A Closer Look At How Partition Changed Punjab’s Religious Map

When I wrote my first post on this blog about a year and a half ago, I only had access to religious data at a district-by-district level for Punjab (and also Bengal). When I wrote my post on Kashmir, I switched to using sub-district (or tehsil) data, which is more detailed. Since then, all of my posts on Partition have used that more detailed data from the 1931 Census. I decided to revise the Punjab map using the tehsil data. I won’t rewrite the whole post here though I encourage you to read it here. Instead I’ll compare the original map to the new one, and discuss a few features that the increased resolution reveals.

Punjab Religions 1941

Punjab 1931 Religion Tehsil

Apart from the obvious improvement in quality, and my addition of much of the North-West Frontier Province to the second map, there are a few details worth commenting on, though obviously the overall picture remains largely unchanged. First there was an overwhelmingly Muslim pocket due south of Delhi, far from any other Muslim majority area. Second, the increased detail really emphasizes the concentration of Sikhs in the southern half of what is now the Indian state of Punjab. The northern half of Indian Punjab was very mixed, with large Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh populations. Third, Amritsar and Tarn Taran tehsils, which are the Sikh-plurality (blue) tehsils directly in the middle of the province, were mostly surrounded by Muslim-majority or Muslim-plurality tehsils. This will be relevant when we look more closely at the partition lines later in the post. Finally, I noticed the Sikh-heavy area west of Amritsar centered on Lyallpur (modern-day Faisalabad). This part of Punjab was the focus of a major British plan to irrigate previously arid parts of Punjab and turn them into agricultural centers. Often, Sikhs migrated to these so-called canal colonies, where they were given plots of land to farm. The west-central part of Punjab, where most of these colonies were, tended to be Muslim-majority, but with a larger Sikh than Hindu population. Farther west, the Muslim majority became more pronounced, but the minority population was mostly Hindu. Below is a map of the non-Muslim Punjab population, to reveal the Hindu/Sikh distribution (the “Sikh” category actually includes all other religions, but the Sikhs made up the overwhelming majority of the non-Muslim, non-Hindu population).

Punjab 1931 Hindu:Sikh

I adjusted the opacity so that the colors look more faded as the non-Muslim share of the population decreases. As you can see, the Sikhs are mostly concentrated in the central Punjab. Hindus are much more numerous than Sikhs in the south and west of the state. I think this may be due to the canal colonies, which were located in the west-central Punjab and were a major magnet for Sikh migrants in the early 1900s. Farther west and south, the main minority is presumably the ten or fifteen percent of the original Hindu population who didn’t convert to Islam during the seven centuries or so of Muslim rule over western Punjab.

In this post, I experimented with a few different ways of presenting the data. The map below, requested by Vikram, a commenter, is a map depicting the Muslim vs. non-Muslim breakdown, which was the basis of the British partition lines.

Punjab Muslim:Non-Muslim

Now here is the same map, but with the partition line drawn in.

Punjab Muslim:Non-Muslim Radcliffe Line

Here we see clearly that the Radcliffe Line (the official name of the border between India and Pakistan) in Punjab was very favorable to India, as I noted in my original post. Not a single non-Muslim-majority tehsil or princely state ended up in Pakistan, while nine Muslim-majority tehsils or states ended up in India. Furthermore, seven of these were contiguous or near-contiguous with Pakistan. Here is the same map with the nine Muslim-majority tehsils given to India highlighted.

Punjab highlighted tehsils

The seven Muslim tehsils near the Pakistan border plus the two non-Muslim tehsils they surround, Tarn Taran and Amritsar, had an overall religious profile of 52.0 percent Muslim, 27.3 percent Sikh, 18.4 percent Hindu, and 2.1 percent Christian. Therefore, theoretically, the concept of  “two nations” would have been better served if the whole block had gone to Pakistan. That way, only four tehsils would have been “stranded” on the wrong side of the line, two per country. That still wouldn’t have been a satisfying solution to me though because the goal of Partition should have been to minimize displacement of people, not create a solution that was abstractly “fair” to both India and Pakistan. I think a better option would have been to give as much of this Muslim-majority block as possible to Pakistan while keeping Tarn Taran and Amritsar in India. There would have been two obvious options for achieving this goal. One would have been for Kapurthala state, southeast of Tarn Taran and Amritsar to accede to India while the remainder of the Muslim tehsils went to Pakistan. Alternatively, Gurdaspur and Batala tehsils, just to the north of Amritsar, could have remained with India while the other Muslim-majority tehsils and Kapurthala state went to Pakistan.

I judged which of these would have been better by assuming that all “stranded” Sikhs and Hindus would have moved to India, all Muslims would have moved to Pakistan, and Christians would have stayed put, as that is how Partition played out in general. Then I calculated how many refugees would have been expected under each scenario. The first scenario, Partition as it actually occurred, resulted in about 1,359,000 refugees from this pocket of Muslim-majority areas given to India. The second scenario, Kapurthala staying with India, would have generated 1,167,000 refugees and would have looked like this:

Punjab Non-Muslim option 1

The third would have involved Gurdaspur and Batala staying with India, would have resulted in 1,177,000 refugees, and would look like this:

Punjab Non-Muslim Option 3

A possible fourth option would have been for the whole area to go to Pakistan. That would have resulted in 1,195,000 refugees and look like this:

Punjab Non-Muslim Option 4

Obviously, if we reject the rules set up by the British and think outside the box, there are other possible outcomes that could have reduced or eliminated refugees. Some such possibilities include a multi-religious neutral zone in central Punjab, an independent and united Punjab, or no Partition of India at all. However, accepting the rules as defined by the British, the second option of Kapurthala going to India would have had the fewest refugees. Unsurprisingly, the British chose the one that created the most refugees. It is quite possible that the British wanted to make sure that the Sikhs, who were left in a very bad situation by Partition, would not be forced to abandon Amritsar, their holy city. Thus all the Muslim tehsils around Amritsar were given to India to make Amritsar more defensible and less exposed. It isn’t obvious to me though that the border in option two above was dramatically less defensible. Amritsar was more exposed, but any border through that part of Punjab would be difficult to defend given the flat topography. And the British left Pakistan divided in two and separated by the length of India, presumably a much greater obstacle to defensibility than a zigzag in the Punjab border. It should also be noted that the actual border drawn in that exact region proved impossible to defend for Pakistan in the 1965 war, when India invaded and ended up on the outskirts of Lahore by the time a cease-fire was declared.

Perhaps the British were willing to give India a favorable deal in Punjab (and as commenters have pointed out, in Bengal too) as a way of convincing the Congress leadership to accept Pakistan’s creation. I think that the main reason the British supported Pakistan’s creation is that it kept the most strategically valuable parts of British India in somewhat friendly hands. The North-West Frontier Province, parts of Kashmir (which the British expected to go to Pakistan), and perhaps Balochistan were strategic in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was already underway by 1947. As long as those territories ended up in Pakistan, the British probably weren’t too picky about what else ended up where. They may have promised and delivered India a favorable deal to ensure that India’s leadership wouldn’t get difficult and prevent the British from leaving the subcontinent quickly and unobtrusively. The British also wanted to ensure that India’s leadership wouldn’t drag its heals on recognizing Pakistan’s legitimacy (India voted in favor of Pakistan’s admission to the UN, Afghanistan was the only country opposed). So maybe the generous amount of land given to India in Punjab and the strategic headwaters in Bengal were meant to quietly grease the wheels for the British Empire’s withdrawal from South Asia and Pakistan’s entrance onto the world stage.

Finally the original goal of this project was to examine how Partition affected the religious demographics of Punjab, so I will post the original map with the 1931 populations, and the map with 2001 (India) and 1998 (Pakistan) populations so you can see how Partition changed Punjab forever. It is especially worth noting the change in the Muslim-majority teshils that remained in India, which must have lost a majority of their population in 1947, and the narrow Muslim-majority tehsils in Pakistan, which lost just a bit less than half.

Punjab 1931 Religion TehsilPunjab Religion Today

How Did Partition Change the Religious Map in Punjab?

July 2015 Update: See my more detailed look at Punjab here (but read this post too of course!).

Ever since I became interested in the Partition of India, I have been puzzled by the dearth of good maps showing the distribution of different religious communities in India on the eve of Partition in 1947. The main religions in India are few enough to make mapping possible but numerous enough to make it interesting; the British had carried out a detailed census of India as recently as 1941. All the information exists, and the story of Partition is one of the most consequential of the last century. So where are the maps?

I took matters into my own hands and made some new maps. For the map posted below, I used the 1941 Census numbers and this map as a base. The base map is one of the few decent maps available showing the pre-Partition religious situation in Punjab, and, more importantly for my purposes, it shows the districts and main princely states of the region.

A quick primer on Punjab in 1947: Most of the undivided Punjab region was part of the British Indian province of Punjab. Some medium-sized princely states were sprinkled in as well. Most Punjabi speakers lived in Punjab, though some lived (and still live) in what was then called the North West Frontier Province. The southeast and northeast of Punjab province was inhabited by non-Punjabi speakers. The Punjab region was home to about 35 million people, roughly 4/5ths of whom lived in Punjab province, the remaining 1/5th in the princely states.

The Punjab had seven cities with populations over 100,000. The capital, Lahore was the largest with 630,000, followed by the Sikh holy city, Amritsar, which housed 390,000. The other five were Rawalpindi, Multan, Sialkot, Ludhiana, and Jalandhar, all with populations between 100,000 and 200,000. All but Jalandhar and Rawalpindi had Muslim majorities. Those two had Muslim pluralities (or, if you prefer, Hindu+Sikh majorities). The overall religious distribution in Punjab, including the princely states, was 53% Muslim, 30% Hindu, 14.6% Sikh, 1.4% Christian, and 1% Other. Muslims were concentrated in the west, Sikhs in the center, and Hindus in the east. Hindus were also relatively prevalent in cities and Sikhs in rural areas.

Below is my new map, which takes the base map with districts colored simply by whether it was majority Muslim or non-Muslim, and adds two things. One is that it distinguishes between Hindus and Sikhs, so you can see where the “non-Muslims” in question were predominantly Sikh or Hindu. The other is the color gradient, which allows me to show districts where Muslims were 51% as different from those where they were 95%. In the map below, bright green signifies Muslims, blue is for Sikhs, and red for Hindus:

Punjab Religions 1941

The Punjab can be divided into five areas. One is the west, which was generally 80% or even 90% Muslim. The second is the center-west, which was majority Muslim, but typically around 60% and with large Sikh minorities. The third area is in the center-east, with no obvious majority religion. This is where much of the worst carnage during Partition took place. In some places, the Sikhs were a plurality, in some the Muslims, and in some the Hindus, but rarely was any one community a majority. The fourth area is to the southeast, in what is now Haryana. This part of the Punjab had a Hindu majority, but it was relatively narrow, and the communal split was Hindu/Muslim, with few Sikhs in the mix. In this map, Delhi is included as zone four, because communally and culturally, it was similar to the nearby parts of the Punjab. The fifth zone, which corresponds to the modern state of Himachal Pradesh was almost exclusively Hindu. Below is the same map, but with my zones drawn in:

Punjab Regions

Looking at this map, reasonable Partition lines are fairly obvious. Pakistan should get areas one and two, and India four, and five, with three being divided between the two, probably with most of it going to India. Below is the map again, with the claims made by Congress (in black) and by the Muslim League (in white), as per these maps, drawn in:

Punjab 1947 Claims

The difference between the two claims is stark. The Congress claim is maximalist: in addition to the heavily Hindu areas (4 and 5), they claimed all of zone 3, 2, and even a few parts of 1. I don’t know what the argument for giving those heavily Muslim regions to India would have been. Perhaps it was a negotiating tactic, or an attempt to keep the Sikh heartland undivided. The Muslim League asked for much less, only claiming zones 1 and 2 and most of the Muslim plurality parts of zone three. Below is the final boundary (in pink) drawn by the British:

Punjab Claims+Boundary

To my eyes, this looks like an extremely favorable result for India. No Hindu/Sikh majority district went to Pakistan, while several swaths of Muslim majority territory ended up in Indian hands. The explanation that comes to mind is that the British wanted to try to ease the damage Partition would do to Sikhs, who clearly got a raw deal with Partition. Their homeland was split in half, leaving many of their holiest sites, including the birthplace of the founder of Sikhism, abandoned in Pakistan. Lahore, which had been the capital of their early 19th century empire, also went to Pakistan. Unlike the Muslims, they didn’t even get a state out of the carnage, and in Punjab as it was then formulated, they would remain a minority. The British respected the Sikhs perhaps more than any community in India, because of their long service in the British India Army, and their loyalty during the 1857 revolt. Perhaps the generous lines on the map were intended to keep as many Sikhs in India as possible, and therefore reduce the number of uprooted Sikhs . My theory would also explain the very favorable lines in Sindh (or no lines: Sindh wasn’t partitioned despite a Hindu majority in the southeast) and Kashmir. The British expected the Muslim-majority Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir to accede to Pakistan, leaving the Hindus in the southern Jammu area in Pakistan. The British plan in Sindh and Kashmir balanced the pro-India lines in Punjab (obviously, India foiled the plan in Kashmir).

In any case, whether the British had complicated motives, or just didn’t know what they were doing, the lines were drawn, and all Hell broke loose. Virtually all of the Punjabis who found themselves on the wrong side of the new border left or died trying. It was one to the largest population exchanges in history (around 11 million people in Punjab crossed the new border). Here is the 1941 map again:

Punjab Religions 1941

Below is the religious picture of the greater Punjab region today (or ten to fifteen years ago when the data I used were collected). I added Buddhists in yellow, and since I couldn’t find any district-level data for Pakistan, I colored all of the Pakistani side the same color (97.2% Muslim, 2.3% Christian, 0.5% Other, which is the overall religious breakdown for West Punjab). I assumed that, with half a percent of the population, Hindus and Sikhs wouldn’t show up anyway. There is one religious map of Pakistan, which shows a Hindu majority in the desert south of Bahawalpur. I do not know what numbers this is based on, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so I’m ignoring it, at least until I find their data.

Greater Punjab Religions Today

Obviously, the Pakistani side is almost completely Muslim, while the Muslims have left the Indian side except in the area south of Delhi. A pocket of Buddhists has emerged in the sparsely populated far north, apparently mostly consisting of Buddhist refugees from Tibet. The Sikh population is completely concentrated in what is now the Indian state of Punjab, where they are a majority. In 1941, they were not a majority there, but the Muslims left and Sikhs from Pakistan arrived. Over all, Partition drastically changed Punjabi culture and demography in ways that would profoundly influence the courses of both India and Pakistan, and the maps tell the story in the simplest and most direct way.