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The 1947 Partition of South Asia: Introduction

What was the Partition and why did it occur? How did Partition affect the region, people's lives and what are the consequences today?

Understanding Partition

As the clock struck midnight on August 15, 1947, celebratory shouts of freedom from colonial rule were drowned out by the cries of millions frantically making their way through the corpse-littered landscape of nascent India and Pakistan. After more than one hundred years of British East India Company rule and an additional 90 years of the British Raj, the Indian subcontinent had finally achieved Independence. What should have been a moment of crowning triumph after years of anti-colonial struggle was indelibly marred by unimaginable violence and bloodshed.

Up to two million people lost their lives in the most horrific of manners. The darkened landscape bore silent witness to trains laden with the dead, decapitated bodies, limbs strewn along the sides of roads, and wanton rape and pillaging. There was nothing that could have prepared the approximately 14 million refugees for this nightmare. The 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent into the independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan was accompanied by one of the largest mass migrations in human history and violence on a scale that had seldom been seen before. As the provinces of the Punjab and Bengal were effectively split in half approximately seven million Hindus and Sikhs and seven million Muslims found themselves in the wrong country. Believing they would return "home," many families left their valuables behind before they packed up their essential belongings and began the trek to India or West or East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Many never made it.