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.

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Why Wasn’t Sindh Partitioned in 1947?

In what is probably the final installment of my examination of the Partition of British India in 1947, I will look at the province of Sindh. I have written previously about Punjab, Bengal, and Kashmir. Bengal and Punjab were officially partitioned along religious lines. Kashmir was subject to a de facto partition, which did not follow the religious divisions of the state. Sindh was not partitioned in 1947, but I would argue that it should be considered in any examination of which country got the more favorable deal in Partition. Sindh also provides an interesting clue as to what might have happened in Kashmir or Bengal had they been left undivided and under Pakistani control. Sindh had a Muslim majority, but several of its eastern sub-districts had a Hindu majority. These sub-districts were contiguous with India, but Sindh was spared a partition.

First though, let’s take a look at Sindh’s demographics as of the 1931 Census. Sindh had about 4.1 million people. About 73 percent were Muslims, 26 percent were Hindus, and 1 percent belonged to other religions, mainly Christianity and Sikhism. In Sindh, the Hindu minority was concentrated in urban areas, while Muslims dominated the countryside. In four of Sindh’s five largest cities, Hindus were an absolute majority. Larkana and Shikarpur, with populations of 25,000 and 62,000 inhabitants respectively, were the two largest cities in northwest Sindh. Larkana was 62.7 percent Hindu, and Shikarpur was 63.5 percent Hindu. Sukkur, in north-central Sindh had about 65,000 people, 58.8 percent of whom were Hindu. Hyderabad, Sindh’s second largest city had 96,000 people and was 70.5 percent Hindu.

The only major Sindhi city without a Hindu majority was Karachi, Sindh’s largest city then and now. Karachi had a very narrow Muslim plurality, 47.8 percent Muslim to 46.6 percent Hindu, with about 5.6 percent of its population belonging to other religions. About 3 percent of Karachi’s population was Christian, and Sikhs and Parsis (Zoroastrians) each constituted 1 percent. This means that Karachi had a non-Muslim majority, which in Punjab determined that an area went with India.

The British record keeping was a bit spotty on divisions within Hinduism and Islam (as opposed to Christianity, which the British documented extensively despite Christians making up only a couple percent of the population). In Sindh, they did record the Sunni/Shia split, and found that 96.1 percent of Sindh’s Muslims were Sunnis. That is surprisingly low, and I wonder if they were able to accurately distinguish between the two sects. After all, it took the British about one hundred years to accurately distinguish between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal.

The final piece of the demographic puzzle for Sindh is language. Sindh’s language landscape in 1931 was different in its nature than the other provinces I have discussed so far. In Bengal, language was not relevant, as Bengali or a closely related dialect was spoken by virtually the entire population. In both Punjab and Kashmir, there were several different linguistic zones. For example, Punjabi was spoken in much of Punjab, but Hindi was spoken in the southeast. Sindh doesn’t look like either of these models. Sindhi-speakers were the plurality in every district, but almost every district had linguistic minorities. Overall, Sindh was 69.9 percent Sindhi-speaking. The two largest linguistic minorities were the Balochi-speakers (7.1 percent), Saraiki-speakers (6.2 percent), and Rajasthani-speakers (3.2 percent). Brahui, Hindi, Punjabi, and Gujarati were all around 2 percent. So too were Kutchi, which is considered a dialect of Sindhi, and Dhatki, a dialect of the very poorly defined Rajasthani language. The Princely State of Khairpur was the only part of Sindh where Sindhi-speakers constituted more than 90 percent of the population. Everywhere else, significant linguistic minorities existed. For example, 29 percent of the Sindh Frontier district’s population was Balochi-speaking, 12.8 percent of Nawabshah district spoke Saraiki, and 6.4 percent of Karachi district spoke Hindi/Urdu. The linguistic and religious demographics of the province have both changed since 1947, but before getting into that, let’s take a look below at the map of religion in Sindh as of 1931:

Sindh Religion 1931

Unlike Kashmir, Bengal, and Punjab, Sindh had a relatively clean Hindu/Muslim split, with no third group to complicate things. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that Muslims were three quarters of the population, Muslims predominated throughout most of the province. There are three areas in the state where that was not true. Karachi sub-district, in the southwest, was 52.5 percent Muslim (note that I was discussing the city of Karachi above, and not the larger sub-district). Non-Muslims were almost at parity there. The central Hyderabad sub-district was almost perfectly split, with Muslims consisting of 49.4 percent and non-Muslims 50.6 percent. The most interesting area however is the southeast of the province. Four sub-districts, Umarkot, Nagar Parkar, Mithi, and Chachro all had Hindu majorities, and several nearby sub-districts were 40 or 45 percent Hindu. The four Hindu sub-districts combined were about 57 percent Hindu. Below is the same map but with a border added where a theoretical partition along religion lines would have occurred.

Sindh 1931 with border

I would be very interested to know why these sub-districts did not end up in India. In Bengal for example, one Hindu district ended up in Pakistan, but India was compensated with Muslim-majority districts in a different part of Bengal. In fact, one of the commenters on my Bengal post says that that swap may have been made at the request of the Indian leadership as a way to minimize the economic damage Partition would cause to Calcutta. In Sindh, this was not the case. The only arguments I can think of for not partitioning Sindh are that doing so would have created an undefendable border, that a partition was not worth it given that only a small portion of the province would have changed hands, or that Hindu-Muslim relations in Sindh were so good that a partition was not needed. The first of these is obviously lacking in merit as the British do not appear to have considered this factor in partitioning other provinces. For example, the Punjab line became one of the least defendable borders in the world. It is a line through flat farmland following no geographical logic, and it proved very problematic for Pakistan when India invaded in 1965. So if geography were a consideration, it would have precluded the division of Punjab. Also, much of Sindh’s border with India is a proverbial line in the sand (through the Thar desert). Furthermore, in the far south, the marshy area on the Sindh-Gujarat border has in fact been disputed since 1947, sometimes violently, so the borders drawn in 1947 weren’t clear and logical anyway. The second argument, that giving only the southeast subdistricts with Hindu majorities to India was pointless, is undermined by the fact that most of the Muslim majority district Sylhet, which was part of Assam province, went to Pakistan in 1947, despite the fact that Hindus in the rest of Assam were about as dominant as Muslims in Sindh. The final possibility, that Sindh didn’t need to be partitioned because Hindus and Muslims got along so well, may hold merit, especially if, like me, you are generally against using religion to define a country. However, trusting in good inter-communal relations seems inconsistent with the philosophy of partition, which did not take the Hindu-Muslim relations into consideration, but rather focused on creating separate Hindu and Muslim nations.

My theory is that leaving Sindh united was a de facto compensation for Pakistan, as the lines drawn in Punjab were quite favorable to India, with several Muslim majority regions ending up in India. Now let’s take a look at how the religious makeup of Sindh has changed since 1947. The map below is based on 1998 census results:

Sindh Religion 1998

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many more Hindus stayed in Sindh than stayed in Punjab. Still, a large number of Hindus left Sindh for India, and their descendants are believed to number three to four million people. There are also about three million Hindus left in Sindh. However, The extent of Hindu flight was not uniform throughout Sindh. As I pointed out above, Sindh’s Hindu population was heavily concentrated in urban areas, and they were the majority in most of Sindh’s cities. According to the 1998 Pakistan census, Hindus now make up only 3.2 percent of Sindh’s urban population, but are 11.6 percent of the province’s rural population. This means that the vast majority of the urban Hindu population left in 1947, but many more of the rural Hindus stayed, perhaps because they lacked to means to leave. An extreme example of urban Hindu flight is Karachi. In 1931, 46.6 percent of Karachi’s population was Hindu. In 1998, Karachi was only 0.9 percent Hindu.

The flight of Sindh’s urban Hindu elite can be linked with the most important effect of Partition on Sindh – that is the arrival of the Muhajirs from India. The Muhajirs were part of the Muslim urban elite of north India who left for Pakistan in 1947. They are still a major force in Sindh, and they are incidentally the only Pakistanis who speak Urdu, which is indigenous to north India, as a first language. They are quite prominent in the arts and business. Former military dictator Pervez Musharraf is also a Muhajir (born in Delhi), though Muhajirs aren’t particularly well represented in the army. For the most part, the Muhajirs didn’t settle in Punjab, which was being ripped apart by religious violence caused by Partition. Instead they went to the very same Sindhi cities that the Hindu Sindhis were in the process of leaving. Karachi, which, as noted, was essentially emptied of its Hindu population, was also the largest destination for the Muhajirs. As a result, Sindh essentially traded one urban elite for another. The impoverished rural Hindu population, however, largely stayed behind. To give a sense of where the Muhajirs live now, here is a map of language in Sindh. Muhajirs, who are Urdu-speakers, are predominant in Hyderabad and Karachi, though they are present in most of Sindh’s major cities. .

Sindh Language 1998

The swapping of indigenous Hindu Sindhis for Urdu-speaking north Indian Muslims has had serious implications for Sindh and Pakistan. First, on a macro level, Sindhi culture was impoverished when the urban Hindus left, as any culture that becomes less diverse is. The political weight of the rural Hindus who remained in Pakistan was also reduced, not just because their numbers were reduced, but also because middle-class urban Hindus who could have formed the core of a Hindu voting block in Pakistani politics left for India. More importantly, the Muhajirs who replaced the Hindus played a huge role in shaping Pakistan’s early development. They were closely linked to Muhammad Ali Jinnah (who himself was technically a Muhajir) and his Muslim League. This meant that they dominated Pakistan’s politics from independence until the first military coup in 1958. Their stint as Pakistan’s ruling elite was disastrous. They failed to build democratic institutions, were unable to forge a unified national identity between Pakistan’s eastern and western wings (now Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively), couldn’t gain popular support, and ultimately were swept aside in a coup. The probable reason the Muhajirs failed as a ruling class was that they were essentially strangers in a foreign land. They spoke a different language and had no understanding of Sindhi, Pashtun, Baloch, Bengali, or Punjabi culture. By the time democracy reemerged in Pakistan after the 1971 War, the Muhajirs had withdrawn politically to Karachi, where they still dominate today, leaving the governing of the rest of the country to indigenous politicians from Punjab and Sindh.

Economically the departure of Hindus, both from Sindh and Punjab, was debilitating. In 1947, Hindus dominated commerce, industry, and especially banking throughout most of what became Pakistan. The only profession in which Muslims predominated was leather tanning, which is an industry Hindus abhor for religious reasons. When the Hindus fled, they left Pakistan without its urban middle class. Muslims tended to be farmers, and the Muslim elites were mostly landowners. Eventually, Muslims filled the roles abandoned by the Hindus, but Pakistan would have benefited if the Hindus had stayed and the economic transition had been smoother.

In the aftermath of 1947, Sindh experienced huge ethnic and religious upheaval, which shaped the future of the province in many ways. Karachi, which had been a Sindhi city but was split about equally between Hindus and Muslims, turned into an Urdu-speaking city (though the Pashtun population is rapidly growing), but one that is almost completely Muslim. Sindhi-speakers made up only about 7 percent of the city’s population in 1998, and have probably declined since then. Hyderabad, which was the historic capital of Sindh, is now Urdu-speaking. The countryside remains almost exclusively Sindhi speaking, and has retained more of its Hindu presence. While the demographic upheaval was less dramatic than in Punjab, it was arguably more drastic than was happened in Bengal after 1947. The changes in Sindh demonstrate that it wasn’t only the specific act of partitioning Punjab and Bengal that caused demographic shifts. The fact that the population exchange along religious lines was not contained in Punjab and Bengal, but spread to Sindh, the North West Frontier Province, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Delhi (these last three were where the Muhajirs predominantly originated) argues against an interpretation of Partition as a tragic event of limited geographic significance. Instead, the division of India destabilized the demographic, cultural, and political landscape even in areas that were not directly partitioned. In short, Partition was a tectonic event, which changed the trajectory and the demographic and social makeup of South Asia in a manner similar to World War II in Europe or the Civil War in the United States.

The Demographics of Sri Lanka, South Asia’s Lebanon

So far on this blog, I have focused on the effect of partitions on Punjab, Bengal, and Kashmir. In this post, I’m going to look at a deeply divided country that was never partitioned. Sri Lanka, unlike Punjab and Bengal, is divided along a number of fault-lines. In the cases of Punjab and Bengal, religion was the only factor. In Sri Lanka, religion, ethnicity, and language each play a role in creating the fractured demographic picture of the island. In fact, I can’t think of another society in which all three of these variables are in play. Even famously diverse Lebanon, which I jokingly referenced in the title of this post, is only divided by religion. Using data from the 2012 Census, I will analyze all three of Sri Lanka’s fault-lines in this post, especially in the context of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which ran from 1983 to 2009. Below are maps of Sri Lanka by ethnicity, language, and religion.

Sri Lanka Ethnic map Sri Lanka Language Sri Lanka Religion

Broadly, these three maps are similar, but, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. Note, for example, how the Hindus on the religious map are divided in two on the ethnic map. The Tamil-speakers belong to three different ethnic groups. Sinhala-speakers are mostly Buddhist, but look closer to see the Christian minority on the east coast that emerges on the religion map. I will go into these characteristics of Sri Lanka’s demographics, and more, in the next section of the post. If you aren’t interested in the nitty-gritty details of Sri Lankan religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups, or you already know the basics, feel free to skip this part, and go straight to my analysis of how these demographic factors played a role in shaping  the Sri Lankan Civil War.

A Detailed Look At Sri Lanka’s Demographics

I. Religion

I’ll start with the least relevant, but in some ways most interesting, factor– religion. As of the 2012 Census, Sri Lanka was 70.2% Buddhist, 12.6% Hindu, 9.7% Muslim, and 7.5% Christian. The Buddhist community in Sri Lanka is one of the oldest in the world, going back more than 2,000 years. Sri Lanka’s Buddhists belong to the Therevada branch of the religion, which is the dominant sect in Southeast Asia. Hinduism on the island goes back approximately as far as Buddhism if not further. Sunni Islam was spread to Sri Lanka in the 8th century by Arab merchants, some of whom settled there and married indigenous women. I suspect that there was also a fair amount of conversion, although the Muslims of Sri Lanka maintain the narrative of their Arab origins. Interestingly, even though it has a fairly large Muslim population, Sri Lanka was one of the few parts of South Asia never to fall under Muslim rule. The most recent religious community to emerge was the Christian one. The Portuguese first landed in Sri Lanka in 1505, and ruled much of the island until the Dutch expelled them in 1658. In that time, much of the west coast was converted to Christianity. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Sri Lanka’s Christians are Roman Catholics. There is a small Protestant minority of a few hundred thousand people converted by the Dutch, who stayed until 1796, and the British, who stayed until 1948. Below is the religious map of Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka Religion

The religious minorities are concentrated in the north of the country and the east and west coasts. There is also a Hindu area in the center of the island, which I will discuss in more detail when I get to the ethnic map. The Sri Lankan Civil War was not fought on religious lines, although the Tamils are predominantly Hindu and the Sinhalese are predominately Buddhist. Ethnicity was the main driving force. A few characteristics are worth noting. One is the two clusters of Christians. The first cluster is in the north just to the southwest of the main Hindu zone. The second is farther south about midway down the west coast. The other feature I will return to is how interspersed the Hindus and Muslims on the east coast are.

II. Language

The second map depicts the two major languages of the island. I couldn’t find language statistics, but it is well known which ethnic groups speak Sinhala (the Sinhalese) and which speak Tamil (all the others). There is undoubtedly quite a lot of bilingualism, but the goal was to approximate where each language is the “mother tongue.” About 74% of Sri Lanka speaks Sinhala, an Indo-European language most closely related to Marathi and Divehi (spoken in the nearby Maldives). The remaining 26% speaks Tamil, a Dravidian language most closely related to Malayalam and Kannada. It is worth pointing out that the Tamil-speaking population of Sri Lanka makes up only about 10% of the total world-wide Tamil-speaking population. Over 60 million Tamils live in India, mostly in the state of Tamil Nadu, across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka. The Sinhala-speakers live almost exclusively on Sri Lanka. Below is the language map for Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka Language

When we look at language, all of the complexity of the religious map dissolves and a more binary picture emerges. The religious map shows a diverse and messy island. The language map reveals a country starkly divided by language. The Buddhists and the Christian belt just north of Colombo merge into the orange Sinhala-speaking majority. The Christian pocket in the north, all of the Hindu areas, and the Muslims unify into a solidly Tamil-speaking north, east coast, and center. Looking at this map, it is easier to understand why Sri Lanka spent a quarter of a century locked in a bitter civil war. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of the tension on the island originated in a 1956 bill making Sinhala the national language. Interestingly though, the Sri Lankan Civil War, which in some ways originated in the dispute over language, was not fought along linguistic lines.

III. Ethnicity

In fact, ethnicity, not religion or language, was the main driver of the war. The Sinhalese make up 74.9% of the population. They correlate exactly with the Sinhala-speaking parts of the map above. They are mostly Buddhist, but there is a significant Christian minority. The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka about two thousand years ago, probably from the Bengal area. The Sri Lankan Tamils are the second largest ethnic group, at 11.2%. The Sri Lankan Tamils are mostly Hindu, but again have a Christian minority. The Sri Lankan Tamils were the ethnic group that largely fueled the Civil War, and the rebel groups, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, drew their members from the Sri Lankan Tamil population.  The ancestors of the Sri Lankan Tamils may have arrived at roughly the same time as the Sinhalese, although some argue that they came much later, in the 12th century. It is clear though that whether or not there was permanent Tamil settlement on the island, Sri Lanka’s ties to the Tamil homeland in South India go back millennia.

You may have noticed that the Sri Lankan Tamils only make up around half of the Tamil-speaking population in Sri Lanka. That is because there are two other Tamil-speaking ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, both of which have been subjected to ethnic cleansing campaigns to strengthen the position of one side or the other in the Sri Lankan Civil War and the years leading up to it. The Muslims in Sri Lanka, who as I mentioned above have a different origins myth than the Sri Lankan Tamils, see themselves as a separate ethnic group, despite being Tamil-speaking and genetically identical to the other Sri Lankan populations. They are called the Moors, because the Portuguese arrived on the island shortly after the defeat of the Arab Moors of southern Spain and Portugal and named them after the only Muslims they knew. The Moors make up about 9.2% of the population, and are one of the few examples of a true ethno-religious group– an ethnic group solely defined by its members’ religious affiliation. Unlike the Tamil-speaking Christians and Hindus of the north, the Moors did not support the demand for a separate state (to be called Tamil Eelam), perhaps because of their separate ethnic identity. As a result, they were branded a fifth column and expelled from northern Sri Lanka. The Tamils later apologized, and some of the Moors have returned, although tens of thousands remain internally displaced.

The much-persecuted Indian Tamils make up the final major ethnic group in Sri Lanka. They are descendents of Tamils from India who were brought to the island as laborers by the British in the 1800s. In 1931, they made up 15.4% of Sri Lanka’s population; today they are 4.2%. The Sinhalese-dominated government, starting immediately after independence in 1948, and accelerating in the 1960s and 70s, tried to send as many Indian Tamils as possible back to India. They were stripped of citizenship and forced to return to India. Since most Indian Tamil families had been in Sri Lanka for over a century at that point, they were “returning” to a country they had never seen, and had no desire to live in. This was a transparent attempt by the Sri Lankan government to reduce the Tamil presence on the island. Eventually, the Indian Tamils who had survived the depopulation campaigns of the 60s and 70s were granted Sri Lankan citizenship, as a reward for their loyalty to the government in the Civil War. Still, the Indian Tamils who were expelled have not been able to return. Assuming that Indian Tamil growth rates were similar to those of the Sri Lankan Tamils, this means that the Sinhalese were able to remove about 2 million Tamils from the island, radically altering the demographic balance.

Below is the ethnic map of the island:

Sri Lanka Ethnic map

A few notable features are the physical separation of the Sri Lankan Tamils from the Indian Tamils. The Indian Tamils are in the center of the island mainly because the hilly interior is where most of the plantations that produce Sri Lanka’s famous tea are located. The Indian Tamils’s ethnic distribution also gives a hint as to why the Sinhalese were so eager to remove the Indian Tamils. If two-thirds of the Indian Tamils hadn’t been deported, much of Sri Lanka’s interior would have been blue on the map above, giving a potential Tamil Eelam more depth. A Tamil state consisting of the north plus the narrow Sri Lankan Tamil strip of land on the east coast would be difficult to defend militarily (as the LTTE eventually discovered). The Sinhalese leadership may have feared that a Tamil-dominated interior would set up a partition in which the Tamils got a large chunk of central and eastern Sri Lanka. Of course, the Indian Tamils remained loyal, making the ethnic cleansing of central Sri Lanka pointless as well as immoral.

Ethnicity, The Tamil Tigers, And Sri Lanka’s Civil War

The question of why the Tamils failed to get a state when so many other minorities, such as India’s Muslims, the Jews of Mandatory Palestine, and the Christians of Timor, succeeded is worth discussing. The basic answer is that the Sinhalese had overwhelming military superiority and a willingness to brutally suppress the Tamils, and no outside power countered that by taking up the Tamil cause. Especially once India disengaged from Sri Lanka following former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991, it was only a matter of time before the Sinhalese would use their  military advantage to snuff out the rebellion, which they did in 2009. India could have been Tamil Eelam’s outside backer, much as the British backed the aspirations of Indian Muslims and Jews in Mandatory Palestine.

Instead the LTTE handled India about as badly as possible. India covertly funded them throughout the 80s, and intervened militarily in 1987 to prevent an imminent Sinhalese victory. India was able to force the government in Colombo to agree to a series of humiliating concessions, which gave the north defacto independence, and set off bloody protests against the government in the Sinhalese parts of the island. Every Tamil group agreed to lay down their arms except the LTTE. This was in many ways the turning point for Tamil Eelam, because the frustrated Indian forces on the island tried to defeat the LTTE militarily to preserve what had been shaping up as a smashing victory for India. The Indian “peacekeeping” force became mired in a war with their former clients, and withdrew from the island in 1990. When the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister who had ordered the intervention in Sri Lanka, in 1991, India washed its hands of the whole business, and essentially turned a blind eye to the vicious Sinhalese assault on the north which eventually ended the Civil War.

The LTTE also threw away an incredible opportunity when the Sinhalese government decided to support them against the Indian forces as a way to get the Indians off the island. The government agreed to a ceasefire with the LTTE in 1989. The LTTE waited until about three months after the Indians left before it broke the ceasefire in spectacular fashion, executing hundreds of policemen who had surrendered to it. The LTTE proceeded to expel 70,000 Muslims from the north of the island. In 1993, the an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated Sri Lanka’s President. A pro-peace party was elected in the south in 1994, leading to a ceasefire in January 1995. This ceasefire lasted four months, before the LTTE bombed two Sri Lankan naval vessels.  The LTTE’s actions in the late 1980s and early 1990s were breathtakingly self-destructive. They isolated themselves from what had been a sympathetic India, which was the only country with the ability and interest to make Tamil Eelam a reality, and which had essentially created an independent Tamil state in 1987. They then wasted several opportunities to make a deal with the weak and exhausted Sinhalese, prolonging the conflict and giving the Sri Lankan government and military time to regroup.

While the military decisions by the Tamil leadership were nothing short of moronic, their failure to form a broad tent of Tamil-speakers was perhaps more decisive in their failure to achieve a state. They were unable to reach the Indian Tamils of central Sri Lanka, depriving the rebels of a population situated deep within Sri Lanka that could have put pressure on the Sinhalese population, something the LTTE consistently failed to do. Similarly, the Moors never supported the LTTE, even though it was essentially secular, not Hindu. The effect of this can be seen on the east coast of the ethnic map. The Moors and Sri Lankan Tamils are interspersed all along the east coast preventing a unified Tamil zone there. If the Tamil leadership had succeeded in uniting the Tamil-speakers (and remember the conflict started in part because of the language problem), it could have commanded the support of 26% of the population instead of 12%. Even then, the exact lines of a partition are difficult to map out, because of the distribution of the Tamil-speaking population. A partition would certainly have cause massive population exchanges.  Consider this though. Sinhalese-speakers are divided by religion, Tamil-speakers by religion and ethnicity. Every ethnic group except the Moors are divided by religion. The Christians and Hindus are both split between two ethnic groups. Perhaps Sri Lanka is too fractured for a successful revolt to break out. Paradoxically, it may be Sri Lanka’s divisions that keep it united.

Sri Lanka Ethnic map Sri Lanka Language Sri Lanka Religion

What Languages Do Pakistanis Speak? (With Pakistan Language Map)

One of the many frustrations I have faced when trying to understand South Asia is the near total lack of recent data on which languages are spoken and where. The lack of interest in South Asian languages is stunning, especially given that South Asia is home to some of the most spoken languages in the world. The language everyone has heard of is Hindi/Urdu (essentially one language with two scripts), which is spoken by over 300 million people, even if the closely related Rajasthani and Bihari languages are excluded. In the West though, awareness of the other South Asian languages is low. Just to give an idea of how large many of these languages are, here are some comparisons: as many people speak Punjabi as Japanese; roughly as many people speak Bengali as German, French, and Italian combined; as many people speak Oriya as Ukrainian; Pashto has as many speakers as Polish; Marathi, Telugu, and Tamil each has more than three times as many native speakers as Dutch. I have searched for up-to-date statistics for language in India, but haven’t been able to find anything more recent than the 1931 Census. I was able however, to track down tehsil-level date for Pakistan from the 1998 Census. In Pakistan, tehsils are the third level of administrative divisions, after provinces and districts. The data set I found isn’t perfect (more on that later), but it has most of what I was looking for. The data can be downloaded here, and the site also has a link to a pretty cool interactive map.

Before I post the map, I’m going to give a quick rundown on language in Pakistan. English and Urdu are the national languages, and are widely understood, at least by the educated. English, obviously, is nobody’s first language in Pakistan, and Urdu is the first language of about 7% of the population, mostly descendents of immigrants from north India who arrived in 1947. The most widely spoken tongue by far is Punjabi, which is the first language of slightly less than half the population. When Saraiki and Hindko, two Punjabi dialects that are sometimes classified as separate languages, are included, well over half of Pakistanis speak Punjabi or a closely related language. As anyone who read my post on the partition of Punjab will know, a large population of Punjabis (about 35 million) live across the border in India. The second most widely spoken language is Pashto, which unlike Punjabi, an Indo-Aryan language related to Hindi, is an Iranian language. This makes it a relative of Farsi and Kurdish, although Pashto’s closest relatives are a cluster of minor languages known as the Pamir languages which are spoken on the mountainous border between eastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan. Pashto, like Punjabi, is split between two countries. It is the dominant language in southern Afghanistan, but the majority of Pashtuns live in Pakistan. About 15% of Pakistanis speak Pashto as a first language. Right behind Pashto at 14% is Sindhi, which is a relative of Punjabi. There are a few million Sindhi speakers in India as well, some right on the opposite side of the border, and some Hindus who fled Sindh after Partition. The other major regional language is Balochi, spoken by by about 4%. Balochi, like Pashto, is an Iranian language, though it is not particularly closely related. It is actually closer to Kurdish, leading to the theory that the Baloch may have migrated to their current location fairly recently from the Middle East. Balochi is also spoken in southern Afghanistan and eastern Iran. There are some other minor languages, which I’ll discuss later, but those are the major languages. Below is the Pakistan language map.

Pakistan Language Map

Note that I colored the Saraiki and Hindko speaking areas shades of blue because it remains undetermined whether they are separate languages or dialects of Punjabi. Since I don’t speak any of these languages, I can’t make a determination for myself, so I split the difference by making them different shades of the same dark blue. I should also mention two other problem areas. One is the central Balochistan area, which is traditionally considered the Brahui zone. Brahui is a fascinating language. It is Dravidian, which means that it is related to the major South Indian languages, such as Tamil and Telugu, but it is spoken far away from the other Dravidian languages. Brahui barely registers in these data. There are several possibilities. One is that Brahui has lost ground to Baloch. Another is that the Brahui learn both Balochi and Brahui and are equally comfortable in both, leading most to identify the dominant Balochi language as their native tongue. According to some sources, the Brahui have a complicated system of code-switching in which people use Brahui in some situations and Balochi in other situations. Apparently, even within families, there are some times Balochi is used (elder son addressing father), and other times Brahui is used (younger son addressing father). The father speaks to the children in the language of the mother, and wives address their husbands in Balochi. This all seems crazy, but if true could explain why many Brahui would feel comfortable calling Balochi their native language. In any case, it seems that almost all Brahui are fluent in Balochi. Just as a side note, Ethnologue (and Wikipedia) say Brahui is spoken by four million people. This is a ludicrous number, implying that Balochistan, which has 7 million people, is majority Brahui-speaking.

The other problem area was the far north, including northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir. I couldn’t find Census data on Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir (which combined make up Pakistan’s part of Jammu and Kashmir). As a result I had to look around the internet for information on these areas. In Azad Kashmir, I had to distinguish between Hindko and Pothohari, another Punjabi dialect being pushed as a separate language (included with Punjabi in this map). It’s a bit difficult to figure out where one begins and the other ends, but it seems that Hindko is spoken in Muzaffarabad, and south of that it is Pothohari. In Gilgit-Baltistan, I was able to use this survey from the early 1990s, which goes into some detail about the northern languages. The other problem is that the languages of northern K-P (Hindko, Khowar, and Kohistani) are all grouped under “other” in my data set. Luckily the geographic ranges of these languages are fairly well known and distinct, so it was easy to figure out which “other”-speaking areas belonged to which language.

I have already mentioned Hindko, but I’ll quickly go through the other six languages that show up on the map in the north. Three of the languages, the aforementioned Khowar and Kohistani, as well as Shina, are Dardic languages, the most northwestern branch of the Indo-Aryan language family. The Dardic languages form an arc in the far north of South Asia. To the southeast in Indian Kashmir, Kashmiri is the most spoken Dardic language. On the other side, in Afghanistan, Pashayi is spoken by perhaps half a million people south of Nuristan province. The other languages in the north are Burushaski (in brown), a language isolate with no known relatives, Wakhi (light purple) which is related to Pashto, and Balti (orange), which is related to Tibetan, and is spoken in Indian Kashmir, though the dialect there is called Ladakhi. The Baltis are almost exclusively Shia; the Ladakhis are split between Shia and Buddhist.

Hopefully this map underscores how linguistically diverse Pakistan is, and possibly explains why the country is so fragmented. Two other features worth noting are the huge swath of northern Balochistan that is Pashto speaking. The 1998 statistics put Pashto speakers at around 30% of Balochistan’s population, but with high birth rates and a surge of refugees from Afghanistan in the last decade, the Pashtun and Baloch populations in the province may be approaching parity. It is also worth noting the tiny presence of Urdu, the national language. While most educated people in Pakistan can speak Urdu, and almost everyone has at least a rudimentary knowledge of it, very few people speak it as a first language. Only the Sindhi cities of Hyderabad and Karachi are majority Urdu speaking. Hyderabad and Karachi were among the only significant Hindu-majority areas of British India that went with Pakistan, and it is possible that the Urdu speakers leaving India went there simply due to the availability of real estate once the Hindus left. Punjab would have been a more logical destination given Lahore’s traditional position as the most important city in northwest India, but Punjab was already overrun with Muslim refugees from India. Sindh wasn’t partitioned, which means it had to absorb fewer refugees. That might explain why the powerful Urdu-speaking community chose the cities of this arid backwater province as their new home.

This map also highlights two large movements for new provinces. The southern Saraiki-speaking Punjab has long had advocates for severing it from the north and creating a separate province centered on Multan. It is unclear how popular this demand is with the average citizen, but the movement has been active since the 1960s and shows no sign of going away. The other potential province would be in the non-Pashto speaking north of K-P. This province would be called Hazara and would be majority Hindkowan (the ethnic group that speaks Hindko).

The final interesting aspect of Pakistan’s linguistic mix is that the border between the Indo-Aryan languages of north India and the Iranian languages runs right through it. This fact, plus the detailed data set I found, gives us the unusual opportunity to investigate the boundary between two major language families. The Indo-Iranian languages form the largest branch of the Indo-European language family. It is typically split into the Iranian branch (Pashto, Farsi, Kurdish and others) and the Indo-Aryan branch (Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi and many others). The Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages diverged about 4000 years ago. While South Asia and Iran share many cultural similarities, they are markedly different civilizations. Most of the Iranian peoples share a basic history and culture as do most Indo-Aryans. Below is the map of the border between the Iranian languages and the Indo-Aryan ones.

Pakistan Indo-Iranian

To me, there are two notable features of this map. The first is the intrusion of Indo-Aryans into central Balochistan. These people are a mix of Sindhi, Saraiki, and Punjabi, which explains why they didn’t register on the first map, since Balochi speakers remain the plurality. Added up though, several tehsils have an Indo-Aryan majority. That corridor between northern Sindh and Quetta is pretty important, because it connects Quetta, and ultimately  Kandahar, to the Pakistani heartland. It is also a major gas producing area for Pakistan. I wonder if the non-Baloch people there are workers who are employed in the gas fields and related industries. That area is also a hotspot for militancy. Perhaps Baloch militants strike there to get at the “foreign occupiers” who are stealing Balochistan’s resources (a common complaint of Balochistan’s active separatist movement).

The second, more macro, feature is the sharp line between the Indo-Aryan languages and the Iranian ones. There are very few parts of Pakistan with mixed communities. This is not at all what I expected. Given that all of these languages, except Urdu, are poorly standardized, I expected the distinctions between them to be hazy. Instead, we see many instances where a 95% Pashto district borders a 95% Punjabi district. This is fairly similar to Western Europe, where the language boundaries tend to be sharp. One doesn’t find many mixed German and Polish towns, or French and Italian. In Europe, most languages are highly standardized and the national boundaries were made to coincide with language borders often through ethnic cleansing. Neither of these is the case in Pakistan. I expected Pakistan’s language map to look a bit more like Southeast Asia’s.

Pakistanis (and Indians) do have very strong ethnic identities. Sindhi speakers know that they are Sindhi and care about the distinction with Balochis. The same is true of Punjabis and Pashtuns. The lack of ethno-linguistic mixing could explain why Pakistan has had such a hard time constructing a national identity. It also could be one of the reasons Pakistan has been so slow to react to the threat of radical Islamic militancy. The vast majority of terrorist attacks in Pakistan happen in Pashtun dominated areas. Since there are few Punjabis or Sindhis living near Pashtuns, those attacks are out of sight and out of mind for the majority of Pakistanis.