The partition of India is a signal event in world history, not merely in the history of the Indian subcontinent. British rule became established in eastern India around the mid-eighteenth century, and by the early part of the nineteenth century, the British had tightened their grip over considerable portions of the country. The suppression of the Indian revolt of 1857-58 ushered in a period, which would last ninety years, when India was directly under Crown rule. Communal tensions heightened in this period, especially with the rise of nationalism in the early 20th century. Though the Indian National Congress, the premier body of nationalist opinion, was ecumenical and widely representative in some respects, Indian Muslims were encouraged, initially by the British, to forge a distinct political and cultural identity. The Muslim League arose as an organization intended to enhance the various — political, cultural, social, economic, and religious — interests of the Muslims.

The bulk of the scholarly literature on the partition has focussed on the political processes that led to the vivisection of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the “accompanying” violence. Numerous people have attempted to establish who the “guilty” parties might have been, and how far communal thinking had made inroads into secular organizations and sensibilities. Scholarly attention has been riveted on the complex negotiations, and their minutiae, leading to partition as well as on the personalities of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Azad, Patel, and others, and a substantial body of literature also exists on the manner in which the boundaries were drawn between India and Pakistan, on the western and eastern fronts alike. (In general, however, the partition in the Punjab has received far more scholarly attention than the Bengal partition.) There has been much speculation about the role of the British in hastening the partition, and Gandhi’s inability to prevent it; indeed, some Hindu ideologues have even suggested that, whatever his stated opposition to the bifurcation of India on religious grounds, Gandhi is more properly viewed as the ‘Father of Pakistan’ rather than the ‘Father of the Indian nation’. Whatever the “causes” of the partition, the brute facts cannot be belied: down to the present day, the partition remains the single largest episode of the uprooting of people in modern history, as between 12 to 14 million left their home to take up residence across the border. The estimates of how many people died vary immensely, generally hovering in the 500,000 to 1.5 million range, and many scholars have settled upon the nice round figure of 1 million. There is nothing nice or comforting about this somewhat agreed-upon figure, and it is interesting as well that few scholars, if any, have bothered to furnish an account of how they came to accept any estimate that they have deemed reasonable. We know only that hundreds of thousands died: in South Asia, that is apparently the destiny of the dead, to be unknown and unaccounted for, part of an undistinguished collectivity in death as in life.

In recent years, the scholarly literature has taken a different turn, becoming at once more nuanced as well as attentive to considerations previously ignored or minimized. There is greater awareness, for instance, of the manner in which women were affected by the partition and its violence, and the scholarship of several women scholars and writers in particular has focussed on the abduction of women, the agreements forged between the Governments of India and Pakistan for the recovery of these women, and the underlying assumptions — that women could scarcely speak for themselves, that they constituted a form of exchange between men and states, that the honor and dignity of the nation was invested in its women, among others — behind these arrangements. Earlier generations of scholars hardly bothered with oral histories, but lately there have been a number of endeavors to collect oral accounts, not only from victims but on occasion even from perpetrators. These accounts raise important questions: should the partition violence be assimilated to the broader category of genocide so widely prevalent in the twentieth century? or was the violence of the partition something very different, a kind of uncalculated frenzy? was it really a time of insanity? can the partition justly be differentiated from the bureaucratized machinery of death installed by the holocaust perpetrated against the Jews? why do we insist on speaking of the violence as merely “accompanying” the partition, as though it were almost incidental to the partition?

There was a time, not long ago, when scarcely any attention was paid to the partition. Perhaps some forms of violence and trauma are better forgotten: the partition had no institutional sanction, unlike many of the genocides of the twentieth century, and the states of Pakistan and India cannot be held accountable in the same way in which one holds Germany accountable for the elimination of Europe’s Jews or Soviet Russia accountable for the death of millions of peasants in the name of modernization and development. It is also possible to argue that the partition theme gets displaced onto other forms of expression. But it can scarcely be denied that now, more than ever, it ha has become necessary to adopt several different approaches to the partition, taking up not only the questions covered in the more conventional historical literature — the events leading up to the partition, the ideology (indeed pathology) of communalism, and the immediate political consequences of the partition — but also the insights offered by film, literature, memoirs, and contemporary political and cultural commentary. Of course, the consequences of partition are there to be seen: India and Pakistan continue to be embroiled in conflict, and Kashmir remains a point of contention between them. The psychic wounds of partition are less easily observed, and we have barely begun to fathom the myriad ways in which partition has altered the civilizational histories of South Asia. If the partition appeared to some to vindicate the idea of the nation-state, to others the partition might well represent the low point of the nation-state ideology. Will the people of South Asia ever leave behind their partitioned selves?

See also Partition: Select Research Bibliography