The endless anguish of Partition: India and Pakistan at 75

Families torn apart by Partition.

Murtaza Ali/DPA via Reuters

Seventy-five years ago this week, two of the most powerful countries in Asia were born in a bloodbath. At the stroke of midnight that separated Aug. 14 from Aug. 15, 1947, British India was divided — along an inexpertly drawn line — into a sprawling, Hindu-majority India, and a smaller, Muslim-majority Pakistan.

The event, known as “Partition,” tore apart families, villages, and whole regions, sparking violence that left millions dead and displaced. It also laid the groundwork for sectarian conflicts and enmity between India and Pakistan that have lasted to this day.

To learn more about why Partition happened, and how it continues to shape the troubled relationship between these two countries, we sat down with Akhil Bery, a former analyst at Eurasia Group who is now Director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Alex Kliment: Let's start at the beginning, Akhil – what was Partition, and why did it happen?

Akhil Bery: Under the British Empire, Muslims were the largest religious minority in India, accounting for about 25% of the population. And due to their minority status, they were guaranteed a certain amount of representation in various legislative bodies.

As the calls for independence from the British grew louder, there was a fear that Muslims would lose these protections, especially in a Hindu-dominated India, and so there were calls for a separate Muslim state. There's some debate about whether that was an actual goal or whether it was just a negotiating tactic. But that sort of became the rallying cry for Muslims.

Then in 1947, after World War Two, Lord Mountbatten came to India as the new viceroy, and his mandate was to end the British Raj. He charged a prominent lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, with partitioning India along sectarian lines: a Hindu-majority India on one side, and Pakistan, for Muslims, on the other.

And let me guess, this imperial Englishman didn’t draw such a great map?

Well, Radcliffe had been to India – once. But he did all of this from England, using outdated census information.

So it was just a mess, villages were split in half and so on. You had mobs burning villages, attacking people. You had Hindus and Sikhs versus Muslims, and vice versa.

It was a small percentage of the population who engaged in these things, of course – most people were bystanders. But when the dust settled in 1948, some 15 million people had been displaced from their homes, and the conservative estimate is that at least 2 million people died. That history of violence is what gave birth to India and Pakistan.

Why was it so violent?

Until the mid 1940s, British India was a multi-ethnic, multicultural country. I mean, you had Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, for the most part coexisting peacefully.

But the British had long practiced a deliberate policy of divide and rule, selectively playing sectarian groups off each other as a way to undermine any anti-British movements in India.

So as the British departure from Indian territories became more likely, those divisions provided fertile ground for more ideological ideas of nationhood: you had Muslims for a Muslim-majority Pakistan, and Hindus in India who believed that because you were going to have a Muslim-majority Pakistan, then India should also be a Hindu majority country.

And of course, when Partition arrived, you had fanatics on both sides taking advantage of the situation to carry out violence.

You are from India – are there any Partition stories that you grew up hearing or that you remember from your family?

Every family has some sort of story of the Partition or of the terrorism and violence that came after. My grandfather was born in Lahore [today’s Pakistan] and my grandmother was in Amritsar, which is in Punjab, in today’s India. They used to be able to travel freely between those two cities, and there was even visa free travel between the two countries until the late 1960s.

But for my grandmother, as a newlywed young mother, some of her earliest memories of that time were of hosting Partition refugees from Pakistan in Delhi.

How has Partition shaped sectarian attitudes in the two countries?

It’s still unresolved today. If you look at how both India and Pakistan deal with religious minorities, neither of them has a good track record on that. Look at India right now with the growth of the BJP, you've seen an increase of violence against Muslims.

And in Pakistan, an Islamization of the country that goes back to when General Zia [ul-Haq] was in charge in the 1970s, and he kind of promoted the Islamization of Pakistan, which ended up supporting the Taliban, and passing anti-blasphemy laws and so on.

So, I mean, this idea of a hard line, religious, almost fanaticism is prevalent in both India and Pakistan now.

On top of those internal tensions, did Partition leave flashpoints between India and Pakistan directly?

Yes, in Kashmir. The conflict over Kashmir is a legacy of Partition. At the time, you had a Muslim-majority state with a Hindu king who signed an “Instrument of Accession” (which ceded the area to India).

But this is where the history gets dicey because Pakistan believes that as a Muslim majority it naturally belonged to Pakistan, and there is disagreement about whether the king even wanted to sign the document.

India, meanwhile, believes that because the king signed the agreement Jammu and Kashmir should be a part of India.

And this conflict over Kashmir is really what prevents India and Pakistan from finding peace with one another. There have been numerous attempts, but it's just never a great combination of people on both sides and it's been a bloody history throughout. They’ve fought three wars over this. There have been terrorist attacks from Pakistan into India. There've been terrorist attacks from India into Pakistan. These are two nuclear armed neighbors who don't get along because of Kashmir, so that’s one big, unfulfilled legacy of Partition.

Where does the Kashmir issue stand now?

Until India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 (a law that had given Kashmir a measure of autonomy) in 2019, Jammu and Kashmir was India's only Muslim majority state. Now its status has been downgraded to a union territory. And because of that, it has hardened minds. India and Pakistan don't have trade relations. The border is still militarized. There is a ceasefire in effect on the line of control. But there isn't really a path forward right now.

How is Partition remembered today – and is it seen differently in India and Pakistan?

The generation that survived Partition is slowly dying out. It's been 75 years. New generations don’t have those same stories, and yet the wounds of Partition are still there and it's still a political cudgel, so you are seeing more competing hardline views.

In India last year, they designated August 14, which is Pakistan's independence day, as “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.”

And you've got Hindu nationalist groups, for example, that espouse this idea of “Akhand Bharat,” or “unified India”, who believe that India should unite the continent, basically. And it's not just Pakistan they want – they want Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, and so on.

There's also a view in India that Partition was a mistake because, due to the wastage of resources on security (in the standoff with Pakistan), an undivided India could have spent more on health and education to achieve better development outcomes.

And then, of course, there is the view that India should just be an overtly Hindu state, since Pakistan is a Muslim state. And that view has come into prominence more and more, especially with the decline of India’s Congress Party as a relevant opposition party, and the rise of the BJP, which is a very unabashedly pro-Hindu party.

And how is it seen in Pakistan?

In Pakistan, meanwhile, with the rise of the BJP and the Hindu nationalism across the border in India, it's seen as incredible foresight by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founding father of Pakistan) to predict that this would come to pass and that this is why you needed a separate Muslim homeland in the first place. So Partition is a good thing in that view.

What would it take to put to rest the ghost of Partition?

Right now you've got a government in India that doesn't see the benefit of negotiating with Pakistan, and you've got Pakistan in the midst of an economic and political crisis.

And for India, the top geopolitical issue right now is China, and that also hampers things because India does not get along with China, but China has a very, very strong relationship with Pakistan.

So, yes, you have a ceasefire holding along the line of control (in Kashmir), but will it last? All it takes is one more terrorist attack, and things will get dicey again. Remember that in 2019, suicide bombers from Pakistan killed 40 Indian soldiers. Modi escalated by sending planes over into Pakistan for the first time since 1972. And Pakistan right now is dealing with a surge in terrorism in its border regions.

But if there are these kind of confidence building measures, like no firing on the line of control, no terrorist attacks, maybe some steps to normalize trade, then there is a future.

Sounds like there’s not much light at the end of the tunnel at the moment – do you think India and Pakistan will ever bury the hatchet?

I personally think you need more economic engagement and more people-to-people ties. There needs to be a realization that the other side is not the enemy. The Indians and Pakistanis have shown an ability to come to agreements in the past. Diplomacy is very helpful. And I think there is a role that international actors have to play there.

The rise of India's relations with the Middle East, I think, is a net positive because Middle Easterners typically had strong relations with Pakistan. So as the US influence in the region ebbs, I think there’s space for Middle Eastern countries to use the leverage that they have to say like, ‘okay, we get that you're not going to have peace with one another, but at least let's try to normalize some aspects of the relationship.’

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