The Muslims and Partition

Francis Robinson considers what the Muslims wanted - and what they got - out of the decision to divide the subcontinent on religious lines.

The partition of India at independence in 1947 into the sovereign states of India and Pakistan is one of the more important events of twentieth-century world history. It was a shameful end to the most important project in Britain's imperial enterprise. More important it was a tragic experience for the hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who were killed in the communal slaughter which accompanied the process and for the nearly 15 million who were made refugees. Over the past fifty years India and Pakistan have been in a state of constant hostility, fighting three wars in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971, and during the last decade fighting low-intensity wars over Kashmir and the drawing of boundaries in the high Himalayas.

Approaches to partition depend very much on where the individual is situated. For Indians, in the classic nationalist interpretation, partition was the logical outcome of Britain's policies of dividing and ruling. For Pakistanis it was their founding moment, the glorious outcome of the struggle of Muslims to have their separate identity recognised by both the British and the Indian nationalist movement. For the Bangladeshis, it was a false dawn, but arguably a necessary prelude to their achievement of their own nation state in 1971. For the British it was a regrettable necessity. They did not have the power to impose a solution on their Indian empire which left it unified; partition came to be the only way in which they could extract themselves from a commitment which they could no longer afford.

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