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History Pakistan India Punjab Kashmir

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70 years on, partition pain overshadows Pakistani and Indian independence

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Jawaharlal Nehru delivers his "Tryst with Destiny" speech on 15 August 1947 in New Delhi. STR/Press Information Bureau/AFP

This Tuesday, India marks 70 years of independence from British rule, one day after neighbouring Pakistan. But independence celebrations are overshadowed by the bloody legacy of the partition of British-ruled India, which resulted in the birth of the two countries.


In 1947, as decolonisation was gaining pace around the world, Britain divided India, its largest colony, into two separate states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

This religion-based partition uprooted millions, as Muslims in India and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan rushed to cross the new border drawn by the British.

“It was the largest migration of people in modern history,” explains Charu Lata Hogg, an associate fellow for the Asia programme of UK-based thinktank Chatham House.

“It was also one of the most brutal,” she told RFI, referring to the more than one million people killed by sectarian vigilante mobs and the estimated 75,000 women raped.

Suddenly, normal people spanning all communities became both murderers and victims as massacres, rape, arson, forced conversions and abductions terrorised the population.

Slaughter in Punjab and Bengal

The violence was particularly horrific in the provinces of Punjab in the north and Bengal in the east, as partition divided these provinces between the two independent states.

The provinces’ division effectively turned them into border areas between the two new countries and therefore transit hubs for the millions of people trying to make it to the other side of the borders.

Kanta Nayyar was one of these people. Her Hindu family fled Punjab for New Delhi when she was 16 years old.

“There were massacres all around, for two, three, four days,” Nayyar told RFI’s Sebastien Farcis.

She recounted how the people boarding trains to leave the region “were told to shut the windows, to lie down under the seats". The main fear, she says, “was that they would catch hold of young girls, kill them, rape them.”

As Nayyar explains, Hindu men would single out Muslim women to rape and kill, while Muslim men targeted Hindu women.

Her family escaped. But the next train suffered a worse fate.

“The next train was attacked on the way. Everybody was killed. When the train reached [its destination], there was blood, corpses, all dead people.”

Partition and territory spats today

Partition has profoundly affected Indian-Pakistani relations, with the two countries disputing territory ever since.

Pakistan was initially established as West and East Pakistan, with more than 1,500 kilometres of Indian territory between the two.

However, Pakistan lost its eastern flank in 1971 after a nine-month war with Bengali nationalists backed by India, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. West Pakistan subsequently became Pakistan as it exists today.

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Other territorial disputes continue, with the region of Kashmir being today’s “core issue”, according to Farooq Hasnat, a political science professor at Forman Christian College in Lahore.

Kashmir is a disputed region along the northern border. Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full but each only controls part of it.

Rebel groups there have been fighting for more than 20 years for independence or a merger of the territory with Pakistan, resulting in clashes with Indian soldiers that have left thousands, mostly civilians, dead.

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Hasnat thinks that the decades-long dispute could potentially be resolved if both countries approached it from an economic standpoint. International and regional investors may be more attracted to Kashmir, he says, if a peace deal were to be reached. Such a deal would benefit both India and Pakistan, as well as the local population.

However, this solution could only be reached through dialogue, according to Hasnat. “Without establishing peace, without entering into a dialogue with each other to resolve their differences, there will be disturbances and tension in the area.”

Cooperation in the aim of economic development could improve Indian-Pakistani relations. But, as many other analysts and observers point out, overcoming the traumatic and complex legacy of partition will continue to be difficult.