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Picking up the Pieces of the Partition

August 14, 1947. The Partition of India. A mass exodus of newly-created refugees, running for their lives to either side of a line in the sand. A migration, yes, but something much, much more than that.


Growing up, I remember my grandfather’s stories of the Partition. He migrated from Rawalpindi, a small town in Pakistan, to New Delhi. The way my grandfather put it, each day of his childhood was akin to a novel. Growing up against the backdrop of the Partition, his life was full of harrowing suspense and curious adventure. However, the tale never really felt tangible until I grew up, and understood how his experiences affect my life. Everything he went through paved the way towards a brighter future for his family—something I am determined to repay him for. Indeed, that is the power of history—learning lessons from the past, in order to make sense of the current.


We can learn a lot of lessons from the Partition. In order to do so, however, we must understand the Partition—however difficult that may prove to be.


Relations between the locals and colonisers remained peaceful till the build-up to the Partition. Rioters were on a killing and looting spree without knowing the boundaries of their respective countries. British India was divided into Pakistan and India on August 14, while the borders dividing Punjab and Bengal were kept secret till August 17, when they were officially approved.

The primary reason behind the communal riots was a hasty and unplanned partition. Lord Mountbatten moved up the transfer of power deadline from June 1948 to August 1947, whereas Cyril Radcliffe, chairperson of the Boundary Commission, marked boundary lines on the basis of out-of-date maps and dated census material. Although the communal riots came to an end, the region is still being haunted by the hasty partition. The remnants of the separation express themselves in different ways—but above all lies the pervading animosity between the countries of India and Pakistan. It may seem like a simple distinction—but it is much more than a divide between two countries. It is a divide between generations who have never known each other due to decisions made almost eighty years ago. It is a divide between political ideologies. It is a divide between people.

The Partition had a devastating socioeconomic impact—on both the countries involved, as well as the people made to uproot their lives. The hurried nature of the Partition, and lack of clear information for locals meant that people were simply unprepared. Given the short notice, along with the physical constraints of travelling trains filled with thousands of people (indeed, some were forced to sit on the roofs), they were unable to carry precious belongings. Many buried them in safe places, thinking that this “arrangement” would only be temporary, but they could never return. Furthermore, the serpentine migrant caravans were rife with violence of all kinds—women were raped, entire families were torn apart, with everyone solely looking out for their own interests. It was kill or be killed—they didn’t have a choice. What this goes on to illustrate is the relatively blasé manner in which the decision was taken. Lord Mountbatten and his inner circle made the decision for the Partition for purely political reasons, not caring about the lives of the hordes of people involved, ignoring the fact that their lives weren’t inherently political. Indeed, this is a harsh reality seen today as well, in other conflicts—be it the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar or even the numerous conflicts in the Middle East. Politicians make decisions without looking at all the facts at hand, and people, mainly refugees, are made to suffer. They are overlooked for the “greater good”, even though this may not materialise.



So how could the Partition have been handled better? Indeed, there are arguments that defend the British—they did not have the adequate time to make preparations for the largest mass exodus in human history due to a myriad of factors, be it political pressures in England owing to the elections, or even the rising popularity of the “Quit India Movement” headed by Mahatma Gandhi. This led to an increasingly expedited timeline, leading to the lack of adequate infrastructure for the split between the countries. However, one must also take into account the fact that soon after the Partition, the British transferred the power of the subcontinent back to the locals. India and the newly created state of Pakistan were finally self-governed. As such, the orthodox school of thought believes that the British never really had any intention to provide a clear framework for migration—lacking a more succinct term, they just wanted to leave, and rinse their hands of any wrongdoing in India during their generations of rule. In doing so, however, they contributed to the increasing religious fractionalization in the subcontinent—even today, clashes between Hindus and Muslims are common (the Delhi Riots of 2020, for instance). Some may say that this fractionalization is also the cause for the right-wing government present in India today, with religious sentiments at an all-time high. 

Ironically, even though the British left India with the intention of making it a democratic state, eighty years down the line this is in danger. According to the Economist’s Democracy-Dictatorship Index, India has been falling, and its status as a democracy is in peril. This can be attributed to a multitude of factors, but above all lies the Partition. Decisions taken and, more importantly, not taken on the 14th of August, 1947, have had ripple effects, visible even today. Indeed, this is evident in my personal circumstances as well—even though my grandfather made it, many people didn’t. This is the personal reality of migration, what is not written in our history books—the personal reality that haunts the lives of everyone in the subcontinent, whether they know it or not. We all are left picking up the pieces of the Partition, and shall do so for the rest of our lives.

Written by Ahaan Sawhney

Edited by Chloe Yeung and Brittany Wong

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