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Lesson Plan: "Partition"

Hafsa Kanjwal
Joint PhD in History and Women's Studies
University of Michigan

Courses: History of the Islamic World, Modern South Asian History, India-Pakistan Relations
Syllabus Section: Partition


At midnight on August 15, 1947, British rule ended in India after almost two hundred years. Although both Hindu and Muslim Indian nationalists had called for Indian independence after World War I, the two communities were seen as separate "nations" with differing expectations on the national character of the emerging polity. Partition refers to the division of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines and the creation of the states of India and Pakistan at the time of Independence.

A useful way to help students start thinking about the many meanings of "Partition" is to begin by reading the Introduction of Gyanendra Pandey's Remembering Partition, which highlights the three connected moments of the same event:

  1. 1. The All-India Muslim League's ideological demand for the creation of Pakistan from 1940 onwards (including the role of politician Muhammed Ali Jinnah and poet and philosopher Muhammed Iqbal). Students should also be familiar with the debates surrounding the League's intentions—were they looking for an independent state of Pakistan or Pakistan as a region in a confederated India?
  2. 2. The actual division of British India on the basis of religious demographics that led to the creation of the sovereign states of Pakistan (which later split into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People's Republic of Bangladesh) and India in August 1947.
  3. 3. The catastrophic human toll of this division, which includes the deaths of over one million people, the migration of around 15 million people, many of whom became refugees, and the rioting and communal violence that took place, especially in the states of Punjab and Bengal.

The Role of the British

During World War II, the British began to realize the impossibility of continuing their rule in India. Attempts to accommodate the demands of the All-India Muslim League and the Indian National Congress failed. Jinnah eventually came to the realization that there would be no place for Muslims in a democratic India because they would remain a numerical minority and their rights could not be safeguarded. Louis Mountbatten, who was dispatched by the British government to orchestrate the transfer of power, realized the increasing tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities and, fearing communal violence, accelerated the timetable for the transfer. Some scholars, such as Stanley Wolpert in Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India, argue that the British haste led to the wide scale of violence during Partition. This point has been disputed by others who assert that the British had no choice, given the tense situation in the subcontinent at the time.

The Legacy of Partition

Students should have an understanding of what Partition meant for the development of the national identities of both India and Pakistan, and what it meant for notions of citizenship for both countries. A relevant essay on this topic is Gyanendra Pandey's "Can a Muslim Be an Indian?" For recent scholarship on the ways in which Partition affected the national identities of both nations, students can read the introduction to Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar's The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia.

Students should also have an understanding of the roots of the Kashmir dispute—labeled "the unfinished business of Partition"—and the influence it continues to exert in the relations between the two countries.

Women and Partition

Most recent histories of Partition have relied on oral histories of Partition survivors, which has allowed for the recovery of stories of women and other marginalized groups. During Partition, women from all religious communities were abducted, forced to convert, and made to marry, and became victims of sexual violence. Some of these women escaped. In the years after Partition, both India and Pakistan tried to "recover" these abducted women, but many were too frightened to return to their homes and many families did not want these "shamed" women back. Students can read examples of these stories in Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.

Questions for Discussion

  1. 1. What were the main causes of the Partition?
  2. 2. What role did the British play during Partition?
  3. 3. In what ways do the events of 1947 still affect contemporary affairs in both India and Pakistan?
  4. 4. Was Partition inevitable? Why or why not?
  5. 5. What effects did Partition have on understandings of national identity and citizenship in both India and Pakistan?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

  • Ansari, Nasim. Choosing to Stay: Memoirs of an Indian Muslim. Karachi: City Press, 1999.
  • Azad, Maulana Abul Kalam. India Wins Freedom. Delhi: Orient Longman, 1988.
  • Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.
  • Hasan, Mushirul. India's Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilization. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Iqbal, Muhammad"A Separate Muslim State in the Subcontinent."
  • Iqbal, Muhammad"The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam."
  • Jalal, Ayesha. The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Manto, Saadat Hasan. "Open!"
  • Metcalf, Barbara D., and Thomas R. Metcalf. A Concise History of Modern India. Cambridge Concise Histories. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Zamindar, Vazira Fazila–Yacoobali. The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.



  • Garam Hawa/Hot Wings (1973)
  • Mammo (1994)
  • Khamosh Pani/Silent Waters (2003)
  • Earth (1998)
  • Train to Pakistan (1998)

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