The vast subcontinent of India was the prized jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, but controlling British India was never straightforward. After World War II, the exhausted colonial power faced the inevitability of granting India the independence for which momentum had long been building, led by charismatic leaders like the Hindu Mohandas Gandhi and Muslim Allama Mashriqi. Both wanted to replace the British Raj with a united India where Hinduism and Islam could co-exist peacefully, but influential leaders on both sides disagreed and whipped up tension.
The Hindu-majority Indian National Congress led the independence movement. It had many Muslim members despite formation of the breakaway All India Muslim League in 1906, which felt the Muslim minority was unfairly treated within Congress. By the late 1930s there were calls for a separate Muslim state. By 1946, when independence was imminent, friction between the two religious groups reached boiling point. Fearful of a post-independence bloodbath, Britain decided to create Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan (consisting of the geographically separate West and East Pakistan). It was a fateful political decision, with dire consequences for hundreds of millions of human lives.
Partition was overseen by the last British Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and took place in August 1947. There is still argument as to the long-term merit of a one-state federal solution following independence, but it is generally agreed that Britain was so eager to be rid of its troublesome colonial dominion that it rushed Partition. Final boundaries of the new nations were not even agreed, leading to tension between India and Pakistan that lasts to this day. Around 14 million people were displaced, moving to their respective religious homelands and creating an intractable refugee problem. Racial violence during this mass migration was endemic, costing countless lives. It was not Imperial Britain’s finest hour.
When: August 14-15 1947
Where: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh
Death toll: It is estimated that Partition cost between 300,000 and 1,000,000 lives, while the tense aftermath would include four wars between the uneasy neighbors over disputed territory. To this day Kashmir is still a running sore between India and Pakistan.
You should know: M K ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi was murdered shortly after Partition by an assassin who reflected the widely held Hindu view that the Congress Party had treated Muslims too fairly – allowing Pakistan to be exclusively created for Muslims with their rights enshrined in law, while India itself remained a country where Hindus and the remaining Muslim minority enjoyed equal rights.