What happened during the partition of India?

Series 11 episode six is set during the catastrophic partition of India, as the end of British rule and the birth of Pakistan became marred by tragedy

Doctor Who Series 11

The latest episode in Doctor Who series 11, titled Demons of the Punjab, is set in 1947 India during the country’s partition after it gained independence from British rule.


The subcontinent was split into India, East Pakistan and West Pakistan in a hurried six weeks, resulting in mass displacement and the deaths of up to a million people.

The episode, written by Bafta Rising Star Vinay Patel, takes a more domestic look at partition, focusing on the effect it had on Yaz’s grandmother on the day borders were confirmed by the British government.

A highly sensitive topic to write about, Patel told RadioTimes.com, “If there was one thing keeping me up at night more than anything, it was figuring out how to tell this story in a way that didn’t feel like it was disrespectful of the seriousness of it.

“Obviously, you can’t tell the whole history of partition in 50 minutes, especially when you have other elements in it. But I feel we did a good job of making this episode the story of the people who are our guest characters, and that felt important of me: to give them the balance of the episode.”

What events lead up to partition in 1947?

The British Raj was established in 1858, and was considered to be ‘the jewel in the crown of the British Empire’ due to its vast and valuable resources.

However, British rule in India during that period was often violent as the colonialists sought to maintain rule. One of the most infamous incidents was the Amritsar massacre in 1919: an estimated 1500 people were killed when troops under the command of a British general opened fire on a gathering at a temple in the Punjab.

While British forces slowly started to grant India more control throughout the 1930s, a turning point came when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 – taking India into the war with them.

Indian Leaders Gandi and Nehru (Getty)
Indian Leaders Nehru and Gandhi (Getty)

The news of war saw leading independence figure Mahatma Gandhi call for national civil disobedience with the Quit India campaign, seeing him imprisoned alongside Jawaharlal Nehru, the head of the Indian National Congress, who was also pushing for an independent India.

Meanwhile, the All India Muslim League, which was set up to represent Muslim interests in India, was now led by Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah was a passionate advocate for an independent state for Muslims – dubbed Pakistan, translating as ‘land of the pure’.

In order to ensure co-operation and support during World War Two, Britain offered India an independence deal that would result in a loosely federal, American-style system of government once the war was over. The plan was to keep India as one single country – but it was a resounding failure.

The proposition was rejected by the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League, with Jinnah now resolute that Muslims required a separate state in order to protect their interests.

Jinnah With Mountbatten (Getty)
Jinnah (centre) with viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten (left) and Lady Mountbatten (right) (Getty)

The mission’s failure saw communal violence and rioting between Hindus and Muslims worsen. Following a breakdown in order and shocking violence during the so-called Direct Action Day, Britain began to act hastily in an effort to withdraw from India.

With Britain’s funds depleted following the Second World War, Labour leader Clement Attlee pushed to transfer full power to India, setting a date of June 1948 for full independence.

What happened during partition?

Lord Mountbatten was made the new viceroy of India, promising a ‘speedy’ independence and bringing forward the date to 1947.

Mountbatten offered Jinnah and Nehru the idea of two separate states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan itself would be divided into East and West Pakistan, with the border being cut through Punjab and Bengal (in 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh).

Refugees At The Golden Temple, in the Punjab region (Getty)
Refugees At The Golden Temple, in the Punjab region (Getty)

British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with drawing up the borders of the new nations. He had never visited India before, had to rely on out of date maps, and the work had to be completed in just five weeks.

Pakistan declared independence from the British on 14th August 1947; India declared independence a day later. The official borders however were only confirmed on 17th August.

News of partition triggered riots, mass casualties and a wave of migration across the country: an estimated 12 million people were made refugees as people headed for the newly drawn borders.

The region of Punjab, where the episode of Doctor Who is based, was particularly volatile during this period.

The densely populated region was home to Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, and found itself at the epicentre of the mass migrations.

While there are no official figures, it is thought between 500,000 and one million people died as a result of partition.

Over 70 years on, the tragedy of partition continues to define relations between India and Pakistan, and affect the lives of millions of people on the subcontinent.


This article was originally published on 8 November 2018

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