British India was divided along religious lines on August 15, 1947 to create India and Pakistan. As we near the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India on August 15, 2022, I am writing this blog post to lay out the historical events that led to the Partition of India on a timeline.
Colonial India's long road from British control to independence marks one of the most important historical transitions in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in the creation of India and Pakistan, and subsequently Bangladesh.
The events leading up to the Partition of India remain some of the most important in shaping South Asia. When seen all together, we can appreciate the long development of not only South Asia but the entire world system.
1600s — The East India Company
Beginning with its founding in 1600, the East India Company traded extensively in India, Southeast Asia, and eventually East Asia. By 1613, it was operating a factory in Surat, Gujarat.
1757 — East India Company Takes Power
The Battle of Plassey in 1757 and later the Battle of Buxar in 1764 were won by the East India Company against the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. With these, they gained the right to collect revenue in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. This essentially gave them rule over these areas.
With this political foothold, they began to expand throughout the region.
1857 — Sepoy Mutiny Shocks Britain
A rebellion began on 10th May 1857 in the form of a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company's army in the garrison town of Meerut, hence its name, Sepoy Mutiny. It was a major uprising against the rule of the British East India Company, which was functioning as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown.
1858 — Beginning of Direct British Rule
After the Rebellion of 1857, the rule of the East India Company proved no longer workable. It was decided that a more conciliatory approach was needed.
So-called "crown rule" (or the British Raj) was granted in 1858, making the British government imperial power over India. The East India Company would no longer act as an intermediary, and thus British India came into being.
1885 — The Indian National Congress Forms
The Indian National Congress initially was created to promote equality for all Indians in British India. They also called for lowering taxes on the poor and improving public education.
They would grow to become the most important force in modern Indian political history, including the Partition of India.
1905 — First Partition of Bengal
In Bengal, nationalist upheavals were becoming a threat to the British government. To limit its influence, the British partitioned Bengal. They also ensured a Muslim majority in East Bengal and Assam. A Hindu opposition movement was formed to oppose this, led by the Indian National Congress.
The experience helped spur the Muslim population to seek rights for themselves, hardened religious lines, and sowed the seeds for the Partition of India.
1906 — The Muslim League Forms
In response to the Indian National Congress and its organized resistance to the Partition of Bengal, the All-India Muslim League is formed. It would eventually become the main promoter for founding the Muslim majority state of Pakistan and the Partition of India.
1909 — The Partition of Bengal Rescinded
While the Partition of Bengal was meant to quell dissent, it only drove further protest. Some leaders in the Muslim majority East Bengal felt that by dividing the area, it limited solidarity and led to worse conditions for people living there.
The Partition of Bengal also triggered Hindu protests that wanted to see a unified India.
Fervent demonstrations and political activism finally led to a reunified Bengal. Many Muslims, however, felt this to be a major defeat, which fueled the fire for the Partition of India and the second Partition of Bengal in 1947.
1914-1918 — World War I
With the outbreak of World War I, British India began recruiting troops for the effort. The Indian National Congress and Muslim League worked together to demand that, if they supported the British Army in the war, they would get increased self-rule.
The experience drove more collaboration between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.
1919 — Rowlatt Act, Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
The Rowlatt Act (the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919) allowed indefinite detention of people perceived to be radicals by British rule. It also allowed imprisonment without trial and other emergency measures.
A month later, the arrest of independence leaders Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satya Pal led to a large protest gathering in Amritsar in the Jallianwala Bagh. In response, Brigadier general R.E.H. Dyer ordered his troops to block the garden's only exit.
The British Indian soldiers then shot on the crowd. As people tried to flee, they were murdered en masse. Many tried to jump down a well in the garden to escape the carnage, leading to many deaths by drowning.
The shocking massacre created a new level of tension in British India that, combined with the Rowlatt Act, helped define the next decade of the Independence Movement. Public distrust of the government of British India was now deeply ingrained throughout the country.
1920's — Decade of Protest
After Word War I, the British colonial government failed to deliver on Home rule or Dominion status (attaining self-government while staying within the Empire).
Nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi began leading non-violent movements against British rule. Called Satyagraha, or peaceful non-cooperation, these protests received worldwide attention.
1922 - Gandhi arrested
The independence protests were becoming increasingly violent and on March 10, 1922, Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition by British officials and sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement in protesting the British colonial government in India. He served two years before being released for medical reasons.
During this same time, much of the collaboration between Hindu and Muslim nationalist leaders began to break down.
1930 — Republic Day
By the end of the 20s, Gandhi became much more radical in his position. He now called for purna swaraj — complete independence for India to end British rule. In December of 1929, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution for purna swaraj. And on January 26, 1930, they declared this publicly. This is why January 26 is celebrated in India as Republic Day.
1933 — The Pakistan Declaration
Choudhry Rahmat Ali published Now or Never: Are We to Live or Perish Forever? — a pamphlet calling for a Muslim majority country on the Indian subcontinent. This document would later be known as the Pakistan Declaration, further hardening religious lines, and would lead to the Partition of India, making a Muslim India pretty much an impossibility.
1935 — Government of India Act
The Government of India Act kept the country under British rule but allowed for provincial elections and local leadership, along with other key reforms. The British established separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims, communalizing the elections.
This increased tensions between the Muslim League and Indian National Congress as they vied for political control in hotly contested elections. Indian Muslims and Hindus increasingly saw their interests as separate and in conflict foreshadowing the Partition of India.
The Muslim League fared extremely poorly, not even winning in Muslim majority provincial elections. Fearing what this would mean in the long term, Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah pushed for the Partition of India and the creation of a separate country for his people.
1939 — World War II Begins
At the outbreak of World War II, the British government declared British India to be at war with Germany. They did this without consulting Indian leaders and without input by the Congress.
1940 — The Lahore Resolution
The Muslim League declared the need for an Islamic republic during their session at Lahore in March 1940. This popularized the term "Pakistan" coined by Ali in his Pakistan Declaration.
The resolution symbolically mirrored the Indian National Congress's own Lahore session 10 years earlier.
1942 - Quit India Resolution
Congress published what would come to be known as the Quit India Resolution. It declared that, while Germany was condemnable, India must be allowed to decide when it would go to war. This birthed the Quit India Movement — calling for total independence from the British Raj.
In response, many Indian National Congress political leaders were jailed, sparking protests and demonstrations. The Muslim League, on the other hand, chose to work with the British.
6 May, 1944 — Gandhi Released
Gandhi is released from prison. He enters talks with Jinnah and the Muslim League, which bolsters the Muslim leader's profile, but nothing of substance comes from this.
1944 - World War II ends
Britain was devastated by the end of World War II. After the end of the second World War, Britain found itself in an economic and political crisis.
1945 — The Labour Government Takes Power
In the elections held in Britain after World War II, the Labour Party swept into power under the leadership of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, with a pledge to end British colonial rule of India. Within a year, they sent the Cabinet Mission to discuss how to structure the new state with Hindu and Muslim leaders. They settled on a confederated model, with provinces deciding where they would align and how to balance power.
December 1945 — Indian General Elections
General elections were held in British India in December 1945 to elect members of the Central Legislative Assembly and the Council of State. While the Indian National Congress won a sweeping majority of seats in non-Muslim areas, the Muslim League won all the seats in Muslim majority areas. The Muslim League had made significant political gains during World War II by supporting the British and had many more Muslim leaders in place now.
The Indian National Congress and the Muslim League formed a coalition government, and they worked with the Cabinet Mission, sent by the British, to figure out the structure for a united India. This would include protections and autonomy for Muslim majority provinces, but both major parties rejected the plan.
1946 - Cabinet Mission
A Cabinet Mission came to India in 1946 in order to discuss the transfer of power from the British government to the Indian political leadership, with the aim of preserving India's unity and granting its independence. The Muslim League had been victorious in approximately 90 percent of the seats for Muslims. After having achieved victory in the elections Jinnah gained a strong hand to bargain with the British and Congress.
Having established the system of separate electorates, the British could no longer reverse its consequences in spite of their genuine commitment to Indian unity.
August 16, 1946 — Direct Action Day
On August 16, 1946, the Muslim League leader Jinnah called for protests to promote a separate nation for India's Muslim minority, furthering the idea of India and Pakistan as two separate countries. The Muslim League feared that Cabinet Mission's plan, would not provide enough protection for Indian Muslims.
The resulting riots in Calcutta and Bombay killed an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people, with many thousands wounded.
1947 — Partition becomes inevitable
With Britain's economic crisis deepening, and with the Quit India Movement gaining steam, the Labour government wanted to finish their plan and get out as quickly as possible. The following events rendered a unified India impossible.
March 22, 1947 - Lord Mountbatten Arrives
Britain sent Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy of India under British rule to manage the final move to independence. The goal was to maintain a United India, but communal violence in Punjab and Bengal quickly undermined this plan. Besides, there was no agreement between the parties about who would be united India's prime minister.
June 3, 1947 - Mountbatten Plan announced
The Mountbatten Plan's most important provision was the division of British India into the two new dominions – the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan – with effect from 15 August 1947. Violence broke out on the borders of Punjab and Bengal, increasing tensions.
July 8, 1947 - Cyril Radcliffe Arrives
Sir Cyril Radcliffe was brought in and given five weeks to lead committees to decide the exact borders between Pakistan and India. The rushed and faulty process involved deadlock between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, which led most decisions to be made by Radcliffe, who had no experience with India.
Muslim majority provinces were to be given to Pakistan and Hindu majority provinces to India. However, the Muslim majority provinces were located in Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East, with 2000 kilometers of land between them. The communal (il)logic of Muslim majority provinces belonging to Pakistan despite the distance was to have far-reaching consequences.
July 18, 1947 - Indian Independence Act Passed
Also known as the India Act, the Indian Independence Act was passed on July 18. This set the stage for British withdrawal within months. It also included partition, rather than a united India. This split many leaders fighting for an independent India, with Gandhi a fierce critic.
August 1947 - Radcliffe Line
By August, Radcliffe finished his plan for the Partition of India. The plan was deeply ignorant of local conditions, again leading to a refugee crisis. To avoid disputes and delays, the division was done in secret. The final Awards were ready on 9 and 12 August but were not published until two days after the Partition.
August 15, 1947 - India and Pakistan become Independent nations
On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan gained full independence as two separate nations, with Jawaharlal Nehru as the Indian Prime Minister and Muhammad Ali Jinnah as the Pakistani Prime Minister. Pakistan was comprised of East Pakistan and West Pakistan.
Immediately, the plan of partition was carried out, leading to devastating violence that convulsed the region. The Muslim population in India suffered huge casualties, as did the Hindu population in Pakistan.
The Timeline Continues
The Partition of India timeline is filled with key events that created the civil war that would erupt in the wake of independence. And if we follow the timeline forward, the civil war caused by this conflict continues to shape independent India and the region to this day.
Most significantly, in 1971, East Pakistan agitated to separate from Pakistan resulting in the Bangladesh Liberation War, after which West Pakistan became Pakistan and East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
Communal tensions flared up between India and Pakistan on a regular basis. All these events have shaped the bilateral relations between India, Pakistan, and now Bangladesh. A predominantly Hindu, independent India dominated the region, and Indian Muslims continue to face discrimination and face ongoing communal riots.
It is for that reason we must understand this timeline, these events, and what they mean for us now approaching the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India, and in the future.