By: Dipak Kurmi
The year 1947 witnessed a monumental transformation in the history of the British Empire – the birth of India and Pakistan as independent states. A momentous shift that echoed the culmination of a long struggle for Indian self-governance, it also marked a period of mass migration and ethnic violence, leaving behind a complex and bitter legacy.
The relentless campaign for Indian independence catalyzed by events such as the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59, gained momentum after the Second World War (1939-45). The wartime contributions of Indians sparked expectations of self-governance being granted in return. Yet, this period was marred by inter-communal violence between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, underscoring the deep-rooted tensions.
While the British government aimed to bestow independence and envisioned a united India, the Hindu Indian National Congress and the Muslim League grappled to agree on the contours of the new nation. As talks repeatedly faltered, escalating violence prompted Muslim League leader Muhammed Ali Jinnah to advocate ‘direct action’ for a Muslim state, heightening the threat of civil conflict.
In August 1946, British troops were deployed in Calcutta as violent disturbances erupted, spreading to Bombay, Delhi, and Punjab. Faced with mounting turmoil, the British eventually embraced the concept of partition. On June 2, 1947, the last Viceroy of India, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, announced the division of the subcontinent into a mainly Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan, comprising West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
The ‘Princely States of India,’ not under direct British rule, were given the choice to join a nation. However, those states whose rulers chose against their majority religion, like Kashmir and Hyderabad, became subjects of contentious disputes.
Independence Day, August 15, 1947, saw British troops withdrawn, and law and order responsibility transferred to the Indian Army. The period leading up to independence was characterized by the partition’s brutal aftermath. Millions found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of borders, resulting in the largest population movement in history. Muslims moved to Pakistan, while Sikhs and Hindus migrated to India, accompanied by horrific massacres at the border regions.
The contentious partition process, marred by inadequate management of migration and communal violence, has since been criticized. The Indian Army, once under British administration, underwent division under Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. The subsequent departure of British regiments from the subcontinent marked the end of an era, signalling a shift in the global military landscape.
Despite the challenges, India and Pakistan’s independence became catalysts for the eventual dissolution of the British Empire, inspiring other colonies to seek autonomy. However, the subcontinent’s newfound independence was marred by immediate tensions. India and Pakistan were soon embroiled in their first of three full-scale wars over the princely state of Kashmir. The conflict left a legacy of unresolved disputes and lingering tensions that persist to this day.
The journey to independence, marked by sacrifice, violence, and the birth of two nations, remains a pivotal chapter in history. The legacy of those tumultuous days continues to shape the region’s geopolitics, reflecting the complexities of nation-building and the enduring quest for lasting peace. (The writer is a journalist and commentator based in Guwahati, who can be reached at email@example.com)