The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The 1947 partition of India led to a bloodbath

Sep 10, 2007

On August 15, 1947, new flags were raised on official buildings in New Delhi and Karachi, celebrating the birth of two new independent states: India and Pakistan. The partition of Britain’s former colony led to a bloodbath costing thousands, if not millions of people’s lives in the following months.

India and Pakistan were born in massacres carried out between populations which stamped their mark on the entire subsequent history of the region.

India under the English boot

India had been England’s most important colony. The English bourgeoisie bled India of a great part of its riches, which were then used to support England’s industrial surge.

In order to maintain its domination over so vast and populous a country, the British crown divided people in order to conquer them. It maintained India’s barbaric caste system. It created a gulf between the religious and ethnic communities. In 1935, for example, the 15% of privileged Indians, authorized to vote based on the high taxes they paid, were divided into distinct electoral colleges for Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, untouchables, etc.

But to rule, dividing up the population wasn’t always enough. The history of colonial India is marked by revolts suppressed with extreme violence. In 1857, the revolt of the indigenous soldiers, the Sepoys, was crushed only after a year of battles. After World War I, India was, like many other countries, stirred by a wave of strikes and demonstrations.

1946: The English decide to leave

At the end of World War II, a new series of strikes swept the cities and countryside. In Bombay in 1946, 20,000 sailors occupied the city for three days and raised the red flag before they were suppressed by force. The British killed 250 of them in three days.

British imperialists understood they could no longer dominate India in this way. In order not to lose everything, imperialism decided to step down in favor of the Indian bourgeoisie and the big landlords. This strategy worked thanks to the existence of influential nationalist parties, the Congress Party led by Gandhi on the Hindu side, and by Jinnah of the Muslim League.

Hindu and Muslim nationalists

The Congress Party was created in 1885 by a high English functionary, who declared he wanted a Hindu party capable of being “the safety valve for the considerable and still growing forces engendered by our action.” Linked as it was to England, the Congress Party didn’t even demand autonomy but simply wanted an “equitable” attitude toward the colonies. In 1914, its leaders assured London of their “profound devotion to the throne.” The Muslim League was created in 1906, to play the same role among the Muslims.

During the revolutionary period of 1918-1922, the Congress Party had to offer a more radical anti-colonial program. Otherwise, the masses might well have turned against it. But in order to remain a valuable negotiating partner with Britain, it also had to show itself capable of containing these masses and preventing their mobilization from spilling over into a revolution. That’s where the doctrine of non-violence elaborated by Gandhi, the principal leader and symbol of this party, acquired its particular political meaning.

Partition: Violence against the peoples of India

In order to preserve its interests, the English bourgeoisie in 1946 proposed to create an independent federal state in India, which would be divided into zones according to religious majorities. But the Muslim League demanded an independent Muslim state; meanwhile the Congress Party demanded a unified state.

In February 1947, the new British official set over the Indian subcontinent, Lord Mountbatten, faced with the failure of the federal proposal, supported partition of India into two states: the current India, with a Hindu majority, under the control of the Congress Party, and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority, under the control of the Muslim League. Pakistan was further divided by being cut into two parts 900 miles apart.

After the borders were announced, millions of people sought to rejoin their new country, convinced they could no longer live together. Nine million Hindus left Pakistan and six million Muslims left India. A million refugees crossed the borders on foot, forming human columns over dozens of miles long, in rags, exhausted, starved, crushed by sorrow. Others, leaving in trains, never arrived. Witnesses described “death trains” filled with mutilated cadavers, the train wheels dripping blood. There were between 150,000 and a million deaths in a few months.

The imperialists threw these communities against each another. In so doing, they dug a ditch of hatred, fear and blood between Hindus and Muslims. And the Hindu and Muslim nationalist leaders, whose sole goal was to gain their own state, were the accomplices of this policy.

These two states are still dependent on imperialism, even if only as dominions of the British Empire in the Commonwealth. Sixty years later, neither India nor Pakistan has escaped misery. Moreover, they clashed in three wars, in 1947, 1965 and 1971. Pakistan was dismembered, its eastern part becoming Bangladesh in 1971.

The Western media dare to speak of an “Indian miracle” and “economic performance.” They dare even to call India the “largest democracy in the world.” But, for the vast majority of its population, India today is, above all, the barbarous result of past colonial exploitation, followed by an epoch of so-called “development,” which left its population to live in completely unequal and backward conditions. These were the fruits of British imperialism’s calculation, with the aid of accomplices among the Hindu and Muslim nationalist leaders.