How Did Partition Affect North India?

Last time I wrote here, I looked at Sindh, a province that was overwhelmingly Muslim in 1931, but had a few regions with Hindu majorities. I wondered why Sindh hadn’t been partitioned along with Punjab, and I got some really great responses from readers in the comment section. I have a theory now that I think makes sense, which I will get to later in this post. First though, I want to discuss north India. As I mentioned in the Sindh post, a large group of Urdu-speaking Muslims from north India migrated to Sindh upon Partition. I decided that an examination of how they changed their new homeland was incomplete without looking at how their departure affected the place they left. Did north Indian Muslims leave in large enough numbers to have an impact on the overall demographic profile of north India? The Muhajirs, as the migrants and their descendants are known, didn’t all come from one place, and typically any person who voluntarily moved to Pakistan in 1947 is defined as a Muhajir. However, the largest number came from the Urdu-speaking north, mainly the state of Uttar Pradesh (then called the United Provinces), and to a lesser extent Bihar. In this post, I chose to focus on those two states, as well as the modern-day states of Uttarakhand and Jharkhand, which were separated from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively only a few years ago.

Like Sindh, these provinces of British India were not partitioned in 1947; instead India got all of Bihar and the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. The Muslim population of both provinces was relatively sizable though, and had traditionally wielded significant power. The Mughal capitals of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri are in UP, as is Lucknow, which was the cultural capital of north India in the post-Mughal era and is still one of the centers of Shia Islam in South Asia. Deoband and Bareilly, the founding locations of the Deobandi and Barelvi movements of Sunni Islam, are both in Uttar Pradesh. UP was also an early source of strength for the Muslim League. In the 1937 elections, the Muslim League won 26 seats in the United Provinces, compared to one seat in the North West Frontier Province, Punjab, and Sindh combined (these territories make up most of modern day Pakistan).

As usual, I’ll give a sketch of the basic demographic picture pre-Partition. According to the 1931 Census, Bihar, which included the modern-day states of Bihar and Jharkhand (as well as Odisha, which I excluded here), was 80 percent Hindu, 12.7 percent Muslim, and 7.3 percent Other. In this case, most of the “Others” were followers of the so-called “tribal” religions that may predate Hinduism in South Asia. There was also a fairly sizable Christian minority, numbering in the several hundred thousands. The United Provinces had broadly similar demographics: 84.4 percent of its population was Hindu, 15 percent Muslim, and 0.7 percent Other. Obviously, the big difference between Bihar and UP was the presence of the tribal religions in Bihar.

Both Bihar and the United Provinces were classified in the 1931 Census as overwhelmingly Hindustani-speaking. Hindi and Urdu, which are two standardized forms of Hindustani, are in fact spoken in Uttar Pradesh. This classification is a bit problematic for Bihar, because today the language spoken in Bihar is typically classified either as a separate language (Bihari), or as a cluster of related languages. Linguistically, the most interesting part of the region is the Chota Nagpur division, which is roughly equivalent to today’s Jharkhand state, which at the time was in southern Bihar. The 1931 Census suggests that 47.5 percent of the population was Hindustani-speaking. Obviously, we don’t know how those languages would be classified today, but according to Wikipedia, the Bihari languages spoken in Jharkhand include Maithili, Khortha, and Angika. I don’t know how accurate that is, but if correct, it suggests that Chota Nagpur division’s “Hindustani” speakers in 1931 spoke a Bihari dialect and not modern Hindi.

The remaining 52.5 percent of Jharkhand/Chota Nagpur’s population is even more interesting. 21 percent were Bengali speakers, concentrated near the border with Bengal. These areas were transferred to West Bengal after Partition. 3.4 percent spoke Oriya, which is the dominant language of neighboring Odisha (then called Orissa). 6.6 percent spoke Kurukh, a Dravidian (South Indian) language. 18.8 percent spoke one of three Munda languages – Santali, Mundari, and Ho. These languages are really unusual, as they belong to the Austroasiatic language family. Their closest relatives are spoken in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese and Khmer (the main language in Cambodia) are the two largest languages in this family. One possible solution to this puzzle is that the Austroasiatic peoples were the indigenous population of India before the Indo-Aryans swept through north India 4,000 years ago, and even before the Dravidian peoples arrived several thousand years before that. The small pockets of Munda speakers in India’s most remote areas could be the last remnant of that long-lost chapter of India’s history. It is also possible that they arrived in India much more recently.

Like the Muslim-majority areas of Punjab, Kashmir, Bengal, and Sindh, where Hindus were disproportionately present in urban areas, Muslims were overrepresented in Hindu-majority north India’s cities. The United Provinces had seven cities with at least 100,000 people, and all of them had a higher percentage of Muslims than the state as a whole (15%). Its largest city, Lucknow (251,000 people), was 56.7 percent Hindu, 40.5 percent Muslim, and 2.8 percent Other. The next six cities by population were Cawnpore (68.6 percent Hindu, 29.9 percent Muslim, 1.5 percent Other), Agra (61.8, 35.1, and 3.1 %), Benares (68.5, 30.8, and 0.7 %), Allahabad (65.6, 31.2, and 3.2 %), Bareilly (46.8, 52.0, and 1.2 %), and Moradabad (39.1, 57.6, and 3.3 %). Patna, Bihar’s only city with over 100,000 people, was 74.9 percent Hindu, 24 percent Muslim, and 1.1 percent Other.

Below is my map of religion in north India in 1931:

North India, 1931

To me, a few things stand out. Obviously, north India was heavily Hindu at the time, but there was considerable regional variation. The northwestern reaches of the United Provinces, what is now Uttarakhand, was nearly 100 percent Hindu. Just to its south, in what is now northwestern Uttar Pradesh, the population was approximately evenly split between Hindus and Muslims and some parts were Muslim majority. The rest of UP and much of modern-day Bihar were solidly Hindu. Several of north India’s large cities stand out as a bit less overwhelmingly Hindu than the surrounding countryside; Agra, Lucknow, and Allahabad in particular caught my eye. The very northeastern tip of Bihar was solidly Muslim. In the south, in what is now Jharkhand, the religious picture shifts from Hindu/Muslim to Hindu/Tribal. Northern Jharkhand blends seamlessly with southern Bihar and was largely Hindu. The two pockets of tribal religion (with a Christian minority) are very noticeable. These areas are also where the Austroasiatic languages I mentioned earlier were spoken. The bright red pocket nestled between the two tribal strongholds is where the Bengali-speaking population of the state was located. This region was transferred to West Bengal after Partition, presumably because it was a more natural fit with that Hindu-majority Bengali-speaking state. When I started making this map, I was most interested in the Muslim population of north India. This was a fairly urbanized Urdu-speaking population, which supposedly made up the bulk of the Mohajirs who migrated to Pakistan in 1947. I wanted to see if there was a noticeable drop in the Muslim population of Uttar Pradesh after Partition. Below is the religious map of north India as of the 2001 Census:

Religion in North India, 2001

Clearly, Uttar Pradesh did not experience an exodus of its Muslim population in 1947, as the general map didn’t change much from 1931 to 2001. There are a few marginal changes though. First, a few areas in Uttar Pradesh seem to have become more Muslim since 1931, which is presumably a reflection of the much higher Muslim birth rate. Still, the Hindu nationalist hysteria about north India being swamped by high Muslim fertility is not borne out by these maps overall. Second, it appears that some of the cities have become less Muslim. That may be a product of the higher resolution of the 1931 map, but the Mohajirs are generally reported to have originated in the cities of north India, so maybe the urban Muslim population left in 1948, while the rural Muslim population stayed behind (similar to Sindh, where the urban Hindus left and the rural Hindus remained). Third, the northeastern corner of Bihar seems to have become less Muslim (though the borders have changed slightly). There was a population in Bangladesh, called Biharis, who were sort of similar to the Mohajirs. They numbered only a few hundred thousand, and lived mainly in the big cities of the former East Pakistan. After Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971, they were left in a bad situation, because the Bengalis saw them as foreigners, and linked them to the West Pakistanis, and India and Pakistan had no interest in taking them. Perhaps they originated in the northeastern part of Bihar. If so, their absence is faintly noticeable. The fourth point of interest is that about half of the followers of “tribal” religions in 1931 are no longer classified as such. The northeastern cluster of “others” on the first map has vanished. Most of the population seems to be Hindu, though there are a few more Muslims in the area too. I don’t know whether there has been mass conversion of these people since 1931, or if they still have the same religious practices but are not categorized as Hindu. Because Hinduism is a flexible religion, they might have started identifying as Hindu without significantly changing their beliefs.

These are details though. The larger picture is that the religious map of north India has remained largely unchanged since 1931, with the small number of Muslims leaving in 1948 cancelled out by the high birth rate of the majority who remained. India has about five times as many Urdu-speakers as Pakistan, which would imply that about 85 percent of north India’s Muslims stayed in India. So it seems that Partition didn’t affect north India very much, even though the minority of the Muslim population that left played a large role in Pakistan’s early history. Bihar and the United Provinces were both hit by the communal riots of 1946 and 1947, and they linked Punjab in the west to Bengal in the east. So they were certainly part of the larger Partition story, but were peripheral compared to the epicenters in Punjab and Bengal.

Finally, as mentioned above, in my last post, I wondered why Sindh wasn’t partitioned by the British, and I received a number of very interesting responses from readers. Debraj Chakrabarti pointed out that perhaps the better question was why Congress didn’t demand for Sindh to be partitioned. Vikram theorized that Congress might have avoided a partition in Sindh to prevent the Muslim League from demanding Muslim-majority areas in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. I think they were on the right track. The missing piece, I believe, was why Congress would care whether India had a piece of Sindh versus a piece of Bihar. The answer, I suspect, is in other readers’ comments. Abdul Khair Khan and Indy both made the point that Congress might have wanted the strange lines in the Bengal partition because the Muslim-majority areas of northwestern Bengal were important for Calcutta’s economy. The argument they made is that Congress was willing to swap Hindu and Buddhist-majority areas in less strategic parts of Bengal in order to hold on to the economically important headwaters of the Hoogly River. Combined, these theories lead me to conclude that Congress chose not to request a partition in Sindh because they were afraid that the Muslim League would respond by claiming Muslim areas in Bihar, as well as adjacent Muslim-majority parts of West Bengal containing the headwaters of the Hoogly River. This would have necessitated new partition lines in Bengal that were less favorable to India, although more logical from a purely demographic perspective. Additionally, had Pakistan received northeast Bihar, eastern India would have been physically divided from the rest of the country. I think that explanation makes sense, so thank you to the commenters who helped me gain a better understanding of why the final lines were drawn the way they were.

How Did Partition Change the Religious Map in Bengal?

The Punjab gets most of the attention when it comes to Partition, probably because of how disastrously everything went there, but on the other side of India, the British divided another major province along religious lines. Partition in Bengal was more orderly, although not without some violence, and simpler, because of the binary Hindu/Muslim split, as opposed to the Hindu/Muslim/Sikh mess in Punjab. As in my earlier look at Partition in Punjab, I used the 1941 British Census data and this excellent map as my basic template. And just like last time, I’ll do a quick rundown on Bengal on the eve of Partition, as well as neighboring Assam, which was also subject to Partition (although India got all but one district).

In 1941, a total of 70.5 million people lived in Bengal and Assam combined, 62 million in Bengal, the rest in Assam (which encompassed all of northeast India at the time, not only the modern state of Assam). There were a few small princely states, but 96% of the population lived in British India. The religious breakdown in Bengal was 53.4% Muslim, 41.7% Hindu, and 4.8% other, mainly people practicing tribal religions. In Assam, 41.5% were Hindus, 31.8% were Muslim, and 26.7% were tribal. That may sound like a lot of people who were not Hindu or Muslim, perhaps a Sikh equivalent in Bengal, but the followers of tribal religions were not united in the same way the Sikhs were in Punjab, and most of them lived far away from the heavily contested areas.

The 1941 Census summary that I found doesn’t have language data, but it is safe to say that Bengali was the most widely spoken language in the area. Assamese would have been second, followed by all of the Tibeto-Burman (related to Burmese and Tibetan obviously) and Austro-Asiatic languages (related to Vietnamese and Khmer) spoken by the tribal peoples.

Despite a population twice that of Punjab, Bengal and Assam didn’t that many large cities. Calcutta was, of course, British India’s largest city, home to 2.1 million inhabitants. The only other cities with more than 100,000 people though, were Howrah with 379,000, Dacca with 213,000, and Bhatpara with 117,000. Hindus were the largest community in all four cities: 72.7% in Calcutta, 81.8% in Howrah, 60.7% in Dacca, 69.2% in Bhatpara, with Muslims making up almost all of the remaining share of the population. Three of these cities went with India at Partition, the other, Dacca (now Dhaka) eventually became the capital of Bangladesh. Below is the map of religion in Bengal and Assam as it was in 1941, six years before Partition.

Bengal and Assam Religion, 1941

In my post on Partition in Punjab, I divided the province into five clear zones based on religious composition. Unfortunately, Bengal cannot be so neatly divided. Nevertheless, I identified a southeastern, heavily Hindu zone centered on Calcutta, a central Muslim majority zone, and a northeast zone that was a mess of different religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and tribal religions (the later three are all classified as “other” on this map). Below is the map with my zones drawn in:

Bengal and Assam with zones

I would have given Zones 1 and 3 to India, and 2 to Pakistan (remember Bangladesh was originally part of Pakistan). Interestingly, according to this map, that is exactly the partition proposed by the British Parliament in the Indian Independence Act of 1947, which was passed in June 1947 before the boundary award, and probably represented Parliament’s best guess at what the final division would look like. That isn’t what actually happened though. Below is the final boundary award:

Bengal and Assam Religion final boundary

The final boundary isn’t really pro-India or pro-Pakistan. It’s just very…eccentric. India ended up with large chunks of Muslim-majority territory on the west, and one random Muslim-majority slice of Syhlet in the east (Syhlet was the one district in Assam that went to Pakistan). Pakistan however got the overwhelmingly Buddhist Chittagong Hill Tracts in the far east, and the Hindu-majority district of Khulna, which was contiguous with Indian West Bengal. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for any of this. I used to assume it was because India wanted West Bengal to be contiguous, but it wasn’t immediately after Partition. It was made so later by transferring part of Bihar to West Bengal.

Maybe there was concern about breaking up areas that were economically interdependent. That hypothesis doesn’t pass muster though because Bengal’s economy was famously crippled by Partition. The jute-producing East was cut off from the jute-processing West, and the tea plantations of Assam lost the quickest route to the sea, and a major port in Chittagong. And remember that Calcutta was the largest city in British India? In part due to the economic stagnation brought on by the severing of Calcutta from its supply of jute, Calcutta has fared badly in the last 65 years. It is now the tenth largest city of the former Raj behind Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, and Chennai in India, Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan, and Dhaka in Bangladesh. The British obviously didn’t give a damn about wreaking economic devastation on Bengal, so their strange partition can’t be explained by some kind of commitment to reducing the fallout.

Interestingly, the British also partitioned Bengal in 1905, publicly for administrative reasons, but it was actually a ploy to reduce Bengali influence. That partition, which was quickly reversed, electrified the independence movement and prompted the British to move the capital of the Raj from Calcutta to Delhi. So clearly there was no love lost between the British and Bengalis. Finally, the arbitrary way in which the British partitioned Bengal also makes me doubt that my theory that the boundaries in Punjab were part of a plan to spare the Sikhs undue suffering. The British just didn’t care enough about India to think up something like that. Or rather, perhaps they cared about India, but they certainly did not care about Indians.

Now, we reach the comparison section of the post. Below is the 1941 Bengal and Assam map again with no lines drawn:

Bengal and Assam Religion, 1941

Below is a map of Bangladesh, West Bengal, and northeast India as it looks today, using 2001 Census results for India and Banglapedia for Bangladesh:


Note that I added Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, which weren’t on the 1941 map. Also, there are some areas on the west of the map that have been added to West Bengal since Partition. Here, we have a tale of two Bengals. The western half (or third really) is basically unchanged since Partition. The Muslims of West Bengal stayed in India. Bangladesh however, is a different story. I really don’t even need to trace it out on the map, because the bright green of Bangladesh stands out from the muddled browns of West Bengal. The Hindus of East Pakistan/Bangladesh didn’t leave during Partition in large numbers, but instead steadily trickled out of the country over time, with a large spike during the 1971 War. There are still many more Hindus in Bangladesh (around 10% of the population) than in West Punjab (about 0.5%), and the province was spared the apocalyptic cleansing faced by the Punjab.

A few other features to note include how much more Hindu the eastern end of Assam has become. I don’t know what caused that. Another major shift in this region, which I didn’t show because I only have three colors to work with is the transition from tribal religions to Christianity in the far eastern states of India. That story isn’t relevant to Partition, but maybe I’ll revisit it at a future date.