Partition of India

It was one of the most dunderheaded moves in an imperial history chockfull with them: the partition of India. Its population distribution was such that there was no line that could neatly divide up the subcontinent. Yet, a boundary commission was given mere six weeks to carve a Muslim-majority state from British India, and two Pakistans were formed. More ridiculous still, the commission was led by a British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe who had never been in the East before.

Indeed he was chosen because he knew nothing about India and therefore absolutely unbiased. Inexperienced and time-crunched, Radcliffe just drew some lines on the map without realizing that his demarcation line went straight through thickly populated areas, villages and sometimes even through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other. His error was pointed out by the commission but the scheduled independence day was looming and it was too late to redo the entire thing. Disgraced, Radcliffe refused his salary, quietly destroyed all his papers and left India on the Independence Day itself, before even the boundary awards were distributed. W.H. Auden later pilloried the absurdity of the way he crafted the border in Partition.

The immediate consequences of the partition were horrendous for both countries. Although in retrospect, there probably was nothing the commission could have done. Once the Moslems and the Hindus decided to part their ways, even the most carefully crafted border would have provoked the massive exoduses. But the hurried and indifferent nature of the partition meant the ethnic cleansing that followed was unavoidable.

In India during the Partition were two of the last century’s greatest photojournalists: Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson — both there to document Gandhi, Cartier-Bresson just a few hours before Gandhi assassination. Above, Bourke-White recorded streets littered with corpses, dead victims with open eyes, and refugees with vacant eyes. The partition was “massive exercise in human misery,” later reflected Bourke-White. Self-proclaimed Indophile, Cartier-Bresson later arrived a little later, documented the new way of life, from the fattened maharajahs at the top to those in refuge camps after the partition at the bottom. (below)

6 thoughts on “Partition of India

  1. I’m a bit rusty in this area of British history, but I don’t think the British wanted to partition India: it was done so at the insistence of the locals.

  2. The British actively played the minority Muslims against the majority Hindus as a tactic against the Indian independence movement. Left alone, the partition may never have happened.

    The vulture photo of Bourke-White looks awful (or awesome). Despite being from India, when I come to think of it, I have seen very few photos of the horrors of partition. Cartier-Bresson was always about the photos of New Delhi around the independence day and Gandhi’s death, and Bourke-White only that Gandhi photo.

    The Bourke-White Gandhi hasn’t been featured yet, I guess. It has a bit of story around it too.

  3. -1-

    ‘The Great Partition’ by Yasmin Khan. Yasmin Khan has been described as having been born in London and educated at Oxford. She has links to both India and Pakistan and has lived in Delhi. Previously a history lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, she currently holds a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship and teaches politics in the Faculty of History and Social Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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    Mohtarima Yasmin Khan, assalaamualaykum,

    I read your book ‘The Great Partition’. I was absorbed in it. Throughout this book it appears that it is a narration by a person who has been through the process of partition and has endured the rigours of the vicious ethnic cleansing that descended upon the sub-continent at that time. It is because I am one of those unfortunate people. In photograph No.16 if you can spot a 13-year old boy standing on the ground and looking up the train that is me!! The seven-hour train journey from Ambala to Wagah spread over four days and my mother had been so badly injured that she could die any moment. My mother breathed her last after a few days crossing into Pakistan and was buried in Lahore. People who died in the journey were thrown away to wild animals and we saw our nears and nears being ripped apart by the beasts of prey. Of course this happened on both sides. Muslims in Pakistan were not far behind their Hindu-Sikh counterparts in looting, raping and abductions which I personally found out about a year later in Pakistan.

    However, the purpose of this e-mail is to bring to your attention something I noted with dismay in your book. And that is that the book appears to have been written sitting in India and does therefore appear heavily slanted against Pakistan and Jinnah. It has not been mentioned in the book that it was the Muslim League who had first approved the Cabinet Mission Plan to keep India united. Although you have quoted from Abul Kalam Azad’s ‘India Wins Freedom’. But, sadly what you have not quoted are the passages that show quite vividly what precipitated the partition of India and that the Indian National Congress leadership sacrificed the unity of India over the false prestige of the President of Indian National Congress, i.e. Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru. And Indian National Congress made Jinnah and the Muslim League the scapegoat of their failures. I give below the relevant passages from ‘India Wins Freedom’.

    Abul Kalam Azad giving account of the A.I.C.C.’s passing the resolution to approve the Cabinet Mission Plan, says:

    “My speech had a decisive influence on the audience. When the vote was taken the resolution was passed with an overwhelming majority, thus the seal of approval was put on the Working Committee’s resolution accepting the Cabinet Mission Plan.

    After a few days, I received telegrams of congratulation from Lord Pethick Lawrence and Sir Stafford Cripps. They were happy that the A.I.C.C. had accepted my resolution and congratulated me on my able presentation of the Cabinet Mission Plan.

    “Now happened one of those unfortunate events which changed the course of history. On 10 July, Jawaharlal held a Press Conference in Bombay in which he made a statement which in normal circumstances might have passed almost unnoticed, but in the existing atmosphere of suspicion and hatred, set in train a most unfortunate series of consequences. Some Press representatives asked him whether with the passing of the Resolution by A.I.C.C., the Congress had accepted the Plan in toto, including the composition of the interim Government.

    “Jawaharlal stated in reply that Congress would enter the Constituent Assembly ‘completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise.’ (inverted comas of the author)

    “Press representatives further asked if this meant that the Cabinet Mission Plan could be modified.

    “Jawaharlal replied emphatically that the Congress had agreed only to participate in the Constituent Assembly and regarded itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best.

    “I must place on record that Jawaharlal’s statement was wrong. It was not correct to say that Congress was free to modify the Plan as it pleased. We had in fact agreed that the Central Government would be federal. There would be the compulsory list of three Central subjects while all other subjects remained in the provincial sphere. We had further agreed that there would be the three Sections, viz. A, B and C in which the provinces would be grouped. These matters could not be changed unilaterally by Congress without the consent of other parties to the agreement.


    “The Muslim League had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan, as this represented the utmost limit to which the British Government would go. In his speech to the League Council, Mr. Jinnah had clearly stated that he recommended acceptance only because nothing better could be obtained.

    “Mr. Jinnah was thus not very happy about the outcome of the negotiations, but he had reconciled himself as there was no alternative. Jawaharlal’s statement came to him as a bombshell. ………………………………………………………………….

    ………………………………………………………………………… Now that the Congress President had declared that the Congress could change the scheme through its majority in the Constituent Assembly, this would mean that the minorities were placed at the mercy of the majority. His view was that Jawaharlal’s declaration meant that the Congress had rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan and as such the Viceroy should call upon the Muslim league, which had accepted the Plan, to form the Government.

    “I was extremely perturbed by this new development. I saw that the scheme for which I had worked so hard was being destroyed through our own action. I felt that a meeting of the Working Committee must be held immediately to review the situation. The Working Committee accordingly met on 8 August. I pointed out that if we wanted to save the situation, we must make it clear that the view of the Congress was expressed by the resolution passed by the A.I.C.C. and that no individual, not even the Congress President, could change it.

    The Working Committee felt that it faced a dilemma. On the one side, the prestige of the Congress President was at stake. On the other, the settlement which we had so painfully achieved was in danger. To repudiate the President’s statement would weaken the organization but to give up the Cabinet Mission Plan would ruin the country. Finally, we drafted a Resolution which made no reference to the Press Conference but reaffirmed the decision of the A.I.C.C. in the following terms:

    The Working Committee regret to note that the Council of the All-India Muslim League, reversing their previous decision, had decided not to participate in the Constituent Assembly. In this period of rapid transition from dependence on a foreign power to full independence, when vast and intricate political and economic problems have to be faced and solved, the largest measure of co-operation among the people of India and their representatives is called for, so that the change-over should be smooth and to the advantage of all concerned. The Committee realise that there are differences in the outlook and objectives of the Congress and the Muslim League. Nevertheless, in the larger interest of the ……………………………………………………………………………..

    “We had hoped that this Resolution of the Working Committee would save the situation …………………………………… .. ………………………………………….. Mr. Jinnah did not however accept the position and held that Jawaharlal’s statement represented the real mind of Congress. He argued that if Congress could change so many times, while the British were still in the country and power had not come to its hands, what assurance could the minorities have that once the British left, Congress would not again change and go back to the position taken up in Jawaharlal’s statement?

    “His Excellency the Viceroy, with the approval of His Majesty’s Government, has invited the President of the Congress to take proposals for the immediate formation of an interim Government and the President of the Congress has accepted the invitation. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru will shortly visit New Delhi to discuss this proposal with His Excellency the Viceroy.”

    A few passages further, Abul Kalam Azad says:

    “Jawaharlal is one of my dearest friends and his contribution to India’s national life is second to none. He has worked and suffered for Indian freedom, and since the attainment of independence, he has become the symbol of our national unity and progress. I have nevertheless to say with regret that he is at times apt to be carried away by his feelings. Not only so, but sometimes he is so impressed by theoretical considerations that he is apt to underestimate the realities of a situation.

    “His fondness for abstract theory was responsible for his statement about the Constituent Assembly. The same theoretical bias led him to commit a similar mistake in 1937, when the first elections were held under the Government of India act, 1935. ” (this is about forming the Government of U.P. and Nehru’s refusal to include both Nawab Ismail Khan and Choudhari Khaliquzzaman in the U.P. Government – my words) “Jawaharlal’s mistake in 1937 had been bad enough. The mistake in 1946 proved even more costly.”


    My comments: Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy, had earlier declared that whichever party first accepted the plan, would be invited to form the Interim Government. That gutless Viceroy went back on his promise and did not invite Jinnah to form the Interim Government. And in blatant deceit instead invited the President of the Congress, whose catalogue of mistakes had ruined the unity of India, to form the Interim Government.

    I repeat one passage quoted above”

    “The Working Committee felt that it faced a dilemma. On the one side, the prestige of the Congress President was at stake. On the other, the settlement which we had so painfully achieved was in danger. To repudiate the President’s statement would weaken the organization but to give up the Cabinet Mission Plan would ruin the country. Finally, we drafted a Resolution which made no reference to the Press Conference but reaffirmed the decision of the A.I.C.C. in the following terms:

    The gutless, supine and myopic leadership of the Indian National Congress could not see woods from the trees and, in all lunacy, went on to pass a resolution which begins unashamedly by shoving all the blame on the Muslim League. They were so blinded by their selfish interest that they could not see the impending catastrophe by not calling a spade a spade and completely omitted even the mention of the bone of contention, the notorious 10 July Nehru Press Conference. The imbecile leadership of Indian National Congress came out in full force to cover up the Himalayan blunder of Nehru rather than rectifying it, which blunder according to Azad changed the course of history of India,. What a farce! What a farce!! It is not Jinnah who brought about the partition of India; it is the duo of the gutless, spineless, unashmed Jawaharlal Nehru and self-righteous, self-opinionated, egoistic Lord Mountbatten who brought the partition and the destruction upon India. These two stupid demagogues, Nehru and Mountbatten, preferred the ruination of the country over the false prestige of the Congress President. Mr. Jinnah at all times bent over backwards to keep India united. Jinnah concluded the Lucknow Pact I, which was destroyed by Motilal Nehru, the father of Jawaharlal, then again Mr. Jinnah concluded Lucknow Pact II, which was destroyed by Jawaharlal Nehru, then in 1937 Mr. Jinnah threw his weight behind fighting for the independence together with Indian National Congress by way of joining the government in U.P. which was spurned by Jawaharlal Nehru, as recorded by Maulana Azad, and then the1946 disastrous blunder committed by Jawaharlal Nehru.

    The display of lunacy did not stop here. Lord Mountbatten, in utter insanity, called upon Jawaharlal Nehru to form the Interim Government of India. And then all those lunatics, Congress leadership, Mountbatten and all, went on to blame Mr. Jinnah for the partition. What a hypocrisy! What a hypocrisy!!

    Honesty is the best policy. Honesty demands that the balance be restored and the truth borne out. I am not a fan of Jinnah but I can say it on my life that Jinnah has been honest every single moment of his life. No power on earth could move him away from truth and he would not entertain an expediency that contained a minutest deviation from truth. His self-interest has always been to uphold the truth at all times under all circumstances. Mr. Jinnah was always immaculately dressed. So was his conscience: always immaculately clean of bias, prejudice and falsehood. Whatever he did or said was always clear, manifest and self-evident. And that was also the hall-mark of his legal practice.

    To blame Mr. Jinnah for the partition and all the destruction that came in its wake is grossly unjust, false and the ugliest dishonesty of history.

    History should record it. And I note it with utter disgust and dismay that an historian of your stature should choose to omit to record this heinous crime in history committed by the Indian National Congress under the overall lordship of Lord Mountbatten. It does not behove an historian of your stature to leave it out for a moment and I hope you would take immediate steps to redress this imbalance and put the record straight.

    Wassalaam, Anwar Ahmad Ansari, Harrow, Middlesex, England.

  4. it was a greatest mistake of partitioning India nd Pakistan, when we read through the articles related partition, tears fill in, this decision was like thulaq’s decision of changing the capital. The leaders who wanted the partition should have thought about the consequences,,,,,,

  5. I appreciate that these pictures were made available here, but the historical perspective is really lacking. If you want a really rich, deeply accurate historical account based on thorough research (including interviews with many of the principle leaders that were involved), read Freedom at Midnight.

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