In August 1947 Great Britain oversaw the partition of the Indian subcontinent, aka the British Raj, into two countries – India and Pakistan. The partition was far from orderly. In fact, it was swathed in controversy and violence, as we shall see. The hostility between the two nations persists to this day, and the geopolitical ramifications have been extensive.
Great Britain had ruled India since 1858, but by the end of WWII India had become an unwelcome remnant of a bygone colonial era. GB was looking to exit the subcontinent as gracefully as possible. Fighting WWII had depleted GB’s treasury substantially. In addition, the post-war elections had put the Labor Party in control of the government, and most of the Laborites wanted out.
Furthermore, in 1946 a series of mutinies in the armed forces stationed in India broke out. RAF servicemen were growing increasingly frustrated by what they perceived to be the too slow pace of their repatriation. At the same time, the Indians were riding a wave of nationalism. Violence between the more radical elements of the Hindu and Muslim populace was accelerating. In short, all three parties wanted the British to leave asap. The only question was whether the area would remain whole or would it be divided into Hindu and Muslim countries. The British and Hindus wanted to keep the area whole; the Muslims wanted a separate country. Feelings were hostile on all sides. The Brits did not want to leave without having achieved a peaceful resolution. The government appointed Admiral of the Fleet Louis Mountbatten Viceroy of India and charged him with the responsibility to do so.
Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten was born on June 25, 1900. He was a second cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II. He enjoyed a long, distinguished military career. He served in WWI and WWII, rising to the level of Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia Theatre . As such, he had the distinct honor of commanding the British forces that recaptured Burma from the Japanese and, later, of accepting the Japanese surrender of Singapore. In short, Mountbatten was a famous and well-respected military hero and he had the necessary cachet to complete this assignment successfully.
Initially, the British government had instructed Mountbatten to keep the area united. He negotiated extensively with Jawaharlal Nehru, the Hindu leader, and Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the Muslim leader, in an attempt to accomplish this, but in the end, he could not overcome the mutual mistrust and antipathy between the two groups. As the violence escalated, he realized unity was a lost cause. Ultimately, he managed to convince his superiors in London that a partition was the only possible solution.
Essentially, the partition was accomplished along religious lines. Those areas that were predominantly Hindu were included in India, while the predominantly Muslim areas were formulated into Pakistan. Unfortunately, the demarcation lines were determined by a committee consisting of people who had limited or no knowledge of the region, and they were drawn under the time pressure of a short and arbitrary deadline of August 15, 1947. Furthermore, many areas were impossible to demarcate as they included substantial numbers of both Hindus and Muslims. Millions of Hindus and Muslims alike, fearing for their safety, were forced to abandon their homes and flee to areas in which they would be safe. The entire process was handled most poorly and was extremely problematic for both Hindus and Muslims.There were numerous instances of starvation, rape and murder. It was total lawlessness and chaos. The British, who could have ensured that the transition proceeded in an orderly manner, did not exactly do themselves proud. They were just too anxious to wash their hands of the area.
In an odd twist, Pakistan was divided into two sections, which became known as West Pakistan and East Pakistan. These two areas were separated by a large section of India. This was not sustainable, and eventually, East Pakistan became a separate country known as Bangladesh.
Mountbatten stayed on as India’s first Governor-General until June 1948, but Jinnah refused his overture to serve as Governor-General of Pakistan as well. Jinnah knew that Mountbatten, like many in the British government did not approve of Pakistan. As I mentioned above, India and Pakistan have clashed repeatedly and remain enemies to this day.
The matter of the partitioning of India is chronicled in the movie, Viceroy’s House, currently playing in selected theatres. It stars Hugh Bonneville, best known for his role as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, as Lord Mountbatten and is directed by Gurinder Chadha, who is the granddaughter of one of the aforementioned refugees. I have seen it, and I recommend it.
Mountbatten met a sad and untimely end. In 1979, he and his grandson, Nicholas, were assassinated by the IRA (a bomb in his fishing boat).