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July 6, 2008 / lazybug

Just Read: The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan

I’ve always believed, like many Indians I am sure, that the Partition of India was the worst thing to have happened to India. A people that fought as one unit for independence from the Britishers were, when the dream was about to be realised, asked to choose their country. The enormity of this predicament can only be understood if one were to be present there and forced to make the choice. The suffering of the ordinary Indians (yes, there were no ‘Pakistanis’ up to that point) is hardly remembered. These were people who never knew the actual meaning ‘Partition’ and ‘Pakistan’. What they lived through was a disaster. The scars left by the events of 1947 are still visible across the faces of the two nations. And will probably never heal.

That said, there were people who were glad to see the country divided. The Muslim League, so as to ‘protect’ the interest of Muslims, the Congress leadership, because it had convinced itself that the country could never be really ‘divided’ (because its foresight was blurred by the prospects of leading an Independent nation’s destiny) and the Britishers because they just wanted to get the hell out of India. None of them, however, had calculated the implications of this hasty decision taken on June 3, 1947 and forced up on the ordinary Indians in an impossible time frame of two and a half months. Millions were displaced and big cities on both the sides were flooded with refugees. The mental trauma suffered by the people, especially the women, is something that can never be quantified as many of them swallowed it and lived on with their lives.


Yasmin Khan‘s The Great Partition – The Making of India and Pakistan, is an attempt to capture the disastrous effects of the Partition on the ordinary Indians. Her work is well researched, and the narrative is powerful. Khan, a British historian with origins in both India and Pakistan, is able to connect the confusion that existed in the minds of the decision makers and the effect it had on the lives of millions of Indians very effectively. Many Muslims, for example, had been convinced that the place they stayed in would be a part of Pakistan. Migration was never mentioned to them–either by the Muslim League or the Congress. Had they known this, they’d have probably never supported the Muslim League. Even when the people did migrate, they did so with a thought of coming back soon, hoping that it was a temporary move. Khan manages to bring out the sheer futility–and inevitability–of the whole exercise using real life examples.

In the introduction she writes, “The plan…was heralded by a leading newspaper’s special correspondent with great enthusiasm as a day which would be ‘remembered in India’s history as the day when her leaders voluntarily agreed to divide the country and avoid bloodshed’.” Bloodshed, as we now know, is what personified partition. It allowed militants on both sides of the new border, in the West and East, to use state machinery to carry out the worst kind of ethnic cleansing on par with that carried out by the Nazis.

The irony of the whole fiasco was that people were promised equality in countries that had been formed on the basis of religion. What a paradox. But it was an illusion that worked with the short-sighted Hindus and Muslims. The Sikhs, probably the worst sufferers given that the Radcliffe Line sliced Punjab into two, had no say whatsoever in the goings on. Nothing, however, explains the short-sightedness of the decision makers more than what happened in East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh. No wonder then that same politicians who were happy at getting their share of land were shocked at the way events unfolded. In their knee-jerk reactions they painted the whole episode with nationalistic colours (albeit in varying degrees), blaming the ‘other side’ for the disaster. This mindset has lasted till date on both sides of the border and is perhaps the reason why any discussion on the Partition of India inevitably ends up as a cuss fest against Pakistan.

Lyrics for the moment

Now frontiers shift like desert sands
While nations wash their bloodied hands
Of loyalty, of history, in shades of grey – Freedom, Pink Floyd



Leave a Comment
  1. vinay / Jul 6 2008 4:54 pm

    A few things always occur to my mind, cricket-dominated, when someone talks about partition of India. They might seem very kiddish, but only they interest me.

    1. Missing out great cricketers like Wasim, Abbas, etc.
    2. Lucky to witness battle between the two countries in every sport.
    3. A reason for all Indians to unite (barring a few Pakistani supporters in India).
    4. A reason to cheer – when we compare ourselves with the state of affairs in Pakistan.

  2. Liju Philip / Jul 7 2008 2:08 am

    Though am not so happy with the partition, i still believe it was good riddance that Pakistan was created. We would never live in peace if we were together. Not that we have any semblance of peace today. But things would have been much worse.

    Imagine having to deal with both the chaddi gang and the muslim league and their followers fighting over trivial issues.

  3. Santhosh Reddy / Jul 7 2008 7:29 am

    Good post, you are getting better with every post Akhil. Keep it up.

    Vinay it would have been great to see Wasim, Abbas, Kapil and Sunil playing in the same team and for only one country?

    @Lijju: We could have as well lived in peace together. Was there a precedent of the two communities being at war before the partition? I somehow fail to understand as how the partition was a good thing to happen for both the countries. I believe the partition was the reason why one country divided into different states by the British has been at war with itself. Things could have been very different even if the partition did not happen. The issues in politics will be there and all you need is two political parties.

  4. lazybug / Jul 7 2008 6:01 pm

    @Vinay: Cricket might not have been as big as it is today if not for the Indo-Pak rivalry. We should thank the politicians for that. That Indo-Pak cricket is not what it used to be about 10 years back is testimony to the fact that the understanding of the people of the two countries about each other has changed.

    @Liju: All the terrorist activities funded by Pakistan would not have taken place. Yes, there would still have been differences among Hindus and Muslims and politicians would have done every bit to exploit it, but that would have never translated into the kind of hatred that exists today.

    @Santhosh: Thank you!

  5. Liju Philip / Jul 8 2008 1:55 am

    true, the Pakistan sponsored terrorism wouldnt have happened. But then like the naxals and the innumerable extremists, we would have had another terrorist organisation (ISI) running within the country. And that would have been even more disastrous.

  6. aalasanthosh / Jul 8 2008 7:10 am

    @Liju: Apolgoies for getting your name wrong in my previous comment. Again, ISI was created only after the partition with a specific aim to target India. In a way the partition acted and probably is still acting as an inspiration for many separatist and extremist movements.

  7. Chathan Vemuri / Nov 11 2008 5:23 pm

    The act of India splitting up was much more inevitable than people make it out to be. After all, throughout history, there was never one country in the subcontinent when left to the will of the people. There were individual empires set up by foreign invaders or local autocrats, but left to the will of the people, it always broke up into different kingdoms and principalities. There was never “one nation” in India as many of us like to think. The Hindu-Muslim divide was just incidental. India always broke up over some issues, in the 20th century, the issue happened to be that of Hindus and Muslims, mixed in with western ideas of nationhood and secularism. And Jinnah didn’t originate the concept of Pakistan, he was the man who took it up and helped the League achieve it. Pakistan was coined and advocated by many Muslims, starting with Muhammad Iqbal and Chowdhury Ali. I’m an Indian and of Hindu Telugu descent and I’m not saying this as a naive youngster or a leftist, but as a person rooted in understanding things the way they are, not how I like them to be, as a person interesting in shattering illusions that make little sense.
    What was NOT inevitable was the way it broke up. I think partition was bound to happen but could have been a much less bloody process if certain things were guaranteed or done, or precautions taken.

    Yasmin Khan’s book is a fascinating new take and approach towards this misunderstood event.

  8. Chathan Vemuri / Nov 11 2008 5:25 pm

    PS: Jinnah was just one man. If he hadn’t come around to the idea, someone else would have, and they would have led the movement for Pakistan, perhaps much more violently than Jinnah.

    If India was given independence as a united state, its possible it could have broken up as an independent country a decade or two down the line with conflicts in the northwest and east. The way many Indians complain or are “concerned” about rising Muslim populations in post-partition India, there would have been complete hell over a huge Muslim population numbering almost 50% of the population, had there been a united India.

  9. beebee / Mar 18 2011 11:43 pm

    As I have a paper to write about the Partition, I was wondering if this book could help me in my research. Do you think the author have given a balanced account of the Partition, especially in terms of who were responsible for the polemics leading up to the Partition and the violence incurred during the Partition?

  10. shivangi / Nov 10 2013 5:04 am

    @liju…..partiton was done only wid a fear dat if india nd pakistan would hv never been divided then today india(as one) would hv been a superpower country maybe above USA but to stop this d most sensitive topic was chosen i.e. religion
    nd this partion is responsible for where v r today…..

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