Civil War: India (1946-1949)

Eric Pullin. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The civil conflict that tormented the subcontinent between 1946 and 1949 took two forms, internecine communal conflict and military conflict over borders in Kashmir. Both conflicts were intimately related in that both resulted from India’s partition in 1947. The first and deadliest of the two was communal violence, which spread from Calcutta throughout the rest of the subcontinent to Punjab. Communal violence caused the displacement of millions of refugees in what amounted to the greatest transfer of population in world history. Furthermore, this conflict, essentially a sustained wave of riots and massacres, caused the deaths of untold numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Despite the massive suffering, the communal conflict received no support or encouragement from the states of India and Pakistan. Neither India nor Pakistan can be held accountable in the same way as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia for the murders of millions of people (Lal 2005 ). Indeed, the leaders of both states were horrified and deeply ashamed of the mutually destructive slaughter that raged across the subcontinent. However, the incipient states of India and Pakistan vigorously pursued the second form of civil conflict, the undeclared war in Kashmir. Less horrifying in terms of casualties and refugees, the Kashmir conflict nevertheless created a legacy of mistrust and resentment that contributed to three wars between India and Pakistan in the twentieth century.

Country Background

India was part of the British Empire, before being partitioned into the independent nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. The British Empire in India developed slowly and steadily as the East India Company skillfully and ruthlessly played Indian princes against one another. As it moved into India, the East India Company blended commercial activity with political control, combining outright conquest with a system of alliances. By the end of the 1700s, “most of India came in time to be ruled by the Company, directly or indirectly” (Lapping 1985, 24). The East India Company’s rule, or “Company Raj,” continued its steady, haphazard expansion until the rebellion of 1857 (variously referred to as the Sepoy Mutiny or Sepoy Rebellion), when Indian soldiers revolted against the British. After suppressing the rebellion, the British Parliament took over full political control of India and formally abolished Company Raj in 1858. From then until independence in 1947, the British Parliament officially governed India, establishing Crown Raj. However, the British kept in place the system of alliances with India’s 565 princely states, which granted them internal autonomy but no freedom to make foreign policy. This arrangement offered Britain the power of ruling the entire subcontinent but shared with the princes the responsibility of paying for administration (Lapping 1985, 24-28).

The Indian independence movement began with the formation of the Indian National Congress on December 28, 1885. Created by intellectuals and professionals, the Congress Party initially fashioned itself as a consultative body. The British soon viewed even this modest goal as intrusive. By the early twentieth century, the Congress Party had transformed itself into a party of protest and began to pressure the British for power-sharing reforms. Slowly and reluctantly, the British allowed Indians to stand for elections to administrative posts across India. Because Hindus significantly outnumbered Muslims, they tended to do better in the few elections held by the British. Although welcoming all Indians into its membership, the Congress Party remained predominantly Hindu. Many Muslims joined, but most Muslims feared that the party was devoted to establishing a Hindu Raj. In response, many Muslims joined the Muslim League as an alternative to the Congress Party. Acknowledging Muslim fears, Britain passed the Morley-Minto reforms in 1909, which created a system of reserved seats for Hindus and for Muslims and set a precedent for dividing the two communities (Wolpert 2000, 234-238, 277 ff.).

Convinced that their job was to educate Indians in the ways of democracy and liberalism, the British believed that the process of independence would take several generations. Such self-satisfaction eroded after World War I. In response to Muslim protests over British policy in the former Ottoman Empire, British police ordered the massacre of 400 people gathered at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar on April 15, 1919. Challenging Britain’s right to rule, Mohandas K. Gandhi took control of the Congress Party by turning the massacre into a national issue and winning broad popular support for the independence movement (Lapping 1985, 31; Wolpert 2000, 311).

During this period, religious communities frequently quarreled, but they agreed the British must go. As Indians demanded independence, they often found themselves bloodied along political, caste, ethnic, and particularly communal lines. Ironically, the British appeared to be the only force capable of containing the violence. Begrudgingly granting the necessity of independence, the British passed the India Act of 1935, creating a national legislative assembly and establishing autonomous provincial governments and legislatures. However, the princely states retained their semiautonomy, and this fact would have a direct and negative effect on Kashmir ten years later. On April 1, 1937, the subcontinent held its first nationwide elections. The Congress Party swept the elections, but the Muslim League fared badly. Rather than invite Muslim League participation in government, the Congress Party did not behave magnanimously and chose to ignore the League. This behavior probably would not have hurt Congress’s position had not World War II intervened (Lapping 1985, 35; Wolpert 2000, 322).

In September 1939, Viceroy Linlithgow (1936-1943) declared war against Germany on behalf of India without consulting a single Indian. Enraged, the Congress Party resigned en masse from the positions they had held for barely two years. Because India would provide more than 2 million volunteers to serve in the British Army, many believed that Congress’s mass resignation would cripple Britain’s war effort. However, the British soon realized that, with the Congress Party out of power, the alienated Muslim League would be more than willing to cooperate. Congress charged the British with pursuing a “divide-and-rule” policy. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress Party president, warned that unless Britain offered a genuine power-sharing scheme, they would launch national protests. Fearing that chaos in India might hinder the war effort, Britain briefly entertained negotiations with the Congress Party in the spring of 1942. The failure of the negotiations led to Gandhi’s Quit India protest campaign on August 8, 1942. Before the campaign could throw India into chaos, the British swiftly threw several thousand members of the Congress Party into jail, where they remained imprisoned until the end of the war.

After World War II, events moved quickly. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, benefited greatly from cooperation with the British. Effectively marginalized in 1937, Jinnah found himself in a powerful position after the war. He promoted the idea of Pakistan, a separate homeland for Muslims, arguing that India was really two nations, one Hindu, one Muslim. Pakistan had always been a powerful idea, but now the Muslim League began to assert the notion as inevitable. The British now regarded the Muslim League as representing one of India’s two nations. Congress Party leaders, claiming that their party represented all of India, were outraged at Jinnah’s rehabilitation and contended that India was a unitary nation with different religions. In August 1946, Britain sent a cabinet mission to India in a final, half-hearted attempt to prevent India’s division. In exchange for initial unity, the cabinet mission’s plan allowed Muslim areas to “opt out” of the Indian union. The Congress Party rejected this formula, protesting that autonomy for Pakistan amounted to a “vivisection” of India. In response, Jinnah called for “Direct Action” to achieve a separate state of Pakistan on August 16, 1946. Congress and the Muslim League had reached an impasse. In February 1947, the British government announced that it would leave India, partition the subcontinent, and grant India and Pakistan their independence. Before Britain left, however, it was necessary to establish borders. In the summer of 1947, the British established the Boundary Commission, headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to delineate the boundaries between India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan received independence on August 15, 1947, and the results of the Boundary Commission were announced the next day (Wolpert 2000, 341-342, 348).

Conflict Background

Many historians give the date of the Great Calcutta Killings of August 16-18 as the beginning of the communal conflict, but they are often vague about its end. After Indian police cracked down on rioting and the flow of refugees declined, the communal conflict wound down in the late winter and early spring of 1948. In contrast, the conflict in Kashmir can be dated precisely. There, hostilities began when Pathan paramilitary units moved into Kashmir on October 22, 1947, and ended with the brokering of a UN cease-fire on January 1, 1949. Taken together, these conflicts represented a combination of “secessionist” ethnic, and religious factors. The communal conflict represented a religious and ethnic war. Meanwhile, the conflict in Kashmir represented a war of accession rather than a war of secession, as the incipient states of India and Pakistan fought to decide whether Kashmir would belong to one or the other.

The number of dead in the communal conflict will never be known and, although estimates vary widely, all agree that the scale of death caused by partition’s communal conflict was astounding, with estimates (discussed following) ranging from 250,000 to more than a million dead. Similarly, accurate figures for the number of refugees resulting from partition are notoriously difficult to determine, but estimates (discussed following) range from 12 million to 17 million people displaced from their homes between 1946 and 1948.

In Kashmir, the numbers are easier to determine. Of the roughly 8,000 people killed in the fighting between India and Pakistan, 1,500 can be considered Pakistani combatants, 1,500 Indian combatants, 3,500 counted as Pakistani civilians, and 1,500 counted as Indian civilians. In terms of refugees, the International Review of the Red Cross (Rey-Schirr 1998 ) estimates that fully half of Kashmir’s population of four million people suffered internal displacement either to avoid combat or because they were forced from their homes by the combatants.

Polity IV data are unavailable for the period before India and Pakistan received independence from the British Empire. Whether in terms of communal conflict or Kashmir, the polity data in both countries would have changed dramatically because of decolonization. India’s score of 9 in 1950 suggests a high degree of involvement with democratic institutions before decolonization. The year 1950 represents the year in which India formed its Constituent Assembly after taking three years to write a constitution. India maintained this score until 1975. On the other hand, Pakistan started out with a relatively low score of-4 in 1947. Initially, Pakistan showed signs of forming a democratic polity (Pakistan scored 2 in 1948, 4 in 1949, 5 in 1951, and 8 in 1956), but assassinations, disorder, and military intrusion into government saw Pakistan’s score fall to -7 when General Ayub Khan established martial law in 1958.

The Insurgents

Using the strict sense of the word insurgent, India’s communal conflict had no group or organized political party that revolted against an established political authority. On balance, the communal conflict occurred not as an antistate expression but as a manifestation of local animosities and mutual hatreds. In general, communal violence fell out along religious lines, with Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs engaged in internecine slaughter. Although it often lacked clearly identified leaders and formalized factions, the conflict nevertheless had more than its share of adversaries. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha, Hindu nationalist or patriotic groups, variously encouraged and organized communal violence against Muslims during the partition. Although led by Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who admired Germany’s Nazi Party, the RSS should not be described as a “proto-fascist army, but rather as a patriotic community organization which defended the position of Hindus” (French 2003, 187). During partition, the RSS established refugee camps for both Sikhs and Hindus, but it also coordinated vicious attacks on Muslims. Estimates place the formal membership of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha at 500,000 during partition. Sikh jathas (organized, armed groups of Sikhs) occasionally cooperated with these groups against Muslims. Jathas initially organized themselves around the issue of religious reform in the 1920s but operated as paramilitary units during partition. Many veterans of the Indian army who had fought for the British in World War II joined the jathas. Their military training and combat experience made them particularly deadly participants in the communal conflict. Muslims occasionally coordinated paramilitary actions through the Muslim League Guards or discharged veterans but tended to be less organized than either the Hindus or the Sikhs. They were more likely to conduct operations through loosely and temporarily organized gangs. In addition to organized religious violence, mobs of criminals, or goondas, used the communal conflict as a screen for criminal activities.

Each religious group suspected the Indian and Pakistani governments of supporting these paramilitary groups, but there is no evidence to suggest any such links. The communal conflict appears to have been fueled by religious rather than political considerations. However, it must be noted that religious groups occasionally contested with one another because of differences over political boundaries. Often, one religious group justified its violence against another group by arguing that it could not expect fair, or even humane, treatment in a land controlled by another group.

War: India vs. Pakistan
Dates: October 1947-January 1, 1949
Casualties: 8,000 dead (3,000 Indians and 5,000 Pakistanis)
Regime type prior to war: Data unavailable
Regime type after war: 9 India; 4 Pakistan (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: Less than $700 (1996 dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: Approximately $775 (1996 dollars)
Insurgents: Indian army vs. Pathan paramilitary units, supported by covert Pakistani military units
Issue: Dispute between Pakistan and India over legality of Kashmir’s accession to India
Rebel funding: Foreign aid (principally Pakistani)
Role of geography: Mountainous terrain made offensive operations difficult.
Role of resources: No significant natural resources
Immediate outcome: UN-brokered cease-fire and promised plebiscite to determine legal accession of Kashmir to either India or Pakistan
Outcome after 5 years: Pakistan outraged that no plebiscite occurred; India declared Kashmir part of Indian Union; India and Pakistan each claim Kashmir.
Role of UN: Failed mediation and peacekeeping mission
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: Significant internal displacement of 4,000,000 people
Prospects for peace: Continued tension
Table 1: Civil War in India and Pakistan


War: Hindus vs. Muslims vs. Sikhs
Dates: August 1946-February 1948
Casualties: 250,000-more than 1,000,000
Regime type prior to war: Data unavailable
Regime type after war: 9 India; 4 Pakistan (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: Less than $700 (1996 prices)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: Approximately $775 (1996 dollars)
Insurgents: Semiorganized paramilitary units and unorganized groups engaged in internecine communal slaughter.
Issue: Religious conflict among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs
Rebel funding: No significant state funding
Role of geography: Conflict conducted over wide geographical area, including urban areas
Role of resources: No significant natural resources
Immediate outcome: Decreased numbers of refugees led to diminished violence; Indian security forces imposed martial law in disturbed areas.
Outcome after 5 years: Communal conflict continued but diminished significantly.
Role of UN: None
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: Massive population transfers of 12,000,000-17,000,000
Prospects for peace: Sectarian and communal violence continues in India and Pakistan
Table 2: Communal Conflict in India and Pakistan

If the communal conflict did not appear to have a distinct political dimension, the undeclared civil war in Kashmir certainly did. The insurgents in the Kashmir conflict were essentially the nascent states of India and Pakistan, which, before independence and partition, were part of the same state. Because they formed the same nation as part of the British Empire, independence meant that they would have to partition the army as well as the territory. Because a majority of the Indian officers in the army were Muslim, almost all of them went to Pakistan. Meanwhile, the British officers, who held senior ranks in the army, were divided between the newly independent states of India and Pakistan.


The bulk of communal violence occurred in Punjab, the western province in India that would be partitioned between India and Pakistan. Millions of Sikhs found themselves isolated, Muslims fled west to Pakistan, and Hindus fled east to India. Significant sectarian violence, however, occurred in all the major cities of northern India. As in the case of the Great Calcutta Killings, which marked the symbolic beginning of the communal conflict, a significant amount of killing took place on city streets. In Punjab, where the land is composed of a fertile alluvial plain bounded by desert in the south and mountains on the north, the flatlands became killing fields. Throughout history, the harshness of the north and south and the flatness of its interior often made Punjab an unavoidable corridor for invading the rest of India. During partition, Punjab’s broad expanses facilitated mass killings: Victims frequently had no forests or mountains in which to escape killing squads (Singh 1983, 418).

Kashmir’s mountainous geography differs significantly from that of Punjab. Strategically important, Kashmir shares a border not only with India and Pakistan but also with China and Afghanistan. Surrounded by mountains, the Kashmir valley is the only substantial flat area in the region and generates the bulk of fertile Kashmir’s agricultural produce. Because it quickly seized the Kashmir valley, India was able to exert control over two-thirds of the entire region. Kashmir’s mountainous terrain prevented Pakistan from pushing out of its areas of control in the farthest northern mountains (the Northern Area) and the Poonch in the southwest. Kashmir’s mountainous terrain makes offensive operations and gaining advantage over established positions in Kashmir quite difficult (Singh 1983, 447, 453).


Because the communal conflict (Hindus vs. Muslims vs. Sikhs) represented hundreds of thousands of murders and millions of separate stories, the issue of strategy appears devoid of meaning in the mass slaughter. In this regard, it is difficult to discuss tactics in a systematic way. Nevertheless, a number of generalizations may be made about the manner of the communal conflict. Small arms were an absolutely indispensable aspect of the conflict. Weapons such as rifles, pistols, bayonets, and grenades were obtained variously through British military surplus and by looting police stations; often, the police themselves would participate in communal slaughter. Many more weapons, such as handmade guns and grenades, were made in home workshops. In addition, much more prosaic weapons were used, such as knives, scythes, hoes, and sticks. Moreover, perpetrators of violence often tried to outdo themselves with extravagant means of murder—for example, torture, mutilation, drowning, and immolation.

In Kashmir, the states fought the war with weapons obtained primarily from the British, either as hand-me-downs from the empire or as surplus after World War II. On balance, the Indians fared better than the Pakistanis because the Pakistanis lacked proper military coordination and support during the campaign in Kashmir. The conflict began in a rather haphazard manner. First, Muslim peasants revolted in Poonch, and then Pathans pushed into Kashmir from the North-West Frontier Province. Neither the Poonchi peasants nor the Pathans coordinated their actions. Moreover, the Pathan incursion into Kashmir resembled a tour of looting more than it did an assault on a military objective. Once the newly formed Indian army received orders to move into Kashmir, the Pathans were eventually routed. Because of restrictions imposed upon him by his British officer corps (discussed following), Jinnah did not mobilize the newly formed Pakistani army to fight in Kashmir.

Causes of the War

Referring to the beginning of the communal slaughter, the historian Stanley Wolpert wrote that the Great Calcutta Killing of August 16-18, 1946, “was only the beginning of the Civil War … which turned the final year of Britain’s Crown Raj into an orgy of communal violence, terror, and slaughter” (Wolpert 2000, 344). The Great Calcutta Killings, as they subsequently became known, only hinted at the bloodshed that would convulse India in its move toward independence and partition. August 16 began as the Muslim League expressed frustration with the Congress Party’s unwillingness to grant demands for a separate homeland for Muslims. An exasperated Jinnah called for Direct Action Day (that is, demanding direct action for the achievement of Pakistan). Whether intending to or not, Jinnah’s call unleashed a wave of violence that spread across the subcontinent. What began as a hartal, a local protest or strike, in Calcutta soon became a massacre. Muslim mobs demanded Direct Action and attacked any Hindus they saw. In a move that surely exacerbated the violence, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bengal’s provincial chief minister and Calcutta’s premier, ordered the city’s mostly Muslim police force on vacation. Free of police interference, Muslims beat and killed many Hindus. However, with no order in the city, Hindu mobs soon took control of the violence. For the next two days, hastily organized killing squads of Hindus searched the streets for Muslims to murder. After a mere seventy-two hours, 6,000 Hindus and Muslims lay dead in the streets. Over the next several days, communal rioting and massacres spread throughout the province. In nearby Noakhali, Muslims slaughtered Hindus, and in Bihar province Hindus murdered Muslims. Though spurred by the Muslim League’s political rhetoric, the violence ignited by the Great Calcutta Killings caused the deaths of more Muslims than it did Hindus. Not even the direct involvement of Gandhi himself could stop the sporadic yet vicious killing. For the next several months, most of India’s major cities suffered from significant rioting that left thousands dead.

At the same time that Hindu-Muslim violence spread, India’s roughly 6 million Sikhs suddenly began to appreciate their political impotence. Although Sikhs serving in the Indian Army made considerable contributions to the British war effort during World War II, the British government regarded the Sikhs as an unimportant minority group caught unfortunately between the major forces of Indian politics, the Hindus and the Muslims. With independence looming, Sikhs had diluted their political loyalties across several parties in India. Moreover, Sikhs had few leaders of substance. Perhaps the most significant leader was Master Tara Singh, a skillful orator but politically incompetent. Viewed by India’s Viceroy Wavell (1943-1947) as “stupid and emotional,” the elderly Tara Singh routinely found himself outmaneuvered by leaders of the Congress Party and the Muslim League (Wavell quoted in French 2003, 331).

To make matters worse, Sikhs were concentrated primarily in Punjab, the principal battleground of the upcoming communal conflict. Generally antagonistic toward Muslims, most Sikhs lived in the part of Punjab that would eventually be partitioned into Pakistan. Many Sikhs feared that inclusion in the future Pakistan would leave them isolated and vulnerable. Sikhs were less antagonistic toward Hindus but could not join the newly partitioned part of India controlled by the Congress Party without uprooting millions of Sikhs from Punjab. The Sikh leadership complained that its concentration in Punjab was being ignored and that Muslims and Hindus were receiving all the attention. Tara Singh warned that the impending partition of India into Muslim and Hindu states would leave the Sikhs isolated and subordinate to the Muslims in Punjab. The Sikhs’ fears of Muslims were particularly acute because relations between the two communities had deteriorated since the late 1920s, when conflicts erupted over the provenance of a religious site in Shahidganj: Sikhs claimed it as the site of a gurdwara and Muslims the site of a mosque. Even if the Sikhs’ relations with Hindus were better than their relations with Muslims, Tara Singh was unwilling to cooperate with the Congress Party, which he regarded as little more than a front for Hindu interests.

After the Sikh leadership proposed to the Muslim League the idea of a semiautonomous Sikh province in Punjab, Jinnah was unpredictably accommodating. He offered full self-rule in exchange for Sikh support for Pakistan. Confounding his own success, Tara Singh responded by refusing to accept the creation of Pakistan. The broken deal with Jinnah only emphasized the Sikhs’ political impotence. On one hand, they were unwilling to share power with either the Muslim League or the Congress Party; on the other, they realized that upon independence and partition they would not receive an autonomous Sikhistan or Khalistan (i.e., Land of the Sikhs).

Recognizing their political helplessness at the center, the Sikhs shifted their attention to the local level. Many Sikhs now reasoned that the only way to protect themselves, politically or otherwise, was to take up arms against Muslims. In February 1947, riots between Muslims and Sikhs occurred throughout Punjab. Meanwhile, having boxed himself in politically, Tara Singh resorted to demagoguery. On March 11, he sought to mobilize Sikhs to “fight” for a homeland of “pure Sikhs” with the blood-chilling cry “Pakistan Murdabad” (“death to Pakistan”). In March, Muslim gangs turned Tara Singh’s words against him and massacred thousands of Sikhs in the Rawalpindi region. They argued that Tara Singh’s call for the rule of “pure Sikhs” and the destruction of the Muslim League justified the murder of several thousand Sikhs. Fearing further massacres, 80,000 Sikh refugees poured into east Punjab, the part eventually to be controlled by India. Despite their own local perspectives, many Sikhs believed that the Muslim League had organized paramilitary groups to harass Sikhs. In particular, they accused the Muslim League Guards of perpetrating the massacres. In addition, because the massacres had occurred under British rule, the Sikhs blamed the British for conspiring with the murderers. In turn, many Sikhs joined gangs organized with the help of Indian army veterans. As tensions rose between Muslims and Sikhs, the rhetoric of Tara Singh became increasingly incendiary. However, the more the leadership advocated violence against Muslims, the more Sikhs suffered (Collins and Lapierre 1975, 280-81, 296-97, 348-51, 377-78; French 2003, 333-35).

As if to emphasize the Sikhs’ powerlessness, neither the Muslim League nor the Congress Party paid much attention to the growing crisis in Punjab. Jinnah, for his part, simply threw up his hands, maintaining that, since Tara Singh had rejected a perfectly reasonable proposal, there was nothing more he could do. Similarly, the British and the Congress Party exerted no more effort. In the Congress Party, Defense Minister Baldev Singh, a Sikh, briefly became the Sikhs’ de facto representative. However, not even the presence of Baldev Singh, who appears to have been neither creative nor persuasive, did anything to divert Viceroy Lord Mountbatten (1947) and the rest of the Congress politicians from their primary concern over Hindu-Muslim relations.

As internecine conflict raged across the subcontinent, and at almost the exact moment that they ceased to be the same nation, the nascent states of India and Pakistan went to war over what would constitute their national boundaries in Kashmir. Technically, India and Pakistan were not the only states in the subcontinent to receive independence and be partitioned. Indeed, here lay a precipitate cause of war between India and Pakistan. The princely states, which had operated as semiautonomous regions within the British Empire, were now to be divided between India and Pakistan. On July 25, 1947, Viceroy Mountbatten declared that the subcontinent’s roughly 565 princely states must accede to union with India or Pakistan, depending upon their proximity to the newly independent states. In general, the princely states assented to union peacefully. Those states ruled by Hindus tended to accede to India and those ruled by Muslims to Pakistan. In fact, the more general cause of the war between India and Pakistan revolved around the religious composition of the people living in these princely states. Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s home minister, negotiated accession agreements with the 550 princely states that either bordered or remained within the borders of the newly independent India, whereas Jinnah concluded accession agreements with the few princely states remaining within Pakistan. However, three princely states, Hyderabad, Junagadh, and Kashmir, presented “the new dominions [India and Pakistan] with their most thorny immediate causes of conflict” (Wolpert 2000, 349).

Because the Muslim princes ruled over populations that were overwhelmingly Hindu in Hyderabad and Junagadh, Patel and his secretary, V. P. Menon, argued that the needs of these states’ populations outweighed the desires of their antiquated rulers; therefore their accession to India would represent the fulfillment of democratic principles. Hyderabad’s ruler, the Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, hoped to remain neutral and refused to accede to India. The Nizam’s refusal, however, was pointless, for he failed to appreciate two key facts that militated against his holding out against India: one, that his Hindu population would not long tolerate the autocratic rule of a Muslim; and, two, that Hyderabad, in southern India, was completely surrounded by India. Hoping the Nizam would see reason, the Indian government tolerated his refusal for just over a year. On September 13, 1948, India launched Operation Polo into Hyderabad and, using two Indian army divisions, ended the Nizam’s defiance in four days. The Pakistani government protested but received no international support. The Indian government simply ignored Pakistan’s complaint.

On Gujarat’s Kathiawar peninsula in western India, Shri Diwan Nawab of Junagadh was similarly recalcitrant. The Nawab refused to accede to India, not because he wanted neutrality but because he wanted to accede to Pakistan. Unfortunately for the Nawab, he lacked the ability to resist India. In particular, Junagadh shared no common border with Pakistan, and it was completely surrounded by the ocean and India. Moreover, it comprised a predominantly Hindu population. On August 15, 1947, the Nawab claimed accession to Pakistan, but his declaration carried little substance. Within two weeks of independence, India blockaded Junagadh and, on October 24, sent in the Indian army. By November 9, India had established administrative control over the state. Using the same justifications it had used in Hyderabad, the Indian government ignored Pakistan’s protests that Indian military action in Junagadh had violated the basic accession agreement, namely that a princely state could choose the nation to which it would accede (indeed, Mountbatten had approved the Nawab’s decision to accede to Pakistan). Unwilling and unable to go to war over distant Junagadh, Pakistan nevertheless regarded India’s actions with bitterness and continues to claim Junagadh as Pakistani territory (Collins and Lapierre 1975, 142; French 2003, 369; Keay 2000, 510-11; Wolpert 2000, 352-53).

In principle, Kashmir posed almost exactly the same problem as Hyderabad or Junagadh, but India and Pakistan chose to regard many of the details in reverse. Located in the north of the subcontinent, Kashmir held a population of roughly 4 million people that lay between the states of India and West Pakistan. Because it shared large borders with both India and Pakistan, Kashmir could be claimed with equal merit by either country. However, the Pakistanis argued that Kashmir should accede to Pakistan because an all-weather road link connected Kashmir and Pakistan (no similar road connected Kashmir and India) and that Kashmir controlled the headwaters not only of the Indus but also of several other rivers in Punjab. So integral to its nation did many Pakistanis regard Kashmiri Muslims that they considered them as representing the letter K in the acronym Pakistan (see glossary). Indeed, more than 3 million of Kashmir’s 4 million people were Muslim. No less passionate, India’s claim to Kashmir was perhaps less convincing. Kashmir was the home of the Nehru family, and Nehru believed that, as such, Kashmir’s separation from India was as significant a vivisection as Pakistan itself. In fact, Mountbatten viewed Kashmir “as the one subject on which he could not get Nehru to see sense” (Mountbatten quoted in French 2003, 372). Moreover, the Indian government concluded that the eventual decision of Maharaja Hari Singh to accede to India (explained in more detail following) was binding. In light of Indian behavior in Hyderabad and Junagadh, such a conclusion struck Pakistanis as self-serving in the extreme.

Before partition, however, the maharaja preferred an independent Kashmir to accession to either India or Pakistan and invoked the example of neutral Switzerland as justification. During the months leading up to partition, the maharaja negotiated a delaying agreement that allowed him to postpone making a formal decision until after independence with Pakistan, which accepted the agreement, fully expecting that the maharaja would accede to Pakistan. Events soon overtook the maharaja. In late August, Muslim peasants supported by Pakistani Muslims took up arms against Hindu landowners in Poonch, a region in southwestern Kashmir. On October 22, 1947, Pathan paramilitary units, not necessarily ordered but almost certainly backed by the Pakistani government, moved into Kashmir, seizing the Baramula Road that led to Srinagar, the state’s capital. Believing that the violence represented the first waves of a Pakistani assault, the maharaja reconsidered his neutrality. Hoping that release of his political rival Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah would provide a veneer of popular support (in the years leading up to Britain’s withdrawal, Sheikh Abdullah, a temperate and not particularly pro-Pakistani Muslim, had generated support among Kashmir’s Sikhs and Hindus), the maharaja abandoned any hope of independence and resentfully sent Sheikh Abdullah to Delhi, where he negotiated formal accession to India on October 26, 1947 (French 2003, 372-73; Keay 2000, 512-13; Wolpert 2000, 353).


Conflict Status

The agonizing communal conflict of 1946-1948 wound down in the early months of 1948 for two reasons. The first was that Gandhi’s murder on January 30, 1948 (discussed following) by a Hindu extremist provided Prime Minister Nehru with justification for using the nation’s police to crack down on Hindu-led violence. Before Gandhi’s murder, Home Minister Patel was sympathetic to groups such as the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha and had been unwilling to condemn them. Gandhi’s death enabled Nehru to overrule his powerful yet lethargic home minister. Within several weeks of his death, “Gandhi came closer to achieving his goal of Hindu-Muslim unity than he ever did in his lifetime” (Wolpert 2000, 356). The second reason was that the flow of refugees across the borders of India and Pakistan had significantly diminished (despite continuing sporadically in Bengal until 1971). Although the refugee crisis certainly remained (thousands of enormous refugee camps could be found across India and Pakistan), fewer refugees meant that there were fewer provocative stories of atrocities against coreligionists.

It is impossible to give an accurate accounting of the number of refugees and dead resulting from partition. Before partition, Muslims represented 55.7 percent of Punjab’s entire population. After partition and the resulting transfers of populations, the Muslim population in India’s portion of Punjab was just over 1 percent of the total population, whereas the Hindu and Sikh population in Pakistan’s portion of Punjab was just under 1 percent of the total population. The total number of refugees will never be known; estimates range from 12 million to 17 million people displaced from their homes between 1946 and 1948. Similarly, the number of dead will never be known, and although estimates vary widely, all agree that the scale of death caused by partition’s communal conflict was staggering. Collins and Lapierre (1975, drawing on several sources, arrive at a figure of 250,000 to 500,000 dead. Stanley Wolpert (2000) puts the figure at 1 million, and French suggests that the number could be even higher. French adds, however, that, offenses against Muslims “exceeded in scale and atrocity the outrages” committed against other groups (French 2003, 348-49).

Alhough numerically less staggering than the massive slaughter attending partition, communal violence continues to plague India. During the secularist Nehru years, sectarian riots occurred occasionally but never on a large scale. However, in the decades after his death in 1964, the frequency and intensity of communal violence increased. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (d. 1984), and his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi (d. 1989), were assassinated for reasons having to do with India’s long-standing religious and ethnic grievances. In the 1980s, disputes related to Kashmir contributed to conflicts between Sikhs and the Indian government and to Hindu-Muslim antagonism. In 1992, Hindu activists destroyed Ayodhya Mosque, touching off Hindu-Muslim riots that killed more than 2,000 people. In 2002, riots in the state of Gujarat killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. As a testament to the tenacity of India’s communal conflict, a bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament, in December 2005 proposed to grant sweeping powers to the central and state governments to fight communal violence.

The undeclared war in Kashmir ended with the brokering of a United Nations cease-fire on January 1, 1949. The cease-fire line (known as the line of control since 1971) established by the UN subjected the subcontinent to yet another partition. Drawn closely along the lines of territory occupied by the Indian and Pakistani militaries, the cease-fire line became the de facto, though not de jure, border between the two. The cease-fire left Pakistan in control of a small portion of Kashmir, the mountainous area surrounding Gilgit, and a narrow strip along Kashmir’s extreme western border—together known as Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir). India gained control of the rest of Kashmir, including the Kashmir valley, Jammu, and Ladakh. As part of the cease-fire, the United Nations also called for a plebiscite to determine the future status of Kashmir’s Muslim majority population. However, despite UN sanction and Pakistani demands, a plebiscite in Kashmir has never been held. India has repeatedly brushed aside calls for a plebiscite, arguing that subsequent state elections in Kashmir and elections in India’s democratic Constituent Assembly more than sufficiently demonstrated that Kashmir should properly be a part of India. In terms of battle deaths, one estimate (noted earlier) puts the number of Indians killed in the 1947-1949 Kashmir war at 3,000 and the number of Pakistanis killed at 5,000 ( 2000).

No issue has caused more tension between India and Pakistan since independence and partition in 1947. With the exception of the 1971 Pakistani civil war, all major conflicts between India and Pakistan find their source in the dispute over Kashmir. Indeed, Matthew White, citing U.S. State Department figures, estimates that more than 23,000 people have been killed (10,727 militants, 10,600 civilians, and 2,000 security personnel) in Kashmir since 1989 (White 2005). Throughout the 1950s, India and Pakistan wrangled over the legitimacy of Kashmir’s accession to India. In 1962, matters grew more tense as China became the next power to partition Kashmir. China and India not only fought a brief war over Ladakh, which India lost, but also China and Pakistan formed an alliance. In 1965, India and Pakistan again fought a war over Kashmir. Tension persisted for years but flared with special intensity in recent years. In 1998, India and Pakistan reciprocally tested nuclear weapons. In 1999, Pakistani troops tried unsuccessfully to occupy territory around Kargil. According to figures released by the Indian and Pakistani governments, the Indians suffered 1,887 casualties, and the Pakistanis suffered the death of 696 soldiers and 40 civilians in a conflict that lasted from May to July. In 2002, tensions reached perhaps greater intensity as both countries deployed hundreds of thousands of troops along the India-Pakistan border and the line of control. Indian and Pakistani leaders averted direct conflict only through the concentrated diplomacy of the United States and the mutual realization that war between the two would pose incredible logistical obstacles.

Duration Tactics: Communal Violence

In the violence leading to and following partition, clashes between Muslims and Sikhs were particularly acute. The Muslim League and the Congress Party’s willful ignorance of the Sikhs manifested dire consequences for both communities as paranoia and rage spread through Punjab. Throughout the summer of 1947, Sikh jathas raided Muslim villages, while Sikh militants openly trained with members of the RSS. Jathas planned train derailments, bomb plots, massacres, and even an attempt on Jinnah’s life. Violence intensified after August 9 with news of the Radcliffe Commission’s impending boundary decision. With Punjab on the verge of partition, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims raced across “borders” to what they believed would be their new nations (French 2003, 336-47).

In the week leading up to independence and partition, more than 400 people were killed in rioting in Amritsar and Lahore. The jathas developed an unexpected degree of coordination and support. Led by many former members of the Indian Army, the jathas probably received financial and military support from princely states such as Patiala and Faridkot, which bordered Punjab. Although there is dispute over whether jathas received supplies from princely states, there is no doubt they used their territory as bases of operations from which to launch deadly raids against Muslim villages and refugees. Meanwhile, less well-organized but no less murderous paramilitary bands of Muslims acquired weapons and ammunition through the Kahn of Mamdot from the North-West Frontier Province. In Amritsar and Lahore, Muslim mobs committed horrible atrocities, burning down gurdwaras with hundreds of people inside, raping women, and murdering children. Neither the local constabularies (made up mostly of Muslims) nor the hastily improvised Punjab Boundary Force (made of Baluchi, Dogra, Gurkha, and Rajput veterans) could bring an end to the slaughter (Collins and Lapierre 1975, 217; French 2003, 336-47).

On August 16, as the subcontinent was partitioned into the nascent states of India and Pakistan, the slaughter of a million people accompanied the migration of 14 million to 17 million people. Hindus moved from what was now Pakistan to India, Muslims from what was now India to Pakistan, and Sikhs found themselves caught in the middle. As millions of Indians fled to sanctuary, killing spread from Punjab throughout India. French observed that, as these refugees moved across northern India, “the reciprocal killing became ever more extravagant,” and that the “need for retribution came to exceed any communal, political or territorial logic, and bloodlust and revenge gained a momentum of their own” (French 2003, 347-48).

Only two weeks after partition, Punjab was in complete chaos. Violence and civil disorder prevailed throughout the province. Thousands died daily in a combination of organized and spontaneous massacres. Soldiers in the newly forming Indian and Pakistani armies initially tried to keep the peace but soon came to regard the other side as setting off the violence. Soldiers in these units soon contributed to the slaughter. Even the relatively ineffective Punjab Boundary Force disbanded because of communal differences. In general, the internecine massacres were conducted not by formal soldiers in uniform but rather by roving paramilitary bands, Sikh jathas, Muslim mobs, and RSS-organized Hindu killing squads. Using a variety of weapons (e.g., surplus firearms or farm tools), the various groups humiliated, tortured, and mutilated their victims before murdering them (Collins and Lapierre 1975, 294 ff; French 2003, 336-47, 352).

The process of migration itself often sparked the violence. As refugees arrived in a city or village, they would recount stories of horrible atrocities back home or on the road. This in turn inspired local revenge against the community perceived to be connected to the perpetrators, even if the original perpetrators were hundreds or thousands of miles away. In addition to murder, many female victims suffered abduction or rape. By 1952, roughly 30,000 women who had been abducted and raped during partition were repatriated to India and Pakistan, but this number surely underestimates the true number of women and girls who suffered during this period. One of the most enduring images of the slaughter of partition in Punjab was that of the trains passing back and forth between India and Pakistan. Jathas and Hindu killing squads, frequently working together, murdered thousands of Muslims trying to escape the butchery. However, even those fortunate enough to escape the carnage were not guaranteed safety. The exodus of millions of refugees created enormous dislocations in both Pakistan and India, where refugee camps often became cesspools of depraved human behavior rather than respites from the maelstrom. Corruption, violence, and forced prostitution prevailed in these places that were supposed to have been sanctuaries for the dislocated (French 2003, 353-55).

Duration Tactics: Kashmir

Once the maharaja and sheikh negotiated formal accession to India, Kashmir was officially part of India. Upon formal accession, the Indian government immediately airlifted troops to Srinagar to fight the Pathan paramilitary units, who had seized the Baramula Road. Neither India nor Pakistan officially declared war, but the first of three wars fought between India and Pakistan in the twentieth century had thus begun. Jinnah apparently had not ordered the Pathans into Kashmir, but he certainly regarded the Indian airlift into Srinagar as an act of war. On the verge of ordering Pakistani military units into Kashmir on October 28, Jinnah received an ultimatum from Field Marshall Sir Claude John Auchinleck. Auchinleck warned Jinnah that if Pakistan attacked Kashmir (which had now formally acceded to India), then all British officers would be withdrawn from the Pakistani army. Though prevented from using its army to secure Kashmir, Pakistan vigorously supported the paramilitary units, now composed not only of Pathans but also of Muslim peasants from Poonch and irregulars from the North-West Frontier Province.

External Military Intervention Tactics: Communal Violence

In terms of the communal violence, there was no foreign intervention in the conflict. However, the conflict was almost certainly exacerbated by British noninvolvement. The British government had wildly underestimated the degree of chaos that would accompany independence and partition. More concerned about anti-British violence than about communal aggression, Lord Mountbatten advocated the earliest possible withdrawal of British troops. However, the British were not alone; neither the Congress Party nor the Muslim League predicted the mass dislocation and slaughter that followed Britain’s departure from the subcontinent. Nehru reasoned that communal differences would vanish once the British quit India, whereas Jinnah trusted that partition would eliminate the reasons for communal strife. Indeed, both the Congress Party and the Muslim League believed that calm would prevail following decolonization and that the British should leave at the earliest opportunity. British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, convinced by this reasoning, ordered the removal of all British troops by August 15, 1947. This, of course, meant that there would be no British troops in India to prevent civil disturbances. Strangely, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone in power that the British might serve as neutral peacekeepers in the event of violence between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Such an oversight seems particularly astounding given the significant communal divisions that persisted in India leading up to independence and the intense communal enmity that led to partition itself. Nevertheless, it must be noted that this was an oversight committed by nearly every important political actor at the time in India (French 2003, 345).

External Military Intervention Tactics: Kashmir

Like the communal violence, there was no foreign participation in the first Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir. Auchinleck’s refusal to allow British participation in Kashmir perhaps proved decisive in the military conflict as India took control of most of Kashmir. According to Collins and Lapierre, the success of the Indian Army in Kashmir was due less to Indian skill than to the indiscipline of the Muslim irregulars in Kashmir. For instance, rather than proceed to the lightly defended airfield in Srinagar, the Pathan irregulars stopped to loot and rape the sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary at their convent in Baramula. Had they continued on instead to Srinagar, they would have easily swept aside the few Sikhs holding the airfield. Instead, the Sikhs provided the Indian army with the precious time it needed to consolidate its position in Kashmir. From the airport in Srinagar, the Indian air force supplied the Indian army, which in turn pushed the irregulars out of the Kashmir valley (French 2003, 376; Keay 2000, 511; and Collins and Lapierre 1975, 366-68).

Conflict Management Efforts: Communal Violence

Although curiously surprised by the intensity of the communal butchery, the leaders of India and Pakistan reacted in very different ways to end the violence. Gandhi toured India, using his stature to appeal for an end to the killing. Although his presence often led to a decrease in the violence, Indians, Muslims and Hindus alike frequently jeered him as he tried to make peace: Muslims accused him of trying to impose a Hindu Raj, whereas Hindus regarded him as a turncoat. Indeed, Gandhi was murdered by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist and member of both the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. He believed that “Gandhi’s nonviolence has left the Hindus defenseless before their enemies” (Godse quoted in Collins and Lapierre 1975, 371).

Unable to prove a direct link between the RSS and Gandhi’s murder, Nehru nevertheless believed the organization had fomented anti-Muslim violence across India. This belief put Nehru at odds with Home Minister Patel. Nehru regarded the RSS as a protofascist group, whereas Patel saw it as patriotic. Before Gandhi’s death, Nehru and Patel clashed bitterly over the character of the RSS in Indian society. Indeed, though clearly horrified by Gandhi’s murder, Patel did nothing as home minister to suppress RSS activities. Gandhi’s murder, however, gave Nehru all the justification he needed to declare the group illegal (French 2003, 359; Jaffrelot 1996, 84-90).

Jinnah, too, was deeply saddened by the massacres and Gandhi’s death, but he did not have long to mourn. His attention was focused on building the new nation of Pakistan. Pakistan was free but broke. It received independence with only 200 million rupees in its treasury but nearly 400 million rupees in debt. Maintaining its armed forces cost newly independent Pakistan 50 million rupees a month, and the first budget anticipated that 75 percent of expenditures would go to the military. To make matters worse, the nation lacked an administrative infrastructure and suffered from widespread civil disorder. Jinnah’s primary goal as Pakistan’s leader was to bring order to a nation that was wracked not only by communal strife but also by formidable obstacles that would render even a peaceful country difficult to govern (French 2003, 362-63; Jaffrelot 2002, 163 ff).

Conflict Management Efforts: Kashmir

On balance, India fared better than Pakistan in the war, gaining control of Kashmir with the exception of Azad Kashmir. Fighting in Kashmir lasted from the end of October 1947 until the UN cease-fire took effect on January 1, 1949. As noted previously, one of the conditions insisted upon by the United Nations was that a plebiscite be held to determine to which country Kashmir’s people would accede. However, no plebiscite was ever held. India regarded the matter as settled, arguing that subsequent state elections in Kashmir have rendered a formal plebiscite unnecessary and redundant. Despite the brokering of a UN cease-fire, UN personnel in Kashmir did not serve as peacekeepers; their job was and remains to record cease-fire line violations. In fact, UN observers have recorded several thousand violations of the line of control since 1999. India’s short-term military victory created a long-term diplomatic, ethnic, and religious crisis that has festered for over half a century (French 2003, 377; Keay 2000, 512-13).


The subcontinent’s communal problem, although it never approached the level of slaughter reached between 1946 and 1948, has nevertheless persisted throughout India’s history. Pakistan, too, has endured communal violence, but this has not reached the same level as India’s. The communal conflict dissipated in 1948 as the flow of refugees decreased, but it stopped when the state directly intervened to stop the violence. For example, Indian security forces put a quick end to the violence during late winter 1948. After 1948, communal conflict remained muted until the Congress Party lost its virtual monopoly on Indian politics. Throughout its history, the Congress Party has pursued and enforced policies of strict secularism. Its political adversaries have been less able and willing to pursue secularist polices. Since the early 1990s, the success of the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) can be significantly attributed to preying on communal differences. Indeed, much recent communal rioting has resulted either from political agitation or government indifference. The Congress Party’s return to power in 2004 might mark an important transition in India’s history of communal violence. Although quite controversial, the Congress Party proposed in December 2005 to increase the government’s powers to fight communal violence. Few believe that the bill will end communal violence, but many hope it will establish a precedent for government involvement in the communal conflict that will survive and succeed governments regardless of their party.

The Kashmir conflict has persisted regardless of the governments in power, whether democratic, autocratic, nationalist, or secularist. Because of the festering insurgency in Kashmir and the enduring nature of the conflict, individual policy choices, no matter how well intentioned, are unlikely to improve Indo-Pakistani relations over Kashmir. Significant sacrifice is required of both India and Pakistan to reduce tensions over Kashmir. Rather than argue over the historical merits of each other’s claims to Kashmir, India and Pakistan must recognize that the status quo is unacceptable. To this end, India and Pakistan should accept Sumit Ganguly’s (1996, 105-107) proposal that India and Pakistan forgo further claims to territory and accept the line of control as the permanent border between the two countries. Mutual recognition of the line of control would end territorial disputes between India and Pakistan. Moreover, by granting full recognition to Kashmir as an Indian state, Kashmiris will have more political alternatives and fewer reasons to engage in insurgent agitation.