India Partitioned as Raj Withdraws

History Today, August 1997 | Go to article overview

India Partitioned as Raj Withdraws


On this day Jawaharlal Nehru, India's new prime minister, made a memorable radio address to the new nation citing a moment `which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends', as indeed it did. The transition experienced by Britain's imperial `Jewel' as it slipped away into the brave, new post-colonial world, marked not only the end of the British Raj, the effective end of British sovereignty, but also the symbolic end of a long age of European imperialism and the beginning of a new era of political and religious instability, Cold-War aggression and above all freedom for the Asian subcontinent.

India was the greatest dominion in the greatest of the European empires, now the world's largest democracy, and it was born, inevitably perhaps, in strife and adversity, which still affects the region's politics today. As the British left with indecent haste fearing the consequences of partition into the republics of India and Pakistan, sectarian riots and massacres perpetrated by Hindus and Muslims resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 people with over 1 million becoming refugees in either country. Racial hatred had boiled over as millions of Muslims sought to relocate to Islamic Pakistan whilst the Hindu minority in the north, fearful of living under Muslim rule, came south into India.

However, on August 15th, the problems were all to come and the moment was for celebration as the realisation of independence and self-determination brought joy and optimism for a new future. As the Union flags were hauled down at 8.30am that morning, across the continent from the hill stations to the vice-regal palaces, in the cold, pale dawn of the post-war world this simple ceremony symbolised new life for an emergent nation.

Sadly, two of those most prominent in securing independence for the new republics would not long outlive British rule. `Mahatma' Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi only months later by Hindu extremists, whilst Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor-General and founder of Pakistan, died in 1948 of lung cancer.

For many white inhabitants of India, independence meant bidding farewell to a country they had come to regard as home. …

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