“Partition” – the division of British India into the two separate states of India and Pakistan on August 14-15, 1947 – was the “last-minute” mechanism by which the British were able to secure agreement over how independence would take place. At the time, few people understood what Partition would entail or what its results would be, and the migration on the enormous scale that followed took the vast majority of contemporaries by surprise.
The main vehicle for nationalist activity was the Indian National Congress, whose best-known leaders included Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Even before the 1940s, it had long argued for a unitary state with a strong centre; even though Congress was ostensibly secular in its objectives, organisations representing minority interests increasingly viewed this idea with suspicion, believing that it would entrench the political dominance of Hindus, who made up about 80% of the population.
At around 25% of its population, Muslims were British India’s largest religious minority. Under imperial rule, they had grown accustomed to having their minority status protected by a system of reserved legislative seats and separate electorates. The British system of political control hinged on identifying interest groups willing to collaborate, a governing style often described as “divide and rule”.
The prospect of losing this protection as independence drew closer worried more and more Muslims, first in parts of northern India, and then, after World War II, in the influential Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab. In 1945-6, the All-India Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, won a majority of Muslim votes in provincial elections. This strengthened the party’s claim to speak for a substantial proportion of, but never all, the subcontinent’s Muslims.
Then came World War II – and suddenly, the political stakes in India were considerably higher.
The end of the Raj
When Britain took India into the war without consultation in 1939, Congress opposed it; large nationalist protests ensued, culminating in the 1942 Quit India movement, a mass movement against British rule. For their part in it, Gandhi and Nehru and thousands of Congress workers were imprisoned until 1945.
Meanwhile, the British wartime need for local allies gave the Muslim League an opening to offer its cooperation in exchange for future political safeguards. In March 1940, the Muslim League’s “Pakistan” resolution called for the creation of “separate states” – plural, not singular – to accommodate Indian Muslims, whom it argued were a separate “nation”.
Historians are still divided on whether this rather vague demand was purely a bargaining counter or a firm objective. But while it may have been intended to solve the minority issue, it ended up aggravating it instead.
After the war, Attlee’s Labour government in London recognised that Britain’s devastated economy could not cope with the cost of the over-extended empire. A Cabinet Mission was dispatched to India in early 1946, and Attlee described its mission in ambitious terms:
My colleagues are going to India with the intention of using their utmost endeavours to help her to attain her freedom as speedily and fully as possible. What form of government is to replace the present regime is for India to decide; but our desire is to help her to set up forthwith the machinery for making that decision.
An act of parliament proposed June 1948 as the deadline for the transfer of power. But the Mission failed to secure agreement over its proposed constitutional scheme, which recommended a loose federation; the idea was rejected by both Congress and the Muslim League, which vowed to agitate for “Pakistan” by any means possible.
All the while, communal violence was escalating. In August 1946, the Great Calcutta Killing left some 4,000 people dead and a further 100,000 homeless.
By March 1947, a new viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, arrived in Delhi with a mandate to find a speedy way of bringing the British Rajto an end. On June 3, he announced that independence would be brought forward to August that year, presenting politicians with an ultimatum that gave them little alternative but to agree to the creation of two separate states.
Pakistan – its eastern and western wings separated by around 1,700 kilometres of Indian territory – celebrated independence on August 14 that year; India did so the following day. The new borders, which split the key provinces of the Punjab and Bengal in two, were officially approved on August 17. They had been drawn up by a Boundary Commission, led by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who later admitted that he had relied on out-of-date maps and census materials.
Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration. Millions of people moved to what they hoped would be safer territory, with Muslims heading towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs in the direction of India. As many as 14-16m people may have been eventually displaced, travelling on foot, in bullock carts and by train.
Estimates of the death toll post-Partition range from 200,000 to two million. Many were killed by members of other communities and sometimes their own families, as well as by the contagious diseases which swept through refugee camps. Women were often targeted as symbols of community honour, with up to 100,000 raped or abducted.
What can explain this intensely violent reaction? Many of the people concerned were very deeply attached not just to religious identity, but to territory, and Britain was reluctant to use its troops to maintain law and order. The situation was especially dangerous in Punjab, where weapons and demobilised soldiers were abundant.
Another unforeseen consequence of Partition was that Pakistan’s population ended up more religiously homogeneous than originally anticipated. The Muslim League’s leaders had assumed that Pakistan would contain a sizeable non-Muslim population, whose presence would safeguard the position of Muslims remaining in India – but in West Pakistan, non-Muslim minorities comprised only 1.6% of the population by 1951, compared with 22% in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
And even though Pakistan was ostensibly created as a “homeland” for India’s Muslim minority, not all Muslims even supported its formation, never mind migrated there: Muslims remained the largest minority group in independent India, making up around 10% of the population in 1951. Gandhi himself was assassinated in January 1948 by a Hindu nationalist extremist who blamed him for being too supportive of Muslims at the time of Partition.
Both states subsequently faced huge problems accommodating and rehabilitating post-Partition refugees, whose numbers swelled when the two states went to war over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-8. Later bouts of communal tension generated further movement, with a trickle of people still migrating as late as the 1960s.
Today, the two countries’ relationship is far from healthy. Kashmir remains a flashpoint; both countries are nuclear-armed. Indian Muslims are frequently suspected of harbouring loyalties towards Pakistan; non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan are increasingly vulnerable thanks to the so-called Islamisation of life there since the 1980s. Seven decades on, well over a billion people still live in the shadow of Partition.
India, country that occupies the greater part of South Asia. It is a constitutionalrepublic consisting of 29 states, each with a substantial degree of control over its own affairs; 6 less fully empowered union territories; and the Delhi national capital territory, which includes New Delhi, India’s capital. With roughly one-sixth of the world’s total population, India is the second most-populous country, after China.
It is known from archaeological evidence that a highly sophisticated urbanized culture—the Indus civilization—dominated the northwestern part of the subcontinent from about 2600 to 2000 bce. From that period on, India functioned as a virtually self-contained political and cultural arena, which gave rise to a distinctive tradition that was associated primarily with Hinduism, the roots of which can largely be traced to the Indus civilization. Other religions, notably Buddhism and Jainism, originated in India—though their presence there is now quite small—and throughout the centuries residents of the subcontinent developed a rich intellectual life in such fields as mathematics, astronomy, architecture, literature, music, and the fine arts.
Throughout its history, India was intermittently disturbed by incursions from beyond its northern mountain wall. Especially important was the coming of Islam, brought from the northwest by Arab, Turkish, Persian, and other raiders beginning early in the 8th century ce. Eventually, some of those raiders stayed; by the 13th century much of the subcontinent was under Muslim rule, and the number of Muslims steadily increased. Only after the arrival of the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama in 1498 and the subsequent establishment of European maritime supremacy in the region did India become exposed to major external influences arriving by sea, a process that culminated in the decline of the ruling Muslim elite and absorption of the subcontinent within the British Empire.
Direct administration by the British, which began in 1858, effected a political and economic unification of the subcontinent. When British rule came to an end in 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned along religious lines into two separate countries—India, with a majority of Hindus, and Pakistan, with a majority of Muslims; the eastern portion of Pakistan later split off to form Bangladesh. Many British institutions stayed in place (such as the parliamentary system of government); English continued to be a widely used lingua franca; and India remained within the Commonwealth. Hindi became the official language (and a number of other local languages achieved official status), while a vibrant English-language intelligentsia thrived.
India remains one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Apart from its many religions and sects, India is home to innumerable castes and tribes, as well as to more than a dozen major and hundreds of minor linguistic groups from several language families unrelated to one another. Religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, still account for a significant proportion of the population; collectively, their numbers exceed the populations of all countries except China. Earnest attempts have been made to instill a spirit of nationhood in so varied a population, but tensions between neighbouring groups have remained and at times have resulted in outbreaks of violence. Yet social legislation has done much to alleviate the disabilities previously suffered by formerly “untouchable” castes, tribal populations, women, and other traditionally disadvantaged segments of society. At independence, India was blessed with several leaders of world stature, most notably Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who were able to galvanize the masses at home and bring prestige to India abroad. The country has played an increasing role in global affairs.
Contemporary India’s increasing physical prosperity and cultural dynamism—despite continued domestic challenges and economic inequality—are seen in its well-developed infrastructure and a highly diversified industrial base, in its pool of scientific and engineering personnel (one of the largest in the world), in the pace of its agricultural expansion, and in its rich and vibrant cultural exports of music, literature, and cinema. Though the country’s population remains largely rural, India has three of the most populous and cosmopolitan cities in the world—Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta), and Delhi. Three other Indian cities—Bengaluru (Bangalore), Chennai (Madras), and Hyderabad—are among the world’s fastest-growing high-technology centres, and most of the world’s major information technology and software companies now have offices in India.
The history section of the articles Pakistan and Bangladesh discuss those countries since their creation.
India’s frontier, which is roughly one-third coastline, abuts six countries. It is bounded to the northwest by Pakistan, to the north by Nepal, China, and Bhutan; and to the east by Myanmar (Burma). Bangladesh to the east is surrounded by India to the north, east, and west. The island country of Sri Lanka is situated some 40 miles (65 km) off the southeast coast of India across the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar.
The land of India—together with Bangladesh and most of Pakistan—forms a well-defined subcontinent, set off from the rest of Asia by the imposing northern mountain rampart of the Himalayas and by adjoining mountain ranges to the west and east. In area, India ranks as the seventh largest country in the world.
Much of India’s territory lies within a large peninsula, surrounded by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east; Cape Comorin, the southernmost point of the Indian mainland, marks the dividing line between those two bodies of water. India has two union territories composed entirely of islands: Lakshadweep, in the Arabian Sea, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
It is now generally accepted that India’s geographic position, continental outline, and basic geologic structure resulted from a process of plate tectonics—the shifting of enormous, rigid crustal plates over the Earth’s underlying layer of molten material. India’s landmass, which forms the northwestern portion of the Indian-Australian Plate, began to drift slowly northward toward the much larger Eurasian Plate several hundred million years ago (after the former broke away from the ancient southern-hemispheric supercontinent known as Gondwana, or Gondwanaland). When the two finally collided (approximately 50 million years ago), the northern edge of the Indian-Australian Plate was thrust under the Eurasian Plate at a low angle. The collision reduced the speed of the oncoming plate, but the underthrusting, or subduction, of the plate has continued into contemporary times.
The effects of the collision and continued subduction are numerous and extremely complicated. An important consequence, however, was the slicing off of crustal rock from the top of the underthrusting plate. Those slices were thrown back onto the northern edge of the Indian landmass and came to form much of the Himalayan mountain system. The new mountains—together with vast amounts of sediment eroded from them—were so heavy that the Indian-Australian Plate just south of the range was forced downward, creating a zone of crustal subsidence. Continued rapid erosion of the Himalayas added to the sediment accumulation, which was subsequently carried by mountain streams to fill the subsidence zone and cause it to sink more.
India’s present-day relief features have been superimposed on three basic structural units: the Himalayas in the north, the Deccan (peninsular plateau region) in the south, and the Indo-Gangetic Plain (lying over the subsidence zone) between the two. Further information on the geology of India is found in the article Asia.
The Himalayas (from the Sanskrit words hima, “snow,” and alaya, “abode”), the loftiest mountain system in the world, form the northern limit of India. That great, geologically young mountain arc is about 1,550 miles (2,500 km) long, stretching from the peak of Nanga Parbat (26,660 feet [8,126 metres]) in the Pakistani-administered portion of the Kashmir region to the Namcha Barwa peak in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Between those extremes the mountains fall across India, southern Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. The width of the system varies between 125 and 250 miles (200 and 400 km).
Within India the Himalayas are divided into three longitudinal belts, called the Outer, Lesser, and Great Himalayas. At each extremity there is a great bend in the system’s alignment, from which a number of lower mountain ranges and hills spread out. Those in the west lie wholly within Pakistan and Afghanistan, while those to the east straddle India’s border with Myanmar (Burma). North of the Himalayas are the Plateau of Tibet and various Trans-Himalayan ranges, only a small part of which, in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir state (in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir), are within the territorial limits of India.
Because of the continued subduction of the Indian peninsula against the Eurasian Plate, the Himalayas and the associated eastern ranges remain tectonically active. As a result, the mountains are still rising, and earthquakes—often accompanied by landslides—are common. Several since 1900 have been devastating, including one in 1934 in what is now Bihar state that killed more than 10,000 people. In 2001 another tremor (the Bhuj earthquake), farther from the mountains, in Gujarat state, was less powerful but caused extensive damage, taking the lives of more than 20,000 people and leaving more than 500,000 homeless. Still others—notably the 2005 quake in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and the 2015 temblor in Nepal—principally affected those regions but also caused widespread damage and hundreds of deaths in adjacent parts of India. The relatively high frequency and wide distribution of earthquakes likewise have generated controversies about the safety and advisability of several hydroelectric and irrigation projects.
The Outer Himalayas (the Siwalik Range)
The southernmost of the three mountain belts are the Outer Himalayas, also called the Siwalik (or Shiwalik) Range. Crests in the Siwaliks, averaging from 3,000 to 5,000 feet (900 to 1,500 metres) in elevation, seldom exceed 6,500 feet (2,000 metres). The range narrows as it moves east and is hardly discernible beyond the Duars, a plains region in West Bengal state. Interspersed in the Siwaliks are heavily cultivated flat valleys (duns) with a high population density. To the south of the range is the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Weakly indurated, largely deforested, and subject to heavy rain and intense erosion, the Siwaliks provide much of the sediment transported onto the plain.
The Lesser Himalayas
To the north of the Siwaliks and separated from them by a fault zone, the Lesser Himalayas (also called the Lower or Middle Himalayas) rise to heights ranging from 11,900 to 15,100 feet (3,600 to 4,600 metres). Their ancient name is Himachal (Sanskrit: hima, “snow,” and acal, “mountain”). The mountains are composed of both ancient crystalline and geologically young rocks, sometimes in a reversed stratigraphic sequence because of thrust faulting. The Lesser Himalayas are traversed by numerous deep gorges formed by swift-flowing streams (some of them older than the mountains themselves), which are fed by glaciers and snowfields to the north.
The Great Himalayas
The northernmost Great, or Higher, Himalayas (in ancient times, the Himadri), with crests generally above 16,000 feet (4,900 metres) in elevation, are composed of ancient crystalline rocks and old marine sedimentary formations. Between the Great and Lesser Himalayas are several fertile longitudinal vales; in India the largest is the Vale of Kashmir, an ancient lake basin with an area of about 1,700 square miles (4,400 square km). The Great Himalayas, ranging from 30 to 45 miles (50 to 75 km) wide, include some of the world’s highest peaks. The highest in the range, Mount Everest (at 29,035 feet [8,850 metres]; seeResearcher’s Note: Height of Mount Everest), is on the China-Nepal border, but India also has many lofty peaks. Notable among those is Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet [8,586 metres]) on the border of Nepal and the state of Sikkim, which is the world’s third tallest peak and India’s highest point. Other high mountains in India include Nanda Devi (25,646 feet [7,817 metres]), Kamet (25,446 feet [7,755 metres]), and Trisul (23,359 feet [7,120]) in Uttarakhand. The Great Himalayas lie mostly above the line of perpetual snow and thus contain most of the Himalayan glaciers.
Associated ranges and hills
In general, the various regional ranges and hills run parallel to the Himalayas’ main axis. Those are especially prominent in the northwest, where the Zaskar Range and the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges (all in Jammu and Kashmir state) run to the northeast of the Great Himalayas. Also in Jammu and Kashmir is the Pir Panjal Range, which, extending along the southwest of the Great Himalayas, forms the western and southern flanks of the Vale of Kashmir.
At its eastern extremity, the Himalayas give way to a number of smaller ranges running northeast-southwest—including the heavily forested Patkai Range and the Naga and Mizo hills—which extend along India’s borders with Myanmar and the southeastern panhandle of Bangladesh. Within the Naga Hills, the reedy Logtak Lake, in the Manipur River valley, is an important feature. Branching off from those hills to the northwest are the Mikir Hills, and to the west are the Jaintia, Khasi, and Garo hills, which run just north of India’s border with Bangladesh. Collectively, the latter group is also designated as the Shillong (Meghalaya) Plateau.
The Indo-Gangetic Plain
The second great structural component of India, the Indo-Gangetic Plain (also called the North Indian Plain), lies between the Himalayas and the Deccan. The plain occupies the Himalayan foredeep, formerly a seabed but now filled with river-borne alluvium to depths of up to 6,000 feet (1,800 metres). The plain stretches from the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab in the west, where it is watered by the Indus River and its tributaries, eastward to the Brahmaputra River valley in Assam state.
The Ganges (Ganga) River basin (in India, mainly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states) forms the central and principal part of the plain. The eastern portion is made up of the combined delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, which, though mainly in Bangladesh, also occupies a part of the adjacent Indian state of West Bengal. That deltaic area is characterized by annual flooding attributed to intense monsoon rainfall, an exceedingly gentle gradient, and an enormous discharge that the alluvium-choked rivers cannot contain within their channels. The Indus River basin, extending west from Delhi, forms the western part of the plain; the Indian portion is mainly in the states of Haryana and Punjab.
The overall gradient of the plain is virtually imperceptible, averaging only about 6 inches per mile (95 mm per km) in the Ganges basin and slightly more along the Indus and Brahmaputra. Even so, to those who till its soils, there is an important distinction between bhangar—the slightly elevated, terraced land of older alluvium—and khadar, the more fertile fresh alluvium on the low-lying floodplain. In general, the ratio of bhangar areas to those of khadar increases upstream along all major rivers. An exception to the largely monotonous relief is encountered in the southwestern portion of the plain, where there are gullied badlands centring on the Chambal River. That area has long been famous for harbouring violent gangs of criminals called dacoits, who find shelter in its many hidden ravines.
The Great Indian, or Thar, Desert forms an important southern extension of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. It is mostly in northwestern India but also extends into eastern Pakistan and is mainly an area of gently undulating terrain, and within it are several areas dominated by shifting sand dunes and numerous isolated hills. The latter provide visible evidence of the fact that the thin surface deposits of the region, partially alluvial and partially wind-borne, are underlain by the much older Indian-Australian Plate, of which the hills are structurally a part.