Partition of India, division of British India into the independent countries of India and Pakistan according to the Indian Independence Act passed by the British Parliament on July 18, 1947. Set to take effect on August 15, the rapid partition led to a population transfer of unprecedented magnitude, accompanied by devastating communal violence, as some 15,000,000 Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims rushed to cross the hastily demarcated borders before the partition would be complete. Estimates of the number of people who died during the partition range from 200,000 to 2,000,000. The partition left an indelible mark on the national consciousness of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and its legacy continues to influence the countries’ citizens to this day.
Direct British rule of India began in 1858 as a consequence of the Indian Mutiny, a rebellion against the paramountcy of the East India Company. Direct rule was intended to increase Indian representation while preserving British imperial interests, but continued aggravations and injustices in the following decades created an increasingly adamant independence movement. By the 1920s, programs of noncooperation and civil disobedience were placing pressure on the British to grant India self-governance; in 1930 the Indian National Congress (Congress Party), led by Jawaharlal Nehru, promulgated the Purna Swaraj resolution calling for complete independence.
By 1930 a number of Indian Muslims had begun to think in terms of statehood for their minority community separate from a state with a Hindu majority, although many of the most important leaders of the Muslim community, such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Aga Khan III, continued to envisage a single federation of all Indian provinces. Jinnah, the secular leader of the All India Muslim League, hoped that the leadership of the Congress Party would accommodate Muslims’ concerns of a Hindu bias in its high command. By documenting as many incidents as it could gather in reports published during 1939, the league hoped to demonstrate how Congress ministries were insensitive to Muslim demands or appeals for jobs, as well as to their redress of grievances, and had shown partiality toward the Hindu majority.
The divide intensified after the viceroy Lord Linlithgow (governed 1936–43) informed India’s political leaders and populace that they were at war with Germany and Hindu and Muslim leaders split on whether to support the war effort. The first meeting of the Muslim League after the outbreak of World War II was held in March 1940 in Punjab’s ancient capital of Lahore. The famous Lahore Resolution, later known as the Pakistan Resolution, was passed by the largest gathering of league delegates just one day after Jinnah informed his followers that “the problem of India is not of an inter-communal but manifestly of an international character.” The league resolved, therefore, that any future constitutional plan proposed by the British for India would not be “acceptable to the Muslims” unless it was so designed that the Muslim-majority “areas” of India’s “North-Western and Eastern Zones” were “grouped to constitute ‘independent States’ in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.” The rifts deepened further when the Congress Party launched the Quit India movement in 1942 to call for immediate independence and British withdrawal; the Muslim League opposed the call because immediate independence would preclude autonomy for Muslims.
After World War II ended, demands for independence were louder than ever, and the 1945 British parliamentary victory of Clement Attlee, who pledged to grant India independence, lent greater certainty to British withdrawal from the subcontinent. With the stakes rising, the simmering Hindu-Muslim tensions erupted. Jinnah called for a “direct action day” on August 16, 1946, which spiraled into communal rioting that left thousands dead in what was later remembered as the “Great Calcutta Killing.” The event was met