In June 1947, leaders of the Congress Party and the Muslim League agreed that India would be divided along religious lines.
British involvement in India began in the 18th century with the East India Company. At first, Britain had little to do with politics in India and concentrated mainly on trade and commerce. But this eventually gave way to colonialism and territorial expansion. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Britain placed India under its direct control.
However, Britain only ruled two thirds of India. In the remaining third, political arrangements were made with around five hundred princes. They were allowed to retain the appearance of power, in return for loyalty to Britain.
The independence movement
The Indian subcontinent is home to many diverse ethnic and religious groups. On the whole, the various groups coexisted peacefully. When the Indian independence movement began, Hindus and Muslims were united under the Congress Party, which first met in 1885.
But many Muslims, who at the time made up about one-quarter of the total population, began to fear domination under the Hindu majority in the Congress Party. They feared that an independent India would be controlled by Hindus and Muslims would be marginalised. So in 1906, the Muslim League was formed. However, discontent and protests continued to grow. The British grew increasingly concerned that they were losing political control and, after the First World War, introduced repressive legislation. A peaceful demonstration took place in Amritsar on 19 April 1919 against the new laws. British troops opened fire and nearly four hundred people were killed.
The Second World War
During the Second World War, cooperation with India was crucial to Britain. But many Indian leaders argued that India could not help Britain fight fascism when it was being refused its own freedom. Yet in 1939, Viceroy Linlithgow announced India’s entry into the war. This caused considerable resentment in the Congress Party. Gandhi and other Congress members launched the ‘Quit India’ movement, which urged Britain to withdraw from India. This was in contrast with the support that was given to the British war effort by the Muslim League. With this limited support Britain was able to rule India for the duration of the Second World War.
In total over 2.3 million men and women from India volunteered to help Britain.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was clear that Britain could no longer maintain its control over India. The newly elected Labour government in Britain began planning for India’s independence. At the same time, tensions between the different political and religious factions in India were increasing.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League called for a separate Muslim state. In March 1947, Lord Mountbatten was sworn in as Viceroy and began talks with Indian leaders. After repeated attempts at negotiations failed, the British and the Congress Party eventually consented to Jinnah’s demands. India would be divided along religious lines. In June 1947, leaders of the Congress Party and the Muslim League agreed that Pakistan would be formed out of the majority Muslims areas, and India out of the majority Hindu areas. The large provinces of Punjab and Bengal would be divided. The Sikh community, which lived mainly in the Punjab, had to choose between the two new nations.
The difficult task of establishing the new boundary between India and Pakistan fell to a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe. On 14 August 1947, the independent Islamic Republic of Pakistan was delcared. At midnight on 15 August, Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Congress Party, became the first Prime Minister of independent India.
Massive population movements occurred after the Partition, accompanied by outbreaks of inter-communal violence. It is estimated that nearly 15 million people moved to areas that they believed would be safe based on the religious majority. All communities suffered violence. The ensuing chaos makes it difficult to give an exact number but it is estimated up to a million people were killed during the Partition, with the Punjab suffering the highest death toll.
Disputes over certain parts of the subcontinent have continued beyond 1947. Control over the province of Kashmir, led to two conflicts between India and Pakistan. In 1971, another conflict broke out when India supported the secession of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) from Pakistan.
For many people, particularly those from the Punjab, the social and economic disruption caused by the Partition drove them to leave the subcontinent for Britain. Some had family who served in the British Army and for others, earlier patterns of migration meant that they had relatives already living in Britain.