India and Pakistan’s independence days are only one day apart. Why is this and how did both nations, as well as Bangladesh, come into being?
A Really Short History of India
(Note: Historical names are used)
Evidence of Indian civilisation dates back 5000 years with the Indus people.
In subsequent millennia, Aryans, Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British traded, invaded, occupied and latterly subjugated parts of the subcontinent.
The first Europeans to get a foothold in India were the Portuguese, occupying Goa in 1510. The Dutch East India Company began trading along the coast from Surat to Calcutta in early 17th century – they controlled Ceylon from 1640 to 1756 – while the French took over Pondicherry in 1674.
The decline of the Mughals coincided with the rise of the Company, busy setting up trading centres in Madras (1640) and Calcutta (1690).
By the mid-19th century, after the First Indian Rebellion, the British government had taken control of the Company’s holding and so began the British Raj, which lasted 89 years until the division of India and Pakistan.
Key Figures in Indian Independence
The story behind the growth of independence movements in India is a long and complicated one, beyond the scope of a short article. However, the following is a brief overview of some of the key figures in the later years of that story.
- Known worldwide as Mahatma Gandhi
- Qualified as a lawyer in London
- Experienced and fought racism in South Africa
- Joined, led and became synonymous with the INC after returning to India in 1914
- Advocated civil disobedience, non-violent protest, in favour of Home Rule for India
- Imprisoned many times
- Represented the INC in the 1931 talks and later years
- Reluctantly agreed to partition
- Harrow- and Cambridge-educated Lawyer
- Member, later president, of the Indian National Congress Party (INC founded 1885)
- Imprisoned several times following Gandhi’s tactics of civil disobedience
- By 1945 was seen as Gandhi’s successor
- Opposed the idea of partition along religious lines
- On 15 August 1947 became India’s first prime minister until his death
- Qualified as a lawyer in London
- Joined the INC in 1906
- Joined the Muslim League in 1913 while remaining in the INC
- Represented INC in talks with the British in 1913
- President of Muslim League in 1916
- From 1926 onwards supported separate electorates for Muslims
- Proposed partition for a separate Muslim state in 1940
- Was the first governor general of newly formed Pakistan on 14 August 1947
- Poor health excluded him from having much input in Pakistan’s beginnings
- Died the year following the formation of Pakistan
- British and German royalty
- Great-grandson of Queen Victoria
- Renounced German titles and changed name during WW1
- Illustrious career in the Royal Navy
- Great-uncle of Prince Charles
- Last Viceroy of India
- Believed partition was the most reasonable and fastest solution
- Assassinated by the Irish Republican Army in 1979
The Road to Independence
All the while pro-independence demands were not being met, and the independence movement continued to grow.
By 1945, and with the end of the Second World War, Britain was struggling. Post-war recovery, coupled with a newly elected pro-independence Labour Party, brought home the impossibility of continuing the administration of its huge empire.
The time was right for nationalist parties around the world to make the last push for independence from the British.
India’s Independence and Partition
In a 1940 speech to the Muslim League, Jinnah said, ‘The Muslims and Hindus belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literatures. They neither intermarry nor dine together and, indeed, they belong to two different civilizations.’
In 1946 an election decided the fate of India. The Muslim League, led by Jinnah, demanded a separate nation for India’s Muslims, while leaders of the INC wanted India to remain united, as did the British initially.
The INC took 91 percent of the vote in non-Muslim constituencies, winning in eight of the 11 provinces and cementing its status as the successor to the British government, for most people anyway.
Meanwhile, the success of the League among Muslim voters in these elections legitimised Jinnah as the sole voice of India’s Muslims and their pursuit for a separate state.
On 16 May 1946, the British proposed a plan for a united India called the Cabinet Mission Plan.
Employing a federal system, the plan proposed arranging provinces into three groups, each having autonomy but with the central government maintaining control of defence, foreign affairs and communication.
Group A was to consist of six Hindu-majority provinces – which would later form the bulk of a new Indian nation.
Group B was to consist of four Muslim-majority provinces – out of which Western Pakistan would be formed.
Group C was to consist of the Muslim-majority province of Bengal – part of which would become East Pakistan – and the Hindu-majority province of Assam.
Although falling short of a state of their own, the League accepted the proposed arrangement.
The British then proposed an alternate plan of partition along Hindu and Muslim population majorities on 16 June 1946.
Neither plan was accepted by the INC as both autonomy in Muslim-majority provinces and partition were contentious issues for them.
As the British prepared to shift power to the INC–League coalition, Nehru made a speech in which he said, ‘We are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided to go into the Constituent Assembly.’
This effectively sank the prospect of a united India and caused the League to withdraw from the Cabinet Mission Plan on 17 July 1946.
What followed were days and months of chaos and communal violence, as Jinnah and the League refused to participate in the new government and instead agitated for a separate state.
Thousands were killed as Muslim, Hindu and Sikh mobs clashed across the country carrying out killings and revenge killings.
Eventually, the League did join the new government but the arrangement proved unworkable as INC and League ministers, unable to resolve their disputes, vetoed one another’s proposals.
Finally, after the arrival of Lord Mountbatten as the last viceroy of India, an agreement to the partition of India along religious lines was reached in June 1947.
On 14 August 1947, Pakistan was created and the following day, 15 August 1947, India became independent.
In the months that followed, a huge population exchange occurred in which up to 15 million people were displaced.
Muslims who found themselves in the new India, and Hindus and Sikhs who found themselves in the new Pakistan, migrated according to the new borders and population dynamics.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was founded on the basis of religion, the first new country to do so in modern times.
The Birth of Bangladesh
At partition Pakistan consisted of West Pakistan and East Pakistan – what we know today as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
While both were majority Muslim, the cultures and languages were as far apart as their physical geography, over 2000 kilometres.
But while Pakistan had a population of only three percent non-Muslims, Bangladesh, as it would become, had 15 percent non-Muslims.
Its people of all backgrounds shared a strong identity as Bengalis, spoke Bangla and had good relations with its Indian neighbouring state of West Bengal.
It took nine months of war in 1971 to bring about the birth of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
In the years that led up to the War of Liberation, the grievances held included the implementation of Urdu as the official language, suppression of separatist supporters and the unbalanced distribution of national income.
A Legacy for Future Generations
The partition of India into separate countries came at an enormous human price. The Great Migration involved up to 15 million people having to uproot from their ancestral homes, where they had lived in peace for generations with their neighbours of different faiths.
At least one million and possibly as many as two million died in bloody inter-religious killings. Over 70,000 women were raped, some suffering horrendous deaths with their unborn children ripped from their wombs.
Over 70 years on, and the effects of partition are still felt in following generations. British-Indian writer and director, Gurinder Chadha, famous for the film Bend It Like Beckham, uncovered her family’s story of survival. She went on to make the 2017 documentary India’s Partition: The Forgotten Story.
Of course, while not everyone agrees with the perspective in Chadha’s programme, its airing on BBC 2 at least taught its British viewers something about their collective history with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a history most knew little about.
The history of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi independence is possibly as tragic as it is inspiring.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy would be if current and future generations did not take to heart these lessons learned from history.