India-Pakistan partition 70 years on: Wrenched apart by history

Deep mistrust between India and Pakistan continues 70 years after Partition

WAGAH (India) • From barbed grins in a carefully synchronised daily flag ceremony to murderous exchanges across barbed wire in Kashmir, the India-Pakistan border is a 70-year-old scar that will not heal.

Thousands will cheer at the Wagah border crossing this week as the two countries celebrate the anniversaries of their independence, when British India was carved into two nations.

The separation based on border lines created by the British at the end of their colonial rule came into effect at the stroke of midnight on the eve of Aug 14, 1947.

The upheaval that followed left at least one million dead in a brutal migration that took millions of Muslims to Pakistan and millions of Hindus to India.

But all these years after the trauma of Partition, they have not agreed a border, nor their history - Pakistan marks independence on Aug 14 each year, India one day later.

The nuclear-armed neighbours have fought three wars since 1947, and relations remain tense, particularly when it comes to the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, which both claim in full.

Kashmir is on a permanent conflict alert with near daily clashes and shelling across the Line of Control, the official name of the disputed frontier.



My friends and I had gone to see, and to help in any way. We were on the rooftop of the building next door, throwing water to douse the flames when someone pulled me back. That saved my life... The refugee tag stays with us. The wounds never heal.

MR RAJ KHANNA, who was 14 years old and living in a Hindu district of Lahore in 1947.


Everyone was in a frenzy, killing whoever they saw... Hindu, Muslim, anyone. No one was really spared... The things I've seen, the things I've heard, they have stuck. They have forever been etched into my mind.

MR SALEEM HASAN SIDDIQUI, now 76, recounting the mood in old Delhi.


They all forgot all those miseries. When they saw Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs here, the sweetmeat shop owner refused to take money from them... They showed immense hospitality. And when they (Pakistanis) went to Jalandhar and Amritsar, the people there reciprocated.

MR SAEED HASAN KHAN, then 17, was trapped in east Punjab in September 1947 as the killings went on. He hitched a ride with a friend on a special train carrying the Pakistan army over the border and made it across safely. What stood out for him was when Pakistan played India in a cricket match in 1954, and Pakistan let fans from Amritsar and Jalandhar attend without visas.


That generation is leaving us... There's this real sense of urgency... So many people who made it across, made it across because of the kindness of a friend, of a neighbour, of somebody who worked with them and, in many cases, even a stranger.

MS MALLIKA AHLUWALIA, director of the newly created Partition Museum in Amritsar, Punjab. The Partition Museum, India's first such museum, opens on Aug 17.


There was a far bigger game at play which was the geopolitics of the time, which are not too dissimilar to the geopolitics playing today... I feel this film is a timely reminder of what happens when you promote hate and division and start to criminalise a group of people. The end result is violence and death and history tells us that.

FILM DIRECTOR GURINDER CHADHA, whose movie Partition: 1947 is set to be released in India on Friday, is a Punjabi Briton whose family was displaced by Partition. The film indicates that the British fomented religious hatred and planned for Partition even as World War II raged, to squeeze the Soviet Union out of a regional foothold. The film's themes of poisonous divisions and the destructive power of walls resonate more strongly today, she said.



A woman relative of 28-year-old Muhammad Haseeb was killed as she worked in a field in the Nakyal sector on the Pakistani side just days before the Partition anniversary.

"We don't know when we will become the victim of a bullet," he said.

Tens of thousands, mainly civilians, have died in Muslim-majority Indian Kashmir in the past 30 years. India says about 40 militants have been killed this year trying to sneak across the border. Nine Indian soldiers have been killed on the Line of Control.

Hostilities have intensified since a series of bombings and shootings in India's financial capital of Mumbai in 2008, and an attack on its Parliament in 2001, both of which India blamed on militant groups based in Pakistan.

Pakistan has repeatedly accused India of aggressive lobbying in Washington and among the nations of South-east Asia, aimed at isolating it internationally.

India has grown concerned at China's growing ties to its arch rival Pakistan, viewing China's US$57 billion (S$78 billion) trade corridor that cuts across Kashmir as an infringement of India's claim to the whole of the region.

India this year fast-tracked US$15 billion worth of dam projects on its side of Kashmir, despite fears from Islamabad that the power stations will disrupt vital Indus water flows into Pakistan.

Prospects for improvement in ties look slim.

Cricket is the national game for both countries, but they have not played a five-day Test match against each other in either country since 2007.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Pakistan in 2015. But ties are in deep freeze again since Pakistan detained and sentenced to death Kulbushan Jadhav, a former Indian naval officer it accuses of espionage.

For most politicians, observers and activists, India and Pakistan just cannot get over its split.

Pakistan has been in new political chaos with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ousted over corruption allegations. But some on both sides blame Mr Modi's hardline stance.

"So long as there is a Hindu India that acts like a mirror to a Muslim Pakistan, I don't see any chance of a reconciliation," said Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, an outspoken former Indian minister who, as a diplomat, was his country's first consul general in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

Mr Aiyar says India and Pakistan need an Anglo-French style "Entente Cordiale" and then to get down to serious talks.

Prominent Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari said both countries have grievances and that relations can barely get any worse.

"The present tension between India and Pakistan is unnatural... As no dialogue is taking place, this relationship is really bad," he added.

"India has truly reduced this relationship to a single issue - terrorism - whereas the Pakistani argument is that we can talk about all contentious issues. They can be put on the table and discussed."

Mr Askari said there can be no talks while India obsesses about militant activity.

"This means there is hardly any possibility of a dialogue in the near future because the government of Pakistan can't even commit to its own people that there will be no terrorist activity, not to speak of any commitment to India."

Away from the politics and military posturing, Ms Guneeta Singh Ballah, founder of the 1947 Partition Archive that has interviewed thousands of survivors of the Partition, sees hope in the new generation on either side of the frontier.

"I think that the new generation is more engaged in wanting to get over the past," she said.

Survivors' accounts also offer objectivity from those who suffered most, says Ms Aleena Mashhood of the Oral History Project - an increasingly valuable perspective as time goes on.

"They say something like, that wasn't us Muslims who suffered, it was also the Hindus who suffered," she said. "Your bias breaks."

In Amritsar's Partition Museum, where the wounds that still define the region are preserved, the last room is perhaps aptly named "The Gallery of Hope".




The number of years the British ruled in India, first through the East India Company and then the Crown. The Company, however, had managed trading posts in India for more than a century before assuming more official control after 1757.

400 million

The population across British India - including modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh - at the time of Partition in 1947.


The number of days British judge Cyril Radcliffe was given to draw the new boundaries that would divide the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.


The length of new borders between India and Pakistan created by Partition.


The number of wars fought between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947.

1 million

The widely held estimate of the number of people killed in the brutal violence that followed Partition. Some estimates put the toll at double this figure.

15 million

The number who migrated, often on foot, during Partition - Hindus and Sikhs to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. 


Split at birth: How Partition came about

The Partition of British India into India and Pakistan came about upon the departure of the British colonial administration, with the guiding motive being the creation of Hindu- and Muslim-majority nations.

The division of the territory along religious lines was necessitated by Muslim fears that they would have no rights in a Hindu-majority country.

The border between India and Pakistan, dubbed the Radcliffe Line, was determined by a British government-commissioned report prepared under the chairmanship of a London barrister, Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

Pakistan came into being with two non-contiguous enclaves, East Pakistan (today's Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, which were separated geographically by India.

India was formed out of the Hindu-majority regions of British India, and Pakistan from the Muslim-majority areas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2017, with the headline 'Wrenched apart by history'. Print Edition | Subscribe