Partition of India


This month will mark 70th anniversary of the partition of India. Various publications will celebrate this, perhaps by reprinting the photo above — allegedly a photo of how the library books were divided between India and Pakistan.

It was perfect — a photo that encapsulates absurdities of the Partition, led by a commission who head was a British lawyer who had never even been to the subcontinent. Indeed, that was precisely Cyrill Radcliffe’s virtue, because as a complete neophyte, it was deemed he would be totally unbiased. Radcliffe simply drew a line between Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan without realizing that this demarcation might go straight through densely populated areas and sometimes even through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other.

Apart from the borders, all the assets — from the currency to foreign debt — were divided up. With Pakistan at a fifth of India’s population at partition,  a simple 4:1 ratio was used (i.e 80% of assets and liabilities for India & 20% for Pakistan) but everything wasn’t this neat. As the British keep most of its Indian army to garrison the restless northern and north western parts of the subcontinent, get 30% of the army, and 40% of the navy. (Military spending was three-quarters of Pakistan’s first budget in 1948, and the country was already on its way to becoming a military-run state). Pakistan also agreed to reuse Indian currencies as the there was only one printing press in the subcontinent, so for a while, money was simply stamped “Government of Pakistan” in ink on Indian rupees.

Meanwhile, inflexibly adhering to ratios for other stuff seemed too absurd. As such, all tables from one country were sent into another, as chairs went the opposite way. India took the drums from the police band, and flutes were to Pakistan. As Moslem Pakistan was against alcohol, India retained all the wine and spirits owned by the government, but had to compensate in cash. Old Persian manuscripts from Calcutta’s Madrasah Library were taken to East Pakistan in ramshackle trucks, during a heavy monsoon, which caused irreparable damage to the manuscripts. The viceregal stagecoach was given to India by the toss of a coin. In such atmosphere, the stories that the libraries were divided up didn’t seem too absurd. There were tales that volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica were divided, with neither country having a complete set, and that dictionaries were ripped apart with 80 percent of pages going to India. (link)

But it is unlikely that ever happened. The photo above by David Douglas Duncan, first published in Life, carried a caption: “In the Imperial Secretariat Library, a curator tries to divide a 150,000-volume collection into equal parts for each new state.” The son of the man in the photo, BS Kesavan (later the first national librarian of newly independent India) noted that it might have been staged. Only libraries that were divided were ones under the control of individual provinces—not those under national control. (A Detailed Investigation here).

Nonetheless, the massive exoduses from both sides (about 14.5 million people in total) occurred in the months following Partition crossing the borders into the state of religious majority. The newly independent states were unable to keep public order in these exoduses. One of the largest population movements in recorded history was therefore subsequently followed by complete breakdown of law and order, riots, starvation and massacres.



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9 thoughts on “Partition of India

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