Arts & Culture History

Think the partition of India was totally the British Empire’s fault? Think again!

The real roots behind the Partition of India

On 27 February, tensions rose on the Indian Subcontinent after an airstrike exchange between, India and Pakistan. Pakistan admitted shooting down two Indian jet planes crossing its border and capturing two Indian pilots, while, India claimed it took down two planes in the the same “aerial encounter.”

Even though both sides expressed a desire to reduce tension through negotiations, according to The Washington Post, in Pakistan, “a mood of belligerent triumph spread across news stations and online Wednesday. War songs were played, commentators praised the military, and shouts of “God is greatest” could be heard. Images of a burning Indian fighter jet were broadcast repeatedly.”

Many experts worry the escalation could lead to a full-scale nuclear war, as each country owns over a hundred nuclear warheads.

The India Sub-continent has been a hot spot since the separation of Pakistan in 1947. It appears as a threat to the area’s security in general as well as the world’s. But how did the hatred become so intense and where did it stem from? Let’s take a look back in history to find out the root of the cause of the conflict.

The Formation of Pakistan and India

After World War II, Great Britain’s economy was severely devastated and the British soon realized that there was no way that it could sustain such an enormous empire as it had been doing before. After World War II, more and more countries got their independence and the joy finally came to the Indian Subcontinent in 1947. The freedom for the Subcontinent was so wonderful, yet not less bloody and tragic with the partition of India and Pakistan. The division and border of the two new countries was decided based off of the majorities of religions in some provinces, Hindu on the India side and Muslim on the Pakistan side. One country with the same people speaking the same languages, following the same culture, now separated into two nations. Pakistan celebrates their independence on August 14th, India became independent one day later- August 15th. The partition brought along a mass migration and violence came along during the migration. Hindus moved to India where was believed to be the land for them, on the other side, Muslims moved to Pakistan. It’s estimated that anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million casualties happened during the partition with 80,000 raped and abducted, and millions of people displaced, making the incident one of the most tragic migrations in the 20th century.

The British and its impact on the decision of Partition

The British officially began its dominance in the Sub-Continent in 1857 after having presented its influence through “East India Company” since the prior century. After having been horrified by host of rebellions, assassinations, sabotages in 1857-8, the British decided to exploit the existing tension between Hindu and Muslim to break up the unity of the British’s opposition and thus  maintain their power in the region for as long as possible. The British decided to draw a line in the communal electorate which allowed Muslim to vote for their candidates separately from Hindu for Muslim seats in the congress. The British openly favour the Muslim politicians and parties. The idea of a separate land for Muslims was promoted and pushed up even more with the Partition of the Muslim-majority Bengal Province from India. That Partition took place in 1905. The separation are widely believed to weaken Indian nationalism and the idea of an united India as well. It was an implementation of a “divide and conquer” policy.

One year later, 1906, a new Islamic political organization–the Muslim League–was founded, which played like a call for a separate country for Muslims. While the organization initially was founded in order to protect Muslims’ interests and ease the fear of Hindu dominance, the organization also received strong support from the British.

Eventually on 17th August 1947, the bloody, tragic border of India and Pakistan was drawn and announced by Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer and politician. The border was only drawn in two weeks, and the plan for the separation was just prepared in 30 days and by people who had never been to India. The British seemed to provoke hatred, as the move seemed irresponsible and cowardly for abandoning the country so quickly.

Yet, it would be unfair to put all the blame on their heads.

Religious tension had existed within the society throughout centuries before the British’s arrival.

India is one of the oldest civilizations on the Earth. Through thousands of years of history, Hindu and Muslim have rarely seemed to be able to co-exist peacefully. The record of relation between the two religions are filled with mass violence and religious conflicts, riots and animosity. The list of religious conflict began with Muhammad bin Qasim’s dominance on the Subcontinent. He was believed to be the very first Islamic ruler on the Subcontinent and the very first one to spread  Islam widely there. Under his conquest of Sindh, many Hindu temples were torn apart or forced to convert to mosques, many Hindus and Buddhists were forced to convert to Islam, many children and women were raped, and many men were executed. Madmud of Ghazni, who was a Muslim and the first Sultan of history, was famous for his successful military achievements. In the 11th century, he invaded India 17 times, in which he destroyed all the Hindu temples, killed anybody who resisted to convert to Islam, and implemented and spread Islam wherever he ruled. The Sub-continent continued to be dominated by two major Islamic regimes–the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire after that.

Under two reigns, it would be a lie if we say that Hindus didn’t ever live peacefully with Muslims. At least once, for example, under Akbar’s rule in Mughal Empire, they did. Akbar showed a great religious tolerance.

However, conflicts and riots continued. The peak of tension was witnessed under the very last Mughal Empire–the Aurangzeb’s reign. Aurangzeb’s Deccan campaign, was one of  the most murderous, violent atrocities had ever happened in South Asian history. Estimatedly, 4.6 millions Hindus were killed. In the next decades, many conflicts, wars, and riots continuously occurred throughout the subcontinent. In many years of Islamic dominance, there was always undeniable tension between Hindus and Muslims, there was always aggression of Muslims towards Hindus and divisive rules implemented by the Muslims rulers in order to oppress Hindus and spread Islam.

If it weren’t for the inherent conflict of the local people, would the British be able to successfully implement it’s “divide and rule” policy to perpetuate its dominance? In fact, the British were aided by the desires of insiders who wished to have a new land for Muslims.

Partition was led by Indian leaders

The collapse of British Raj was a huge achievement for Indians. The great achievement was accomplished after about 200 years of dominance by the British Empire and is believed to be led by 3 major figures: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mahatma Gandhi. At first, the three supreme leaders followed an idea of a united India regardless of religion, ethnicity or any external factors that separate the Indian nation. Not only did they play a huge role in the movement to an independent India, but they also had a huge impact on the the birth of Pakistan.

The power at the time was in hands of the Muslim League led by  Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru. There has been a huge debate between historians about who really was the real culprit of the bloody partition. The villain in this story heavily depends on personal view. For Jinnah’s supporters, the opposite side, which was the Congress and Gandhi and Nehru, was indeed the main cause and vice versa for the opposed side. Nonetheless, whether the real villain of the bloody partition was Jinnah or Gandhi and Nehru or the Congress, we have to admit it, either side held a certain level of responsibility for the final outcome. The shift in political philosophy of Jinnah stem from the way Gandhi approached an independent India. Jinnah criticized Gandhi for integrating politics with religion, Indian identity with Hinduism. This raised a fear in Jinnah as well as among the Muslim community for its safety after the British dominance in a Hindu-dominant state. According to Foreign Affairs, in 1920, Jinnah stated that “it was a crime to mix up politics and religions the way [Gandhi] had done.” Jinnah left Congress in the same year then later, 1934, became leader of the Muslim League and began his own path on the way to gain independence from the British. Gandhi was described as a Hindu-obsessed leader, whose gestures, language, fashion, and tone was all favourable Hinduism. This made the Muslim minority feel like outsiders, worrying that independence would lead to insecurity. Jinnah believed independence from Great Britain would  just worsen the inherently bad relationship between the two communities and contributed to conflict. After leaving the Congress, his biggest challenge was to unify Muslim leaders in local regions.

While Jinnah initially did not ever want a separate Pakistan until 1940s, when the tension had reached its peak. The first call for a separate nation, promoted by him, came out at the Lahore sessions. At first, The call was indeed opposed by many Congress’s members, however, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Gandhi were believed to be favourable towards partition. Nehru--the president of the congress–and many other congress leaders agreed to let Jinnah get what he wanted. According to the Hindu Business Line, “Through 1930s and 1940s India’s Muslims–even those who never wanted a separate Muslim state–felt a need to have greater governance.” The closer to already known dates of independence of the subcontinent, the more intensive the atmosphere became.


The bloody border of Pakistan was drawn by the British, by the British lawyer. It would be a blatant lie to say that their divisive rule had no impact on the final outcomes of the division. Yet, the internal politics that the British exploited also played a major role in bringing the partition about.  Let’s face it, pre-existing hatred and communal conflict sustained the separation of Pakistan and India.

Images: Wikimedia Common

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