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Chapter: 12th History : Chapter 8 : Reconstruction of Post-colonial India

Consequences of Partition

The partition of India on Hindu–Muslim lines was put forth as a demand by the Muslim League in vague terms ever since its Lahore session (March 1940).

Consequences of Partition

The challenges before free India included grappling with the consequences of partition, planning the economy and reforming the education system (which will be dealt with in the following lesson), making a Constitution that reflected the aspirations kindled by the freedom struggle, merger of the Princely states (more than 500 in number and of different sizes), and resolving the diversity on the basis of languages spoken by the people with the needs of a nation-state. Further, a foreign policy that was in tune with the ideals of democracy, sovereignty and fraternity had to be formulated.

The partition of India on Hindu–Muslim lines was put forth as a demand by the Muslim League in vague terms ever since its Lahore session (March 1940). But its architecture and execution began only with Lord Mountbatten’s announcement of his plan on June 3, 1947 and advancing the date of transfer of power to August 15, 1947. The time left between the two dates was a mere 72 days.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer by training with no exposure to India and its reality, was sent from London to re-draw the map of India. Its execution was left to the dominion governments of India and Pakistan after August 15, 1947.

Radcliffe arrived in India on July 8, 1947.He was given charge of presiding over two Boundary Commissions: one for the Punjab and the other for Bengal.Two judges from the Muslim community and two from the Hindu community were included. The commissions were left with five weeks to identify villages as Hindu or Muslim majority on the basis of the 1941 census. It is widely accepted that the census of 1941, conducted in the midst of the World War II led to faulty results everywhere.

The commissions were also constrained by factors such as contiguity of villages and by demands of the Sikh community that villages in West Punjab where their shrines were located be taken into India irrespective of the population of Sikhs in those villages. The two commissions submitted the report on August 9, 1947. Mountbatten’s dispensation, meanwhile, decided to postpone the execution of the boundaries to a date after power was transferred to the two dominions. The contours of the two dominions – India and Pakistan – were drawn in the scheme on August 14/15, 1947 insofar as the administration was concerned; the people, however, were not informed about the new map when they celebrated independence day on August 14/15, 1947.

Radcliffe’s award contained all kinds of anomalies. The provincial assembly in Punjab had resolved that West Punjab would go to Pakistan. The other provinces, which were geographically contiguous with Pakistan such as Sind, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Provinces followed this. Similarly, the Bengal Assembly, resolved that the eastern parts of the province were to constitute Pakistan on this side.

The award Radcliffe presented, on August 9, 1947, marked 62,000 square miles of land that was hitherto part of the Punjab to Pakistan. The total population (based on the 1941 census) of this region was 15,800,000 people of whom 11,850,000 were Muslims. Almost a quarter of the population in this territory – West Punjab – were non-Muslims; and the Mountbatten Plan as executed by Sir Radcliffe meant they continued to live as minorities in Pakistan. Similarly, East Punjab that was to be part of India was demarcated to consist of 37,000 square miles of territory with a population of 12,600,000. Of this, 4,375,000 were Muslims. In other words, more than a third of the population in east Punjab would be Muslims.

The demographic composition of the Indian and Pakistani parts of Bengal was no less complicated. West Bengal that remained part of India accounted for an area of 28,000 square miles with a population of 21,200,00 out of which 5,30,000 were Muslims; in other words, Muslims constituted a quarter of the population of the Indian part of the former Bengal province. Sir Radcliffe’s commission marked 49,400 square miles of territory from former Bengal with 39,100,000 people for Pakistan. The Muslim population there, according to the 1941 census, was 27,700,000. In other words, 29 per cent of the population were Hindus. East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in December 1971) was constituted by putting together the eastern part of divided Bengal, Sylhet district of Assam, the district of Khulna in the region and also the Chittagong Hill tracts. Such districts of Bengal as Murshidabad, Malda and Nadia which had a substantially large Muslim population were left to remain in India. The exercise was one without a method.

The re-drawn map of India was left with the two independent governments by the colonial rulers. It was left to the independent governments of India and Pakistan to fix the exact boundaries. However, the understanding was that the religious minorities in both the nations – the Hindus in West and East Pakistan and the Muslims in India, in East Punjab and West Bengal as well as in United Provinces and elsewhere – would continue to live as minorities but as citizens in their nations.

After the partition, there were as many as 42 million Muslims in India and 20 million non-Muslims (Hindus, Sindhis and Sikhs) in Pakistan. The vivisection of India, taking place as it did in the middle of heightened Hindu-Muslim violence, had rendered a smooth transition impossible. Despite the conspicuous exhibition of Hindu–Muslim unity during the RIN mutiny and the INA trials (see previous lesson), the polity now resembled a volcano. Communal riots had become normal in many parts of India, and were most pronounced in the Punjab and Bengal. Minorities on both sides of the divide lived in fear and insecurity even as the two nations were born. That Gandhi, who led the struggle for freedom from the front and whom the colonial rulers found impossible to ignore, stayed far away from New Delhi and observed a fast on August 15, 1947, was symbolic. The partition brought about a system in place where the minorities on either side were beginning to think of relocating to the other side due to fear and insecurity.

As violence spread, police remained mute spectators. This triggered more migration of the minorities from both nations. In the four months between August and November 1947, as many as four-and-a-half million people left West Pakistan to India, reaching towns in East Punjab or Delhi. Meanwhile, five-and-a-half million Muslims left their homes in India (East Punjab, United Provinces and Delhi) to live in Pakistan. A large number of those who left their homes on either side of the newly marked border thought they would return after things normalised; but that was not to be. Similar migration happened between either sides of the new border in Bengal too.


Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,

Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

With their different diets and incompatible gods.

‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It's too late

For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:

The only solution now lies in separation.

The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,

That the less you are seen in his company the better,

So we've arranged to provide you with other accommodation.

We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,

To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day

Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate Of millions.

The maps at his disposal were out of date

And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,

But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect Contested areas.

The weather was frightfully hot,

And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,

A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,

Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

Historian Gyanendra Pandey records 500,000 non-Muslim (Hindus and Sikhs) refugees flowing into the Punjab and Delhi in 1947-48. Pandey also records that several thousand Muslims were forced out of their homes in Delhi and nearby places by violent mobs to seek asylum in camps set up around the Red Fort and the Purana Quila. Refugee camps were set up but they had hardly any sanitation and water supply.

In both countries property left behind by the fleeing families were up for grabs. The long line of refugees walking crossing the borders was called ‘kafila’. The refugees on the march were targets for gangs belonging to the ‘other’ community to wreak vengeance. Trains from either side of the new border in the Punjab were targeted by killer mobs and many of those reached their destination with piles of dead bodies. The violence was of such a scale that those killed the numbers of remains mere estimates. The number ranges between 200,000 to 500,000 people dead and 15 million people displaced.

Even as late as in April 1950, the political leadership of the two nations wished and hoped to restore normality and the return of those who left their homes on either side. On April 8, 1950, Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan signed the Delhi pact, with a view to restoring confidence among the minorities on both sides. This, however, failed to change the ground reality. Even while the pact was signed the Government of India was also working on measures to rehabilitate those who had left West Punjab to the East and to Delhi and render them vocational skills and training. The wounds caused by the partition violence hardly healed even after decades. Scores of literary works stand testimony to the trauma of partition.

The partition posed a bigger challenge before Nehru and the Constituent Assembly, now engaged with drafting the founding and the fundamental law of the nation: to draft a constitution that is secular, democratic and republican as against Pakistan’s decision to become an Islamic Republic.

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