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.