Pakistan: 70 years after Partition

As India won independence from Britain, the state of Pakistan came into being, a nation carved out of the subcontinent as a homeland for India's Muslims. Taimur Khan recounts his grandfather's role in Partition and explores how Pakistan has fared, 70 years after its birth

CANADA - JULY 29:  Before today's rejection of British plans for an Indian government by the powerful Moslem league; M. A. Jinnah; its president; seen here in a rickshaw surrounded by supporters; attacked the good faith of British negotiators. The British must go; he shouted.   (Photo by Toronto Star Archives/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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It was August 11, 1947, three days before the Indian subcontinent was hastily divided by the departing British Raj.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the dapper barrister who led a movement for Pakistan's independence in the name of India’s Muslims, had just been sworn in as Pakistan's governor-general. In his first address to the newly formed constituent assembly in the new capital of the new country he had helped to will into existence, Jinnah set out his vision for the country to be carved out of the jewel in the crown of Britain’s empire.

A long freedom struggle by Indian nationalists, who were mostly secularist Hindus had become an inevitability after the Second World War had exhausted Britain — and seen more than 2.5 million Indian troops fight on its behalf.

Jinnah and his All India Muslim League party had rallied Muslim elites behind a movement that first sought a federal India with semi-autonomy ensuring the rights of Muslims. The Indian Congress Party rejected this power-sharing idea, and eventually it was agreed to partition the subcontinent into two states — one larger country made up of Hindu-majority territories, and the other of provinces to the east and west where Muslims were more numerous.

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Planning by British authorities and the mapping of borders was quick and sloppy, and, for example, left the overwhelmingly Muslim territories of Jammu and Kashmir under Indian control, a decision that has plagued the two countries ever since, and deferred self-determination for Kashmiris indefinitely.

India inherited the well-functioning apparatus of the colonial state, along with the wealth of state coffers, and a military. Jinnah was left to scramble for money, the basic components of a military, and the acquiescence of royal houses who owned the territory necessary for the creation of Pakistan.

After all this, on the cusp of nationhood, Jinnah had come to Karachi to be sworn in as Pakistan’s first leader. While Hindu-Muslim violence had flared over the previous year, there were no plans for minorities on either side to migrate. Indeed, both the Congress and Jinnah had sought political backing from minorities, and a Hindu official who would go on to become Pakistan's labour minister presided over the swearing-in.

Jinnah himself was a minority within the subcontinent’s Muslim multitudes, who were mostly Sunni, and predominantly Punjabi, Pushtun and Bengali. He was an Ismaili Shia from Gujarat, anglicised and liberal, much like his Congress counterpart, Nehru.

“In course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community — because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalis, Madrasis and so on — will vanish,” Jinnah said in his first speech as Pakistan’s leader.

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan … Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims -  not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State,” he continued.

His utopian vision proved, sadly, to be  just that and a year later, Jinnah died. As successive regimes tried, to varying degrees, to subsume deep divisions beneath an Islamic identity, Jinnah's first address was largely scrubbed from official narratives.

Within days of official independence, violence broke out on both sides of the new borders. More than six million Muslims and five million Hindus and Sikhs left their ancestral home and at least a million people were slaughtered in the process.


My grandfather supported the idea of Pakistan, but he never imagined a life there. In the First World War, his father fought for Britain against Germany in the trenches of France, and then against his fellow Muslims in the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan. My grandfather followed his father, joining Military College Jehlum, an academy for potential Muslim officers. But a sense of injustice at the treatment meted out by his British commanders drove him away and he eventually became a civil engineer. He worked for the colonial state in the United Provinces of north India, and as momentum gathered for independence, he was made aide de camp for the Nawab of the Loharu princely state.

He recalled that after August 14, confusion reigned supreme. He saw his former neighbours act in ways he could not comprehend.  He is still shaken, 70 years later.

Poorer Muslims suffered the most in my grandfather's town. One day he took a jeep and a contingent of soldiers sent by a neighbouring Hindu royal to protect the Nawab.  Seeing the soldiers, a local butcher told them his daughter had been kidnapped by neighbours and took them to the house. My grandfather said they found the girl, who had been raped repeatedly.

Later, my grandfather and the Nawab’s sons organised the evacuation by train of Muslims to Pakistan. Some made it across the border, others did not. He moved with the Nawab back and forth between Pakistan and India many times in those months. One night on the Pakistani side, they encountered a group of Sikh men, badly beaten and terrified. They were being held by a Pushtun tribal militia, who planned to execute them. The Nawab pulled rank, loaded the Sikhs into his jeeps and set off toward India. As soon as they crossed the border, the men jumped out of the moving vehicles and ran.

Other moments are unforgettable for different reasons. At the end of the evacuation, my grandfather and the Nawab were probably the only Muslims left in the town, and it happened to be Eid day. Alone, they went to the Eidgah to pray. One of the soldiers protecting the Nawab, a Hindu, did salat with them, a profoundly moving act of solidarity, and perhaps a warning to bystanders.

The Nawab moved to Jaipur, and my grandfather and his young wife with him. But it only delayed his inevitable move to Pakistan to rejoin his parents. The train stopped a mile from the border and he and my grandmother, who desperately wanted to stay in India, walked the rest of the way. Gangs of young men were waiting, and took whatever valuables the refugees carried as Indian security forces looked on. In a twist of fate, one of the Indian soldiers recognised my grandfather and my grandmother's jewellery was returned to her. My grandparents walked on, to start their lives again in Karachi.


Seventy years and three or four generations later, it is unclear what lessons Partition still holds. While Pakistan and India have evolved along very different paths, the outcomes don’t look particularly different.

The intolerance that fuelled the bloodshed in 1947 is still there, clearly in the DNA of both sides. In New Delhi, a populist Hindu nationalist party has replaced a dynastic party that ruled for decades. Mob attacks and lynchings of minorities and low-caste Indians have become a near-daily outrage.

Pakistan is no less troubled. Politics is infused with the anger and resentment of a growing middle class. Though religious parties lose out in elections to large provincial parties run by elites promising patronage to largely impoverished voters, it hardly matters. Society at large has moved steadily rightwards, particularly as those middle-classes exert greater influence in politics.

A decade of war against jihadist groups that turned on their former patrons in the Pakistani establishment has led to a drastic reduction in the terrorist attacks that took nearly 50,000 civilian lives since 2006. While Pakistan's war on terrorism has vastly reduced -  though probably not ended - the use of such groups as proxies in regional conflicts, this legacy has left an indelible mark on society. Minorities, especially Shia Muslims, who make up a quarter of the population, bear the brunt of attacks that occur less frequently but still regularly.

But Pakistan’s economy has grown steadily over the past decade and its fitful democratic system has taken root, with a second consecutive transfer of power via national elections due next year.. The military still plays an outsize role in politics and dominates foreign and security policy that is constitutionally the purview of the government, but the prospect of another period of military rule is diminished.

Parliament has secured crucial advances, such as the empowerment of provincial governments, and the recently-ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif has done a decent job of managing the economy. The growing urban middle classes mistrust politicians, regarding them as corrupt and venal,  and a vibrant and chaotic national media reflects and amplifies their views. They also largely ignore the needs and desires of the majority of poor Pakistanis. But it is those classes that now feed the increasingly independent judiciary and the military. The youth of Pakistan  — two-thirds of the country's 200 million are under 30 — are the most politically-engaged generation since the early 1970s.


As in other regional democracies, such as Turkey and India, the middle classes and the institutions they dominate do not value liberal democracy as an end in itself. Mr Sharif was disqualified from office by a technicality linked to Islamic “morality” provisions, which were inserted into the constitution by the dictator Zia Ul-Haq.

An ambitious deal with China will see around $56 billion invested in energy and transport infrastructure that will establish Pakistan as the link between China and the Arabian Sea and make Pakistan a keystone in Beijng's long-term economic plans. But other indicators reveal a fragile economy. External debt is rising, exports are falling, as are the remittances from dwindling jobs in the Gulf. They may no longer be enough to cover the budget deficit and there is not the growth needed at home to provide enough jobs for young Pakistanis, even if cities like Karachi and Lahore, and the quickly expanding provincial towns feel flush with cash and entrepreneurial energy.

Instability is also increasing across the region, with no end in sight for the conflict in Afghanistan, increased tension with India and now the crisis among Pakistan's long-time partners in the GCC. As Pakistan begins it's eighth decade, its most consequential years are still ahead.


The Partition of the subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan were mired in violence, brutality and hardship. Here, three people who lived through that time give their stories. 

Saleem Qureshi, for Pakistan feature for Foreign. (Zia Ur Rehman for The National)
Saleem Qureshi. Zia Ur Rehman for The National

Saleem Murtaza Qureshi, 84, was born in Simla, (now Shimla, capital of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh), the summer capital of the British government, where his father Ghulam Murtaza Querishi was stationed for 30 years as civilian personnel with the Indian Army.

“At the time of Partition, there were two options  for Muslim military officers: either to join the Indian or the Pakistan army. My father opted for Pakistan. My brothers and I attended the prestigious St. Edward’s School, and most of my friends were Hindus. One of my class-mates, Satish Kumar, was from a conservative Hindu family who did not allow him even to eat eggs. We used to exchange our food and I would give him egg omelettes with achar [pickles].

After partition, my family stayed  in Shimla and we also celebrated Eid Al Adha in September, sacrificing two goats. It was our last Eid there.

“A few days later, we were having lunch at home, when our neighbour, a Sikh magistrate, came to our father, informing him that a Sikh mob was coming to the area to kill Muslims. Without delaying, my father asked everyone to start packing and get ready. My mother collected only her jewelry, cash and some valuables and walked hurriedly to a hotel, where arrangements had already been made by families of around 20 Muslim military officers..

For more than 15 days we lived in that army-run hotel compound, guarded by he Indian and British military, but  in constant fear of attack by Sikhs. I witnessed  several horrifying scenes - Sikhs attacking Muslims with swords. The memories still keep me awake at night.

We marched to the railway station and, under military guard, we travelled taken to Kalka (in Haryana). We couldn't go to Lahore directly because the security situation was even worse. Our train took a long route and took two weeks to reach  Bombay (now Mumbai) via Agra.

“Because of our military affiliation, we had guards from the Indian and British armies on our trains. Two  other trains, which left three and four days after ours bringing Muslim civilians to Pakistan were attacked and a large number of Muslims were massacred in Patiala (in Indian Punjab) by Sikh mobs.

We stayed in Mumbai at the Kalyaan military camp for a week and finally reached Karachi after a three-day voyage on the Vesoa. The journey from Simla had taken seven weeks. When the ship docked in the port of Karachi, passengers started kissing the ground.

After four days in a makeshift camp near Napier Road in Karachi we took the train to Rawalpindi where the Pakistan army was headquartered. My family was allotted accommodation and my father resumed work with the army.

“Our life was happier before the partition. But after seeing today life, I think Partition was the right decision but the violence that surrounded it could have been prevented.”


Muhammad Nehal, for Pakistan feature for Foreign. (Zia Ur Rehman for The National)
Muhammad Nehal, who was displaced twice by the Partition. Zia Ur Rehman for The National

Muhammad Nehal, aged around 78, was born in the Patna area of Bihar, north India, the eldest of four children. His father worked as a civilian watchman for the British and then in a locomotive factory

“I am among those hundreds of thousands of people who suffered twice from the Partition, first in 1947 and then in  the partition of Pakistan in 1971.

I was around seven or eight in 1947.  While most of the Muslims from Indian provinces, such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, moved to West Pakistan, my family decided to move to East Bengal (then part of East Pakistan and now  part of Bangladesh), because it was nearer. West Pakistan was very far from Bihar. In East Pakistan, our people came to be known as Biharis and in Pakistan they still call us Biharis today.

“My parents used to tell us that there was exemplary communal harmony in our village in Bihar between Muslims and Hindus. But with Partition came rumours of Hindus looting and killing Muslims fleeing to Pakistan. Because of that, we left our homes with just the clothes on our backs. We walked to the border at Birol and reached it unharmed.

In East Pakistan, our family set up makeshift houses in Parbatipur and my father got work in a jute mill. We had some relatives left in Bihar, so we used to visit each other regularly by train and without visas, but that ended in 1965 when war broke out between India and Pakistan.

My parents missed Bihar very much.The graves of their grandparents were there. But after 15  years in East Pakistan, the situation was worsening for Urdu-speaking non-Bengalis, especially on the issue of language, and Bengali nationalist parties in East Pakistan started a hate campaign against the dominance of West Pakistan .

“In our village, we used to study in Urdu-medium Jinnah schools. We learned to speak and understand Bengali but not to write it.

In the 1970 general election, Biharis supported the pro-West Pakistan political party rather than the Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League. After that, Bengali nationalist groups started a separatist movement for East Pakistan  and they began attacking Biharis for supporting West Pakistan.

“I joined the Pakistani army in 1968 and fought for nine months in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. I was one of 93,000 Pakistani army personnel who were taken prisoner by the Indian Army. At that time, I did not even know the whereabouts of my family. My father later told me a number of our close relatives were killed by Bengalis in the insurgency.

After my release, I moved to Lahore in 1974 and  went back to being a soldier in Punjab and later Karachi. But in 1986 we suffered more ethnic violence when armed Pashtuns attacked our neighbourhood and torched most of the  huts.

And now my community is facing more discrimination in Pakistan. The government is blocking citizenship for people who migrated before or after 1970 from East Pakistan. They ask for documents issued between 1970 and 1979, such as the repatriation certificate and ration card, but most of the community never received  these documents.

Without Computerised National Identity Cards we can’t get jobs or education opportunities and all the other benefits of  Pakistani citizenship. We can’t open bank accounts or buy any property, It is extremely unfair because we are true Pakistanis who made huge sacrifices for the country. We did double migration, left our homes twice and still in Pakistan, we are facing discrimination and difficulties.


Hasan Bano, for Pakistan feature for Foreign. (Zia Ur Rehman for The National)
Hasan Bano, survivor of Partition. Zia Ur Rehman for The National

Hasan Bano, is 80 or 81. She was born in Amroha, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India.

“I was around 14 years old when I arrived in Karachi by plane. The partition had happened a year or two before we came here, and I must be honest, unlocking those memories is not easy.

“Many of my cousins were working in Delhi at that time, and the city saw a lot of bloodshed as all the different groups charged at one another. Amroha isn’t far from Delhi but no one turned up in our area, perhaps out of reverence for the Saint Hazrat Sharfuddin Shahwilayat (whose shrine is in Amroha).

But we heard terrible reports of trains arriving in Pakistan piled up with bodies, and that instilled fear in the community: One of my friends was supposed to get married, and she had gone away to Pakistan while her husband-to-be was still in Delhi. The wedding was postponed due to the unrest, and we still don’t know how the bridegroom got to Pakistan. We heard he managed to hide in a tonga (a horse-drawn cart) /because he was very slim.  Another friend of mine arrived by camel cart and had a terrible time with motion sickness.

“Apart from not knowing if we would stay alive, there was an air of insecurity regarding jobs. My brother was teaching at a school which was taken over by the Hindus. He was paid 25 rupees per month, which was meagre compared to what the Hindus were paid. .

My mother had passed away when I was young and my father was ill most of the time, so when my brother went to the other side, to Pakistan, I had no reason to stay back. My father asked a relative who was taking his daugher to take me along. My father followed on shortly after.

My great-grandfather had lands under his name in India but all  was left  behind.

I  had never been on a plane. My relative’s daughter kept throwing up in the bag they gave us  but I sat near the window seat and watched the houses grow smaller,  unaware that it was the last time I would see them.

“My finances didn’t permit it, but I would have loved to go back and see how the house where I grew up had evolved. But then, it didn’t hold the best memories for me because life was tough there and it didn’t get any better here until a few decades ago. Class is indeed something which determines the course of lives anywhere perhaps, but yes, Hindustan is home because I was born there, and life would have been easier if Partition hadn’t happened, because then there would have been no question of leaving, would there?