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News Category: Partition

Getting to the ‘Why’ of British India’s Bloody Partition

By Alvin Powell, staff writer, The Harvard Gazette

The birth of Hindu-led India and Muslim-ruled Pakistan in 1947 from what had been British India was horrifically violent, the start of a religious conflict in which millions died and millions more fled across the new borders toward safety.

The great sorting that occurred after the Partition of India remains the largest forced migration in human history, characterized not just by the bloodshed and tears with which it is often associated, but also by often-overlooked acts of courage and kindness, according to Harvard scholars studying it.

Partition’s echoes still resonate, and not just in the memories of remaining eyewitnesses. They are found in the two nuclear-armed nations’ postures toward each other, in the continuing dispute over their common border, in their modern demographics, in the reduced but still significant religious minorities in each nation, in the neighborhoods that arose where refugee camps once stood, and in the lessons learned that affect similar migrations such as that of Syrians currently fleeing civil war.

Since the fall of 2016, Harvard’s Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute has been taking a new look at Partition, which researchers say remains fertile ground for researchers despite prior work by scholars.

“What we’re trying to capture is this moment in time,” said Jennifer Leaning, the FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It is an extremely important part of world history.”

Researchers now can deploy tools enabled by advances in technology, computing, and data science, that let them ask fresh questions and take different approaches to answering old ones. In addition, research that relies on memories of eyewitnesses to the 70-year-old episode gains urgency with each passing year.

“Obviously, it’s urgent because those who lived through this trauma inevitably won’t be with us much longer,” said South Asia Institute Director Tarun Khanna, whose family resettled from Pakistan to northern India at the time. “Partition is a super-extensively studied issue, but also it’s my perception that there are many angles that are utterly unstudied.”

Map of Partition Routes

Millions took to the land, sea, and air to escape religious persecution in the Partition of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The project is designed to appeal to scholars from across Harvard in a way similar to that of the institute’s 2013 project on the Khumb Mela, a massive, eight-week religious festival that occurs every 12 years and brings millions of people daily to the banks of the Ganges River. Scholars participating in the Khumb Mela project examined the event from viewpoints involving religion, public health, urban planning, government administration, security, and commerce. Steering the current project are Leaning and Khanna, who is also Harvard Business School’s Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor.

“Our power is to bring to this project, this topic, to people who would not normally look at it,” Khanna said.

“Looking Back, Informing the Future: The 1947 Partition of British India” is supporting four avenues of inquiry. One, led by Leaning, is examining the humanitarian implications of migration, focusing on relief efforts and resettlement of refugees by different levels of government, as well as non-governmental organizations.

A second, led by Khanna and Karim Lakhani, Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration, is seeking to collect and analyze the oral histories of 3,000 survivors, with an emphasis on those not represented in earlier histories: women, minorities, and the poor. The third project, led by Rahul Mehrotra, professor of urban design and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, is examining Partition’s impact on cities, including some of the subcontinent’s largest urban areas, like Bombay, Calcutta, Dehli, Lahore, and Karachi.

The fourth (but not final aspect, since Khanna anticipates more in the future), examines the geopolitics emerging from Partition, focusing on analysis of political speeches by leaders of India and Pakistan delivered on the international stage. That is led by Asim Khwaja, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development, along with Khanna, Lakhani, and Prashant Bharadwaj, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego.

That project will benefit from the tools of modern information technology and data science, which allow not just the large-scale, big-data analyses of traditional information, but also increasingly allow analysis of unconventional data sets, like the content of political speeches where common themes emerge from word choices and language analysis.

The work, aided by institute staff including project manager Shubhangi Bhadada and research assistants Saba Dave, Nabil Khan, Rasim Alam, and Ajay Kumar, is being done in collaboration with partners in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which at the time of Partition was part of Pakistan. Those local partners include scholars, project staff, and an army of research assistants who act as “ambassadors” to conduct structured interviews with Partition survivors.

In addition to the research, the institute last spring sponsored weekly seminars on Partition-related subjects on campus and has held meetings on the project in Cambridge, Providence, London, New York, Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan, and Delhi, India.

Though the Partition project began early last year, one of its investigations, Leaning’s exploration of Partition’s humanitarian aspects, had a head start. More than a decade ago Leaning started exploring refugees’ experience during migration, how they were handled on arrival, and what sparked the religious and ethnic violence.

SAI Partition Team Meeting

Partition team members Rahul Mehrotra (clockwise from center) Diane Athaide, Saba Dave, Shubhangi Bhadada, Nabil Khan, and Rasim Alam pore over Partition interviews and documents. Photo courtesy of Shubhangi Bhadada.

“Some people moved hundreds of miles to the border, and the violence precipitated their decision to leave,” Leaning said. “[The violence] became quite intimate in these rural villages.”

In research published in 2008, Leaning and colleagues, including Kenneth Hill of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, argued that Partition affected many more people than previously thought.

Instead of the 14.5 million thought to have moved from country to country in previous estimates, Leaning and colleagues said up to 18 million may have moved, and between 2.3 and 3.2 million likely died in the violence. Research published in 2008 by Bharadwaj, Khwaja, and Atif Mian reached similar conclusions, saying there were 17.8 million migrants and 3.4 million killed.

At the time of Partition, the setting was ripe for a breakdown of order, Leaning said. Nascent Indian and Pakistani governments were still getting their feet under them, while the former colonial power, Britain, was broke and exhausted after World War II. Britain was demobilizing troops who might have proven useful in responding to such a large-scale humanitarian disaster and preparing for an exit from the region, Leaning said. Despite unrest for months before Partition, British officials were “surprisingly unprepared,” Leaning said, and preparations made at the local and provincial level were swamped by the numbers of people moving.

“The problem was the numbers were overwhelming,” Leaning said.

Making things worse, she said, was that among those demobilized were former soldiers who had served in the British Indian Army, arriving home with not only military training, but also with their weapons.

Leaning said that might explain something that always puzzled her about Partition: the relatively high death rate. Many more were killed then might have been expected in a similar setting. But if demobilized troops took part in organized attacks on refugees, those attacks would have been particularly deadly.

“An enormous number were demobilized but not disarmed,” Leaning said. “This was not just mass hysteria violence. There was a high level of organization and lethality.”

Results from the Partition project’s more recent investigations will likely come out later this year, and a book presenting the results is planned for next year. Khanna said he expects inquiries on the subject to continue beyond that, possibly for several years.

“We started this on the 70th anniversary,” Khanna said, “I’m hoping by the 75th anniversary of Partition we would really have published quite a few things and been able to showcase what we learned from a long-running project.”

This article was originally published by The Harvard Gazette on April 6, 2018. 

“Social” Media: How Old Newspapers Help Us Understand Partition

Whenever my Pakistani family and acquaintances discuss the original ‘Brexit’, the 1947 transfer of governance to the new states of India and Pakistan, we mostly talk about communal tensions among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, or focus on contemporary political shenanigans in the region. Though most branches of my family were directly affected by the events of 1947, we rarely discuss its personal and familial impact. This interplay of easy conversation and silences around the Partition is a trope in the inheritances of history and family mythology in many Pakistani and Indian families.  

The academic industry around Partition, however, has recently begun to understand that individual and social experiences, as Ilyas Chattha says, are “Partition history’s integral subject, not just its by-product or an aberration”.

We learn more about this world-changing event from the stories of men, women and children who were not in the top tiers of the Muslim League or Indian National Congress parties whose history has come to define this seminal event in the world’s memory.  

As a researcher on The Mittal Institute’s collaborative Partition project, my goal has been to find and understand several pairs of opposites – care and violence, survival and death – as they co-existed in South Asia immediately before and after August 1947. In this massive, under-documented humanitarian episode, the ‘human’ element needs to be better represented in all its complexity.  


Picture 1 of 29

The echo chambers of nationalism present a challenge in developing a three-dimensional model of how the millions of people were affected by Partition, making it harder to conceptualize a true ‘people’s history’. A significant portion of this historiographic focus, certainly in the English language, has been on what would become ‘Indian’ stories, for a variety of reasons.

In the case of Pakistan, at least, the archives that could give shape to a subaltern narrative are lost, scattered or obscured behind concentric circles of privacy, without a will to even look. The country’s fledgling bureaucracy, as well as citizenry, lacked the pre-existing infrastructure and wealth that existed across the border, resulting in a relative flattening of Partition narratives in circulation.  

In the face of this, the rare academics who give time and attention to Pakistan have recently relied extensively on oral histories and also on media analysis to substantiate the description of the human toll of Partition – and, therefore, independence – beyond statistics (assuming these statistics even exist or can be traced).  

Newspapers, along with radio, in Urdu and English, were the main platforms available for displaced people (and those concerned with them) to make a case for themselves. There are classifieds advertizing business opportunities and details of lost loved ones, and passionate letters to the editor that signal discontent to state authorities.

Government organs and functionaries also relied on the tools of media to communicate with their new citizens, as they sought to shape that very citizenry.

There were photographs of politicians in ‘charismatic’ mode speaking and posing among refugees, who were often shown in either classic images of destitution and despair, or occasionally as heroic survivors, much like the new state of Pakistan, which claimed as part of its mystique a resilience in the face of many threats to its independence and security.  

Of course, these resources were most available to those with certain privileges. In a region with relatively low literacy, and where rural areas were particularly affected by disruption and displacement, English and Urdu-language media were not truly representative of the struggles and joys of life of over five million refugees (and the deduction and absence of a similarly-sized population of non-Muslim evacuees).  

The themes that emerge from the layout and content of a newspaper like Dawn, even when addressing the needs of the less privileged, can at best merely hint at the overall picture of what the newly-realized Pakistan meant for the lived experience of each of its constituents, especially those whose experience resisted easy packaging within bigger stories of the successful and best-possible emergence of the Pakistani state.   

With this caveat, I have selected clippings from a newspaper with socialist-leaning bona fides called the Pakistan Times (edited by eminent cultural figure Faiz Ahmad Faiz) to show how news around the partition was expressed and shared by individuals, providing insight into the motivations and struggles that official histories have glossed over.  

To contextualize these clippings, it is important to note that Pakistan was caught up in a frenzy of ‘pioneership’. Reporting on the Partition, into 1948, shared space with tales of battle and suffering in Kashmir and Palestine/Israel, lending an almost cosmological significance to local problems, which seemed to be reflected on the wider global stage.

It is also important to note that newspapers, as the original ‘social’ media, contained multiple voices, including dissenting ones. Hence, we have a remarkably regular series of messages by West Punjab’s civil supplies department, announcements about open meetings with police, as well as expressions of dissatisfaction with government actions, and direct communications between estranged friends and relatives (including non-Muslims).  

Nabil carefully scanning old newspaper clippings

Nabil loading microfilm into the computer at Widener Library

In selecting these clippings, I have chosen to highlight stories of unexpected relationships as well as glimpses into the lived experience of refugees and those individuals and organizations in relationship with these displaced.  

The economy of displacement included, in small ways, the continuation of connections between Muslim and non-Muslim, as private transactions around property occurred before sufficient government management of property exchange between departing evacuees and incoming refugees.  

The elite and upper middle classes were called out for aspects of their lifestyles during the ongoing emergency, and daily requests for aid to the national fund for refugee assistance (alongside reports of conspicuous donations made by schools, professional associations, townships etc.) emphasized generosity as a civic virtue of the new regime.

Newspapers facilitated communication in a period where other media were not as reliable. Refugees drew attention to the difficulties they faced in navigating their new lives. The government of Indore in India even used Pakistani newspapers to connect with potential incoming migrants. 

This archive, like most, is a static one, so we do not know the antecedents or after-life of any of these pieces of newspaper art and literature (what, for example, was the Hindu or Sikh refugee’s response to the Indore announcement?); nonetheless, these excerpts allow us to focus our lines of inquiry as researchers on the texture of the social fabric of the newly formed dominions, with neatness and linearity in some cases, and deep complexity in others. 


Nabil A Khan is a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, led by Professor Jennifer Leaning, at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. This is the first in a series of blog posts about SAI’s Partition Project.