After 200 years of rule over the "Jewel in the Crown" of the British Empire, the imperial power withdrew from India in 1947. While India had been fighting for liberation for nearly 90 years, the jubilant occasion brought with it an inconceivable scale of destruction. Independence was marred by the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Historians estimate that upwards of two million people died and 15 million were displaced.
The events leading up to the partition started with the British Empire’s declining foothold in the subcontinent. World War II had drained Britain’s resources and an Indian nationalist movement was stronger than ever. Over the years, using a system of separate electorates and reserved legislative seats for Muslims (who made up 25% of British India’s population), the Empire had engineered a "Divide and Rule" strategy that would create religious divisions between Hindus and Muslims and suppress any unified nationalist movements. By the time the last viceroy arrived in India in March 1947, The Indian National Congress (led by Jawaharlal Nehru) and the All-India Muslim League (led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah) were demanding two sovereign nations.
Related: 7 Essential Books About Afghanistan
Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been east of Paris, was tasked with drawing borders that would demarcate India and Pakistan. With only five weeks for the task, the Radcliffe Line was announced on August 17, declaring the Punjab and Bengal provinces would be ceded to Muslim-majority Pakistan. The harried transfer of power and partition gave rise to communal riots, killing, abducting, and a mass exodus. People who found themselves on the “wrong side of the border” migrated—Muslims traveled west to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs east to India.
While there are several academic accounts of the partition, here are five contemporary books that humanize the tragedy and offer insight on the loss of home and life.
Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory
Part oral history, part ethnography, Aanchal Malhotra’s seminal book looks at the partition through material memory. What does one take with them as they flee for safety? Within 21 stories, the book captures the emotions behind the possessions that migrants carried with them as they made an arduous journey to the other side of the border. For instance, Azra Haq, a 90-year old residing in Lahore, Pakistan has a pearl necklace that was gifted to her by the Maharaja of Bikaner—the only thing she has left of her entire childhood from “across the border”.
The necklace is more valuable than money to Haq because it survived the migration and with it, many memories of a luxurious lifestyle. With evocative prose, Malhotra ponders what it would have felt like to leave behind a life of comfort. Each object she studies has a story deeper than the material possession—a story of longing, despair, and even hope of returning to one's birthplace.
Partition Voices: Untold British Stories
While many Indians were employed as lancers, seamen, and ayahs in Britain before the partition, The British Nationality Act of 1948 granted British citizenship to citizens of India and Pakistan. This book documents the stories of former British Raj citizens, some of who recount painful stories—such as seeing the skeletons of their neighbors and friends in the aftermath of partition violence.
This is a deeply humanizing retelling of life before, during, and after the tragic event. Released on the 70th anniversary of the partition, these stories serve as a reminder that South Asians should race against time to document survivor accounts, before it is too late. The book is also considered essential reading for South Asian Britons coming to terms with their roots and identity.
The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan
The Great Partition was initially released in 2007, and was just recently updated in 2017. It serves as a nuanced yet concise look at the events leading to the formation of modern-day India and Pakistan. The book opens with Malcolm Darling, a retired Indian civil servant touring North India in 1946 to find out “what the peasant was thinking” about azadi (freedom). Along with reference material like maps, illustrations, and a major timeline of events, author Yasmin Khan also weaves narratives of people like Darling, scholars, officials, and eyewitness accounts of the common man.
Within 10 chapters, The Great Partition provides context on the downfall of the British Raj, politicians stoking communal violence, the migration during partition, and goes on to document the refugee crisis, rehabilitation interventions by the newfound nations, and further, the politics of the modern-day countries involved. Perhaps the book’s greatest feat lies in offering the reader a nuanced perspective that moves away from the one-dimensional political memory found in each country’s narrative.
The Other Side of Silence
While partition transpired over 70 years ago, Urvashi Butalia aptly says that it's not a closed chapter of history, but rather a division that is omnipresent in everyday life. The book opens with her family’s partition story—a maternal uncle and grandmother left behind in Lahore, Pakistan as other members of the family made their way to India. Butalia writes with raw vulnerability as she comes face-to-face with difficult, disturbing questions that erode at family dynamics.
This book is widely known for its oral narratives of women, children, and marginalized communities, some of the biggest victims of violence during partition. What also stands out is Butalia's observation on the gendered telling of partition: “For the most part, men spoke of the relations between communities, the broad political realities. Seldom was there an occasion when a man being interviewed would speak of a child lost or killed, while for a woman there was no way in which she could omit such a reference.”
1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India
The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 led to the independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh from East Pakistan, the "second partition" of the subcontinent. Anam Zakaria’s book studies Saqoot-e-Dhaka (the fall of Dhaka) as a significant moment in South Asian history that led to the creation of a new country and subsequently, impacted relations between the three nations.
"To understand the region today, I felt it was imperative to look at the past and see how it shaped the present," Zakaria notes. The book sheds light on Bangladeshis' perception, collective, and personal memory of the bloody war with Pakistan. The book also examines what 1971 represents to each nation—liberation for Bangladesh, an uncomfortable legacy for Pakistan, and by providing military support to Bangladesh nationalists, triumph for India.