India Is Still Haunted By the Aftershocks of Partition

People greet one another after evening prayers led by Sheikh Saleh bin Ibrahim Imam Qaba at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan

Partition has left a deep, diffuse and damaging legacy across India, Pakistan and even broader South Asia.

This week marks the seventieth anniversary of Partition—one of the bloodiest and most traumatic events of modern times.

The basic history is well known. In August 1947, Great Britain granted independence to British India. The prized colonial possession was split into two new nations: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Millions of Muslims fled India and millions of Hindus fled Pakistan to relocate to their new religious homelands. Horrific orgies of violence accompanied these mass migrations, producing—according to some estimates—up to two million deaths.

Partition, not surprisingly, has left a deep, diffuse and damaging legacy across India, Pakistan and even broader South Asia.

Above all, Partition has given India and Pakistan perpetual identity crises. Both countries have struggled to define the role of religion in the state. Independence leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah once spoke of Pakistan, which was established as an Islamic state, as a haven for religious tolerance and diversity. However, subsequent leaders Islamicized the country, helping give rise to the religious extremism that afflicts Pakistan today. Sadly, the Pakistanis most vulnerable to extremist violence are religious minorities—whose families, decades earlier, made the brave decision to stay put at Partition.

India, by contrast, was founded as a secular state—but Hindu nationalism has long been a powerful force. Indian governments have frequently implemented policies, including recent crackdowns on cattle slaughter, which target India’s 170-million-strong Muslim minority. India’s religious minorities suffer discrimination and attacks (albeit not on the scale of those in Pakistan) and accuse Hindu groups of conversions to Hinduism. Just as Pakistan houses Islamist hardliners, India hosts Hindu hardliners—including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful Hindu nationalist group, and Bajrang Dal, a militant Hindu youth organization. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, has been accused of inciting communal riots.

The identity crisis spawned by Partition also spills into present-day Bangladesh, which became a part of Pakistan (and was called East Pakistan) in 1947—until gaining independence following a 1971 war. Bangladesh, like India, boasts secular traditions, but they’re under fire amid the rising influence of Islamist extremists. Tensions are growing between Islamists and secularists; one flashpoint is an ongoing series of trials that have so far led to the execution of five Islamist politicians accused of war crimes during the 1971 war.

Partition, which unleashed such devastating levels of religious violence, is also a major driver of the hostility that inflames India-Pakistan relations—hostility that has provoked four wars. In both countries, important influencers—religious leaders, the media and the state itself—propagate hostile narratives about their hated neighbor.

To be sure, constituencies for peace do exist on both sides; witness the emergence in May of a citizens’ petition that promotes improved bilateral relations and features the signatures of prominent people from both countries. But these initiatives are hard sells, given that the toxic politics of India-Pakistan relations are increasingly seeping into supposedly safe spaces like civil society and culture. Educational exchanges have been canceled and cut short. There have been calls in India for bans on Pakistani film stars in Bollywood and in Pakistan for limits on the availability of Indian films.