The push for Indian independence quickly gained momentum following World War II; alongside demands for independence from Great Britain was a second movement to create a separate state for Muslims. The All India Muslim League felt that as minorities in a Hindu majority India, Muslim interests would not be represented in independent India. Leaders in Hindu and Muslim political organizations, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (both staunch secularists) advocated the idea that Hindu and Muslims formed two separate nations. Setting aside the question of other minorities within British India, this idea gained saliency with the British.
As India moved towards partition on the basis of religion, communal riots broke out between civilian Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. This was further aggravated by the involvement of private armies with communal agendas, such as the Muslim League National Guard (associated with the Muslim League) and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (a voluntary Hindu nationalist group), who instigated violence and persecution of other religious communities. Violence was not only caused by partition, but its occurrence was used as a rationale for partition in the first place. Leaders who advocated partition had an interest in the escalation of violence in 1946 and 1947.[i]
For advocates of partition, communal violence was a rational solution to the problem of establishing and consolidating control over a political base organized by communal identity. Further, communal violence helped create localized majorities in some cases. By pushing others out and concentrating a population–ethnic cleansing–facts on the ground impacted the decision of where to draw the line during partition. This is not to say that the violence was tightly managed, the scale of violence also caught authorities and communal leaders off guard, as local authority broke down, other agendas, personal and criminal, rose to the surface.
The violence began in Calcutta, Bengal, on August 16, 1946. Muslim League leaders declared this a “Direct Action Day,” calling for a Muslim homeland, and Muslim crowds took these instructions to include violence against Hindu. The following day, Hindu responded in kind, by attacking Muslims. By some accounts, 4,000 people—both Muslim and Hindu–were killed in Calcutta. Violence also spread to Bihar and beyond.
Violence subsequently receded, but then peaked again in March 1947, this time in Punjab. Punjab and Bengal were the provinces most affected by the debates about partition, as both would be divided under the final partition plan. As long as there was uncertainty about where the lines would be drawn, violence was a tool that leaders could deploy to help push decisions and facts on the ground in the direction they desired. Punjab was more complicated because it involved not only the Muslim and Hindu communities, but also the Sikh. Sikh leaders sought to maintain the entirety of their population in the same country, and provoked violence in order to establish their majority status in a concentrated area.[ii]
On June 3, 1947, British Lord Mountbatten announced the Partition Plan, triggering unprecedented acts of communal violence, especially in Bengal and Punjab. Communal riots began in Lahore, Amritsar, Delhi, and Calcutta. Crowds set upon convoys of people fleeing on foot and on trains as Muslims from Amritsar fled to Pakistan, and non-Muslims (Hindu and Sikh) fled from Lahore to India, with the violence climaxing between August 13 and 19. The exact layout of the international border that was to divide Punjab between India and Pakistan was still not known at the time of Independence. It was only on August 16, 1947, that the Punjab Boundary Award was finally made public. This further aggravated the communal violence. During the following months until October 1947, the province of Punjab was the scene of numerous mass killings between Hindus and Sikhs on the one side, and Muslims on the other side.
Not everywhere was partition equally violent. As Haque argues: “In the western part of the subcontinent, Punjab, the population movements during 1947-1951 were primarily prompted by violent riots, killings, abductions, tortures and other atrocities.”[iii] In the east, Bengal, the migration movements were more gradual and voluntary, increasing following riots in 1964 and again in 1971 during the war between East and West Pakistan that ended with the independence of the east as Bangladesh.
While leaders stoked violence, civilians joined them both in spontaneous and organized attacks. The police played a communalized role and remained inactive and although the State did not play an active role in the violence, there was no real attempt to stop the riots either. British colonial authorities failed to anticipate that partition would result in widespread violence, were in a hurry to leave, and did not take measures to stop the atrocities. The scale and suddenness of the violence overwhelmed and incapacitated the state, such that in addition to communal violence, many also used this as an opportunity to kill others that they had personal vendettas against or who were motivated by greed, with no communal agenda.
The killing and violence was mostly collective and retributive, with huge crowds carrying out raids on villages and train stations, abductions, loot, arson, derailment of trains, and stabbing of the passengers, castration, mutilation and rape. Sexual violence against women was used as a mode of dishonoring targeted communities.
An unprecedented human migration occurred, some of it voluntary, some of it prompted by fear and violence. Estimates suggest that between 10 and 12 million people crossed the border between Pakistan and India in 1947 alone.[iv]
The Pakistani government put forward the number of 1 million Muslims killed. The Indian government, while it minimized violence at the time, later suggested a rule of 10% of the total displaced population was killed, which is how the commonly cited number of “at least 1 million” is arrived at.[v]
Researchers have suggested a lower range, which varies from 200,000 to 1.5 million. The current consensus figure is 500,000, but Brass notes that the true figure is most likely to be within the range of 200,000-360,000. This is close to the estimates given by Corruccini and Kaul, as well as Hodson’s 1969 work. Hodson writes:
…there was no effective civil authority to report widespread deaths; with the vast refugee movements, local records were destroyed or rendered useless. The figure of a million was popularly bandied about. The truth was probably around 200,000 men, women, and children, a terrible enough total, even seen against India’s 400 million.[vi]
Emigration continued over subsequent years. Pakistan’s population Muslim population rose from 79% in 1941 to 97% in 1951. In East Pakistan (Bangladesh), migration of Hindu changed the population from 71% Muslim in 1941, to 75% in 1951, and 80% by 1961.[vii]
Baixas, Lionel. 2008. Thematic Chronology of Mass Violence in Pakistan, 1947-2007, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 24 June 2008, accessed 29 November 2012, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Thematic-Chronology-of-Mass-Violence-in-Pakistan-1947-2007, ISSN 1961-9898
Brass, Paul R. 2003. “The partition of India and retributive genocide in the Punjab 1946 – 7: means, methods and purposes,” Journal of Genocide Research 5:1, 71 – 101
Corruccini, Robert S. and Samvit S. Kaul. 1990. Halla: Demographic consequences of the partition of the Punjab, 1947. University Press of America.
Das, Veena. 1995. Critical events. Cambridge: Oxford University Press.
Gyanendra, Pandey. 2001. Remembering partition: Violence, nationalism and history in India. Vol. 7. Cambridge University Press.
Hansen, Anders Bjørn. 2002. “The Punjab 1937-47-A Case of Genocide?” International Journal of Punjab Studies 9(1): 1 – 28.
Haque, C. Emdad. 1995. “The Dilemma of ‘Nationhood’ and Religion: A Survey and Critique of Studies on Population Displacement Resulting from the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent” Journal of Refugee Studies, 8(2): 185 – 209.
Hodson, H. V. 1969. The Great Divide: Britain-India-Pakistan. London: Hutchins.
Jalal, Ayesha. 1994. The sole spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the demand for Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Khan, Yasmin. 2007. The great partition: The making of India and Pakistan. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Mushirul, Hasan,ed. 2008. Inventing Boundaries: gender, politics and the partition of India. New York: Oxford University Press.
[i] Brass 2003.
[ii] Brass 2003, 82.
[iii] Haque 1995, 194.
[iv]Brass 2003, 75.
[v] Haque 1995, 194.
[vi] Hodson 1969,196.
[vii]Haque 1995, 194.