Two million people — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs — died in the carnage. Fifteen million left their ancestral homes, uprooted by hate ignited by misrepresentations and misinterpretations of faith, to seek new abodes in lands they had never been to before.

Seventy years after the violent division of India, the ramifications are yet being felt. The division would lead to a second vivisection twenty four years into partition when the Bengalis of Pakistan, deprived of democratic rights in the country’s political structure and victims of genocide initiated by Pakistan’s army, would through a guerrilla war establish the free republic of Bangladesh.

It was a quixotic, wrenching break-up of a country that Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe brought about in August 1947. There is little question that the last colonial viceroy was a man in a hurry, guided more by thoughts of his place in history than in the ramifications of the partition of India. And Radcliffe, having never before set foot in the subcontinent, found it convenient to be ensconced in a room and slice through regions in the Punjab and Bengal he thought should fall to India or Pakistan, as the case might be. The results were horrendous. Villages were ruptured and even homes lay in pieces, with part in one country and part in another. Just how uncertain and fraught with risks independence would turn out to be was made palpable in August when the Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, happy in the belief that they were not to be part of Muslim Pakistan, hoisted the Indian tricolour. They would be in for a rude shock. Only hours later, they would find themselves herded into Pakistan. Their sufferings had only begun.

In her seminal work, The Great Partition, it is a long tale of woe that Yasmin Khan weaves in her narration of the incidents and events that led to the vivisection of India in 1947. The difference between her story and those of others who preceded her in recounting the story is largely in Khan’s bringing into focus the human dimensions of the tragedy that came in the wake of partition. Amazingly, almost unbelievably, none of the politicians involved in the gathering crisis — Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah — appeared to have been aware of the horrible consequences that would befall Hindus as well as Muslims all across the country once partition came to pass.

Left to Right: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Ismay, adviser to Mountbatten, Lord Mountbatten, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The height of irony was reached once the 3 June plan was made public by Lord Mountbatten. He conceded Pakistan, but even at that late point not many among the followers of the Muslim League were sure what the geographical dimensions of the new state would be. Worse, it clearly did not occur to anyone that Bengal and the Punjab would go through the trauma of division even as the British colonial power prepared to depart. Yasmin Khan’s research, thorough in that forensic sense of the meaning, depicts some of the stranger aspects of the oncoming tragedy. Many among the Muslim elite thought, in bizarre manner, that Delhi would form part of Pakistan and were curiously shocked when it ended up being part of independent India. Again, there were the dreamers who advocated the idea that small pockets of Pakistan, apart from the larger geographical framework of the new country, be given shape in areas within free India where Muslims outnumbered the Hindu population.

In the weeks and months preceding partition, therefore, ideas that had the tinge of hollowness about them flew freely about. And then came the murder and the mayhem that would undermine the entire basis of decolonisation in the subcontinent. Of course, there was the very living instance of the Great Calcutta Killings of August 1946 that should have prepared both Congress and League politicians for the eventual division of the land. In 1946, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, having helped to unleash communal fury in Bengal through falling for Jinnah’s Direct Action Day plan, was unable to or would not contain the violence until an unimaginably horrific four days would go by. By then, thousands of Hindus and Muslims, anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000, would lie dead, their corpses rotting all over the city.

In August 1947, only days into the creation of Pakistan, it was simply the macabre that took over. Trainloads of refugees, Hindus and Sikhs making their way to India and Muslims going over to Pakistan, moved in daylight and in the eerie darkness of the nocturnal hours. It was limp, stiff, dead human bodies on grim moving, ghost-like trains that arrived at their destinations. There were those uprooted thousands who made the journey to their preferred new countries on foot. Many were murdered, their women were abducted, raped and the bodies then thrown into streams and rivers. It happened both ways. Hindus and Muslims, inhabiting villages as a single, unified community for as long as anyone could remember, suddenly began to ignore one another. Many of them quickly fell to insulting and even murdering one another.

Small wonder then that Jawaharlal Nehru, visiting a Haridwar camp providing sanctuary to refugees, confronted first hand the desperation of men and women who had left their ancestral homes in the fire and fury of communalism. As he tried being philosophical over the trauma with the crowd, a young man landed a hard slap on his face. ‘Give my mother back to me’, he screamed. ‘Bring my sisters to me!’ It was symbolic of the human suffering ravaging the entirety of the subcontinent. Indeed, the thought that India would stand sliced in two exercised minds even in 1945. In that year, the president of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema savaged Jinnah through using a pun on the honorific ‘Quaid-e-Azam’. He called him ‘Kafir-e-Azam’.

As partition approached and then came to pass, it was not merely the general body of citizens but important men as well who found themselves pushed to extremities of pain. Zakir Husain, a future president of India, nearly lost his life at the hands of a Hindu mob at Ambala railway station. The brother of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, a prominent Congress politician, was stabbed to death. The daughter of Ghulam Muhammad, a future governor general of Pakistan, was abducted. In that all-enveloping tragedy, the American journalist Phillips Talbot could not fail noticing the exhaustion writ large on the faces of India’s politicians, in the Congress as well as the Muslim League. They looked tired, all of them. Jinnah appeared haggard. And Nehru was endlessly giving vent to sudden, inexplicable bursts of temper.

As the countdown to independence approached, a shell-shocked Gandhi decided to sit out the celebrations. Alone among the country’s pre-eminent politicians, he comprehended fully the dimensions of the oncoming tragedy. Jinnah, taken aback by the scale of the killings, nevertheless went on the airwaves to speak of ‘a supreme moment’ and of ‘a fulfillment of the destiny of the Muslim nation.’ Hours later, a worried Nehru tried sounding optimistic when he spoke of free India’s ‘tryst with destiny’.

As 1947 drew to an end, three million refugees found themselves inhabiting camps in India and Pakistan, in all manner of discomfort and squalor. Across the old subcontinent, men and women continued to die because of their gods and their faiths.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a columnist.

14 Responses to “1947 Partition remains a horror story”

  1. Arshadullah

    In my views, the article belittles the sacrifices the crores of Muslims and Hindus alike who had to flee to their respective new countries. Moreover, an attempt has also been made to undermine the Muslim League leader Mr Jinnah, and the then East Bengal ML leader Mr Suhrawardy and the then young ML student leader, Mr Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who remained disappointed in Calcutta not being included in the new nation, East Pakistan per proposal of the cabinet mission.

  2. Khan

    The Bengalis were the first and the pioneer of the ideology of Pakistan. They have expressed their idea in the beginning of the 19th century that they want East (Muslim) and West Bengal (Hindu) and it was created for a couple of years. We heard about the andolan against the Hindu Landlords by various Bengali leaders. The Bengalis were the people who has the grievances first and it was in 1946 massacre of Bengali Muslims in East Bengal. So they created Muslim league in East Bengal and Pakistan movement came to rescue these Bengalis through the ideology of Pakistan.

    But still this is a question why the leaders did not realise that there were century old hatred between the communities and this will create a human disaster; nor the British realised that. The hate was not instant it was breeding in minds in Bengalis and Punjabis for centuries and the rest of India. Still today the deep-rooted hatred is used by politicians and sane minds should give intellectual solutions to the problem.

    • Hossain

      Can you get your facts correct, the Ideology of Pakistan came from Pakistan, East Bengal was not even meant to be in Pakistan, the grievances started in your Punjab first then in East Bengal. However, you are correct that Muslim League and Indian National Congress Birth were both from an United Bengal, both the Leaders were from Your Neighbour now Gujarat located just beneath Pakistan, Jinnah and Ghandi were all from West India at the time.
      However, we had a higher population then you, without our Muslim Vote Banks Pakistan wouldn’t be a Pakistan today, it was your Pakistan that was calling for a segregated state from India. Please google how the name Pakistan came about, it was certainly not from the East Bengali Population, it was from Zamidar Pakistan Population: He is credited with creating the name “Pakistan” for a separate Muslim homeland in South Asia and is generally known as the founder of the movement for its creation. He is best known as the author of a famous 1933 pamphlet titled “Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish Forever”, also known as the Pakistan Declaration. The pamphlet started with a famous statement:
      “At this solemn hour in the history of India, when British and Indian statesmen are laying the foundations of a Federal Constitution for that land, we address this appeal to you, in the name of our common heritage, on behalf of our thirty million Muslim brethren who live in PAKISTAN”. The name of the country was coined in 1933 as Pakstan by Choudhry Rahmat Ali, a Pakistan Movement activist, who published it in his pamphlet ‘Now or Never’, using it as an acronym (“thirty million Muslim brethren who live in PAKSTAN”) referring to the names of the five northern regions of the British Raj: Punjab, on 28 January 1933, Ali voiced the idea in a pamphlet titled “Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish Forever?”.
      The word ‘Pakstan’ referred to “the five Northern units of India, viz. : Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afghan Province), Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan””.[8][9] By the end of 1933, ‘Pakistan’ had become common vocabulary, and an ‘i’ was added to ease pronunciation (as in Afghan-i-stan).
      “PunjubKashmirSindbaluchiSTAN” = PAKSTAN, Please Tell us where was “East Bengal” in the list of Provinces that were meant to make up the Name “PAKSTAN”?

  3. Md. Mohiuddin Khan

    Jinnah appeared haggard. And Nehru was endlessly giving vent to sudden, inexplicable bursts of temper.
    I just wonder where were the other politicians of Indian Subcontinent at that time?

  4. gmbadal

    Without the mention of carnage of Muslims in Patna and its repercussion in Noakhali with Hindus creating distrust in Congress and kicking off the popularity for the need of separate Muslim state would be considered incomplete for playing role of partition.

  5. M. Emad

    The first attack (1947 riots) happened against the minority Sikh community in Punjab’s Rawalpindi region — a ‘miscalculation’ by the organisers! Then non-Muslim groups retaliated and violence quickly spread in East-Punjab, UP and many parts of British India.

  6. Akhteruzzaman Chowdhury

    The writer who dwells mostly in 1971 has moved backwards to 1947 and has written a good article. It seems from the number of comments that partition of 1947 is a very popular subject in Bangladesh. I think that basically the fear of Muslims keeps India united. Otherwise, there is a big difference between a Sikh, an Assamese and a Tamil.

  7. Zia Ahad

    In retrospect, the British colonialists appear to have ensured that chaos follows their departure from their former colonies. Their policy of ‘divide and rule’ encouraged ethnic and religious groups to turn on their own — allowing the Brits to escape unscathed. To this day, the extremists in both India and Pakistan view each other as implacable enemies, notwithstanding their peaceful coexistence for centuries prior to British colonial rule. Small wonder that religious fanatics should ascend to power today in ‘secular’ India!

    • Sumit Mazumdar

      To Akhteruzzaman Chowdhury:
      This is the first time I hear that “ the fear of Muslims keeps India united”. I suspect that the origin of this strange statement is another sentiment often expressed in the internet – there was no India before the British.
      With the exception of some of the states of the far northeast, the concept of India (Bharat) as a nation had existed already at the time of the Mauryas and Emperor Ashoka. India at that time extended through today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan and bordered with the Safavid Empire of Iran. Takshashila existed as a University.
      The Mahabharata, whose stories are shared by all Hindus, goes back even further, to 1500 – 900 BCE. Much later, from Akbar to Aurungzeb’s period, the India that existed is by and large today’s India sans Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of southern Afghanistan. Thus the concept of India, in spite of “Sikhs being different from Assamese” had always existed in the minds of the people. They did not need the “fear of Muslims” for that.
      Yes, there have always been the terrible caste system and oppression of minorities, but that is different.

  8. Sumit Mazumdar

    I am an admirer of Syed Badrul Ahsan and read all his columns faithfully. I have learnt a lot from his columns.
    I will claim however, that this article, like all articles on Partition, miss a crucial aspect of the consequence of Partition: the continuous departures of Hindu Bengalis from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, subsequent to 1947.
    Most articles and books on Partition focus on 1947 and Punjab because of the large scale slaughter in the northwest. The photograph that accompanies this article also shows refugees crossing the northwestern border. In 1947, the cruelty on both sides was extreme, and to the best of my knowledge people of both faiths suffered equally.
    However, the population exchange in the east was not 100%. While Bengali Muslims probably left India through the 1950s, further departures from India of Muslims stopped. This has not been true for Hindus from East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. If one believes Wikipedia, percentage of Hindus went down from about 20% in 1950 to 8-9 % today. Largely because politically connected crafty people used the Enemy Properties Act to grab Hindu property. Sadly, this continued in independent Bangladesh, when the Enemy Properties Act was merely renamed as the Vested Properties Act.

    The above is not to claim that Bengali Muslims have fared well in West Bengal — they have not. Poverty is greater among Muslims statistically, largely because politicians have used them as vote banks. But by and large Muslims are integrated in the society and have not felt the need to migrate.

  9. golam arshad

    It is an irony and a deep tragedy that Hindus could not unite! Jinnah, Nehru never could accept each other hold of leadership, uniting Hindus and Muslims; rather both these leaders, never supported for a united India. That is the tragedy of historical error in breaking up of India. Is there any leader now to common economic market a common currency like euro? We in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, can we have a mutual understanding to enhance the potentials we have, to become a dynamic of economic power in the region!

  10. Anwar A. Khan

    A very good analysis of the partition of India that led to revulsion among the Muslims and Hindus that left an apogee of civil war.

    Hindus living for generations in what was to become Pakistan had to flee their homes overnight. At the same time, millions of Muslims abandoned their homes to cross the border into Pakistan. Months of violence preceded the partition announcement, often whipped up by politicians or various religious and political groups jockeying for power. In the chaotic days and months following the August independence of India and Pakistan, violence also multiplied as religious sentiment intensified and there was little in the way of police or military to maintain order.

    Often, this means listening to extremely personal stories of murder, rape and shattered families. They squirm me to the core when I read that tragedy. I knew riots had happened, and unspeakable scale of the savagery happened as I was a student of History. I remember a childhood where Hindus and Muslims lived together amicably, but the realisation that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry . . . slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.”

    Today, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition, as politicians (particularly in India) and the military (particularly in Pakistan) continue to stoke the hatreds of 1947 for their own ends. I may point out that the rivalry between India and Pakistan is getting more, rather than less, dangerous: the two countries’ nuclear arsenals are growing, militant groups are becoming more capable, and rabid media outlets on both sides are shrinking the scope for moderate voices.

    The type of understanding transforms the 1947 violence into a phenomenon that cannot be rationally explained. It also becomes an unequal occurrence that does not repay comparative analysis. Partition marked a massive and bloody upheaval. The 1947 tragedy has yet to come to an end. The columnist’s analytic thinking deserves approval from the readers like us.

  11. Dr A Rahman

    1947 partition of India on religious grounds was pure evil and barbaric, I think. That barbarity, on a somewhat reduced scale, is still going on in Bangladesh-India-Pakistan.
    A couple of days ago, the BBC showed a documentary on the partition of India highlighting the trauma of common people, particularly when they were caught on the wrong side of the divide.
    One Hindu man, a medical doctor by the name Bhoumik, and his family — wife, his mother and one seven year old boy and a four year old girl — used to live in a village in Noakhali, Bangladesh. They had to flee from their home at the middle of night when rioters attacked their village and ran to the nearby paddy field for fear of their lives. Without food and water, they spent the night and the following day and then they managed to hire a boat the following night to take them to the border. The Muslim boatman and his 12 year-old son saved their lives by saying to the attacking rioters that they were carrying Muslim family. Bhoumik’s granddaughter, now 35 (son’s daughter), a medical consultant in Britain, went to Noakhali and traced that 12 year old boatboy (now 82 years old), hugged him and wept holding him that because of him her father was not killed and she is on this earth now. The old man also wept and started requesting her to come back to her own village! The rest of the villagers were all traumatised by that barbarity.
    Why do people become pure animals for their Gods and Allah?

  12. Asrar Chowdhury

    Another great piece from the story-teller of history, Mr Syed Badrul Ahsan. If I may, I would like to add a dimension, which historians have almost always overlooked in their discourse on the partition of British India. On the surface, the division was on the basis of religion: a land for the Hindus, and a land for the Muslims. What goes unnoticed, the partition was a partition of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East, cradles of two worldly and ancient civilizations (Indus and Ganges). Strategically that would have been the best way to prevent South Asia from standing on its feet after the British left.


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