Guide: Indian Independence & Partition
Updated: Mar 1
On midnight 15th August 1947, British India finally gained independence from the British Empire and became two new states: The Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (split into the territories of West Pakistan and East Pakistan). The path to independence was long and hard, and the resulting partition is still the source of resentment for many.
So, what exactly happened? Here is an overview of the events that led to the independence and partition of British India.
The 'good imperialists'
The Indian subcontinent is incredibly diverse in terms of language, culture, and religion, but was governed as one region by the British. While we’re on the subject of the independence of India and Pakistan, it is worth mentioning that Myanmar (formally known as Burma) was also part of British India, but was administered separately after the Second World War, and so had a distinct path to independence.
British involvement in the Indian subcontinent began with the East India Company. Founded in 1600 as a trade organisation, by 1757 they had established official control over the region. Control then moved to the British Crown in 1848 after a revolt against the East India Company by Indian soldiers. However, it is important to note that certain states were never directly administered by Britain, but were ruled instead by Indian princes, who agreed to cooperate with the British Raj.
British rule was characterised by repression and the exploitation of both natural resources and the local population. A key example of this is salt (sounds strange, but it’s going to become important later, I promise), which was panned by locals but taxed by the British. However, Britain considered themselves ‘parents’ to the Indians who they considered to be incapable of ruling themselves.
The struggle for independence
The independence movement began in 1857, with militant uprisings against British rule. However, from 1885 the independence movement was characterised by its use of non-violent tactics, starting with the formation of the Indian National Congress (INC), who initially fought for greater civil rights for Indians under the empire. Later they moved to calls for Indian independence, including the ‘Quit India’ campaign from 1942, demanding an end to British rule.
Since the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi had been leading the Indian independence movement whose activities included a campaign of civil disobedience against the British Raj. For example, during his 1930 Salt March, he walked 240 miles in protest of the British tax on salt (I said it would be relevant). He also encouraged people to boycott the tax and pan salt illegally. As a result, he was arrested. The subsequent mass peaceful protests were violently suppressed. Britain, humiliated on the world stage, released Gandhi and invited him for talks over Indian independence.
The talks were halted with the outbreak of World War Two in 1939; Britain involved India in the war without consulting them, causing a lot of anger. After the war, however, many in Britain came to view Indian independence as inevitable and thought their next move should be to find a settlement that benefitted both sides. It also helped that in 1945 Churchill, a fervent imperialist, was replaced as prime minister by Clement Attlee, who was sympathetic to the Indian cause.
The result was the Indian Independence Act, which came into effect on 15th August 1947.
So, where does partition come into it?
Neither Britain nor the INC particularly wanted a partition of India, as they thought a united country would be stronger (this was important for Britain if India was going to be a good Cold War ally). However, given the diversity of British India, the INC didn’t represent the views and interests of all Indians. As a result, the Muslim League wanted independence for the states that had majority Muslim populations, as they feared domination by the majority Hindu population in a united India.
As protest and violence grew around the independence talks, partition was eventually agreed upon to pacify the Muslim League. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, drew up plans to partition the region along religious lines, with majority Muslim states in Pakistan (which was separated into territories in the East and West or India) and majority Hindu or Sikh states in India. The border states of Punjab and Bengal were divided between the new countries.
And everyone was happy... right?
Partition was not as simple a solution as it may seem and is still a source of tension between India and Pakistan.
Between 1-2 million people are believed to have died in the violence after partition, as minority populations on either side were persecuted.
Approximately 15 million people migrated during this time, with Muslims moving to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs moving to India.
As well as displacing so many people, the new borders have been the cause of a handful of wars between the new states. Most notable here is Kashmir, the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, which is currently administrated by India, Pakistan, and China. Control of the area, which has a Muslim majority, but prior to independence was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja (Sanskrit for High King), has been the subject of two wars between Pakistan and India (in 1947 and 1965).
At this stage you might be slightly confused about the existence of an East and West Pakistan. That’s because East Pakistan is now the People’s Republic of Bangladesh; they gained independence from West Pakistan (now just Pakistan) in 1971, following a war in which the separatists were supported by India. Relations between the two countries have improved in recent years, but tensions remain high.
The road to independence for British India was a long and painful process, and the result was far from perfect; there is still a fair amount of resentment over the settlement that was reached. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are still relatively new states, and the exact nature of their future remains unknown, although there is much source for hope.
Hopefully this guide has provided a useful introduction into the independence and partition of British India, as well as context for the current situation.
For more resources on British imperialism and its consequences, head to our dedicated British History & Revisionism section.