The Partition


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

India had been the largest possession of the British and a subject of the British Crown since 1858, when the East India Company’s reign had been brought to an end in the wake of the Uprising and Revolt of 1857 against the Company rule.

Attempts to grant self-rule to the Indians was heavily debated since the early 1900s in the public sphere, the early results of which were the Indian Councils Act of 1909 and the Government of India Act of 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. It was planned that British India would be granted dominion status, i.e. self-government supervised by the Crown. If a majority of the princely states chose to join the scheme, India would have a confederate structure with powerful provinces and princely states and a weak center in charge of defence, foreign relations and currency.

This scheme never came into effect because the majority of the princely states refused to accept the 1935 Act and become a part of the proposed dominion. Provincial elections were held in British India in 1937. When war was declared between Britain and Germany in 1939, the British government declared India’s involvement in the war without consulting any Indian leaders. In protest against this unilateral decision-making by the British regarding Indian interests, the Congress Governments in the provinces resigned. They demanded full independence in return for Indian cooperation in the war. Under pressure from the American governments, the British sent the Cripps Mission to India in 1942 to secure full support and cooperation in the war against Germany by trying to negotiate better terms for transfer of power. But the pre-conditions of the Mission were not accepted by the Congress and the Muslim League, both of whom had different priorities and outcomes in mind. The failure of the Cripps Mission led to the Congress launching the Quit India Movement and demanding full independence from British rule. On the morning the Movement was to be launched, all Congress leaders were put behind bars where they were to remain until almost the end of war.

In 1945, the Labour Party came to power in Britain and pledged to grant independence to India. Their plan was developed on the basis of the 1935 Act. Elections were held in all the provinces of British India the results of which were that the Congress won in seven out of eleven provinces and the Muslim League won all the seats reserved for Muslims. In 1946, the British Government sent the Cabinet Mission to India to secure arrangements for a peaceful transfer of power. The Cabinet Mission proposed a confederation as previously detailed in the 1935 Act. It also proposed that provinces could group themselves into regions which would decide how power would be shared amongst them. Three regions were proposed, one comprising the North West provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, and the North West Frontier Province, the second comprising Madras, UP, Central Provinces, Bombay, Bihar & Orissa and the third comprising Assam and Bengal.

It was proposed that the provincial legislatures would elect representatives to a Constituent Assembly which would frame the Constitution of independent India. Although the Congress rejected the proposal for an interim government, they decided to join the Constituent Assembly in order to help frame the Constitution of independent India.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared 16 August 1946 as Direct Action Day as a show of force of support from the Muslim community for a separate nation. Riots spread through the cities of Calcutta and Bombay resulting in the death of approximately 5000-10,000 people with 15,000 wounded. On 9 December 1946, the Muslim League which had earlier accepted the proposals of the Cabinet Mission, now withdrew its support on the ground that there was no guarantee for proper safeguards of the rights of the Muslim minority in the Assembly.

The demand for a separate nation for Muslims had been raised by various Muslim leaders in the previous decades, most famously by Allama Iqbal at a Muslim League conference at Allahabad in 1930 where he articulated the idea of a Muslim nation within India. The term “Pak-Stan” had been coined by Choudhry Rahmat Ali in the 1930s while he was studying at Cambridge University. On 23 March 1940, at a meeting of the Muslim League in Lahore, Jinnah had endorsed such a demand, though without naming “Pakistan”.

The proposal of the Muslim League resolution, to unite the Muslim majority provinces and carve out a separate nation was resisted by the Congress at the outset. At that time, an interim government was in charge with the Congress and Muslim League sharing ministries and Nehru acting as the de-facto Prime Minister. But soon the arrangement broke down and Lord Mountbatten put forth the proposal to partition India using the three regions as had been suggested by the Cabinet Mission.

The first Partition Scheme was outlined in April 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru was against the idea of Partition itself. The revised scheme was sent to London and came back with the approval of the British Cabinet. On June 4, the scheme to Partition India was announced by Mountbatten and endorsed in speeches by Nehru and Jinnah on the All India Radio.

The Partition scheme, as announced, was largely in line with the proposals of the Cabinet Mission. The North-West region comprising Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province was as proposed by the Cabinet Mission. The Eastern region was redrawn without Assam or the North East provinces. East Bengal and the adjoining Sylhet district would be part of Pakistan. Partition came as a great shock to Mahatma Gandhi but the Congress leadership under Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel had accepted the proposition. However, the question of the final boundary was still undecided. The two largest provinces Punjab and Bengal had only a marginal superiority of Muslims over Non-Muslims – 53% to 47%. It was decided, therefore that the two provinces would be divided down the middle and the electoral register would be used to apportion some districts to Pakistan and the others to India.

The drawing of the boundary proved to be extremely contentious causing fear, uncertainty and widespread death and destruction. Cyril Radcliffe, KC, a barrister from Lincoln’s Inn, London was put in charge of drawing up the boundary with the help of local advisors in Punjab and Bengal.

The negotiations amongst the leaders proved a nightmare for the thousands of families who suddenly found themselves uprooted in a land they had inhabited for generations. Law and order broke down and there was large scale massacre and looting as families left their homeland to trudge across the new, arbitrarily drawn borders. Women were abducted, raped, mutilated and killed along with children, both born and unborn. Families abandoned their ancestral properties and crossed the borders, forced to find a new life as refugees. In the Punjab and Bengal, refugees moved from each side to the other, in search of safety. Many Muslim families left from UP and Bihar to end up as Muhajirs (refugees) in Karachi. The Hindus of Sindh arrived in Gujarat and Bombay.

The Partition of India was one of the most defining events in the history of the Indian subcontinent. With no accurate accounts of how many died or lost their homes, estimates suggest that perhaps up to 20 million people were affected by the Partition and somewhere between 200,000 – 1 million lost their lives. Yet, several decades after the event, there was a severe lacuna that no museum or memorial existed anywhere in the world to remember all those millions. It is their untold stories which the Partition Museum records and narrates.


In 1940, at the Lahore Session, the Muslim League had demanded the Partition of India to create a separate Muslim majority state in the north-west of India. In opposition to this demand, Sir Sikander Hayat Khan of the Unionist Party had forged links with the Sikhs and signed the Sikander-Baldev Singh Pact in March 1942. The pact provided for Jhatka meat in government institutions, the inclusion of Gurmukhi as a second language in schools and guaranteed 20 percent representation of the Sikh Community in the Executive Council supported by the Unionists. This was in strong opposition to Jinnah’s demand for a Muslim state. However, the situation changed with the unexpected death of Sikander Hayat Khan in 1942.

The Unionists and the Sikhs were unable to sustain the alliance.

The Akalis drew up a scheme of Azad Punjab which encouraged the creation of a new province of Punjab. Master Tara Singh emphasized that the scheme was conceived to act as an effective counter to the demand of Partition.

In the Punjab elections held in 1946, the Muslim League had won the most number of seats but fell short of a majority. It failed to form a coalition government with any of the other parties, and a coalition government headed by the Punjab Unionist Party’s Sir Khizr Hayat Tiwana came to power in Punjab.

In January-February 1947, the Muslim League called for Direct Action in the Punjab Province. This unnerved the Punjab Premier, Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana, whose coalition ministry included ministers from the Congress as well as Sikh Parties. The coalition fell on 2 March 1947.

On 3 March, Hindu and Sikh leaders met in Lahore where they vowed to oppose the establishment of Pakistan. On 4 March, Hindu and Sikh students came on the streets to protest. Communal clashes broke out in different parts of Lahore. By the evening of 4 March, communal violence broke out in Amritsar and on 5 March, in Multan and Rawalpindi. The governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, imposed Governor’s Rule on 5 March 1947 after the League failed to convince him that it had a stable majority in the Punjab Assembly. Punjab remained under Governor’s Rule until power was handed over to the Indian and Pakistani governments on August 14 and 15.

Lord Louis Mountbatten assumed the role of the last viceroy on 24 March 1947. He announced the Partition Plan on 3 June 1947, declaring that the British had decided to transfer power to the Indian and Pakistani governments by mid-August 1947. The announcement resulted in a further increase in violence as uncertainty over the future began the greatest forced migration in history. The Partition of Punjab proved to be one of the most violent acts in the history of humankind.

Between 15-17 August, there was great confusion about the actual boundaries between India and Pakistan. It was widely believed that Gurdaspur District would be given to Pakistan. Consequently, Pakistan dispatched Mushtaq Ahmed Cheema as Deputy Commissioner of Gurdaspur and the Pakistan flag flew over Gurdaspur for those days. Many cities, including Lahore, remained uncertain of their fate.

On 17 August 1947, the Radcliffe Award was made public. Three tehsils of Gurdaspur district on the Eastern bank of the Ravi were given to India while Shakargarh on the Western bank went to Pakistan. Many found themselves on the wrong side of the border suddenly. Lahore was awarded to Pakistan. The mass migration that followed saw the death of millions and displacement of many more. Families were torn apart. People migrating by trains were massacred and butchered. Women were killed, abducted and raped. Many were killed by their own families to ‘protect the family honour’. The tumultuous wave of migration largely ended by 1948, but the rebuilding of lives continued for decades.

Bengal and Assam

The movement of people across the border took a different form in Bengal as compared to Punjab. West Bengal had 5 million Muslims in a total of 21 million, while East Bengal had 11 million Hindus in a total of 39 million, almost equal percentages of the minority communities. Initially, cross-border movement was limited, with more Hindus moving westwards than Muslims moving Eastwards. The two governments came to an agreement about protecting minorities on each side in April 1948 with the specific aim of preventing violence similar to that seen in Punjab from occurring in Bengal. The flow of migration further reduced. This was also due to a strong Pan-Bengali identity.

However, communal riots later triggered migration a few years after independence. Between February and April 1950, riots led to a million and a half people migrating; 850,000 Muslims moved eastwards, and 650,000 Hindus moved westwards. Nehru and Liaquat Ali decided to sign a revised agreement to protect minorities on both sides. But the atmosphere had deteriorated. Between April and July 1950, 1.2 million Hindus left East Pakistan and 600,000 Muslims from West Bengal moved eastwards.

Even beyond the riots, fear of discrimination against minorities also led to migration in the 1950s. The language movement of the 1950s made Bengali Hindus uneasy. The issuance of passports in 1952 led to the fear that the option of migration would not be available later. Incoming refugees also led to a scarcity of resources which prompted waves of migration. However, because a lot of migration in Bengal happened after 1947-48, this was viewed as economic migration by the government, reducing the official aid that displaced persons received.

In 1964-65, communal riots following tensions in Kashmir led to an increased flow of Hindus westwards. The final large-scale migration came in 1970-71 on the eve of the formation of Bangladesh.

Mountbatten’s Partition plan, announced on 3 June 1947, provided for a referendum to be held in the Sylhet district to decide whether it should remain a part of the Indian province of Assam or become a part of East Pakistan. In a meeting of District Officers convened to decide the dates of the referendum, it was suggested that the first fortnight of July be avoided due to heavy flooding which would curtail the ability of people to reach the voting booths. The British Referendum Commissioner, however, argued that based on the date of final withdrawal there was no negotiation possible with regard to the dates. The Sylhet Referendum was therefore held on 6 July 1947 and the results favoured a merger with Pakistan. Assam thus lost a wealthy district in terms of the thriving tea, lime and cement industries which in turn resulted in a serious loss of revenue.

Partition affected the politics and lives of the people in the North East in several ways. It physically separated them from the rest of the country save for a narrow passage commonly known as the Chicken’s Neck, which is only 17 km wide at its narrowest. Partition disrupted the natural channel of riverine communication, and rail and road networks that provided connectivity to this area and had adverse effects on the economy of Assam. It was forced to exist as a landlocked province, as its natural outlet to the sea since 1904 through the port of Chittagong became a part of East Pakistan. The adverse impact of Partition was noted in the Census Report of 1951, which observed that ‘the far-reaching effects of this loss will continue to be felt by Assam as well as India’.

Partition also affected the social and economic lives of the various tribal communities in the region. It disrupted the traditional links that tribal communities, such as the Khasis, Jantias and Garos, had with the East Pakistani districts of Sylhet and Mymensingh, leaving them split between India and Pakistan, based on their place of residence.


The experience of Partition in Sindh was different from that of other States. Sindh, unlike Punjab and Bengal, was not partitioned demographically, but rather the entire state went to Pakistan. The State experienced fewer cases of physical violence and more frequently, reports of looting, destruction and distress sale of property. In fact, when Acharya Kripalani, the Congress president visited Sindh three months after Partition, he noted the lack of communal fanaticism and the influence of Sufi and vedantic thoughts among the Sindhis which spread the message of tolerance. Sindhis did not migrate en masse to India in the months shortly after Partition.

However, by November 1947, with the arrival of a large numbers of refugees (Muhajirs) from Bihar and Bengal in Sindh, an atmosphere of fear unsettled the Hindus. These Muhajirs living in crowded refugee camps began to occupy the homes of the Hindu Sindhis. Two major incidents of violence in Hyderabad (Sindh) and Karachi on 17 December 1947 and 6 January 1948, respectively, triggered the decision of the Hindus to leave.

More than the violence, it was the loss of their homeland which had nurtured their culture for centuries that left a deep and lasting impact on the Hindu Sindhis who migrated to India. Partition left them not only without a home but also alienated them from their way of life. In an environment where survival was a major issue, with the well-off Sindhis helping those in more dire conditions, the nurturing of culture was not a priority.

During the first half of 1948, approximately 1,000,000 Sindhi Hindus migrated to India; 400,000 more remained in Sindh. Evacuation continued for three more years, and by 1951 very few Hindu families remained in Sindh – about a scant 150,000 to 200,000. That trickle of migration has continued over the years and remains a continuing process.

On the issue of Sindhi culture and the reconstruction of their lives post-Partition, Saaz Agrawal in her book, “Sindh — stories from a Vanished Homeland” writes, “The capricious river Indus ran through their lands and it changed course often. One day, you’d be by the river bank, the next, you’d be flooded. Their surroundings created a people prepared for change”.