‘Partition Must Be Seen Minus Misconceptions, in Broader Context’

The partition of the subcontinent needs to be seen in a wider, contemporary perspective.

4 min read
‘Partition Must Be Seen Minus Misconceptions, in Broader Context’

The Partition of the subcontinent remains a traumatic experience for its victims and continues to poison relations between India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims. But its toxicity is also due to several misconceptions that persist and the inability to see the issue in a wider, contemporary perspective, says British historian Yasmin Khan.

What information we have (about the Partition in 1947) is through family stories, clichés... but when you read the scholarship on it, there is a different view. Among the misconceptions is the conflating of the demand for Pakistan with the violence that was seen.
Yasmin Khan, British historian
Wagons packed with Muslim and Hindu refugees on border city of Amritsar. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Khan, also an associate professor of history at Oxford University further said:

The demand for Pakistan was not a call for a violent carnage... if you take the case of Muslims’ displacement only, it nearly wrecked the Pakistan project. But both these issues have been linked, virtually fused together, thus making the demand offensive and upsetting with consequences that are well known.

Broader Perspective of Partition Needed

“Disentangling both (the demand for Pakistan and the violence that accompanied Partition) is difficult but important,” maintains Khan, whose debut work “The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan” (2007) makes a compelling case that while there was both wide support – and opposition – to Partition, virtually no one had any understanding of what it would entail or what its results would be.

British historian and author Yasmin Khan (middle) speaking on the legacy of Partition. (Photo: IANS)

The author, who was in India to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, also notes that the leaders on both sides were shocked by the level of violence and tried to take steps to curb it, but it was also important to remember that they were human and faced many pressures that prevented them from reaching a compromise, despite several opportunities.

“The Cabinet Mission Plan (of 1945, recommending a loose confederation) was one,” she said.

Khan says it is important that Partition should be seen in the “broader” international context of the late 1940s. The Second World War had ended recently, and most of Europe was in ruins, with colonial powers themselves having sustained heavy damage and expenses. There were refugees all over Europe and Asia – as well as a large number of returning, demobilised soldiers.


Efforts to Decolonise Initiated by British in India

This was the milieu in which moves towards decolonisation were initiated, but colonial powers like Britain in the case of India were themselves weakened and in a hurry to transfer power, she said.

The focus for the British government was rebuilding the country... setting up the British welfare state, and there was a strong inclination to reduce the Empire’s commitments and bring soldiers home.
Yasmin Khan, British historian
Cover of The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. (Photo Courtesy: Amazon)

The situation in Palestine, also ruled by the British and seeing similar tensions between two religious communities, had many “commonalities” with the situation in the subcontinent, she said.

In this context, she notes that since there has been extensive literature and advanced scholarship on partition, South Asian scholarship could lead the way for the understanding of more regions that underwent decolonisation, with varying results and outcomes.


‘Partition Would Have Not Happened Without The War’

Khan, who has written “The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War” (2015) – an extensive account of the effect of the conflict on the Indian “home front”, as the country faced a total war and its manifold demands, as well as the political implications of radicalisation and a growing communal divide including among the armed forces – also argues that war had a major role in the partition as well as in the violence that followed.

Partition would have not happened without the war.. the Congress leaders were in jail (following the Quit India protest in 1942) and the Muslim League made advances.There was free availability of arms, of the trained returning Indian soldiers, including those of the INA, specially in Punjab, while the British found it difficult to maintain peace because of divided loyalties of Indian troops and pressure to send British soldiers home.
Yasmin Khan, British historian

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at This article was published in special arrangement with IANS.)

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Topics:  Partition of India 

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