The Partition of India

In August 1947, when independence was granted to the former imperial domain of British India, it was partitioned into two nation states- India and Pakistan.

India had been the largest possession of the British and a subject of the British Crown since 1858 , after the East India Company’s reign had been brought to an end in wake of the great uprising and revolt against Company rule.

Negotiations had been going on partly for successive extensions of limited self-rule on the basis  of laws passed by the British Parliament in 1909 and 1919. In 1935, the Government  of India Act constituted a number of provinces with their own legislatures where representatives were elected on the basis of a limited franchise. There was then a plan that British India would attain Dominion Status – self- government supervised by the Crown – in the near future. If  a majority of the  princely states would also join the scheme, India would have a confederate structure with powerful provinces and Princely states and a weak Centre in charge of defence, foreign relations and currency.

This scheme never came into effect as not enough Princely states joined. British Indian provinces elected legislatures in 1937 . When War was declared between Britain and Germany , and Britain committed India , without consultations, the Congress governments in provinces resigned. Congress demanded independence in return for cooperation during the War. The Cripps mission was sent in early 1942, under American pressure, to negotiate transfer of power. But the preconditions proved unacceptable to the Congress and the Muslim League who were negotiating with different plans. Congress launched Quit India campaign after the failure of Cripps Mission and the leaders were put  in prison in August 1942 for two and a half years.

In 1945, the Labour Party came to power in Britain and they were pledged to granting independence to India. The existing basis was the 1935 Act. Elections were held in all the provinces of British India. Congress won in seven out of eleven provinces. The Muslim League won all the Muslim seats. The British Government sent a Cabinet Mission to finalise the arrangement for transfer of power. The Cabinet Mission proposed a Confederation as in the 1935 Act . It also proposed that provinces could group themselves into regions which would decide how the powers would be shared among them . Three regions were proposed. One comprising North West provinces of Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province. Another region would comprise Assam and the North East areas and Bengal. The remaining provinces would comprise the largest region.

The Provincial legislatures were to elect representatives in proportion to the various constituent communities to the Constituent Assembly which would frame the Constitution for independent India. The Muslim League boycotted the Constituent Assembly arguing that there was no guarantee that the Rights of Muslim minority would be safeguarded. It denounced the Cabinet Mission plan having once agreed, as it argued that Congress would wield an uncontrolled majority in the Constituent Assembly.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared August 16, 1946 as a Black Day and communal riots broke out all over North India and Bombay and Calcutta. From then on, the demand was made by the Muslim League that provinces where there was Muslim majority in the electorate should be brought together into a separate nation which would constitute Pakistan. This demand for Pakistan, a Muslim nation within India had been articulated by Alama Iqbal in 1930 at a meeting of the Muslim League. The title Pakistan was the invention of a young Muslim graduate of Cambridge – Rahmat Ali  . In 1940 at a meeting of the Muslim League in Lahore,Jinnah had endorsed this demand though without naming Pakistan.

The proposal to join together provinces with Muslim majority under a single separate nation was resisted by a Congress at the outset. At that time an Interim  government was in charge with Congress and Muslim League sharing ministries with Nehru as the de facto Prime Minister. But soon cooperation proved impossible in the government and in the Constituent Assembly.  A proposal was made by Viceroy Mountbatten to partition British India roughly along the three groupings suggested by the Cabinet Mission.

The first partition scheme was outlined in April 1947 and shown to Nehru by Mountbatten. Nehru strenuously objected to the scheme. It was revised , taken back to London and came back with British Cabinet approval. On June 4 the scheme to partition India was announced by Mountbatten and endorsed in speeches by Nehru and Jinnah.


The main outlines were as in the Cabinet Mission plan. The North West region was as originally proposed. The Eastern region was redrawn without Assam or the North East region . Only Bengal and the  adjoining Sylhet district  were to be in Pakistan. Partition came as a great shock to Mahatma Gandhi but Congress leadership under Nehru and Patel had accepted it faute  de mieux. There was still the question of  where the boundary was to be. The two largest provinces Punjab and Bengal had only a marginal superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims – 53-47 % . It was decided therefore that the electoral register would be used to apportion some districts to Pakistan and others to India.

The drawing of the boundary proved to be the biggest cause of fear and uncertainty and eventual death and destruction. Cyril  Radcliffe, KC, a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn was put  in charge of drawing up the boundary with the help of local advisers in Punjab and Bengal.

What was delicate or fierce negotiation for the leaders proved a nightmare for the thousands of families who  suddenly found themselves strangers in the land where they had lived for generations. Law and order broke down and massacre and looting started as families left their homeland to trudge across to where  their  ‘new nation’  was. Millions of lives were uprooted, thousands lost. Women were abducted, abused and killed along with children, born and unborn. Families abandoned their ancestral properties and crossed boundaries forced to find a new life as refugees. Back and forth across Punjab and Bengal went the human flow with much misery. Many Muslim families left from UP and Bihar to end up as refugees- Mohajirs – in Karachi. The Hindus of Sind- Sindhis – arrived in Gujarat and Bombay.

There is no accurate count of how many marched across the borders, or how many lost their lives . It was however the largest such transfer of people from their homes to where they had to make anew home. It is their untold stories which are recorded here.