In the previous article, What are borders?, we suggested that borders are ‘created’ rather than being ‘natural’ and organic markers of difference between nations and peoples. In particular, European colonisation of African, Asian and Middle Eastern territories often led to the emergence of borders without the consent or participation of the peoples and communities that were subject to foreign rule. Tragedy and violence often followed the establishment of borders that were seen as arbitrary and divisive. The emergence of borderlines between the new nation states of India and Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947 is a particularly striking illustration of this phenomenon.
A century and a half of British colonial rule in India gradually aroused political antagonisms which led to the emergence of strong anti-colonial nationalist movements by the early twentieth century. Mass agitation against British rule was led by Congress which advocated the idea of a free, united and plural India, while the Muslim League, which also wished to see the end of colonial rule, sought to protect the interests of the Muslim minority by initially pressing for separate electorates as a means of ensuring their fair political representation. Congress claimed to speak for all Indians, irrespective of religion, while the League claimed to speak for all Muslims.
These fundamentally conflicting and competing aims and claims made political unity increasingly difficult during the final phase of colonial rule. Although close, on many occasions, to reaching a compromise that would have maintained an undivided India with, ironically, borders identical to those established by the colonial state, by the end of the second world war all trust between the Hindu and Muslim elites who respectively dominated Congress and the League had broken down.
Following the election of a Labour government in Britain in 1945, it became clear that colonial rule was nearing the end. Muslim League leader Jinnah now advocated the idea of ‘Pakistan’ based on a newly formulated view that Muslims and Hindus made up two distinct ‘nations of India’. However, he carefully avoided giving this idea any precise definition, and refused to identify which parts of India would become Pakistan or whether this would even involve permanent borders between the two.
Such vagueness proved an effective strategy in mobilising support for the League amongst Muslims in the Indian ‘General Election’ of 1946, called by the departing colonial rulers (still, under colonial rules, with a severely restricted franchise amounting to just 10% of the population) to ascertain the political will of their Indian subjects before the transfer of power. The result emboldened Jinnah to press ahead with the demand for Pakistan, with the League winning the vast majority of seats reserved for Muslims while Congress emerged by far the largest party, capturing the bulk of non-Muslim seats.
This polarisation was immediately expressed in bitter political strife between the two parties, as the British devolved power to an interim government made up of Congress and League leaders following the election of 1946. At the same time, with soldiers returning from the war and weapons readily available, armed militia groups and extremist organisations rapidly burgeoned, characterised on both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ sides, by a similar exclusive, intolerant, fascistic ideology. When a final effort by a Labour Cabinet delegation to negotiate a settlement that would have preserved a united India failed in June 1946, Partition became inevitable. As unprecedented violence and atrocities engulfed large parts of northern and eastern India, Congress leader Nehru finally accepted partition, initially of the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal, as a possible solution in March 1947. But how would actual borders between India and the new Pakistan be established, who would decide where these were to be, and when would these decisions be implemented?
At this point, with the country in turmoil, the British delivered a final act of imperial folly: the recently arrived last Viceroy, Mountbatten, announced his plan for partition in June 1947: British withdrawal, partition, and independence of the two states would all happen by the middle of August. While the British Army had advised that an orderly transfer of power, including the issue of negotiated borders, would take five years to achieve, it was now to be completed in less than 6 weeks.
Moreover, the borders themselves would only be finalised two days after independence (15th August) and would remain a secret in the hands of an elite group headed by the Viceroy. This meant that power was going to be transferred to two new governments, neither of which knew the exact geographical boundaries of their respective states.
The actual borders were devised by a British judge, Cyril Radcliffe, who only arrived in India in July 1947. There was no time or desire to visit the land, villages and communities that were to be divided. Instead, the Boundary Commission he presided over simply used old census maps detailing ethnic and religious population breakdowns. Border creation was largely a pen and paper exercise which barely took account of actual geographies.
The borderline meandered precariously across agricultural land, separated families, cut off communities from their sacred sites, ignored railway lines, cut across rivers, forests, and even irrigation works. The eastern and western provinces of Pakistan were separated by over a thousand miles. The consequences would be tragic.
This secretive and time-compressed partition plan virtually guaranteed the chaos and bloodshed that followed along the borderlands particularly of Punjab and Bengal. Catastrophically, it meant that guarantees of citizenship, property and security rights for all Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs irrespective of where they lived, could not be given in time. Nor was any robust police and military protection for border communities written into the plan.
Profound popular confusion about actual boundaries, and indeed now about the very meaning of ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’, stoked the ethnic violence that followed, leading to the unprecedented mass movement of people. With Hindus, Muslims and (in Punjab) Sikhs living in mixed communities or in close proximity, the impending arrival of borders threatened to make them aliens and minorities in a state ruled by another religious group. Consequently, petrified communities began waging a violent sectarian battle against erstwhile neighbours of a different religion with the aim of purifying and ‘cleansing’ their home areas, of reversing an anticipated borderline or rendering it meaningless.
British decisions about how empire would end in South Asia ensured violent state formation for both India and Pakistan, contested borders, and profound distrust and enmity between the neighbouring states that endures to this day.
Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition. The Making of India and Pakistan (Yale University Press, 2007).