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Looking Back, Informing the Future: The 1947 Partition of British India


In August of 1947, after 300 years of occupation, the British withdrew from the subcontinent. Within days of their departure, border decisions were announced partitioning erstwhile British India into two independent states: India and Pakistan. This abrupt division, occurring after two intense years of anticipatory turmoil, spurred a period of massive displacement with millions of Muslims migrating to West and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and millions of Hindus and Sikhs moving away from Pakistan into the new borders of India, in the process engendering a humanitarian crisis of unparalleled scale. The Partition’s effects reverberated through social relationships, political systems, governance structures, economic networks, and urban landscapes. More than seventy years later, the 1947 Partition of British India continues to loom over South Asian geopolitics. Its histories, implications, and repercussions engage extensive scholarship in the fields of political science, social history, intellectual history, literature, media, gender studies, and beyond.

Despite abundant historical and political scholarship on Partition, and a growing literature of personal reflections, photo essays, oral history, and fiction, there remain gaps in our understanding of what transpired in the years prior to the Partition, during the months of forced migration and conflict and in the ongoing years of settlement and resettlement in the new states of India and Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh. In addition, we can also learn a lot from the Partition about the complexities of large-scale human migration and resettlements.