India, Modern

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India, Modern

The events accompanying the partition of India may be classified as genocidal massacres. While there is no available evidence of the intent to annihilate entire ethnic, national, racial, or religious groups as such, the victims of the mass killings were clearly chosen by their killers on the grounds of their membership in such groups.

No authentic figures are available as to how many people were killed during and after the partition. Radha Kumar, writing on the subject, has estimated that half a million to a million people were killed and over fifteen million were displaced. Genocidal massacre characterized both sides of the divide. While Muslims killed Hindus and raped their women on the Pakistani side, Hindus killed Muslims and raped their women on Indian side.

Muslims made up 25 percent of India's population before partition. They had fought alongside Hindus during the 1857 "mutiny" against the British rulers and also took part in various movements for independence together with Hindus. However, they were divided into various political and religious factions holding differing political opinions and perspectives. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, was a constitutionalist and, although he shared in the nationalist aspirations, he wanted a foolproof constitutional arrangement with the leaders of Indian National Congress to guarantee that Muslims (essentially the Muslim elite) would have a share in power and to prohibit constitutional changes without Muslim consent.

However, this was not to be. The other Muslim parties and groups, such as the JamiDat-ul-EUlama-i-Hind the All India Momin conference, and the Ahrar of Punjab, as well as nationalist Muslims within the Indian National Congress, did not agree with Jinnah and his Muslim League. Also, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pathan leader from North West Frontier Province, also known as the Frontier Gandhi as he was close to Mahatma Gandhi and believed in the doctrine of nonviolence, also opposed Jinnah's demands for a separate Muslim homeland.

When no agreement could be reached between Jinnah and the leaders of Indian National Congress on the constitutional arrangements, Jinnah demanded the partition of India, invoking the theory that Muslims and Hindus constituted separate nations. In saying this, he endorsed the Hindu nationalists' stand, which based the idea of nationalism on cultural or religious grounds as opposed to the grounds of territorial unity.

Both sides thus used religious rhetoric to justify separate nationhood. The Hindu Mahasabha and leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS: National Volunteers Society) like Veer Savarkar, Hedgewar, and Guru Golwalkar also vehemently supported the concept of cultural nationalism. In the Hindu case, however, this nationalism also contained a territorial component, invoking the concept of a Hindu fatherland. Veer Savarkar coined the term Hindutva and described India as pitra bhoomi and pavitra bhoomi ("fatherland" and "sacred land") for the Hindus, and maintained that India could never become a sacred land for the Muslims.

Writing as a member of the Muslim League, an industrialist from Calcutta named Humayun Akhtar enumerated a list of differences between Hindus and Muslims on religious basis. Jinnah also justified his demand for a separate Muslim nation on the basis of religious and cultural differences between Hindus and Muslims. He maintained that the two groups revered different heroes, celebrated different festivals, spoke different languages, ate different foods, and wore different clothing. These claims were not entirely true, but in the heat of the moment were accepted as common knowledge among the educated middle classes of both communities.

Interestingly, however, these ideological battles were being fought primarily among the elites. The lower classes of both communities were untouched by these controversies at first. Nonetheless, when violence erupted, it was the poorer classes on both sides of the ethnic divide that paid the price. In the carnage that followed partition, it was the poor people who were massacred.

The British colonial rulers also bore responsibility for India's partition. If Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy had not hurried the declaration of independence, perhaps the history of the Indian subcontinent would have been quite different. The genocidal massacres might have been avoided, half a million to a million lives might not have perished, and millions of people might not have been uprooted.

The Muslims in India suffered the most from partition in every respect. Those Muslims who opted to remain in India came primarily from the poorer classes (the elite and middle class Muslims migrated to Pakistan). Most of them did not support the formation of Pakistan, and yet their blood was shed for that cause and they carried the guilt for dividing the country. Within India they were reduced to small minority—10 percent of the total population, down from approximately 25 percent before partition. As a consequence they lost much of their political influence.

Some leaders of the Indian Congress, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Babasaheb Ambedkar, were strongly committed to retaining a secular Indian government. In 1953, however, right wing Hindus formed a new party called the Jan Sangh, which rejected the concept of secular India and advocated Hindu Rashtra (i.e., Hindu nationhood). They blamed Indian Muslims for partition and seriously doubted their loyalty to India.

Indian Muslims were dubbed as pro-Pakistan, and the Jan Sangh preached hatred against them. The RSS, an extreme Hindu nationalist organization employed thousands of pracharaks (preachers) to travel from place to place, spreading hatred against the Muslims. As in the pre-partition period, India's Muslim communities continued to witness carnage year after year. Thousands of people, most of them Muslims, lost their lives in these riots.

The first major post-partition riot took place in Jabalpur, in Central India, during Nehru's lifetime in 1961. Throughout the 1960s, several other major riots of increasing intensity also took place, particularly in eastern India. In Ahmedabad and other parts of the western Indian state of Gujarat, communal violence broke out on a large scale. More than a thousand people were brutally killed and many women were raped and murdered in 1969. The RSS, the Jan Sangh, and even a congressional faction were involved in organizing and justifying these genocidal massacres.

Another major episode of communal violence broke out in Bhivandi, some 40 kilometers from Mumbai, on May 18, 1970. More than 200 people were killed there. At the same time, in Jalgaon, a marriage party consisting of 40 Muslims (including the bridegroom) were burned alive. The Bhivandi-Jalgaon riots were mainly organized by an extremist Hindu right-wing organization called The Shiv Sena. This was a virulently anti-Muslim organization at the time, although its current leadership appears to have modulated its anti-Muslim virulence in recent years.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, several additional major communal riots took place. Once again, the main victims of the violence were Muslims. Thousands perished in these riots, which should be characterized as genocidal massacres. In all these riots, the Jan Sangh—renamed the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)—raised slogans like Musalman jao Pakistan or Musalman jao qabrastan ("O Muslims, go to Pakistan," "O Muslims, go to the cemetery"), inciting party followers to killed their Muslim neighbors. Thus did anti-Muslim violence continue in India long after the formal partition of the country in 1947.

The 1980s brought a worsening of the violence. Several major riots took place, some of which were inflamed by the recollection of historical grievances. For instance, controversy broke out over the centuries-old demolition of Hindu temples by medieval Muslim rulers. The BJP launched an aggressive campaign to restore one such temple—of Ramjanambhoomi, in Ayodhya, northern India—by destroying the mosque that had been allegedly constructed in its place by Babar's general, Mir Baqi Khan.

As a consequence of this campaign, several riots broke out throughout India, primarily directed against the Muslim minority. According to one estimate, more than 300 riots, both small- and large-scale broke out across the country. The Ayodhya mosque, Babri Masjid, was demolished on December 6, 1992. The demolition of Babri Masjid triggered further anti-Muslim violence throughout India, particularly in Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Delhi, and Bhopal. The riots in Mumbai and Surat were the worst. Government estimates for the violence in Mumbai alone suggest that more than a thousand people were killed. Unofficial estimates set the death count significantly higher.

The role of the police in the Mumbai killings was highly questionable. The local police force was openly pro-Hindutva and blatantly anti-Muslim. The Srikrishna Commission, convened to investigate the riots, charged thirty-two police officers with having been involved in killing or abetting the killing of Muslims. The Mumbai riots shocked the whole of India. The Muslims in Mumbai felt intensely insecure, and many of them fled the city. It is estimated that a total of more than 200,000 people—Muslims and Hindus alike—ultimately left Mumbai. The exodus was so huge that the Government had to organize special trains to handle the volume of traffic out of the city.

The riots of Mumbai were followed by similar violence in the western Indian city of Surat. Here, too, large numbers of Muslims were killed, their shops looted and burned, and their businesses completely destroyed. Many Muslim women were mass raped. More than four hudnred Muslims were killed by the right wing Hindu nationalists during the course of the Surat violence.

The worst case of violence in post-independence India was began on February 27, 2002, in the state of Gujarat, in western India. Rioting broke out after a passenger compartment of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire as it travelled from Ayodhya in northern India to Godhra, Gujarat. Fifty-nine Hindus were burned to death, including men, women, and children. Muslims living near the Godhra railway station were suspected to be involved in setting fire to the railway compartment. Some one hundred people were arrested and trials would show whether they were involved in the crime.

Rioting broke out on the morning of February 28, in which more than 1,000 people were massacred in brutal retribution of the Godhra protests. Once again, Muslim women were raped in several Gujarat villages. As a result of the escalating violence, more than 45,000 Muslims were displaced to refugee camps, where they were kept for several months. They were prohibited from returning to their homes, and their businesses were nearly ruined. In the city of Ahmedabad, 100 Muslim residents of a neighborhood known as Narodia Patia were killed (some were burned alive) and many women were raped. The case of Kausar Bano illustrates the violence that was perpetrated during these riots. Eight months pregnant, her womb was ripped opened and her unborn child was extracted and pierced with a sword. In the neighborhood called Gulbarga Society, 40 people, including a member of the Indian Parliament, were burned alive.

The BJP Government in Gujarat, led by Narendra Modi, was allegedly involved in the carnage. Modi justified the violence by saying it was a popular reaction to the Godhra incident. He even invoked the Newtonian law that there is equal reaction to every action, implying that the carnage was a natural, unavoidable occurrence. The genocidal massacre in Gujarat was but the latest in a long history of post-independence violence. Between 1950 and 2002, more than 13,952 outbreaks of local violence took place, 14,686 people have been killed and a further 68,182 have suffered injury.

SEE ALSO Genocide; India, Ancient and Medieval; Massacres


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Engineer, Asghar Ali, ed. (1992). The Politics of Confrontation: Bahri Masjid–Ramjanambhoomi Controversy Runs Riot. Delhi: Ajanta Books International.

Engineer, Asghar Ali (2004). Communal Riots after Independence: A Comprehensive Account. Delhi: Shipra Publications.

Hasan, Mushirul (1997). Legacy of a Divided Nation: India's Muslims since Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kumar, Radha (2003). "Settling Partition Hostilities: Lessons Learned, the Options Ahead." In Divided Countries, Separated Cities, ed. Gasson Deschaumes and Rada Ivekovic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Madon, D. P. (1974). Report of Inquiry into the Communal Disturbances at Bhivandi, Jalgaon, and Mahad, May 1970 Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai.

Asghar Ali Engineer