Hot Indian Summer

The Real Story of Partition

Boy sitting on rock ledge above refugee camp.

Mystery and misinformation still cloud the most pivotal decision in the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent: to rush forward the date of the British withdrawal by ten months, from June 1948 to August 15, 1947. The United Kingdom’s last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, is typically accused of accelerating the transfer of power so that the British would not be held responsible for the bloodbath that many expected to ensue once the new states of India and Pakistan were born.

Overcrowded train transferring refugees during the partition of India, 1947.
Overcrowded train transferring refugees during the partition of India, 1947.  Wikimedia
And it is true that Mountbatten was legendarily heedless: “I’ve never met anyone more in need of front-wheel brakes,” his chief of staff, Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, once wrote. The viceroy did himself no favors by boasting in later years that he’d plucked the date out of thin air at a press conference, choosing the anniversary of the Japanese surrender simply because it sprang to mind. If that were true, hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of displaced Pakistanis and Indians would indeed have been victims of one man’s whimsical diktat. 

Yet Indian leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru also wanted the British out as soon as possible. Nehru, who would become independent India’s first prime minister, had agreed the country would remain a member of the British Commonwealth, as a dominion like Canada or Australia. But he’d done so only as a means to gain power faster. The longer the transition dragged on, the greater the chances became that he’d change his mind.

By early May 1947, Mountbatten had already begun talking about transferring power later that year rather than in June 1948, as the British had originally envisioned. At the end of the month, the viceroy cabled provincial governors to say that the British government was now contemplating a handover “not later than October 1st this year.”

What’s little understood, however, is that the British don’t seem to have intended this date to be a hard-and-fast deadline for both India and Pakistan. What’s

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