1947 Partitions Revisited

15 August 2007 marked the 60th anniversary of India's partition. However, little attention was paid by Palestinians this summer to the ways in which governments and people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh tackled the legacy of "their" partition, a violent event whose repercussions are apparent 60 years on. Having shared similar struggles for decolonization and freedom from the same British imperial power, and traumatic and formative partition experiences, the peoples of pre-1947 India and Palestine have taken little notice of each other's apparently similar historical tragedies.

 In light of the powerful impact the efforts to partition Palestine have had on Palestinian individual and collective identity and struggle, Palestinian indifference of the ways in which the current societies of India, Kashmir, Pakistan and Bangladesh cope with and interpret their partitioned past is striking. Is this so, because there are far more differences between the two cases than similarities? Or is it because former ties of solidarity and cooperation between the PLO and the Movement of Non-Aligned States have been replaced by new political alliances? This brief article cannot address these questions in depth, but will focus on a few key points of comparison between the two partition 'experiences' that are of particular relevance today.

Motives for Comparison

Partition of Palestine into two states has been the internationally promoted solution since 1947, irrespective of sustained opposition to it by Palestinians and Arab states in the region. The negotiated two-state solution for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people promoted by the so-called Quartet is the most recent version of the 60-years-old attempt at resolving the conflict through partition. As it is increasingly clear that the two-state model is no longer feasible, there is new debate among Palestinians and their supporters about the option of partition itself, and about the viability and legitimacy of alternative single-state models.

On the other hand, Israel claims that its legitimacy as a “Jewish state” derives, among others, from the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine. Israel and its supporters in academia and public relations, moreover, are increasingly resorting to playing up historical cases of conflict resolution. These historical cases, which are situated in times when modern human rights law was just emerging, are used to justify Israel's past, build legitimacy, and garner support for the claim that Palestinian refugees do not have a right of return. Recourse is taken, in particular, to a number of historical cases of massive population exchange, which were agreed-upon by the conflicting parties and/or the international community in very different historical and political contexts. Thus, the post-WWI population exchange between Greece and Turkey (Treaty of Lausanne, 1923), the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia in the context of post-WWII Europe and de-Nazification(PotsdamConference,1945) - as well as the case of the partition of India in the process of de-colonization (1947) - are cited, interpreted, and often distorted, in order to assert that what was legitimate and maybe lawful then should be so for Israel today. Amnon Rubinstein's article in Ha'aretz entitled "Nobody nags India about the right of return" illustrates this point:

"[…] Muslim refugees [] fled India at about the same time and [] have been deprived of two things by the Indian authorities: the right to return to India and their Indian citizenship […] Pakistan did not declare war on India and did accept the principle of the partition of the Indian subcontinent. […] and the mass waves of refugees between the two countries began in the wake of bloody riots that broke out at the time. In contrast, the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership of the late 1940s refused to accept the principle of partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab – and instead initiated hostile actions against the Jews […] Actually, the picture […] is almost completely distorted, because Israel, and Israel alone, is being asked to implement principle that other democracies – and India is undeniably a thoroughly democratic country – have chosen to ignore […] In the vast majority of instances, the attacks on Israel stem from a basic refusal to regard it as a legitimate state whose existence expresses the right of the Jewish people to self-determination […]"(1)

Revisiting the facts

A closer examination of the critical facts and circumstances surrounding the 1947 initiatives for partition of India and Palestine, as well as the outcomes of those initiatives, will show what are the major lessons that can be learned from them.

Who initiated partition and for what aim?

India - Although fostered by divisive British colonial policies which spurred communal division along ethnic and religious lines, the partition of India was an initiative of the indigenous political elites of the Muslim League and, later, the Indian National Congress. Having failed to reach agreement about power-sharing in a unitary state for the period after Britain's colonial regime, and despite strong criticism and warnings of possible horrific consequences by influential political leaders, India's political elites came to see partition as the only feasible option for achieving de-colonization and self-determination. In particular among the Muslim League, partition became considered as the only model that could avoid political, socio-economic and cultural domination by the predominantly Hindu National Congress in the future. For this reason, partition also enjoyed popular support, and many communities appeared unaware of its potential human cost:

"[…] outside leading circles 'partition' was little more than a vague, unfathomable – even harmless – word that cropped up occasionally in the speeches of political leadership. That they would be forced one day to leave their homes and livelihoods amidst raging violence, was yet inconceivable to millions of ordinary people. This feeling of disbelief is best summarized in the words of an officer in charge of refugee rehabilitation in Punjab, who said: 'we in India were only vaguely familiar with the word 'refugee' and used to wonder why people should be compelled to leave their homes. Even our refugees expressed surprise at the strange phenomenon of exchange of population and were heard saying: we used to hear about the change of rulers but for the first time the ruled are also changing places.'"(2)

Palestine – The British Mandate regime had facilitated Zionist immigration and colonization in line with an earlier British pledge to support establishment in Palestine of a "Jewish National Home" (1917 Balfour Declaration) which was incorporated into the Covenant of the League of Nations (1922). When Britain announced that it wished to terminate its Mandate in Palestine, the newly formed United Nations accepted responsibility for determining the future legal status of the country. Partition was then proposed by the UN as a matter of last resort, based on the conclusion that promotion of self-government in a unitary state (also incorporated into the League of Nations Covenant) would destroy the Jewish National Home, simply because the majority of the country's inhabitants were Arabs.(3) Partition was not proposed by the Zionist movement. It was rejected by the indigenous inhabitants and political elites, and by all Arab states in the region, because it would prevent de-colonization and violate the right to self-determination of the indigenous majority in Palestine. Several attempts by Arab states in 1947 to refer the question of partition to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) were voted down by the UN General Assembly. This, although the UN's own report concluded that language about the exclusion of Palestine from earlier promises of independence made by Britain and France "was not so specific and unmistakable as it was thought to be at the time"(4), and ceded that the Jewish National Home and the British Mandate for Palestine may well run counter to the principle of self-determination.(5)

Was partition implemented? What were the results?

India – Britain decided to terminate its colonial regime nine months earlier than planned. A tripartite partition agreement between the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League and the British Empire was completed in haste, and India's partition was marked by parallel official ceremonies in Delhi and Karachi on 15 August 1947. In this context, the original plan of partition, which would have resulted in two contiguous states divided along the lines of the religious affiliation, was changed. A secret agreement had been concluded in haste between Britain and the Indian National Congress and provided that the Punjab would be divided in half, and all the eastern and northern Muslim areas would go to India. It resulted in the division of East and West Pakistan by a thousand miles of Indian territory and the split of Kashmir. This, as well as the fierce competition for power among all ethnic and religious groups sparked by the prospect of partition earlier on, triggered massive collapse of authority, flight and massacres, and resulted in approximately 1.5 million deaths and the forced displacement of more than ten million people (Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan).

Partition created a post-colonial climate of ethnic and religious nationalism and racism, which was the basis for four wars between the successor states and continues to cost lives and undermine the rights of minorities until today. The incorporation by India of the predominantly Muslim state of Kashmir has been challenged by Pakistan since partition. The dispute over Kashmir has given rise to two wars, ongoing hostilities, and massive violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by India and Pakistan. In 1970-1971, Pakistan itself was further divided as the geographically separated East Pakistan became the new state of Bangladesh. This process of separation, lead by local national forces, was again accompanied by horrendous inter-communal violence and massacres.

Palestine - On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly recommended, based on the vote of 33 states, the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state on 55% of Palestine and an Arab state on 45% of the country (UNGAR 181). Thirteen states, including all Arab member states and states that had previously undergone partition (India, Pakistan) or population exchange (Greece, Turkey) voted against what they saw as a measure that would obstruct Palestine's self-determination, while ten states, including Britain, abstained.(6) The United Nations, however, failed to implement its partition plan, because member states were unwilling to commit troupes required for enforcement. Hostilities between the Palestinian resistance and Zionist forces peaked, and Arab neighbor states declared war in response to the unilateral declaration of Israel's establishment on 14 May 1948, the day marking the official end of the British Mandate. In the period between the 1947 UN Partition resolution and the 1949 Arab-Israeli ceasefire agreements, approximately 800,000 Palestinians (some 80% of the indigenous population) were forcibly displaced from the 78% of Palestine which became Israel, and Palestinians' pre-1948 civilization was destroyed.

The failure of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, including UN refusal to uphold the rule of law and acquiescence with Israel's unilateral establishment by force, interrupted the process of Palestine's de-colonization and laid out the framework for the Apartheid-regime emerging today. It also formed the basis for the emergence of the modern Palestinian resistance movement (PLO), and for a climate of violence, impunity and non-enforcement of international law. The results are sustained hostilities, at least five additional wars, Israel's military occupation and colonization of the remaining 22% of Palestine since 1967, and massive violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.

What treatment has been afforded by the successor states to the refugees and national/ethnic/ religious minorities?

India, Pakistan – Although partition into modern India and Pakistan was planned along the lines of religion (Hindu, Muslim), the plan did not provide for massive exchange or transfer of populations. Despite early doubts raised by critics, the leadership of the National Congress and the Muslim League hoped to contain the movement of populations by partition along strict religious-majority division lines, and religious minorities were expected to remain in each successor state. The question whether the dramatic scope of massacres and displacement of persons was unavoidable, or could have been prevented, if partition lines had not been re-drawn, can no longer be answered today.

Measures undertaken by the successor states after partition, moreover, emphasize that population transfer/ethnic cleansing was not intended: India and Pakistan adopted secular constitutions which enshrine the fundamental right to equality of their respective minorities, and at least India's constitution provides an option for citizenship of persons displaced to Pakistan. Early post-partition agreements provided for the principle that ownership of refugees' property should remain vested in the refugees, and that claims for compensation should be raised on their behalf by the respective refugee receiving country.(7) Later agreements between India and Pakistan (e.g. the New Delhi Accord, 1950) include provisions for refugee return and property restitution and protect minority rights. In fact, many refugees appear to have returned and reclaimed their property, although implementation of these agreements has remained partial.(8) Today, Muslims make up at least 13.4% of India's citizens and constitute a population which is almost equal in size with the Muslim population of Pakistan.

Palestine-Israel: Non-implementation of the UN partition plan was followed by the failure of Israel, the only successor state in Palestine, to abide by the UN-recommended provisions for constitutional protection of the rights of the indigenous Arab population (“minority rights” in UNGAR 181). Israel neither respected international law on state succession, which protects the right to citizenship of the indigenous population, nor UNGAR 194 (December 1948) resolving that the Palestinian refugees should be permitted to return. Israel has not adopted a constitution, and none of its basic laws guarantee the right to equality. Israel rather legislated a dual system of laws and military orders which privileges Jewish citizens and immigrants, and segregates/discriminates against Palestinian refugees and citizens and residents in Israel and the OPT, i.e. an Apartheid regime.

Discrimination is particularly apparent in Israel's citizenship laws (e.g. 1950 Law of Return, 1952 Citizenship Law) and its land regime (e.g. 1950 Absentees' Property Law). 1948 Palestinian refugees were denationalized, and the property of the refugees and internally displaced persons was transferred to state ownership under the same dual system of law and orders. All Palestinian refugees are denied return to Israel and the OPT, and Israel's ongoing violation of international humanitarian and human rights law causes more forced displacement of Palestinians. Since 1948 Israel has employed armed conflict, occupation, planning of public development, immigration – as well as its laws - with the intent to obtain control over more land and resources for Jews and exclude, and reduce the number of, Palestinians. Such practice amounts to population transfer, i.e. a phenomenon often termed “ethnic cleansing”.

Lessons learned

This brief comparison sheds some light on “why nobody nags India about the right of return.”(9) It shows why India's partition has largely been accepted as legitimate, despite its enormous human cost and frequent UN interventions in subsequent armed conflicts between the successor states. Finally, it explains also why the legitimacy of both, the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine and the state of Israel as a “Jewish state”, have remained challenged, irrespective of the fact that Israel is recognized by the majority of states worldwide.

Today, Population transfer (ethnic cleansing) is a crime under international law, and partition, if imposed against the will of the population, is illegal. Moreover, there appears to be consensus among the diplomatic community of today, that partitioning countries is a method of resolving conflicts which is extremely costly, risky and unlikely to lead to socially and politically stable outcomes. Assessments and reflections published this summer on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of India's partition seem to confirm that this is also one of the lessons learned from there. As protection of the sovereignty of existing states has evolved into a primary concern, the reluctance of the international community, since the late 20th century, to accept or promote the creation of new states through partition/separation, may be be understood in this context.

In the case of Palestine-Israel, where partition has failed since 1947, and where Israel is in effective control of the entire territory of historic Palestine since 1967, however, the same international community refuses to consider alternatives. From 1947 until today, western states have dismissed unitary models of conflict resolution, and the failed partition/two-state model is pursued with persistence, irrespective of its enormous cost and risks, including the risk of sanctioning 60 years of population transfer (ethnic cleansing).


Ingrid Jaradat Gassner is Director of Badil Resource Center.


(1) Amnon Rubinstein, "Nobody nags India about the right of return", in: Haaretz, 20 June 2000. For a similar argument, see also: Joan Peters, "Why are Palestinian refugees treated differently from all other refugees n the world?", at: www.eretzyisroel.org

(2) Ravinder Kaur, "India and Pakistan: partition lessons", 16 August 2007, at: www.opendemocracy.net

A variety of book reviews and reports published in 2007 and providing analysis of Indian and Pakistani writers of the legacy of India's partition served as additional resources for this article.

(3) See: UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), Report to the General Assembly, 3 September 1947 (A/364), 137.

(4) UNSCOP Report, 167-169.

(5) UNSCOP Report, 176.

(6) The 33 countries that voted in favor were: Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussian SSR, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, Liberia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Sweden, South Africa, Ukrainian SSR, United States of America, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Uruguay, Venezuela. The 13 countries that voted against resolution were: Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen. The 10 countries that abstained were: Argentina, Chile, Republic of China, Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Mexico, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia. One state (Thailand) was absent.

(7) See UNSCOP, A/AC.25/W/41 including information up until 1948.

(8) See for example: Joseph B. Schechtman, “Evacuee property in India and Pakistan”, in: 50 Years of Indo-Pakistani Relations, Vol. 1, edited by Verinder Groever and Ranjara Arora. New Delhi: Deep and Deep Publications, 1955, p. 55. See also: Maren Zariffi,“Reply to Rubinstein: India, the Right to Return and Historical Comparison”, in: fofognet, 23 June 2000.

(9) See: Amnon Rubinstein, quoted above.