarcation line that split India into two and also the provinces of Bengal and Punjab. It’s difficult to formulate just how badly thought through, rushed and at times just insanely stupid this dividing line was. In fairness to Radcliffe, he was given an absurdly small amount of time to do it and it’s entirely likely that no outcome would have been considered ideal, but the Radcliffe Line has a grim place in history. 

A rough line already existed on government maps which gave a rudimentary idea of religious divides and Radcliffe broadly followed the same boundaries, even though they were well out of date. The line carved through predominately Sikh areas managed to include majority Hindu regions in Pakistan and vice versa. And to top it all off, it was kept completely secret until two days after Independence then grandly unveiled well after most British citizens had scarpered. If there was a single act to define colonial stupidity and shortsightedness, it was the Radcliffe line.       


On 14th August 1947, Pakistan was officially formed with Muhammad Ali Jinnah sworn in as its first Governor-General. This included what we see today as Pakistan but also an eastern section completely cut off called East Pakistan – which today is Bangladesh. The following day, India had its turn with Jawaharlal Nehru assuming power as the nation’s first Prime Minister. With all the celebrations and congratulations flying back and forth, you would be forgiven for thinking that everything had gone well, but remember, the publication of the Radcliffe Line wasn’t until the 17th of August, just days after the glow of independence. 

What came next can almost be described as biblical, as human migration began on a scale never before seen or since. The numbers are a little difficult to comprehend. A census done a few years later concluded that around 14.5 million people crossed the border one way or the other immediately after partition – just a million or so short of the combined populations of New York and London. Many travelled on foot, dragging their meagre belongings with them, others with bullocks and carts, the lucky ones managed to clamber aboard one of the dangerously overloaded trains.  

Nowhere was this as pronounced as in Punjab where it’s thought 12 million crossed the new border, 6.5 million Muslims moved from East Punjab to West Punjab, and 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs moved from West Punjab to East Punjab. The population of Delhi more than doubled in this period as refugees began flooding in and vast colonies began springing up around India and in Pakistan. 

But the most incomprehensible fact about the whole situation was that the large-scale migration had never even been contemplated by the British or new Indian and Pakistani governments. It had always been expected – or assumed – that those living within new boundaries would stay put. There were no plans drawn up for population displacement, no thought of refugee camps and clearly no idea regarding the horror that was about to begin.  

Darkness Descends 

The colossal exchange of people was only part of the story. Political parties and the media on both sides had stoked tensions for too long and violence began to engulf different areas. Like the events in Calcutta in August 1946, the violence that erupted after the partition had astonishing cruelty to it. The traditional view was often of badly educated and easily manipulated peasants embarking on killing sprees that targeted one religious group or the other, but the truth was far darker than that, especially in Punjab. Here, well organised and well-drilled young men, sometimes paid by local landlords or businessmen, scoured the region attempting to effectively wipe one religious community from the region. 

These men were often drawn from returning veterans from World War II and atrocities committed on both sides were some of the darkest you are very likely to hear. Sometimes it was a case of settling old scores as neighbours turned on neighbours, or an employee saw the chance to get even with an employer. Anywhere up to 100,000 women were either raped or abducted as a way of hammering home both sides’ attempt to cleanse the area for future generations.

Both new governments were effectively powerless to stop such a massive surge of migration and violence – and the British, well, they had washed their hands entirely of India and its many problems. It was almost like a wildfire that simply had to burn itself out. 

Nobody is entirely sure how many people died during the Indian Partition. The lowest figure generally given is 200,000, but this seems hopelessly low, especially as a census done shortly after partition stated that an estimated 2.2 million people remained unaccounted for in and around Punjab alone. It’s also not clear how many died during the communal violence and how many perished on the arduous journey taken at the height of summer when famished people often walked for 15-20 miles per day.    


It took more than a year for the apocalyptical situation to begin dying down, but would take many more before any resemblance of normality could resume. Eventually, ethnically unrelated militaries were brought in, such as the Gurkas from Nepal and the Madras regiments from southern India, to restore order. 

For many, who had lost their entire family and their family home, life was simply never the same again. There were now more than 600 refugee camps scattered across the subcontinent and it would take considerable time until people could be re-housed, sometimes in distant lands they had never visited, but that international law now stated they belonged to. 

While things eventually settled down within both India and Pakistan, the animosity between the two new countries didn’t take long to erupt. The question of the two Princely States in the north, Jammu and Kashmir, vassal states that had had a regional ruler but under the umbrella of the British Raj, immediately caused a headache. 

Jammu and Kashmir, with a hefty Muslim majority but was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja, had been given the option of joining either India or Pakistan or remaining neutral. The first Kashmir War began in October 1947 when Pakistan occupied the area, eventually leading to India gaining control of about two-thirds of the state, including Kashmir valley, Jammu and Ladakh, while Pakistan gained roughly a third, including Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit–Baltistan. 

On three more occasions, in 1965, 1971 and 1999 Pakistan and India once again found themselves at war. Both the 1965 and 1999 conflicts flared around the region of Kashmir, while in 1971 the focus was on the other side of India in East Pakistan. And if you thought this story couldn’t get any darker, then think again.

In East Pakistan, Bengali calls for independence had been growing for some time and the government’s pitiful response to the Bhola cyclone on 12th November 1970, which killed an estimated 500,000 people, pushed things over the edge. In general elections, the following month, the East Pakistan-based Awami League took full control of the region but was prevented from taking power by the Pakistani government. Rioting, violence and army reprisal began and once again, the fate of millions hung in the balance. 

In March 1971, the Pakistani government launched Operation Searchlight intending to gain control of all major cities in East Pakistan then gradually crushing all Bengali opposition. What came next is widely considered as the Bangladesh genocide in which between 300,000 and 3 million Bengalis and at least 150,000 Binari (East Pakistan’s Muslim minority) were killed. Roughly 10 million Bengalis poured across the border into India as they fled the violence. India soon intervened and another full-scale war quickly erupted, in both the east and west regions. The fighting lasted just two months with the Pakistani armed forces taking a real beating, leading to 93,000 soldiers surrendering in East Pakistan, a humbling experience the nation would take some time to recover from.  

But the result of all this was yet another newly independent country appearing – Bangladesh.           

Present Day

While India and Pakistan haven’t fought a formal war for over 20 years now, there have been plenty of awkward standoffs and military incidents over the years. But by and large, both nations have managed to restrain themselves – which could be down to the fact they both now have nuclear weapons, but who knows. 

We are now nearing 75 years since the chaos of partition that carved India up and led to the deaths of millions. And as I said earlier, those wounds are still raw, particular in the areas around Kashmir and Punjab which have seen sporadic incidents of martial law in response to violence over the years.

In India, religious and ethnic violence, once again stoked by politicians and the media, still happens much more than you’d think. Between 80 and 130 people typically die each year in India as a result of communal violence, with over 2,000 injuries. Those numbers may seem small when taken in the context of India’s 1.3 billion people, but it paints a slow-burning image of hatred that refuses to die out. And this isn’t simply constrained to just Hindus and Muslims. Anti-Sikh, anti-Christian and even anti-Atheist violence has been seen across India in recent years.

Pakistan too has suffered its fair share of ethnic and religious violence, but with the country also struggling to contain an Islamic insurgency, it’s been a difficult few decades for Pakistan. The country’s economy continues to wobble, despite enormous investment coming in from China aiming to revitalise the nation’s infrastructure. 

The Partition of India was badly conceived and tragically carried out, though I doubt anybody involved with this idea had the slightest inkling of what would happen after. What began as an idealistic, hopelessly ambitious idea to create areas free of religious persecution, did the exact opposite.

It’s important to remember that a nation the size of India had never existed before 1947. When the British arrived it was a fabric of hundreds of small kingdoms and in many ways perhaps it was overly idealistic to assume that you could lump everybody together, especially after hundreds of years of British rule where divide and conquer was often the name of the game.  

But that doesn’t detract from the fact that a small minority, perhaps 5% of the population according to historians, carried out the kind of violence that is almost unimaginable, spurred on by hatred, revenge, personal gains and politicians and business leaders who were willing to use the poorly educated or desperate as cannon fodder. The Indian Partition, and the subsequent incidents that followed, ripped away a bandage that had loosely kept everything together and out of sight. What lay beneath morphed into one of the bleakest periods in human history and one of the largest human migrations ever seen.   

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