Partition of 1947 continues to haunt India, Pakistan, Stanford scholar says

Historian Priya Satia discusses the history of the 1947 partition of India and how that is at the root of today’s continuing tensions between Pakistan and India.

A recent escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan has put a spotlight on the violent history of the two countries’ independence that Stanford scholar Priya Satia says continues to haunt the Indian subcontinent to this day.

Historian Priya Satia has studied the partition of India as part of her work. Her current research examines the work of poets who wrote about partition and its aftermath. (Image credit: Courtesy Priya Satia)

The two nations have co-existed uneasily since the 1947 partition of India, which ended almost two centuries of British rule in the region and led to the largest mass migration in human history. The partition created the independent nations of Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, separating the provinces of Bengal and Punjab along religious lines, despite the fact that Muslims and Hindus lived in mixed communities throughout the area, Satia said. Although the agreement required no relocation, about 15 million people moved or were forced to move, and between half a million to 2 million died in the ensuing violence.

Satia, a professor of British history in the School of Humanities and Sciences, has studied the partition as part of her work, focusing on the personal stories of its victims. Her current project examines the work of poets who wrote about partition and its aftermath.

A daughter of immigrants who fled the violence of the event, Satia explains how this historical event unfolded and its continuing effects today.

Why did the 1947 partition of India unfold the way it did?

The context of World War II and the transfer of power were critical in shaping the violence. During the war, the British jailed much of the Congress Party in India. In the meantime, more violently inclined nationalist movements flourished, some bearing an imprint of fascism. Indians who fought in the war came home with violent experiences. They and their arms were recruited into new defense groups and paramilitary volunteer bodies attached to these violent movements, such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the Muslim League National Guard. Some Indian politicians in provincial governments began to use such groups for policing as they shifted from being the opposition to being the government.

Meanwhile, having secured their aim of having both newly independent countries in the Commonwealth, British officials hurried events at every turn. The hasty dismantling of the imperial state not only made it harder to address the violence, it also made much of the violence possible in the first place. The imperial state shed its law and order capacity and sense of responsibility, offering little support to administrators trying to deal with routine local politics. The British Army began to depart just when India’s own army was being divided and could not be relied on to control violence. In Punjab, confidential instructions insisted that British army units had no operational functions except in emergency to save British lives. Bureaucracies became dysfunctional as officers thought of migrating or tried to please new masters or gave into anxiety themselves. Officials were openly partisan or not at their posts. The evident breakdown of law and order produced paranoia and fear in everyday life. Whatever religious justifications may have been at play in the violence, many actions emerged from a sense of desperate need for survival in a harrowing environment.

All the ingredients for ethnic cleansing were in place: a feeble, polarized police force, absence of troops and a petrified well-armed population. The violence marked the crumbling of an old order and abdication of responsibility for minorities by all those with any kind of power.

You have studied the partition for many years. What are some key takeaways from your research?

First, high-level negotiations between political elites do not shed much light on why partition unfolded the way it did, involving the flight and death of millions. Stanford Libraries have partnered with the 1947 Partition Archive, an organization collecting oral histories that can finally help us understand that history.

Oral histories

The stories of 51 survivors of the partition can be explored in an online exhibition Stanford Libraries created in 2017 as part of its partnership with the 1947 Partition Archive, a nonprofit that has collected thousands of videos of people recollecting their memories of the event. Click here to read more about the partnership.

Second, the idea of Pakistan emerged initially out of an imaginative effort to think outside the box of nationalism after World War I’s demonstration of the violence nationalism caused. It was a way of imagining a polity anchored by something other than nationality or ethnicity.

Third, the idea of partition was on the table in the first place because the British had applied it already in the process of decolonizing Ireland and were discussing using it in Palestine. They thought of it as an acceptable compromise for ensuring all territory wound up within the British Commonwealth after devolution, even if in fragments, so that they might maintain old imperial ties in some form after the granting of formal independence.

Fourth, the history of partition haunts the subcontinent, just like in Ireland, where Brexit has made the separation between Ireland and Northern Ireland a live issue all over again. It did not solve any problem it purported to solve between different communities.

Your research has focused on the personal stories of people living through the partition, and your own family was affected by the event. What was it like to live through that turbulent time?

It was deeply scarring and traumatic, changing their lives dramatically, uprooting them from places and communities where they had lived for generations. They lost languages, ways of life, property, heirlooms, people. It shaped their attitudes toward government, minorities and the concept of home.

Trauma like this has lasting consequences - it affects what is shared with and what is concealed from future generations. Habits formed through trauma are also passed on - I was not there but still many of my habits have been shaped by my mother’s and grandmother’s experiences after 1947.

Some of your research has also analyzed the work of poets who wrote about the partition. How did poetry help shape the meaning of what happened?

Poetry helped people express other ways of being that continued to resist the national identities of "Indian" and "Pakistani." It helped express the still-open possibilities for the relationship between India and Pakistan - it was not clear that the border would be hard and impassable, and that relations would be wholly inimical until the 1965 war.

What could be learned from this history?

Partition is not a solution for allegedly intractable conflict between communities.