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Health, Sports & Psychology

India-Pakistan: post-partition traumas

Updated Monday, 7th August 2017

What are the impacts of partition on the people affected by it? Here we look at trauma, identity politics and escalation of violence in India and Pakistan.

The political partition of British India into the modern nation states of India and Pakistan in 1947 caused one of the great convulsions of history. There are now numerous accounts of the event by academic historians, but there are also many more personal stories from people who experienced its traumas that remain to be told. Moreover, the violence, destruction and human rights abuses that occurred on a vast scale embittered from the outset the relationship between the two neighbouring countries. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought four wars, coming dangerously close to nuclear conflict during the Kargil crisis of 1999, while bullets continue to fly between their armies in the disputed region of Kashmir.

For people new to the history and politics of the partition of India and Pakistan questions such as “what are the impacts of partition on the people affected by it?”, “what chances are there for peace between Pakistan and India?”, and “what can be done to improve relations?” may be in the forefront of their mind.

To answer these questions we have two articles. The first, the one you're reading now, deals with trauma, identity politics and escalation of violence. The second article looks at the positive steps that are being taken along the road to peace.

Map of India and Pakistan Creative commons image Icon Ktims at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

Trauma, identity politics and escalation of violence

The events occurring in the period of the partition in 1947 are now 70 years ago. Most of the adults who lived through this this are no longer alive and only few members of the generations born in the years preceding the partition are alive today. 

People living through its violence would have experienced a number of traumatic events, ranging from witnessing killings, betrayal by next door neighbors, fleeing their homes under threat of murder, starvation and destitution. 70 years ago concepts such as Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) where not part of the understanding of trauma in refugees in the way they are today, however it is likely that large numbers of people fleeing their residences to their respective future countries would have experienced what we now understand as PTSD.

PTSD is defined by a number of adverse psychological impacts on mental health and well-being, including reliving the experience, avoidance and emotional numbing, hyperarousal [see note below] and mental health problems often with long term repercussions on functioning. Children are vulnerable to PTSD too and can be affected more than adults, in particular influencing the way in which their development unfolds following trauma. Historic trauma experiences are also important because of their long term impacts on child-rearing practices, and socialization, and because living through the collective experience of trauma can shape cultural narratives about identity and nationality which potentially contribute to hostility towards the group identified as perpetrators, and a sense in which conflict in future may be seen as ‘justified’. 

Trauma is a recurrent aspect of life in the militarized zones of Jammu and Kashmir, where conflict has escalated sporadically since partition. From the time of independence in 1947 Jammu and Kashmir, a multi-ethnic state with a Muslim-majority population has remained a poor region of India, despite being well endowed with natural resources. This lack of economic development, coupled with the Indian’s government’s repeated attempts to dominate local politics, has fueled resentment against the Indian state and has led to a hardening of view within the Muslim population that they were being discriminated against.

Moreover, the historic failure to enact the promise of a plebiscite (another term for a referendum) has also significantly contributed to political distrust of the Indian government. As Tripathi (2016) outlines, since 1989, conflict in Kashmir has undergone several transformations. The conflict in its present state now embroils the wider pan-Islamic movements in the region that are often aggregated around the threatened identity polarization within Islam. The recent heightened levels of violence have been largely provoked by the continuing human rights abuses perpetrated on the Muslim population by the Indian army  (Tripathi, 2016, p15) while  Pakistani intelligence services have also been actively supporting some militant separatist groups. 

While there has been no outbreak of open hostilities between India and Pakistan in recent years, the region is heavily militarized and policed, and 2016 and 2017 has seen a great deal of unrest following the killing of a prominent Jihadist military commander in Kashmir. Over 100 people died and 15000 civilians were injured during the unrest. These figures underestimate the extent of the human consequences of the social unrest. 

Unrest resulted in nine months disruption to normal life, including disruption to services (e.g. phone services), an imposition of curfews and a heightened feeling of insecurity, threat and danger. In its annual survey the medical charity  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, 2015), 45% of people in Kashmir are impacted by trauma, although this figure may be higher depending on how data are interpreted (see for example this news article which cites a figure of 90%). A report published by Action Aid India at the beginning of 2017, reports that 12.3% of Kashmiris in their 2015/2016 study had witnessed conflict induced traumatic events in their families (for example, members of the family killed, disappeared, detained, tortured or disabled due to conflict related reasons).

When looking at this group a significantly higher proportion of about 24.3% had developed a mental health disorder, in contrast with the Kashmiri population as a whole (11.3% of Kashmiris have a mental health condition). Only 6% of people suffering mental health conditions have access to mental health services, resulting in the effects of trauma remaining untreated. Considering that the above figures relate to the period just before the unrest, one would expect the percentages to remain high if not also increase since the publication of this report. The impact of violence and unrest may impact a great many more people than the figures above imply, including people who were indirectly affected, and feeling threatened and insecure. 

A further complication for the impact of trauma on a population is that mental health impacts can be delayed in the timing of onset after trauma. As a result one would expect a further increase in the percentage of those affected in their mental health after the unrest. With increased demand for such services, many people are unable to pay for mental health support and are becoming excluded. The long term impacts are far reaching:

“The exposure to trauma and mental illness also leads to intergenerational trauma through a cycle of increased stress in families, declining socio-economic conditions, health care burden, anger, breakdown of families (therefore support system), and inability to take care of children, marital issues and so on. In worst case scenarios, it also leads to social isolation, and affects the economic productivity of people suffering from illness and their care takers.” Action Aid India (2017, p.44) 

Looking at the severe consequences of unrest given the political dynamics of the region, it is perhaps not surprising that trauma and injustice as experienced by Kashmiris also creates a desire to be free from oppression. In the absence of a clear political change, the continued experience of trauma and injustice and the vulnerable people this creates helps prepare a recruitment ground for violent liberation movements, which in turn escalate violence and further state oppression. Potentially this creates a never-ending cycle of violence and trauma unless the conditions and which feed this cycle can be changed. How these conditions might change is discussed in the second part.


  • Hyperarousal is a cluster of symptoms involving in a person feeling chronically ‘on edge’, and includes problems with sleep, concentration, increased irritability, anger outbursts, anxiety/panic, becoming easily scared or startled and self-destructive behaviour (such as drug abuse and unsafe driving).

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