Partition of India and Pakistan

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The sixtieth anniversary of the independence of Pakistan and India on 14-15 August 2007 has prompted official celebration in both countries, as well as an ocean of commemorative coverage in the world's media. The terrible violence that accompanied the birthpangs of the two states from the ashes of empire is an inevitable theme in much commentary. What is being less addressed amid the profusion of human stories - and what this article considers - is whether the problems of communal division in the sub-continent were or are best addressed by the partition of territoryThe bare details of 1947 and its legacy are stark. The territorial partition that created modern India and Pakistan involved the internal division of Punjab and Bengal provinces, which - in unimaginable conditions of collapse of authority, flight, and massacre - resulted in the forced movement of 20 million people (Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan) and approximately 1.5 million deaths.

This partition created both a harvest of bitterness and the basis for further conflict. In 1970-71, Pakistan itself was further divided as East Pakistan became the new state of Bangladesh, a process attended by an enormous human tragedy of war and famine. The four armed conflicts between the inheritors of the British Indian partition (1947, 1965, 1971, and 1998) are only the most dangerous moments in a pattern of near-permanent regional hostilities which has also been marked by low-intensity conflict in Kashmir, disputes over terrorism, and an escalating nuclear-weapons rivalry.

The question raised by the "great partition" bridges the divides between 1947 and 2007, and between India-Pakistan and many other global regions - most notably, today, Iraq. In this sense the particular history of the sub-continent is only one stage in a much larger story, one which continues to have potent implications across much of the world.

The age of unmixing

The practice of territorial and demographic rearrangements arose in the context of the early-to-mid-20th-century era of world wars and decolonisation in Asia and Africa. As territorial boundaries in Europe were challenged and peoples in other continents began to break free from the European colonial stranglehold, the political map of the world unravelled. In either case, political elites discovered a new solution: amid flux, fix. the best solution found was to fix territorial boundaries of a changing world. Thus the borders of old and new nation-states in Europe were dug deeper, while fresh borders for the emerging nation-states in Asia and Africa were invented to accommodate expressions of national will and demands for self-determination.Territories had always changed hands, but what was new was the wholesale transfer of populations inhabiting those territories. A growing idea after the "great war" of 1914-18 was that conflicts arise among ethnically heterogeneous populations, and that the best way of resolving and preventing ethnic conflicts was to engineer the "unmixing of populations". The desired unmixing was achieved (for example) in the exchange of population between Greeks and Turks in 1923, and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from east-central Europe in 1944-49.

Behind the aim of achieving an internally homogenous population in a given nation-state was a view of peoples as a national collective whose membership was defined by ethnic-religious affiliation. This implied less tolerance to ethnic-religious groups that did not fit easily into the national imaginary: only when the defined communities could be fixed in their own territories would violence cease.

The fruit of division

It was against this background, when international opinion was already in favour of territorial rearrangements and population transfers, that the partition of British India took place in 1947. As the tripartite negotiations over power- sharing between the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and the British colonial...
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