The Partition of India: A Brief Timeline

British Rule

The British arrived in India in the 1600s, In 1858 the country came under direct British rule; this began the period known as the Raj, meaning “to rule” or “kingdom” in Hindi.

A Hindu servant serves tea to a European colonial woman in the early 20th century.

At the time, dominant religious groups in the country included Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. The British colonised this large nation through a policy of “divide and rule” that pitted these religious groups against each other. A strategy with the aim that Indians would be busy fighting each other instead of British imperial rule. means of undermining each other’s influence and consolidating their authority.

But after decades of violence and oppression by the British, people found a reason to come together: a movement for independence. The British responded with brutality and violence.

1920s – Political Protest

For many years, nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi headed a campaign of non-violent protest (Satyagraha) against British rule. Encouraging boycotts of British goods and organising mass protests.


As Indians increasingly demanded a greater role in the government of their own country, Britain passed the Government of India Act of 1935. It gave Indian provinces a new political structure, while still under the authority of the British crown. This led to provincial elections in 1937 which allowed two parties to emerge:

1940 – Partition Idea Grows

Without majority representation in the new governments, Jinnah worried the Muslim population was increasingly vulnerable to oppression by Hindu leadership as violence against Muslims had broken out. Jinnah calls for the idea of partition and the creation of a separate nation, Pakistan, for India’s Muslim minority.

1942 – Quit India Movement

Congress launched the Quit India movement, demanding independence. The British government declared it to be unlawful, arresting Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders. Mass demonstrations and violent protests followed.

Mountbatten Arrives

In this atmosphere of civil unrest, Britain announced their withdrawal from India. Moreover, Britain had been battered in the second world war, and no longer had the resources to continue its control over India. They brought in, Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India in March 1947, to broker a deal between Nehru and Jinnah and to organise Britain’s exit from India.

Drawing the Map

British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to India was given less than 40 days to draw up the new borders based on outdated maps and census data. It meant cutting two of India’s most powerful and populous provinces in half; Punjab and Bengal. This rushed partition would have repercussions for decades to come. To make matters worse, the British unexpectedly moved the date of their exit up by ten months.


Pakistan celebrated its independence. The largely Muslim state was comprised of East and West Pakistan, with Mr Jinnah sworn in as the new governor general, in Karachi, its first capital city.

On the stroke of midnight the partition of India became official. Millions of people celebrated as Mr Nehru was sworn in as the first prime minister of India, a secular state dominated by Hindus.

Catastrophic Violence

The rushed lines of the new borders were not revealed until two days later. Millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs found themselves on what they regarded as the wrong side of the border causing a panicked mass migration, one of the largest in history.

There was large-scale violence, with estimates exceeding 500,000 deaths and 12 million displaced. Within months of independence, India and Pakistan were at war in Kashmir, which lies between the two countries. Hostility between India and Pakistan still plagues their relationship to the present.