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From Empire to Nationhood

India - partition

India, 1910India, 1910The commitment to decolonisation that the new UN Charter heralded quickly became apparent with the independence and partition of the India in August 1947.

The process was the culmination of vigorous campaigning by groups such as the Indian National Congress before the war.

Taj MahalTaj MahalEvents moved quickly with the coming of peace. So quickly, in fact that writing in December 1946 the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, warned 'we have lost nearly all power to control events; we are simply running on the momentum of our previous prestige'.

Indian opinion was split. Secular voices were keen that both major religions coexist after independence in a unitary state. This was also the British Government's preferred option and that of some Hindus, notably Mahatma Gandhi.

Vietnamese communist noticeVietnamese communist noticeHowever, most Hindus and Muslims, in particular their spokesman, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, were anxious to divide the territory along religious lines. A rising tide of bitter inter-communal violence threatened civil war.

This grim prospect persuaded the British Cabinet in June 1947 to rush through independence and partition.

The task of accomplishing this was placed in the hands of the new Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten and his Chief of Staff, General Hastings Ismay.

The task of Mountbatten, his staff and of the boundary commission led by the civil servant, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, was daunting.

The religious and political demands of a plethora of interests had to be satisfied. India's princely states were to be allotted to India and Pakistan along mainly religious lines.

Some, such as the Punjab and Bengal, however, had to undergo more profound demographic movements as refugees sought security with their co-religionists.

To the critics of Mountbatten, the inter-communal violence that followed in the Punjab, and which by conservative estimates claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, was a hideous testament to botched maladministration.

Other voices are more generous and conclude that delayed independence might have led to far greater bloodshed.

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