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Identity politics

The painful partition of India

India’s partition in 1947 continues to evoke strong emotions even after seven decades. It resulted from the entrenched identity politics, which has its roots in colonial India and pits Hindus against Muslims. Partition resulted in collective trauma, deepening the faith divide on either side of the border.
Victims of the partition riots in Delhi in August 1947. Victims of the partition riots in Delhi in August 1947.

The crown jewel of the British empire, India, obtained its independence in 1947. The event was fraught with the challenge of partition. The country was divided into two – the Hindu majority India and the Muslim majority Pakistan. The result was bloodshed and lasting trauma.

In 1947, then British Governor General Lord Louis Mountbatten established the boundary commission. Its task was to divide the provinces of Bengal in the east and Punjab in the west. Unlike other subcontinental regions, no religious faith was predominant in these provinces, so defining the new national border became difficult.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, was appointed the chairman of the commission. He was given five weeks to draw the border. He had never been to India, but did manage to travel to some parts of the colonised territory before deciding its future. Radcliffe tried to maintain the homogeneity of religion in the regions. West Punjab became part of Pakistan and east Punjab became part of India. Similarly West Bengal is now Indian, and east Bengal is Bangladesh.

In 1947, Pakistan had an eastern and a western wing, which were divided by the huge landmass of India in between. One generation later, east Pakistan became Bangladesh in a liberation war. Indeed, the Bengali community of east Pakistan had not had much in common with its western counterparts other than religion. In retrospect, it is clear that the idea of a united Pakistan never made much sense.

Utter chaos and violence

The independence of India and Pakistan was announced to be on 15th August and 14th August respectively. However, it was not until the 17th August that the boundaries of the two countries were announced. That was the starting point of utter chaos.

Violence erupted as faith-based communities turned against one another. Hindus and Muslims who had been living together for centuries (though probably not always harmoniously) were suddenly torn apart. Houses were looted and burned, properties were destroyed, women were raped and children were killed. The numbers are not reliable, but historians estimate that 15 million people were displaced and around 2 million people died in the bloodshed.

Hindus fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan. Some men killed their wives and children to spare the humiliation of being raped and abused by men of a different religion. Countless people committed suicide to avoid the horror they anticipated. The atrocities were indeed terrible. In Punjab, trains full of dead bodies were sent across the new border.

Surprised by the new border lines

The crisis was particularly profound because many people were surprised by what side of the border they found themselves on. The Bengali districts of Murshidabad and Malda, for example, were predominantly Muslim, so everyone expected them to become part of Pakistan. Instead, they turned out to be in India, even after some people had already unfurled Pakistani flags. Hindu-dominated Khulna, however, was now Pakistan (and became Bangladesh in 1971).

Radcliffe, the British officer, had only had five weeks to determine the borders. The violence that followed saddened him, as The Hindu, a South-Indian newspaper recollected in 2021, so he burnt his papers, refused his 40,000 rupees fee and left, never to return.

Millions of people were severely traumatised. Many had lost their families and homes. They became refugees who could not go back. Even those who stayed had witnessed murder and rape. In both India and the two wings of Pakistan, the bloodshed contributed to defining the new national identity. To many people, the idea that Hindus and Muslims might live together in peace, as they had for centuries, now looked absurd.

Masses of traumatised people

About 2 million dead and 15 million displaced people may be an unreliable statistic, but it stands for masses of traumatised people who suffered terrible pain which is hard for outsiders to fathom. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical.” Trauma persists and affects people long term, often reducing their capacities to work, support others and deal with the normalcy of daily lives. However, psycho-social support can make a difference, especially if the causes of the trauma are acknowledged by the national public.

Collective trauma impacts not just the individuals but the entire communities and societies. More often than not its impact is felt for a long time to come. Neither in India nor in Pakistan has there been much systematic institutional effort to deal with the tragedy.

The perpetrators of massacres largely enjoyed impunity. Reckless politicians still thrive on mobilising faith communities against one another. As the history of partition is not often discussed in a fact-oriented manner, collective memory is defined by what people of one’s own community say. All too often, people attribute violence only to the other community, overlooking that members of their own faith acted with equal brutality. At the same time, the historical truth is that not everyone took part in the violence – and that neighbours sometimes saved neighbours belonging to the different faith.

Suparna Banerjee is a Frankfurt-based political scientist.

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