The partition of British India in 1947 was one of the most cataclysmic events in world history, and the debate on it is endless. It was one of several partitions that were carried out in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East since the 18th century. Like most of them it was attended by, and exacerbated violence between, different religious communities. It resulted in more casualties than any other partition. The numbers killed, displaced and dispossessed in the partition of India is unknown. Anything between 200,000 and three million people may have lost their lives.
The partition of India was one of four partitions by imperial Britain. The British also partitioned Ireland, Palestine and Cyprus on the grounds that different communities could not live together. Religious and ethnic divisions was not the only reason for the partitions by Britain: the military interests of the United Kingdom determined its strategies and tactics during the negotiations that led to all four partitions.
Earlier, rivalry between European powers in the i8th and 19th centuries resulted in three partitions of Poland, and the partition of Africa. In 1991, the end of Cold War saw multiple partitions of Yugoslavia. Bosnia one of the new states emerged from Yugoslavia. Bosnia was partitioned by Serbia and Croatia and its international borders settled by war. There is still speculation on whether Kosovo will be partitioned or whether it will remain part of Serbia.
Controversies about partition never end. Advocates of partition say that separation can bring irreconcilable warring parties to the negotiating table, end conflict and save lives. Giving antagonistic communities the freedom not to live together may prevent violence. Impartial peace brokers may offer justice to both sides.
However, the realities of division have been very different. Partitions have never produced ethnically pure nation-states, in the literal sense of an alignment of territory and ethnicity or religion. All partitions have left mixed communities on both sides of port-partition international borders. Partitions have resulted in long-lasting inter-state conflicts. The 1947 partition of British India created the first international conflict – over Kashmir – to be brought to the United Nations Security Council: Palestine and Cyprus followed suit. Partitions have only produced running sores – Northern Ireland is another example.
Partitions – and secessions – have usually taken place from authoritarian states. This is because authoritarian rulers – imperial or non-imperial – “divide and rule”. Authoritarian rulers do not believe in, or practice, consensus. Yugoslavia’s multiple partitions between 1991 and 1992 stemmed from its history as an authoritarian state. So did the British partitions of Ireland, India and Palestine. Ethnic hatred and violence was a legacy of all three – and later, also Cyprus.
Those demanding partition believe that different ethnic or religious communities cannot live together; that there are no intellectual or political differences between communities, and that the nation and state are or should be aligned, by force if necessary.
More than 90% of the world’s states are multiethnic. The reconciliation and accommodation of different communities requires an inclusive, pluralist concept of the nation state in which the identities and interests of all communities are safeguarded by the state. It involves respect for, and the protection of, individual human rights, which are most likely to be achieved by a democratic state which does not identify with any one community. The ethnic, religious or cultural majority is distinct from the political majority which may represent citizens of all communities.