According to the English Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: The founding of Pakistan and Bangladesh “is often traced to the reformer Syed Ahmed Khan's (1817–1898) articulation of the "two nation" theory in the 1880s. However, situating Syed Ahmed Khan in his times reveals that his concerns were more with securing the flagging fortunes of elite Muslims in north India than with advancing any separatist ideas. This required reconciling Muslims with British rule, Islamic ideas with Western modernity, and eschewing the Indian National Congress's anticolonial politics.

"Describing Muslims as a discrete community that Congress could not represent, Syed Ahmed Khan presumed greater unity among his co-religionists than empirical reality justified. But this was a perception reinforced by colonial censuses that had counted Indians into a Hindu "majority" and a Muslim "minority" community. In projecting Muslims and Hindus as two nations, Khan did not oppose the idea of an Indian nation as much as he sought to trump the majoritarianism he saw embedded in the Hindu-dominated Congress's nationalism that threatened to treat Muslims as a perpetual "minority."[Source: English Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Imperial systems of control through a balance between communities also lent support to the idea that Muslim interests needed separate representation. In October 1906, some Muslim leaders, with colonial encouragement, demanded separate electorates (granted by the 1909 Indian Councils Act) and in December 1906 established the All India Muslim League as a party that purportedly spoke for all Indian Muslims. While regional, linguistic, class, and sectarian divergences militated against a unitary conception of the Muslim community, this construction of the political category of "Indian Muslim" encouraged emphasis on religious identity to make demands from the colonial state. This was the backdrop to Jinnah's revival of the two-nation theory in the late 1930s.

Rise of Muslim Nationalism in Northwestern India (Pakistan)

Pakistan emerged from an extended period of agitation by Muslims in the subcontinent to express their national identity free from British colonial domination as well as domination by what they perceived as a Hindu-controlled Indian National Congress. Muslim anti-colonial leaders formed the All-India Muslim League in 1906. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale]

The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58 was the last fitful assertion of an all but moribund Mughal Empire. Mutinous sepoys had marched from Meerut, the site of the first outbreak, to Delhi proclaiming their intention to restore the poet-emperor Bahadur Shah II to imperial glory. British forces with Punjabi sepoys recaptured Delhi and banished the emperor to Burma, where he died in penury in 1862. British distrust of Muslim aristocracy resulted from the rebellious sepoys' attempt to restore the power of the emperor. Muslim leaders were alleged to have had a major role in planning and leading the revolt, although the revolt itself was a series of badly planned and uncoordinated uprisings and the principal leaders, Nana Sahib and Tantia Topi, were Hindus. In the eyes of British rulers, Muslim leaders had been discredited.

As a consequence, the landed Muslim upper classes in the north Indian heartland retreated into cultural and political isolation, while fellow Muslims in Punjab were rewarded for assisting the British. The former failed to reemerge economically and produced no large group comparable to the upwardly mobile British-educated Hindu middle class. They did not revise the doctrines of Islam to meet the challenges posed by alien rule, Christian missionaries, and revivalist Hindu sects, such as the Arya Samaj, attempting reconversion to Hinduism. The former Muslim rulers of India were in danger of becoming a permanent noncompetitive class in the British Raj at the very time the forces of Indian nationalism were gathering strength. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

One response to British rule came to be known as the Deoband Movement, which was led by the ulama, who were expanding traditional Islamic education. The ulama also sought to reform the teaching of Islamic law and to promote its application in contemporary Muslim society. They promoted publications in Urdu, established fund-raising drives, and undertook other modern organizational work on an all-India basis. While most Deobandis eventually were to support the Indian National Congress and a united India, a group that favored the creation of Pakistan later emerged as the core of the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam party.

Another response was led by Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98, known as Sir Syed) and was called the Aligarh Movement after the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (now Aligarh Muslim University), which he founded in 1875 at Aligarh in north-central India. Sir Syed considered access to British education as the best means of social mobility for the sons of the Muslim gentry under colonial rule.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the Indian nationalist movement were to be discerned in the increasing tendency to form all-India associations representing various interests. English-speaking Indians, predominantly middle-class but from different parts of the country, were discovering the efficacy of association and public meetings in propagating their views to a wider audience and in winning the attention of the British government. In 1885 the Indian National Congress (also referred to as Congress) was founded to formulate proposals and demands to present to the British.

A national, all-India forum, Congress was an umbrella organization. Many of its members envisioned a long British period of tutelage and advocated strictly constitutionalist and gradualist reforms, but after World War I, Congress argued for a speedy end to alien rule. The idea of the territorial integrity of India and opposition to any sectarian division of India, however, always remained sacrosanct to Congress.

Although Sir Syed often voiced demands similar to those made by the founders of Congress — local self-government, Indian representation on the viceroy's and the governors' councils, and equal duties for Indian members of the Indian Civil Service and the judicial service — he remained aloof when Congress was founded and advised his followers not to join Congress, because he thought the organization would be dominated by Hindus and would inevitably become antigovernment. It has been argued that Sir Syed's fear of Hindu domination sowed the seeds for the "Two Nations Theory" later espoused by the All-India Muslim League (also referred to as Muslim League), founded in 1906, and led to its demand for a separate state for the Muslims of India — reinforcing his view that the British were the only guarantor of the rights of the Muslims. Sir Syed argued that education and not politics was the key to Muslim advancement. Graduates of Aligarh generally made their careers initially in administration, not politics, and thus were not greatly affected by the introduction of representative institutions at the provincial level by the India Councils Act of 1892.

Idea of a Muslim State In India

The poet-philosopher Sir Muhammed Iqbal (1873-1938)is credited with being the first to call for the creation of a Muslim state in South Asia—in 1930. A group of students at Cambridge University invented the name Pakistan—an acronym including the first initials of states of Punjab, Afghania (the present-day Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan), Kashmir, Sind, and the last three letters of Balochistan—in 1933. In Urdu it means "Land of the Pure"

The idea of a Muslim nation gained wide support in 1940 when the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, demanded the establishment of a Muslim state in the areas of India where Muslims were in the majority. The League won most of the Muslim constituencies in the 1946 elections, and Britain and the Congress party reluctantly agreed to the formation of Pakistan as a separate dominion under the provisions of the Indian Independence Act, which went into effect on Aug. 15, 1947. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Iqbal, an Islamic revivalist poet and philosopher, discussed contemporary problems in his presidential address to the Muslim League conference at Allahabad in 1930. He saw India as Asia in miniature, in which a unitary form of government was inconceivable and community rather than territory was the basis for identification. To Iqbal, communalism in its highest sense was the key to the formation of a harmonious whole in India. Therefore, he demanded the creation of a confederated India that would include a Muslim state consisting of Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province, Sind, and Baluchistan. In subsequent speeches and writings, Iqbal reiterated the claims of Muslims to be considered a nation "based on unity of language, race, history, religion, and identity of economic interests."[Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Cambridge and the Creation of Pakistan

On January 28, 1933, Choudhary Rahmat Ali a Cambridge academic, published a document called the Pakistan Declaration, containing the first recorded use of the name Pakistan. Rahmat lived on Humberstone Road in Chesterton. The house is now owned by Juliet Mills, who lives there with her son, Guy. [Source: Hannah Wilkinson,, January 30 2014],

Hannah Wilkinson wrote in “They were unaware of the site’s significance when they bought the humble suburban semi. The house has become a place of pilgrimage for Pakistani visitors wishing to see where their nation was born.“We do get people coming to the door asking to look around and one even asked if they could come to tea. We did think about it but were away when they wanted to visit,” Mills said. “Sometimes we do make them a cup of tea and let them look around but it is just an ordinary family house inside and we do like our peace and quiet – although we are sociable.”

“Rahmat is not Cambridge’s only link with Pakistan’s heritage: another founding father, Muhammed Iqbal, was a student at Trinity College in the early twentieth century. Usmaan Ahmed, a third-year medic from Churchill and President of Cambridge’s Pakistan Society, said: “Pakistan’s founding fathers were based in Cambridge, studied in Cambridge, so the heritage is definitely there and it is an attractive factor when you’re applying here – it’s awesome. Cambridge does bring the best out of you I suppose, like it brought the best out of them.”

The Cambridge Pakistan Society is “flourishing”, according to Ahmed; they are expecting at least 300 people to attend their annual ball on Saturday. But despite historical connections, Ahmed says there is still work to be done persuading ethnic minority students from diverse backgrounds to apply to Cambridge: “That’s why we have our access day. We know that there are disadvantaged schools with really high proportions of Pakistani students and ethnic minority students.

Jinnah and the Creation of a Muslim State

Muhammad Iqbal conceived the concept of a Muslim homeland but the establishment of Pakistan was most advanced by Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), a Bombay lawyer who proved to be a shrewd leader of the Muslim League political party. Jinnah claimed that India contained two nations, one Hindu and one Muslim, and that Muslims could not safely exist in a Hindu-dominated India. The degree to which Jinnah’s objectives were motivated by religion is still debated, but his ideas resonated with Muslims who felt politically, economically, and socially discriminated against and with Muslims having theological interests in an Islamic state. At various times, the Muslim League acted independently of other groups and in shifting alliances with the colonial administration and the Congress Party of Mohandas Gandhi. Nevertheless, its objective was always the establishment of an independent Muslim homeland. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

In 1935, as part of the Government of India Act, the National Congress failed to include members of the Muslim League in the formation of provisional and provincial government. This was a fatal mistake. After the 1937 elections, when the Congress party of Gandhi and Nehru refused to share power with te Muslim League, Jinnah concluded that under its leadership Muslim's would become second class citizens. From then on he was committed to the creation of Pakistan and never trusted the National Congress or its leaders, particularly Nehru.

At the Muslim League’s landmark Lahore Conference in 1940, which favored the creation of Pakistan, Jinnah said, "Think 100 times before you make a decision. But once that decision is taken, stand by it as one man." Jinnah had no military force backing him, he forged Pakistan through sheer will and determination. Jinnah's supporters were aroused by Jinnah’s unyielding determination to create a Muslim state. "Failure is word unknown to me," Jinnah once said. He energized Muslims. Under the rallying cry “Islam in Danger,” Muslim League branches were opened all over South Asia, even in some of the remotest locations.

Jinnah looked upon Gandhi's policy of non-cooperation as futile and regarded his approach as essentially Hindu He once dismissed Gandhi as a "Hindu revivalist" and described his tactics as illegal and unconstitutional, relying to much on emotion, and arguing that they ultimately would lead to chaos and disorder. Jinnah once boasted that if he joined one of Gandhi's non-cooperation campaigns "the British would have 500 times more trouble because we have 500 times more guts than the Hindus." Jinnah believed that the end British rule could be brought about through legal and constitutional means.

Movements Towards Creating a Muslim State

The political tumult in India during the late 1920s and the 1930s produced the first articulations of a separate state as an expression of Muslim consciousness. Motilal Nehru convened an "all-party" conference in 1929 to suggest changes that would lead to independence when the British took up the report of the Simon Commission. The majority of the delegates demanded the end of the system of separate electorates. Jinnah, in turn, put forward fifteen points that would satisfy Muslim interests — in particular, the retention of separate electorates or the creation of "safeguards" to prevent a Hindu-controlled legislature. Jinnah's proposals were rejected, and from then on cooperation between Hindus and Muslims in the independence movement was rare.

The idea of a separate Muslim state gained increasing popularity among Indian Muslims after 1936, when the Muslim League suffered a decisive defeat in the first elections under India's 1935 constitution. In 1940, the Muslim League called for an independent state in regions where Muslims were in the majority. Campaigning on that platform in provincial elections in 1946, the League won the majority of the Muslim seats contested in Bengal. Widespread communal violence followed, especially in Calcutta.

Idea of Pakistan Leaves Out Bengal

Iqbal gave no name to his projected state; that was done by Chaudhari Rahmat Ali and a group of students at Cambridge University who issued a pamphlet in 1933 entitled "Now or Never." They opposed the idea of federation, denied that India was a single country, and demanded partition into regions, the northwest receiving national status as "Pakistan." They made up the name Pakistan by taking the P from Punjab, A from Afghania (Rahmat's name for the North-West Frontier Province), K from Kashmir, S from Sind, and Tan from Baluchistan. (When written in Urdu, the word Pakistan has no letter i between the k and the s.) The name means "the land of the Paks, the spiritually pure and clean." There was a proliferation of articles on the theme of Pakistan expressing the subjective conviction of nationhood, but there was no coordination of political effort to achieve it. There was no reference to Bengal. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

In its convention on March 23, 1940, in Lahore, the Muslim League resolved that the areas of Muslim majority in the northwest and the northeast of India should be grouped in "constituent states to be autonomous and sovereign" and that no independence plan without this provision would be acceptable to the Muslims. Federation was rejected and, though confederation on common interests with the rest of India was envisaged, partition was predicated as the final goal. The Pakistan issue brought a positive goal to the Muslims and simplified the task of political agitation. It was no longer necessary to remain "yoked" to Hindus, and the amended wording of the Lahore Resolution issued in 1940 called for a "unified Pakistan." It would, however, be challenged by eastern Bengalis in later years.*

After 1940 reconciliation between Congress and the Muslim League became increasingly difficult. Muslim enthusiasm for Pakistan grew in direct proportion to Hindu condemnation of it; the concept took on a life of its own and became a reality in 1947. *

Jinnah Moves Towards the Creation of Pakistan

In 1934 Jinnah returned to the leadership of the Muslim League after a period of residence in London, but found it divided and without a sense of mission and unable to replace the Khilafat Movement, which had combined religion, nationalism, and political adventure. Jinnah set about restoring a sense of purpose to Muslims. He emphasized the "Two Nations" theory based on the conflicting ideas and conceptions of Hinduism and Islam. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The 1937-40 period was critical in the growth of the Two Nations Theory. Under the 1935 Government of India Act, elections to the provincial legislative assemblies were held in 1937. Congress gained majorities in seven of the eleven provinces. Congress took a strictly legalistic stand on the formation of provincial ministries and refused to form coalition governments with the Muslim League, even in the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh in contemporary India), which had a substantial Muslim minority, and vigorously denied the Muslim League's claim to be the only true representative of Indian Muslims. This claim, however, was not substantiated because the Muslim League had done poorly in the elections, especially in the Muslim-majority provinces such as Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province. The conduct of Congress governments in the Muslim-minority provinces permanently alienated the Muslim League. *

By the late 1930s, Jinnah was convinced of the need for a unifying issue among Muslims, and Pakistan was the obvious answer. According to the English Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: “In elections held in 1937 to create fully Indian ministries in the eleven provinces of British India, the Congress had won majorities in eight and the League in none. Beginning his political career in the Congress, Jinnah had little personal interest in the politics of religion. But the League's electoral debacle sent him in search of some way to unite the interests of Muslims in Hindu-majority provinces, where separate electorates had ensured the League's only victories, with those in provinces where they formed majorities but where cross-communal regional parties held sway. [Source:English Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Religion provided a common thread, and claiming that Muslim India constituted a "nation" offered a viable strategy to argue for equal representation with "Hindu India" in any central government institutions. At no point did Jinnah view "Pakistan" so defined as incompatible with a federal or confederal state structure encompassing a united India. It was only by raising the specter of a future Congress-dominated postcolonial state that Jinnah persuaded Muslim-majority provinces wedded to their autonomy to accept the League as their "sole spokesman" in all-India negotiations.

At its annual session in Lahore on March 23, 1940, the Muslim League resolved that the areas of Muslim majority in northwestern and eastern India should be grouped together to constitute independent states — autonomous and sovereign — and that any independence plan without this provision was unacceptable to Muslims. Federation was rejected. The Lahore Resolution was often referred to as the "Pakistan Resolution"; however, the word Pakistan did not appear in it. *

An interesting aspect of the Pakistan movement was that it received its greatest support from areas in which Muslims were a minority. In those areas, the main issue was finding an alternative to replacing British rule with Congress, that is, Hindu, rule. * \ In the end, the Congress's rejection of the British Cabinet Mission's proposals of 1946, which protected Muslim interests through powerful provinces that could discipline the center, extinguished the last hopes for an undivided independent India. The British transferred power to Pakistan on 14 August 1947 and to India a day later.

Toward Partition Before World War II

While Congress leaders languished in jail, the Muslim League consolidated its strength. Under Jinnah, the league had finally become a mass movement, appealing to all classes of Muslims. Provincial self government had shown the League how difficult coexistence with the Congress would be in an independent nation with a Hindu majority.

In 1940, the Muslim League, afraid of a Hindu-run government, adopted a resolution calling for the partition of India into separate Muslim and Hindu zones and the creation an independent Muslim state. On March 23, 1940 Jinnah called the creation of a sovereign Muslim homeland. The proposal was submitted as the Lahore resolution, also known as the Pakistan resolution. It read: “The Muslims and the Hindus are of two different religious philosophies: they neither intermarry nor yoke the two together, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority must lead to growing discontent...Muslims are but a minority as is commonly known and understood. Muslims are a nation and according to any definition of a nation they must have their homeland, their territory, their state.”

Congress predictably opposed all proposals for partition and advocated a united India with a strong center and a fully responsible parliamentary government. To many, notably to Jawaharlal Nehru, the idea of a sovereign state based on a common religion seemed a historical anachronism and a denial of democracy. From 1940 on, reconciliation between Congress and the Muslim League became increasingly difficult, if not impossible. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Movements Toward Partition During World War II

During World War II, the Muslim League and Congress adopted different attitudes toward British rule. British priorities were driven by the expediencies of defense, and war was declared abruptly without any prior consultation with Indian politicians. In 1939 when the British declared India at war without first consulting Indian politicians, Muslim League politicians followed a course of limited cooperation with the British. Officials who were members of Congress, however, resigned from their offices.

Spurred by the Japanese advance in Asia and forceful persuasion from Washington, British prime minister Winston Churchill's coalition war government in 1942 had dispatched Sir Stafford Cripps to India with a proposal for settlement. The plan provided for dominion status after the war for an Indian union of British Indian provinces and princely states wishing to accede to it, a separate dominion for those who did not, and firm defense links between Britain and an Indian union. Cripps himself was sympathetic to Indian nationalism. However, his mission failed, and Gandhi described it as "a post-dated check on a crashing bank."

In August 1942, Gandhi launched the "Quit India Movement" against the British. Jinnah condemned the movement. The government retaliated by arresting about 60,000 individuals and outlawing Congress. Communal riots increased. Meanwhile, the Muslim League stepped up its political activity. Communal passions rose, as did the incidence of communal violence. Talks between Jinnah and Gandhi in 1944 proved as futile as did the negotiations between Gandhi and the viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell.

Congress ministers in the provinces resigned in protest. As a consequence, Congress, with most of its leaders in jail for opposition to the Raj, lost its political leverage over the British. The Muslim League, however, followed a course of cooperation, gaining time to consolidate. The British appreciated the loyalty and valor of the British Indian Army, many of whose members were Punjabi Muslims. The Muslim League's success could be gauged from its sweep of 90 percent of the Muslim seats in the 1946 election, compared with only 4.5 percent in the 1937 elections. The 1946 election was, in effect, a plebiscite among Muslims on Pakistan. In London it became clear that there were three parties in any discussion on the future of India: the British, Congress, and the Muslim League. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Britain’s View on the Creation of Pakistan

Raghvendra Singh wrote: In February 1946, the India Office in London had circulated an important paper to a select few, like Sir Stafford Cripps and AV Alexander, on the subject of the viability of Pakistan. The paper was based on the assumption that Kalat (a substantial part of Baluchistan) and the NWFP would opt for Pakistan. In the February 1946 provincial elections, the NWFP had returned a Congress ministry to power. The provincial legislature had a comfortable Congress majority. Elections in the provinces had just concluded. It could reasonably and comfortably be assumed that the Congress ministry would last its tenure. So then why would a Congress-governed province opt for Pakistan? Or were the India Office mandarins confident of their ability to change the destiny of the NWFP? In their forecast, however, the British officials were not off the mark. What they perceived to be theoretically possible could well turn into reality with the help of the NWFP governor and the provincial bureaucracy. After all, the NWFP had never much been run along popular lines. Governor George Cunningham ruled the province during the World War II years (1939-45), even though both the Congress and the Muslim League got a chance to form ministries. Baluchistan, bordering Persia and the sea and therefore strategically very important, proved a far easier game for the British. [Source: Raghvendra Singh, Quartz, August 9, 2019, excerpted from Raghvendra Singh’s “India’s Lost Frontier,” Rupa Publications.]

“Why was the India Office then assuming that the NWFP, a Congress-ruled province, would opt for Pakistan? The idea mooted in the India Office paper was of at least two Pakistans with no federal union, however loose. The paper was essentially an exercise in assessing the consequences of this division. If India’s economic unity broke, so would the largest free trade area in the world. Calcutta was predicted to emerge as a major bone of contention between India and Pakistan.

“Punjab had long enjoyed prosperity because of its predominance in the army and military. At the time World War II broke out, the Punjab had long enjoyed prosperity because of its predominance in the army and military. At the time World War II broke out, there weren’t any prominent industrial or manufacturing areas in either wing of Pakistan. Karachi (a port city in Pakistan) would be the only port of importance in West Pakistan. In the east, Chittagong (Bangladesh’s main seaport and its second-largest city) remained an indifferent port served only by a metre-gauge railway. There was no noticeable railhead except for the one at Lahore. The two divisions of Pakistan were only to be connected by sea, a two or three weeks’ voyage, as long as no hostile power commanded the Indian Ocean. The military commitments and priorities of West and East Pakistan differed greatly. A Soviet-aided Iran, the frontiers with Afghanistan, and the Soviet threat were all serious concerns that the armed forces in West Pakistan would have to contend with.

“The paper laid special emphasis on assessing the requirements of the armed personnel, including air force squadrons, necessary to resist tribal and Afghan aggression. This requirement was in addition to the forces needed for aiding civil power. The war potential of Russia being immense, an estimate of the force needed by Pakistan to defeat a Soviet-aided Afghanistan was pointless. Strategically, Pakistan would not be safe even with bases in Afghanistan and Iran. Karachi, its one link with the outside world, stood exposed to air attacks and invasions from the sea. The single line of railway between Karachi and Multan the sole means of communication between Karachi and Punjab—faced similar dangers. Lahore, the rail centre, was well within effective bombing range of Afghan/Persian airfields. Western Pakistan lacked the strategic depth necessary to enable the main bases to be located out of the effective range of enemy bombers. This factor assumed crucial importance because the mountainous NWFP could be an obstacle to the efficient functioning of radars.

“The paper further contended that the experience of the two World Wars showed that the Bengalis and the Assamese did not make for good soldiers. The 60,000 Bengali Muslims recruited in World War II were assigned mostly to military labour. As for the Assamese Muslims, only 3,000 had been enlisted. The inhabitants of Sindh and Baluchistan (in West Pakistan) were omitted from the list of potential manpower, as they, even more than the Bengalis and the Assamese, did not take to army life. It was left to Punjab and the NWFP to provide the manpower necessary to meet the needs of a Pakistani army. Punjabi Muslims and Pathans lagged behind in education and it was highly doubtful whether the technical needs of the Pakistani army could be met without a prospective scheme of training, which was both time-consuming and expensive. Nor could Pakistan produce a sufficient number of officers necessary for a large army. Assistance from the United Kingdom would, therefore, certainly be required in the form of technical help and training. This shortage of officers and technicians was to affect the air force more seriously than the army. It was difficult to assemble more than one squadron for Pakistan from within the Royal Indian Air Force. The formation of the Pakistan Air Force was to be a slow and laborious business. An almost complete lack of industry in Pakistan was militarily as serious as the shortage of officers and technicians. Practically everything needed for the clothing and equipment of the Pakistan armed forces would have to be imported. Without strong allies, West Pakistan could not be defended against Russia. Britain was to prove just such an ally.

“The paper inferred that West and East Pakistan had different strategic problems and were separate entities. Assistance from the United Kingdom was necessary to make up for the shortfall in technicians and officers. Practically all arms and equipment would have to be imported, with a 50% increase in the defence budget.

“Maintaining oil stakes in the Middle East and securing air routes would become a major task for Britain once India was lost to it. Britain desperately needed a foothold in the Indian subcontinent where it could legitimize its presence as an ally of the newly created state of Pakistan. Leaders of the movement for Pakistan also appreciated the expediency of a British presence in the state. What could a militarily weak Pakistan do but allow British presence on its soil for a substantial period of time? It suited Britain to partition India. Apart from enabling Britain to sustain its position in the Middle East, the creation of the two dominions of India and Pakistan within the British Commonwealth also allowed for a continuity of sorts.”

Churchill’s Impact on Partition

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker: “As von Tunzelmann writes, “By 1946, the subcontinent was a mess, with British civil and military officers desperate to leave, and a growing hostility to their presence among Indians.” Although Churchill had rejected the Congress Party’s offer of military support in exchange for independence, Bayley and Harper write that, ultimately, “it was Indian soldiers, civilian laborers and businessmen who made possible the victory of 1945. Their price was the rapid independence of India.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, August 13, 2007]

“The British could not now rely on brute force without imperilling their own sense of legitimacy. Besides, however much they “preferred the illusion of imperial might to the admission of imperial failure,” as von Tunzelmann puts it, the country, deep in wartime debt, simply couldn’t afford to hold on to its increasingly unstable empire. Imperial disengagement appeared not just inevitable but urgent.

“But Churchill’s divisive policies had already produced a disastrous effect on the Indian political scene. Congress Party leaders had refused to share power with Jinnah, confident that they did not need Muslim support in order to win a majority vote in elections. These attitudes stoked Muslim fears that the secular nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru was a cover for Hindu dominance. While the Congress leaders were in prison, Jinnah, with Churchill’s encouragement, steadily consolidated Muslim opinion behind him. By 1946, this secularist politician had managed to present himself as the best defender of Muslim interests in a Hindu-dominated India. Religion was never so deeply and enduringly politicized in India as it was in the last years of imperial rule.

“At first, Nehru and other Congress Party leaders dismissed the idea of Pakistan as a joke. Jinnah demonstrated his newfound power by ordering mass strikes across India, many of which degenerated into Hindu-Muslim riots. In just three days in August, 1946, four thousand residents of Calcutta died. Retaliatory killings around the country further envenomed political attitudes. A heartbroken Gandhi found fewer and fewer takers for nonviolence, even among his Congress Party, many of whose leaders spoke openly of civil war.

Drive Toward Partition After World War II

In July 1945, the Labour Party came to power in Britain with a large majority. Its choices in India were limited by the decline of British power and the necessity of retaining Indian links in imperial defense. General unrest in India spread, and, when a naval mutiny in Bombay broke out in 1945, British officials came to the conclusion that independence was the only alternative to forcible retention of control over an unwilling dependency. The viceroy, Lord Wavell, met with Indian leaders in Simla in 1945 to decide what form of interim government would be acceptable. No agreement was reached.

New elections to the provincial and central legislatures were ordered, and a three-man team came from Britain to discuss plans for self-government. Although the mission did not directly accept plans for self-government, concessions were made by severely limiting the power of the central government. An interim government composed of the parties returned by the election was to start functioning immediately, as was the newly elected Constituent Assembly. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Cabinet Mission Plan, proposed by Cripps, represented Britain's last, desperate attempt to transfer the power it retained over India to a single union. The mission put forward a three-tier federal form of government in which the central government would be limited to power over defense, foreign relations, currency, and communications; significant other power would be delegated to the provinces. The plan also prescribed the zones that would be created: northeastern Bengal and Assam would be joined to form a zone with a slight Muslim majority; in the northwest, Punjab, Sindh, North-West Frontier Province, and Balochistan would be joined for a clear Muslim majority; and the remainder of the country would be the third zone, with a clear Hindu majority. The approximation of the boundaries of a new Pakistan was clear from the delineation of the zones. The mission also suggested the right of veto on legislation by communities that saw their interests adversely affected. Finally, the mission proposed that an interim government be established immediately and that new elections be held.*

Congress and the Muslim League emerged from the 1946 elections as the two dominant parties, although the Muslim League again was unable to capture a majority of the Muslim seats in the North-West Frontier Province. At first, both parties seemed to accept the Cabinet Mission Plan, despite many reservations, but the subsequent behavior of the leaders soon led to bitterness and mistrust. Nehru effectively quashed any prospect of the plan's success when he announced that Congress would not be "fettered" by agreements with the British, thereby making it clear that Congress would use its majority in the newly created Constituent Assembly to write a constitution that conformed to its ideas. The formation of an interim government was also controversial. Jinnah demanded equality between the Muslim League and Congress, a proposal rejected by the viceroy. The Muslim League boycotted the interim government, and each party disputed the right of the other to appoint Muslim ministers, a prerogative Jinnah claimed belonged solely to the Muslim League. *

When the viceroy proceeded to form an interim government without the Muslim League, Jinnah called for demonstrations, or "Direct Action," on August 16, 1946. Communal rioting broke out on an unprecedented scale, especially in Bengal and Bihar. The massacre of Muslims in Calcutta brought Gandhi to the scene, where he worked with the Muslim League provincial chief minister, Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy. Gandhi's and Suhrawardy's efforts calmed fears in Bengal, but rioting quickly spread elsewhere and continued well into 1947. Jinnah permitted the Muslim League to enter the interim government in an effort to stem further communal violence. Disagreements among the ministers paralyzed the government, already haunted by the specter of civil war.

Lord Mountbatten and the Final Push to Partition

In February 1947, Lord Mountbatten was appointed viceroy with specific instructions to arrange for a transfer of power by June 1948. Mountbatten assessed the situation and became convinced that Congress was willing to accept partition as the price for independence, that Jinnah would accept a smaller Pakistan than the one he demanded (that is, all of Punjab and Bengal), and that Sikhs would learn to accept a division of Punjab. Mountbatten was convinced by the rising temperature of communal emotions that the June 1948 date for partition was too distant and persuaded most Indian leaders that immediate acceptance of his plan was imperative.

William Dalrymple wrote in The New Yorker: “In March, 1947, a glamorous minor royal named Lord Louis Mountbatten flew into Delhi as Britain’s final Viceroy, his mission to hand over power and get out of India as quickly as possible. A series of disastrous meetings with an intransigent Jinnah soon convinced him that the Muslim League leader was “a psychopathic case,” impervious to negotiation. Worried that, if he didn’t move rapidly, Britain might, as Hajari writes, end up “refereeing a civil war,” Mountbatten deployed his considerable charm to persuade all the parties to agree to Partition as the only remaining option. [Source: William Dalrymple, The New Yorker, June 29, 2015]

“In early June, Mountbatten stunned everyone by announcing August 15, 1947, as the date for the transfer of power—ten months earlier than expected. The reasons for this haste are still the subject of debate, but it is probable that Mountbatten wanted to shock the quarrelling parties into realizing that they were hurtling toward a sectarian precipice. However, the rush only exacerbated the chaos. Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge assigned to draw the borders of the two new states, was given barely forty days to remake the map of South Asia. The borders were finally announced two days after India’s Independence.

“None of the disputants were happy with the compromise that Mountbatten had forced on them. Jinnah, who had succeeded in creating a new country, regarded the truncated state he was given—a slice of India’s eastern and western extremities, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory—as “a maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten” travesty of the land he had fought for. He warned that the partition of Punjab and Bengal “will be sowing the seeds of future serious trouble.”

Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker: ““New problems arose every day. British concessions to Muslim separatism emboldened other religious and ethnic minorities. The fiercely tribalist Pashtuns of the North-West Frontier province, wary of Jinnah, asked for Pathanistan; the Naga tribes in the northeastern hills, who had been armed by the British to fight the Japanese, demanded Nagastan; the Sikhs proposed Sikhistan; the Baluchis went ahead and declared an independent Baluchistan. Mountbatten defused most of these would-be secessionists with a mixture of sweet-talking and bluster. His aristocratic connections came in particularly handy as he placated maharajas who were abruptly forced to choose between India and Pakistan. The trickiest of them, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir, who presided over a Muslim-majority population, was later to accede to India in circumstances that remain controversial and have preserved Pakistan’s claims on the state. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, August 13, 2007]

India Independence Act

On June 3, 1947, British prime minister Clement Attlee introduced a bill in the House of Commons calling for the independence and partition of India. On July 14, the House of Commons passed the India Independence Act, by which two independent dominions were created on the subcontinent; the princely states were left to accede to either. The partition plan stated that contiguous Muslim-majority districts in Punjab and Bengal would go to Pakistan, provided that the legislatures of the two provinces agreed that the provinces should be partitioned — they did. Sindh's legislature and Balochistan's jirga (council of tribal leaders) agreed to join Pakistan. A plebiscite was held in the Sylhet District of Assam, and, as a result, part of the district was transferred to Pakistan. A plebiscite was also held in the North-West Frontier Province. Despite a boycott by Congress, the province was deemed to have chosen Pakistan. The princely states, however, presented a more difficult problem. All but three of the more than 500 states quickly acceded to Pakistan or India under guidelines established with the aid of Mountbatten. The states made their decisions after giving consideration to the geographic location of their respective areas and to their religious majority. Hyderabad, the most populated of the princely states, was ruled by a Muslim but had a Hindu majority and was surrounded by territory that would go to India, and Junagadh (a small state with a Muslim prince but a Hindu majority) presented a problem. Both hesitated but were quickly absorbed into India. The accession of the third state, Jammu and Kashmir, could not be resolved peacefully, and its indeterminate status has poisoned relations between India and Pakistan ever since.

On July 14, 1947, the British House of Commons passed the India Independence Act, by which two independent dominions were created on the subcontinent and the princely states were left to accede to either. Throughout the summer of 1947, as communal violence mounted and drought and floods racked the land, preparations for partition proceeded in Delhi. Assets were divided, boundary commissions were set up to demarcate frontiers, and British troops were evacuated. .

The preparations were inadequate. A restructuring of the military into two forces took place, as law and order broke down in different parts of the country. Civil servants were given the choice of joining either country; British officers could retire with compensation if not invited to stay on. Jinnah and Nehru tried unsuccessfully to quell the passions of communal fury that neither fully understood. On August 14, 1947, Pakistan and India achieved independence. Jinnah had flown from Delhi to Karachi on seven days before and on the 14th took office as the first governor general of the new Dominion of Pakistan.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2020

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