Partition of 1947 - A terrible tragedy engineered by the British colonialists

The Partition of 1947 haunts the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh even today. As a result of that partition, the two nations of Punjab and Bengal have been brutally divided on religious lines. The people of Kashmir remain a tragic victim of the terrible consequences of the communal Partition.

Instead of being a gateway to neighbourly cooperation and trade, the approximate 3000 km border between India and Pakistan is a hotbed of armed clashes and conflagrations. Vast areas on both sides of the border have been converted into wastelands by repeated wars.

Seventy years ago, there were no borders between these countries. Today there are barbed wire borders between India and her two neighbours. Millions of families are unable to meet their loved ones across the border. Civilians and soldiers are periodically killed in cross-border firing.

The ruling classes on both sides of the Indo-Pak border systematically incite the people of the two countries against each other. People in India are taught from their childhood that Pakistan and its people are our biggest enemies. People in Pakistan are taught the same thing about India. The struggles of the Punjabi, Kashmiri and other peoples for their rights are declared by the Indian ruling class to be the handiwork of Pakistan. The rulers of Pakistan similarly blame India for the unrest in various regions.

People from Bangladesh who have come to India in search of livelihood are treated in the most inhuman manner. They are declared to be “illegal” and treated as stateless people with no rights whatsoever. They are periodically rounded up by the police, detained in special lock ups, taken by special trains to the border and forced at gun point to cross into Bangladesh.

The Partition was one of the biggest man-made tragedies of the 20th century. It is estimated that between 10 to 12 million people were forced to abandon their homes and properties and become refugees. Another two million people were murdered in the most heinous ways. The state apparatus controlled by the British imperialists — the army, police and civil administration — supervised the communal massacres.

Real Aims

The British colonial rulers spread the lie that Indian people were divided along religious lines and that the Partition was necessary to prevent them from slaughtering one another. In reality, the Partition was a conscious act of the British colonialists to keep their tentacles deeply buried into the body of the Indian subcontinent, even after granting formal independence.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, British imperialism had no intention of leaving India. However, as the Second World War came to an end, British imperialism and all the old colonial powers had become greatly weakened. It became increasingly clear to the colonialists that their direct rule over India would soon have to end. The question before them was how to ensure the best possible outcome for themselves after colonial rule comes to an end.

The colonialists wanted to forestall the possibility of a united India which could become a threat to British strategic interests in Asia. They wanted to leave behind a divided sub-continent, in perpetual conflict. They wanted to retain their military and naval bases in the subcontinent, in order to dominate the oil rich West Asian region and threaten the Soviet Union. Through the creation of Pakistan, bordering on the Soviet Union and Iran, they hoped to achieve their aims. (see box on British geo-political aims underlying the Partition).

British geo-political aims underlying
the Partition

On 5 May, 1945, even as Germany was surrendering, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered an appraisal of “the long-term policy required to safeguard the strategic interests of the British Empire in India and the Indian Ocean”. On 19 May, the appraisal report, marked “top secret”, was placed before him. The central point of the report was that Britain must retain its military connection with the subcontinent. The report cited four reasons for the strategic importance of India to Britain:

“Its value as a base from which forces located there could be suitably placed for deployment both within the Indian ocean area and in the Middle East and Far East; a transit point for air and sea communications; a large reserve of manpower of good fighting quality; and from the North west of which British air power could threaten Soviet military installations.”

The military-strategic importance of the Partition is brought out further in the following words written by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India:

“The Indus Valley, western Punjab and Baluchistan are vital to any strategic plans for the defence of the all-important Muslim belt… the oil supplies of the Middle East… Only through the open ocean port of Karachi could the opponents of the Soviet Union take immediate and effective countermeasures … If the British Commonwealth and the United States of America are to be in a position to defend their vital interests in the Middle East, then the best and most stable area from which to conduct this defence is from Pakistan territory.”

Ref: ‘The untold story of India’s Partition’ by Narendra Singh Sarila

Worldwide, the middle of the 1940s was a time when socialist revolution and national liberation struggles were advancing. The victory of the world’s peoples led by the Soviet Union in the anti-fascist war and the liberation of many countries and peoples of Asia and Europe had become a source of inspiration for all peoples fighting colonialism and imperialism. All across Asia, the peoples were rising up to overthrow the rule of colonialists. Liberation struggles were sweeping across China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, and West Asia.

By the end of 1945, a wave of struggles of workers, peasants and broad masses of people engulfed the Indian subcontinent. The slogans “Down with British Imperialism!” and “Hindu-Muslim unity zindabad!” rent the air all across the country. One of the most significant uprisings that shook the foundation of British colonial rule was the revolt of the armed forces, starting with the Royal Indian Navy.

The revolt of soldiers of the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946 shook British rule. Twenty thousand Indian Navy personnel in Mumbai, Karachi, Kolkota and other ports of India revolted against oppressive colonial rule. They removed the British flag and put up the flags of the Congress, Muslim League and the Communist Party. Soldiers of the Royal Indian Air Force went on strike in sympathy. They refused to go on bombing missions to attack the ships that had revolted. Workers in Mumbai, Karachi and other cities organized general strikes in support of the Naval ratings. (See box on Revolt in the Indian Armed Forces).

Revolt in the Indian armed forces

The revolt of sailors of the Royal Indian Navy began on the ship named Talwar in Mumbai on 18 February, 1946. The protest spread rapidly to the barracks on shore and to 22 ships in the Bombay harbour. By the following evening, a naval central strike committee had been elected.

At its peak, 78 ships, 20 shore establishments, and 20,000 soldiers of the navy were involved in the uprising. The revolt at various locations was coordinated by signal communication equipment on board HMIS Talwar. Navy men from every ship and those posted on shore started marching to the Talwar. The streets of Bombay resounded to their slogans: “Hindu Muslim Ek Ho!” and “Inquilab Zindabad!” 

The workers of Bombay organized a general strike on 22 February in support of the naval uprising. They brought food supplies to the revolting Navy men. The public transport network was brought to a halt. Train tracks and roads were blocked and shops were shut down. In Karachi and Calcutta, industrial workers organized general strikes in support of the naval uprising. The personnel of the Royal Indian Air Force at Madras, Karachi, Poona, Allahabad and Delhi, the Royal Indian Army Signal Corps at Jabalpur and 1600 Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at Madras also joined the revolt.

When the British brought Indian army men to put down the revolt, the naval mutineers addressed the army soldiers through loud-speakers saying, “Brothers! We are not fighting to fill our stomachs with better food and for a softer life. We are fighting for the country’s freedom. You are as much sons of the soil as we are. Don’t heap shame on the heads of your descendants by pointing your rifles at us.’’  Almost immediately, the firing stopped. At Karachi, soldiers of the Gorkha Regiment refused to fire on the ship called Hindustan, which put up a brave fight against the British.

The British had to bring in their “Tommies” (British soldiers) to attack the people. In the repression unleashed, 228 people were killed and thousands injured. The revolt was ultimately defeated by the British rulers with the collaboration of the political parties representing the interests of the Indian capitalists and landlords. Elaborating on the betrayal by those who portrayed themselves as “leaders” of the Indian people, B. C Dutt, a leader of the uprising, later wrote:

“The men to whom we looked for leadership tried to ignore the uprising. … To them we were strangers and we had nothing to contribute to the struggle for independence. Vallabhbhai Patel referred to us as a ‘bunch of young hotheads messing with things they had no business in’ (I heard him saying that in Hindi at a public meeting at Chowpatty, Bombay, a few months before independence. By then I was a news reporter.) … At that time we were not aware that we could hardly hope to propel a revolution with the help of a leadership which believed in reform and non-violent non-co-operation. Principles apart, the politicians of India at the point of time were already smiling to the radiance of coming power. And to those in power, service indiscipline is a nightmare. How in retrospect, one wishes for the knowledge that they were already committed mentally to the continuation of the very order they were non-violently resisting! The pity of it! The pity, pity of it!"

Ref: How Gandhi, Patel and Nehru colluded with Brits to suppress Naval Mutiny of 1946, by Saswati Sarkar, Shanmukh and Dikgaj (…-...)

These revolts made it clear to the British colonialists that the days in which they could depend on the pillar of their oppressive rule, the British Indian Army to suppress the Indian people, was fast reaching an end.

Field marshal Claude Auchinleck, the Commander–in –chief of the British Indian Armed Forces wrote in a top secret assessment:

“It is no use shutting one's eyes to the fact that any Indian soldier worth his salt is a Nationalist..”. He added that “wholesale defections and disintegration of the Indian Army was possible”.

One of the leaders of the Naval revolt, C.R. Das, wrote later:

“Our struggle was gradually affecting the Indian Army… there would have been a fight, many of us would have died, but there would have been far less bloodshed than (what actually took place) in 1947”.

The big capitalists and big landlords of India were terrified at the prospect of the workers, peasants and soldiers rising up to overthrow colonial rule and establishing their own rule. Their aim was to replace colonial rule with their own rule by maintaining the same repressive colonial state apparatus. The revolt in the armed forces upset their plans. All the leading political representatives of the big capitalists and big landlords of India — Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, Jinnah — openly condemned the revolt of the soldiers.

The prospect of revolution drove the British colonialists and the representatives of the big capitalists and big landlords of India to accelerate their efforts to reach a settlement, before the situation passed entirely out of their control. The Attlee Declaration had proposed June 1948 as the date for the transfer of power. The Mountbatten Plan advanced the date to 15 August, 1947.

The colonialists, who had consciously nurtured the factional rivalry amongst different sections of the big capitalists and big landlords of India, by playing one faction against the other, now set their diabolical plan in motion. They negotiated separately and secretly with the different factions, represented by the Congress and the Muslim League, and deliberately set them at loggerheads with each other.

Their plan was to organize large scale communal riots, partition India along religious lines, tear asunder the nations of Punjab and Bengal, turn millions of people into refugees, and retain their military strategic bases in India.

The communal violence in Calcutta that began on 16 August, 1946, and lasted for four days, set the stage for a series of state-organized communal massacres in other regions of India. After four days of massacres, the violence spread to Bihar.

NPA Smith, the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, wrote in a memorandum to Viceroy Wavell:

"Grave communal disorder must not disturb us into action which would reintroduce anti-British agitation… (it) is a natural, if ghastly, process, leading in its own way to the solution of the Indian problem”

In other words, he was recommending that the communal killings must be allowed to spread because it was in the service of the British colonialist plan for preventing revolution and ensuring the partition of India on communal lines.

Fear of the Indian people rising up in revolution drove the big capitalists and big landlords of India to strike a treacherous bargain with the colonial rulers. They were desperate to establish their own exploitative rule in place of the colonialists. They agreed to the communal partition proposed by the British. The peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh continue to pay a heavy price for this treachery.


The colonial legacy of Partition stands in the way of the unity of the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and of peace in the region. It facilitates the continuing interference of US, Britain and other imperialist powers in this region. It is the cause for repeated bloodletting and wars, destroying peace and tranquility between neighbours. It is used by the exploiting ruling classes of these three countries to divert attention from the real cause of the pressing problems of the people.

The peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have to unite and overcome the legacy of Partition, in order to advance the struggle for national and social liberation, for lasting peace and all-round progress.


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partition    1947    divide and rule    British colonialists    Aug 16-31 2017    Voice of the Party    History    2017   

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