The urge for independence
As some #well-travelled experts might remember from the two pages they read about Indian history before visiting Taj Mahal, the vast majority of the Indian subcontinent was in British hands by the mid-19th century. However, colonial rule had been an issue since the 16th century (that means shortly after the Portuguese around Vasco da Gama arrived) and especially the 17th century (when the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark and France grabbed parts of the land).
Colonisation changed the area fundamentally. For example, India switched from exporting manufactured goods to raw materials when Britain took control. Guys such as Mahatma Gandhi weren’t too thrilled about India being a colony and resisted the British. On the other hand, Britain wasn’t keen on losing India, the “jewel in the crown” among its colonies.
When the British were broke and exhausted after World War II, the independence movements practised upon them and demanded independence. The time was right and on 18th July 1947, the British parliament passed the Indian Independence Act. Most leading Hindus were in favour of a secular state but one quarter of the soon-to-split colony was Muslim and their party (the All-India Muslim League) was afraid that the Hindu majority would dominate the new state. These tensions had been a thing for a year and led to violence, so that a double independence of a predominantly Hindu and a predominantly Muslim state seemed like a good idea.
Impractically, people do not tend to settle according to their religion, so that the English lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe was appointed to split the border regions Punjab and Bengal. He had five weeks to do so and he had never been to India.
British India becomes India & Pakistan
On 15th August 1947, British India ceased to exist and Radcliffe’s expert work was used to define the territory of the newly founded India and Pakistan. Of course, some villages lost access to their fields etc. but the real problem was that 10 to 15 million people lost their home because it would have been on territory ruled by another religious group. The biggest population exchange in history was accompanied by atrocities on both sides. People of different religions who had lived in peace for centuries committed rapes and murders. More than one million people died in the first months of independence. The relationship of India and Pakistan has been poisoned ever since.
Pakistan splits into Pakistan & Bangladesh
One part of Pakistan, East Pakistan, was 2,000 km away from Pakistan’s mainland, West Pakistan. In 1970, the Pakistani army took power by a military coup and invalidated the results of the recent elections – in which a regional Bengali party had won the absolute majority in East Pakistan. The same year, East Pakistan got hit by a terrible cyclone that killed 300,000 people and West Pakistan didn’t help in time. Unsurprisingly, civil unrest was growing in East Pakistan. West Pakistan reacted by sending the army, which resulted in a short but brutal independence war in which East Pakistan received assistance from India and became independent as Bangladesh in 1971.
The new countries today
Regardless of the split among religious lines, there are 14 percent Muslims in India that for the most part live in peace together with other religious groups. This means that India has the third biggest Muslim population (189 million) in one state – after Indonesia (227 million) and Pakistan (198 million). On the state level though, Hindus and Muslims struggle to live in peace, and India and Pakistan have fought four wars against each other and are nuclear powers now. Pakistan went so far to become an “Islamic Republic” in 1956 and India has a Hindu-nationalist president nowadays. It doesn’t come as a big surprise that the two states can’t agree upon Kashmir instead of focusing on their uniting features such as very similar languages and a weird fascination for cricket.
PS: If you want to learn more about the topic, I highly recommend The Economist’s special report “Hissing Cousins“.