The Partition of India, August 15, 1947

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Date: 2020
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,224 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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Key Figures

Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), Indian activist, leader of India's independence movement against British rule.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), freedom fighter, first prime minister of India.

Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900–1979), viceroy of India, overseer of the Partition.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), founder of Pakistan, leader of the All-India Muslim League.

Summary of Event

The British ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947, a period also known as the British Raj (raj is the Hindi word for 'rule' or 'kingdom'). Throughout that time, British monarchs served as emperors of India, with Queen Victoria being the first. (Prior to 1858, India was already under the rule of an English company, the British East India Company.) The period ended when a nationalist struggle finally led to independence and the creation of two states—secular India and Muslim Pakistan.

Nationalist leaders founded the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885. The establishment of the secular political party was a key turning point in opposition to the British Raj. In 1919, Jawaharlal Nehru joined the INC, which was fighting for greater autonomy from the British. Under the spiritual and political leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the INC became the principal leader of the Indian independence movement, while Gandhi became one of the most recognized leaders of the Indian nationalist movement. In 1928, Nehru was elected president of the Congress.

The Congress party, as it was known, was dominated by the Hindu. At that time, Muslims were the largest minority, accounting for 25 percent of the population of British India. The INC's goal was self-rule for India, while the Muslims began to make plans for a Muslim state under the All-India Muslim League. The British started to crack down on civil unrest in the country with military uprisings against the British rule.

India entered World War II without Indian political leaders being consulted. The INC, with its Hindu majority, informed then-Viceroy Lord Linlithgow that their support for the war effort would be contingent on Indian independence at the end of the armed conflict. The British threatened back that if the INC provided no support for the British, Britain would empower the All-Muslim League. India was forced to acquiesce, leading Gandhi to start a campaign of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. He recruited other leaders to the cause, intensifying his call for Indian independence.

In 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a member of the British War Cabinet, Sir Stafford Cripps, to discuss changes to India's status. However, the British did not offer full independence, and the INC and the All-Muslim League rejected the proposals.

In August of 1942, Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement to call for an end to the British rule. In his famous "do or die" speech to the Congress, Gandhi said, "Here is a mantra, a short one that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is 'Do or Die.' We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery."

The INC passed the Quit India Resolution on August 8, 1942. The resolution stated, "On the declaration of India's independence a provisional government will be formed and free India will become an ally of the United Nations."

Gandhi had planned to address the nation the next day, but that night, he and many others, including Nehru, were arrested and imprisoned by the British, who hoped to suppress the movement. The arrests sparked riots and nonviolent as well as violent demonstrations.

The Quit India Movement came to an end in 1944. Gandhi was released in May of 1944 and continued his resistance.

After World War II, Britain finally agreed to grant India independence. Nehru played a major role in the negotiations. Factions in India were split between the Hindu and Muslim: those who wanted a united, secular India led by Nehru, Gandhi, and the INC; and the Muslim league led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah who argued more strongly for a separate Muslim state—Pakistan. Later accounts contend that Jinnah merely intended to use the idea of a separate state as a bargaining chip. Nehru and Gandhi, especially, did not want a partition based on religion.

In March of 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, great-grandson of Queen Victoria, was named viceroy of India to oversee British withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent and the transition to independence. However, escalating violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities prompted Lord Mountbatten to accelerate independence. All party leaders remained opposed in varying degrees to partition, predicting ongoing tension and potential violence between the resulting states, but general support for the drastic measure among Congress members and Lord Mountbatten's desire to expedite proceedings gave Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah less leverage in the ultimate decision. The hurried nature of this outcome left many issues unresolved.

India's decades-long nonviolent campaign ended with independence at midnight on August 15, 1947. Lord Mountbatten attended the ceremony of transfer of power in Delhi. Nehru made a speech called "Tryst with Destiny" on the eve of independence before the Indian Constituent Assembly in Parliament. In the speech, which was considered one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century, he spoke about the victory of India in its nonviolent struggle against the British. He stressed the responsibility of independence and pledged that India would cooperate with other nations to further peace, freedom, and democracy. Nehru said to the Indian people: "The appointed day has come—the day appointed by destiny—and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free, and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about. It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia, and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!"

Nehru was appointed the first prime minister of India. Lord Mountbatten served as governor-general of independent India until June of 1948.

Impact of Event

The Partition, as the division of British India was called, was followed by upheavals, extreme violence, and the chaotic migration of more than 14 million people between the countries. The haphazard partition lines cut many communities, families, and farms in two and altered religious demographics as Indian Muslims crossed into Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs left what was now Pakistan for India. People fled from their homes, leaving all their possessions behind. Many feared discrimination and communal or ethnic violence. The ensuing bloodbath claimed the lives of around one million people. Survivors tell stories of former neighbors and friends turning on each other and committing violent acts of murder and rape without legal ramifications. Many who witnessed the atrocities worry that the injustices of that horrific period will be forgotten by future generations, especially given its proximity to the Holocaust, which is covered more frequently in classrooms, films, books, and articles.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|FNWIOE662788601