The Partition of India – 70 years on

Published 3rd August 2017

Britain had formally governed the Indian subcontinent from 1858, although its influence there had been growing for the previous two centuries. India was considered the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Political, ethnic and regional movements in India were opposed to being part of a foreign Empire, and campaigned and demonstrated for independence – but their requests were at best ignored and on other occasions brutally put down.

India in the World Wars

During the First World War hundreds of thousands of Indians volunteered and fought for Britain across the globe. Demands for independence increased during the interwar years, winning support across the subcontinent and also from groups and political parties in the UK. Once again during the Second World many Indians fought for Britain, while millions more were involved in the war effort. India suffered rationing during the war as well as famine – events that served to increase discontent with British rule. The cost of those two wars had also taken their toll on the British economy and soon after winning the 1945 election the new Labour government announced that India would receive Independence.

Preparing for Independence

Independence required an act of Parliament as well as serious negotiations. The British government had become convinced that Independence for India also meant the creation of a Muslim state. In the two years following the announcement of independence for India talks focused on the division of the country and how the borders should be drawn. A British official, Cyril Radcliffe, was responsible for drawing the lines, which he did his amongst the growing chaos and intense political arguments surrounding him and crucially using outdated maps. His lines cut through villages, farms, homes and families. In many cases political need for a partition across the country outweighed geography, human relations and common sense.

Partition and its aftermath

When Independence Day arrived in August 1947 it led to rioting and the mass migration of 10 million people. An estimated 1 million people died in the fighting, the movement of peoples and the shortages that followed. Partition created two independent states, India and Pakistan. The two countries and the legacy of partition have gone on to shape politics and attitudes across the region for generations to come.

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Listen to our podcast series or read our journal articles exploring this topic in far greater detail: