ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Legacy of Partition

Foundations of the Indian Nation

Anwesha Sengupta ( is at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. Ishan Mukherjee ( is with the Economic & Political Weekly.


The EPW is grateful to Anwesha Sengupta, guest editor of the Special Issue on Nation-making in Partitioned India.

The celebration of 70 years of independence in 2017 did not remain confined to India and Pakistan; it was observed with much fanfare, ironically enough, in Britain as well. Yet, these fell short of being euphoric, not least because of a lingering discomfort with the events that accompanied the experience of decolonisation. Nation-making in postcolonial South Asia not only had to deal with the long legacy of colonial rule, it had to meet the challenges thrown up by the dislocations that accompanied the vivisection of British India into two nation states. Independence and partition were inseparable processes. Historical scholarship continues to grapple with the challenge of bringing these together in the analyses of the polities that emerged with the eclipse of the British Empire in the subcontinent. This special issue brings together a collection of articles that attempts to address this challenge by examining how partition shaped nation-making processes in postcolonial India in a variety of contexts.

Three distinct phases may be identified in the ever-expanding scholarship on India’s partition. In the first wave, historians occupied themselves with ascertaining responsibility for the partitioning of the subcontinent. With a focus on high politics, these scholars examined in great detail the role of the British government, the major all-India political parties, and prominent personalities in shaping the way India was partitioned, and the turmoil that it precipitated (Page 1982; Jalal 1985; Singh 1987; Mahajan 2000).

Eventually, however, the focus shifted towards examining ­experiences and memories of partition (Butalia 1993, 1998; Menon and Bhasin 1993, 1998; Pandey 2001; Ray 2001; Bagchi and Dasgupta 2003; Bagchi et al 2007; Chakravartty 2005; ­Kothari 2007; Kaur 2007). This second phase of scholarship insisted that there was no singular experience of partition; how it affected individuals and groups critically depended upon one’s location in the postcolonial polity, which were contingent upon religious affiliations, gendered identities, class and caste status, occupation, regional configurations and such other factors. While concerns about what caused partition continued to inspire scholarship, the focus shifted towards studying the multiple imaginations of Pakistan and how these mobilised people to political action. In so doing, scholars explored the imaginaries of Pakistan in the thought of major actors (Devji 2013) as well as in the conceptions of what it meant to the people at large (Bose 2014; Dhulipala 2014).

The third, and relatively recent, strand in partition studies came to be preoccupied with the legacy of partition. Its major concern was to understand how the new nation states emerged from the upheavals of their foundational moments. The present collection of articles, which brings together new research by young scholars, may broadly be located in this third stream of partition scholarship. These elaborate the complex ways in which the division of British India shaped the postcolonial polity, economy, society, and practices of governance. The authors in this collection highlight the role of various agents who participated in the nation-building process in India: state actors, international organisations, as well as ordinary people, including refugees who made India their home.

Partition of British India destabilised the region in innumerable ways. The violence that accompanied it claimed human lives in staggering numbers, for which we can only have rough estimates; it precipitated one of the largest mass migrations in recorded human history. Around 4.5 million Hindus and Sikhs were forced to leave western Punjab; almost 5.5 million Muslims were uprooted from eastern Punjab (Tan and Kudaisya 2000: 98). Between East Pakistan and India, the cross-border movement of religious minorities continued for decades and, according to official estimates, West Bengal had at least 8 million refugees from East Pakistan in 1981 (Tan and Kudaisya 2000: 146). On the other hand, by the end of the 1960s, at least 1.5 million Muslims had fled to East Pakistan from West Bengal (Chatterji 2007: 166). Apart from the provinces that were actually partitioned, people in other parts of the subcontinent also felt its impact, often in equally traumatic ways (Ghosh 2007, 2008; Sengupta 2017; Sherman 2015).

Amidst this violence and mass migrations, the work of materially separating India and Pakistan began. It meant demarcating and policing the borders (Chatterji 1999; van Schendel 2004; Tan and Kudaisya 2000; Roy 2012; Ibrahim 2017), splitting the army (Khan 2007: 113–17), the bureaucracy, and the judiciary, dividing assets and liabilities (Sengupta 2014; Ankit 2017), figuring out the ways in which resources (natural or otherwise) could be shared if they could not be divided, identifying “true” citizens (Zamindar 2007; Roy 2012; Chatterji 2012), and several other complex issues.

Diplomacy and National Economy

Carving out two separate nation states from British India, as the articles by Anwesha Sengupta (p 43) and Jack Loveridge (p 50) show, were long-drawn-out and severely contested processes. As Punjab and Bengal were divided by the strokes of Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s pen, long-established commercial networks and trade links faced acute disruptions. The jute fields of eastern Bengal were separated from the mills of Calcutta as the former became a part of Pakistan. Since Bengal’s economy relied on this “golden fibre,” partitioning the world of jute cultivation and manufacture called for careful bilateral negotiations and rapid infrastructural development. Anwesha Sengupta’s article elaborates the complex nature of jute diplomacy in the immediate aftermath of partition, and its local and global implications.

The Radcliffe Line in Punjab cut through the Indus River System, disrupting the integrity of the irrigation network that had evolved in the region during the colonial era. The water-sharing dispute that it precipitated led to long-winded negotiations bet­ween India and Pakistan, in which politicians, diplomats, as well as international organisations participated. Jack Loveridge’s article captures the role played by American philanthropic agencies, such as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, which grafted themselves on to the agenda of the Nehruvian state. Importantly, Loveridge demonstrates that concerns that informed nation-building initiatives in India not only emerged from the subcontinental context. The ways in which problems of food security and population growth were framed by these aid agencies, with support from the Indian establishment, had strong connections with global discourses on post-war development.

Refugees and Nation-making

The fear of food shortage and population explosion that Loveridge highlights in his article were fuelled by concerns around refugee influx. The figure of the refugee soon came to take centre stage in Nehruvian discourses on nation-making. In postcolonial India’s developmental narrative, the ideal refugee came to be imagined as a hardworking, disciplined, and obedient individual who, despite experiencing the trauma of partition, was always eager to provide labour for building the nation (Sen 2010; Sengupta 2017).

Producing the ideal refugee, therefore, required the state to don the pedagogue’s robe. Kaustubh Mani Sengupta’s (p 58) article on refugee education and training in West Bengal throws light not only on the educational initiatives that specifically targeted refugees, but it shows how the government’s refugee education policies can help understand the classificatory strategies of the postcolonial state and the biases that informed such bureaucratic decisions. There was no one educational policy for all refugees. “Bhadralok refugees” took their own initiatives to ­establish schools in the squatter colonies they set up on the fringes of Calcutta. But the task of educating “subaltern refugees”—poor migrants from low- or middle-caste backgrounds who left Pakistan mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, often riding on the tides of communal violence—was taken up by the state. The vast majority of these refugees, who were dependent on government relief and rehabilitation, were sent to camps throughout West Bengal and outside (Basu Ray Chaudhury 2000; Ghosh 2000; Chatterji 2007; Sen 2010). In determining the education policy for these subaltern refugees, the government made distinctions on the grounds of whether they hailed from rural or non-rural areas. Determined to remould them in the image of a productive labourer, government schemes emphasised vocational training. However, presumptions about the kinds of work that suited the different categories of refugees, which often had firm roots in official misconceptions, precipitated the failure of such state-driven initiatives.

The Nehruvian projection of the ideal refugee as a productive labourer for nation-building influenced refugee self-fashioning, as Garima Dhabhai’s (p 66) article on Sindhi refugees in Jaipur shows. Turning the commonly used descriptive category of sharanarthi (refuge-seeker) on its head, these refugees inscribed themselves into the urban space of Jaipur as purusharthi (hard-worker/entrepreneur). She charts how they were accommodated within the landscape of the walled city—the markets that sprang up, the residential colonies that were established—as Jaipur underwent transformation from a princely state to the capital of Rajasthan.

The presence of Sindhi refugees created anxieties among the “original” inhabitants, and Dhabhai describes how these were articulated through cultural tropes of inauthenticity. Adulteration of ghee, the purity of which was posed as essential for the gastronomic rituals of the “authentic” inhabitants of Jaipur, emerged as a metaphor for marking the newcomers as undesirable outsiders. More recent attempts at invoking Jaipur’s princely past in the discourse of heritage conversation, Dhabhai argues, have marginalised the purusharthi refugees in new ways. The articles by Dhabhai and Uttara Shahani (p 73) in this collection make a valuable contribution by taking the discussion of the impact of partition in urban spaces beyond Delhi and Calcutta, which have hitherto dominated scholarly attention. These two articles throw valuable light on how partition-affected lives in cities that seemed less directly affected by partition.

If Dhabhai shows how Sindhi refugees in Jaipur made attempts to position themselves conveniently within the prevailing discourses of the nation state, Shahani demonstrates how in Bombay they actively participated in reshaping the postcolonial polity. Through a detailed discussion of a much-publicised legal case, Shahani weaves the story of how Sindhi refugees went to court to challenge the state’s attempt at evicting them from their rented apartments.

Studies on Calcutta (Chatterji 2005; Sanyal 2009) and Delhi (Zamindar 2007; Geva 2017) have shown how refugees, desperate to find shelter, had occupied vacant government or private lands, abandoned military barracks, Muslim houses, religious sites and waqf lands. When the government attempted to evict them from these “illegally occupied” properties, they often put up a tough fight, using their numerical strength, support from opposition parties, and general public sympathy. Faced with such resistance, state governments introduced bills, passed acts and issued ordinances to “manage” the refugees and their “scramble for houses” and land. In West Bengal, for instance, the Congress government under Bidhan Chandra Roy drafted the controversial eviction bill in 1951 that led to massive refugee unrest in Calcutta (Chakrabarty 1990; Banerjee and Sengupta 2017). The issue at stake in the P V Rao case was the Bombay Land Acquisition Ordinance of 1947 (that became an act in 1948). What makes the refugee response particularly noteworthy in this case is the fact that, rather than mobilising themselves for street action, they articulated their protest through formal–legal channels. Furthermore, Shahani shows that the court case not only brought under scrutiny the legal rights that refugees could claim, but also the contours of fundamental rights guaranteed to all Indian citizens, especially the scope of the writ of certiorari. It brought a variety of critical legal concepts under judicial examination, such as the boundary between the judicial and executive functions of the government, definition of “public purpose,” etc.


Taken together, these five articles give us a sense of how partition shaped the political economy, the legal discourse, and the urban landscape of the postcolonial Indian nation state. However, like any other, this collection of articles does not address a large number of issues related to nation-building in “partitioned times” (Samaddar 2003). For instance, the ways in which the religious minorities (Muslims in the Indian context) were “managed” (Raghavan 2016) and how they negotiated with the politics of the time (Chatterji 2007) remain outside the scope of these essays. Similarly, none of the essays here have directly dealt with partition’s impact on the larger political landscape of India. Moreover, partition’s implications for the North East remain unaddressed here, although it had a huge impact, especially in Tripura and Assam.

There is also a greater need to study the partition experiences of South Asia in a comparative perspective. The era of decolonisation and the Cold War witnessed partition in several regions of the world. Even in the context of South Asia, 1947 was followed by 1971, when two wings of Pakistan became separate countries. A “global history” of partition may open up new avenues of research and provide new insights into contemporary politics.


Ankit, Rakesh (2017): “The Transfer of Jodhpur Railways, 1947–48: Denials, Delays and Divisions,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 14, pp 40–47.

Bagchi, Jashodhara and Subhoranjan Dasgupta (2003): The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, Vol 1, Kolkata: Stree.

Bagchi, Jashodhara, Subhoranjan Dasgupta and Subhasri Ghosh (2007): The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, Vol 2, Kolkata: Stree.

Banerjee, Paula and Sucharita Sengupta (2017): “Refugee Movement: Another Aspect of Popular Movement in West Bengal in 1950s and 1960s,” Policies and Practices, No 80, Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata.

Basu, Ray Chaudhury Sabyasachi (2000): “Exiled to the Andamans: The Refugees from East Pakistan,” Refugees in West Bengal: Institutional Processes and Contested Identities, Pradip Bose (ed), Kolkata: Calcutta Research Group, pp 130–41.

Bose, Neilesh (2014): Recasting the Region: Language, Culture and Islam in Colonial Bengal, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Butalia, Urvashi (1993): “Community, State and Gender: On Women’s Agency during Partition,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 28, No 17, pp 12–24.

— (1998): The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Chakrabarty, Prafulla (1990): The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal, Kalyani: Lumiere Books.

Chakravartty, Gargi (2005): Coming Out of Partition: Refugee Women of Bengal, New Delhi: Bluejay Books.

Chatterji, Joya (1999): “The Fashioning of a Frontier: The Radcliffe Line and Bengal’s Border Landscape, 1947–52,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 33, No 1, pp 185–242.

— (2005): “Of Graveyards and Ghettos: Muslims in West Bengal, 1947–67,” Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics, Mushirul Hasan and Asim Roy (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 222–49.

— (2007): The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947–67, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

— (2012): “South Asian Histories of Citizenship, 1946–70,” Historical Journal, Vol 55, No 4, pp 1049–71.

Devji, Faisal (2013): Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dhulipala, Venkat (2014): Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Geva, Rotem (2017): “The Scramble for Houses: Violence, a Factionalized State, and Informal Economy in Post-Partition Delhi,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol 51, No 3, pp 769–824.

Ghosh, Alok (2000): “Bengali Refugees at Dandakaranya: A Tragedy of Rehabilitation,” Refugees in West Bengal: Institutional Processes and Contested Identities, Pradip Bose (ed), Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata, pp 106–29.

Ghosh, Papiya (2007): Partition and the South Asian Dias­pora: Extending the Subcontinent, New Delhi: Routledge.

— (2008): Community and Nation: Essays on Identity and Politics in Eastern India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ibrahim, Farhana (2017): “Bureaucracy and Border Control: Crime, Police Reform and National Security in Kutch, 1948–52,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 15, pp 79–86.

Jalal, Ayesha (1985): The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaur, Ravinder (2007): Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Khan, Yasmin (2007): The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Kothari, Rita (2007): The Burden of Refuge: The Sindhi Hindus of Gujarat, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Mahajan, Sucheta (2000): Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India, New Delhi: Sage.

Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin (1993): “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance: Indian State and Abduction of Women during Partition,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 28, No 17, pp 2–11.

— (1998): Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, New Delhi: Kaali for Women.

Page, David (1982): Prelude to Partition: The Indian Muslims and the Imperial System of Control, 1920–1932, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Pandey, Gyanendra (2001): Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raghavan, Pallavi (2016): “The Making of South Asia’s Minorities: A Diplomatic History 1947–52,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, No 21, pp 45–52.

Ray, Manas (2001): “Growing Up Refugee: On Memory and Locality,” India International Centre Quarterly, Vol 28, No 2, pp 119–37.

Roy, Haimanti (2012): Partitioned Lives: Migrants, Refugees, Citizens in India and Pakistan 1947–65, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Samaddar, Ranabir (2003): “The Last Hurrah that Continues,” Divided Countries, Separated Cities: The Modern Legacy of Partition, Ghislaine Glasson Deschaumes and Rada Ivekovi (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 21–35.

Sanyal, Romola (2009): “Contesting Refugeehood: Squatting as Survival in Post-partition Calcutta,” Social Identities, Vol 15, No 1, pp 67–84.

Sen, Uditi (2010): “Refugees and the Politics of Nation-building in India,” unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

Sengupta, Anwesha (2014): “Breaking Up: Dividing Assets between India and Pakistan in Times of Partition,” Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol 51, No 4, pp 529–48.

— (2017): “Moveable Migrants, Laboring Lives: Making Refugees ‘Useful’ in Post-colonial India,” Work Out of Place, Mahua Sarkar (ed), Oldenburg: De Gruyter Press.

Sherman, C Taylor (2015): Muslim Belonging in Secular India: Negotiating Citizenship in Postcolonial Hyderabad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singh, Anita I (1987): The Origins of the Partition of India, 1936–1947, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Tan, Tai Yong and Gyanesh Kudaisya (2000): The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia, London: Routledge.

van Schendel, Willem (2004): The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia, London: Anthem.

Zamindar, Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali (2007): The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories, Vikings: New Delhi.

Updated On : 25th Jan, 2018


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top