India’s Hindu Nationalists Still Feed Off Partition’s Wounds
Assam's citizenship crisis is the latest legacy of a division that made nations.
On the early morning of Aug. 14, 1947, a young Hindu couple set out from Sylhet, a northern Bengali city that was about to become part of the newly formed East Pakistan—today’s Bangladesh. Annada and his pregnant wife traveled through the late-monsoon heat by cattle cart, until thieves stole their livestock. They reached Assam, a state in northeast India, on foot just shy of midnight. Moments later, the partition of India officially went into effect, cementing freshly drawn borders between India and Pakistan.
The couple, like some 12 million to 15 million other refugees of Partition, very slowly rebuilt their lives. East Pakistan, which went on to gain independence as Bangladesh in 1971, still lay only a stone’s throw away. But the new border fence marked a searing split, one that still scars the subcontinent to the bone. The new nation would be born—and continues to define itself—around the divisions of 1947.
“After Partition, that thing never went out of people’s heads: A Hindu should be in India, and a Muslim should be in Bangladesh,” said the couple’s granddaughter Anurupa Roy, who grew up in Assam’s border district of Karimganj. Today, as 4 million residents of Assam face the danger of losing citizenship in the country they thought was their own, the legacies of Partition are playing out as painfully as ever.
Even decades after the split, conflicts still flared on both sides of the dividing line. Roy recalled hiding indoors as a child as the streets erupted in outbreaks of communal violence. In 1992, when Hindu extremists tore down the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in Uttar Pradesh, riots engulfed parts of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In Assam, a major influx of Bangladeshi migrants already had tensions at a fever pitch. Peering from the keyhole of her family’s home, Roy watched, stunned, as her Hindu and Muslim neighbors poured into the streets and smashed glass bottles over one another’s heads.
“When the country was divided based on religion, you could imagine what would happen,” Roy said. “Even after two generations, we still feel the heat.”
Partition is commemorated in popular South Asian culture as a distant historical chapter. A cottage industry of books, TV shows, and heritage films recount the turbulence, heroism, and horrifying violence of the time with sort of the same spirit with which Westerners recount World War II history. The emphasis is on the freedom fighters and initial leaders who threw off the yoke of British rule and shepherded two nations into existence.
But for those outside the Hindu heartland, especially in India’s northeast—today connected to the rest of the country by a thin “chicken’s neck” of land between Nepal and Bangladesh—Partition did not herald liberation from imperial control but a transfer of occupying powers. As leadership became concentrated in New Delhi after Partition, national unity in turn began to revolve around a majority-Hindu, Hindi-speaking authority that remains the dominant cultural and political force over seven decades later. With the creeping resurgence of Hindu nationalism, the country’s post-Partition fault lines have deepened, reviving old divides. The nation’s early battles continue to be replayed, its borders continually retraced and redefined.
In the preface to her 1998 book The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Indian author and publisher Urvashi Butalia wrote that the “simple, brutal political geography” of Partition “infused and divided us still.” Her own family had fled rioting in Lahore, Pakistan, and relocated to India.
Butalia now wondered how it was that “so many second- and third-generation Hindus and Sikhs after Partition [had] come to internalize notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’”—even those born long after the shock of the division.
What India means and who gets to belong to it remain the subjects of ferocious debate. Before 1947, India was a “patchwork of layered sovereignties,” said Mohamad Junaid, an anthropologist from Kashmir whose research looks at the rise of nationalism in South Asia. At the time of partition, there were 565 princely states, helmed by local rulers. Countless boundaries in language, culture, and creed zigzagged across a sprawling empire ruled from London.
After independence, a jumble of far-flung territories was brought together under a single national body, bringing about an uneven distribution of power. “India was especially aggressive about subduing princely areas and taking them under national control, under the rubric of ‘India,’” Junaid said. “It was not some kind of a unified entity that was partitioned. The unification started taking place after 1947.”
Leaders in Hyderabad, Bhopal, and Travancore, a kingdom in present-day Kerala, sought their own separate bids for independence, with princely Hyderabad only annexed by military force. Other states were absorbed years later: Goa, a Portuguese colony, joined India in 1961. The Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, a protectorate state under the British, was integrated as recently as 1975. In the northeast, Nagaland and Mizoram both tried and failed to declare themselves independent nations. Manipur, an ancient kingdom, reluctantly acceded to India in 1949.
After Partition, two-thirds of India’s Muslim population left for neighboring Pakistan as Hindu refugees simultaneously flooded in. This population transfer—the world’s largest cross-border migration to date—cemented India’s remaining Muslims as a permanent minority. They went from numbering a little less than half of the population to making up just under 15 percent today.
But these changes were not only demographic—they were also ideological. India’s unification hinged on the consolidation of a disparate tapestry of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups under the banner of a new nation.
According to Junaid, Indian national identity was buoyed by the vilification of Muslims, who became regarded as the country’s collective “other” and as de facto Pakistanis. Before Partition, “most Muslims in India were centered in towns and cities where they lived cheek by jowl with their Hindu neighbors, so you have to imagine the scale of political operation that has brought about this split,” Junaid said.
Boundaries were not only drawn geographically, but interpersonally—in minds as well as on maps. “Hindu nationalism worked over time to create Muslims as the enemy of the nation who need to be reviled,” Junaid explained. “[It] is now solely based on the idea of hatred of Muslims.”
Decades later, Muslims in India—some 180 million, the world’s third-largest population—are still suspected of comprising a fifth column secretly loyal to Pakistan. They are tasked with proving their unfailing patriotism and even forced by mobs of strangers to say, “Bharat Mata ki jai” (“Long live Mother India”).
John Dayal, a Catholic human rights activist based in Delhi, began documenting violence against Muslims in 1971 while working as a journalist. “I could see the old memories come alive,” he said. “The anti-Muslim feelings are now in their fourth generation, with a little break when Hindus turned against Sikhs in 1984,” after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
Partition, Dayal said, did not divide a country—it created one, delineating an exclusionary form of nationhood that continues to provoke communal unrest and outbreaks of anti-minority violence.
“Nation-states need a national ideology of unity. It unites some, excludes others,” said political scientist Sanjib Baruah. “There is no big surprise that this national project was fraught from day one.”
Activists like Dayal claim that prejudice is structurally enforced, shared by the upper echelons of state power. “I have been repeatedly shocked by the vocabulary used in private conversion by senior police, army, and civil services officers when they speak of the Muslim community,” he said.
“The memory of Partition is the trigger,” Dayal explained. “It is the fuse and the flame. It still breaks out in lynching. In extrajudicial killings. Arrests without warrants. It breaks out in this superiority.” That violence has worsened since the election of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. The cow, revered in Hindu theology, has become the crux of intercommunal attacks; scores of Muslims, Christians, and low-caste Hindus have been beaten or killed over accusations of eating beef or trading cattle in the last four years.
Divisions have been upheld by India’s government, to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s own benefit. “The B.J.P. seeks to permanently consolidate Hindus against Muslims and keep the social caldron simmering,” the journalist Ajaz Ashraf wrote in an op-ed last year. The consolidation of Hindus has not only served as an ideological motivator but also as a winning electoral strategy, with consolidated Hindu voting blocs forming the party’s core base. Twenty-one out of 29 Indian states are now ruled by the BJP. The Indian National Congress party, once a juggernaut of post-independence politics, wields control over only four.
In the early days of Indian independence, the Congress-led approach to nationalism was initially shaped by secularist and socialist ideals. “The broader agenda was to uplift people out of poverty and undo the damage that colonialism had done,” Junaid, the anthropologist, explained. But it was also defined by “inclusion and exclusion,” with Muslims acting as foils to pan-Hindu unity.
A more hard-line strand of nationalism developed concurrently around an imagined Hindu past. In 1923, the independence activist V.D. Savarkar coined the term “Hindutva,” which he explained as “not a word but a history.” It was based on the unshakable myth of an ancient Vedic golden age—a storied era of prosperity under Hindu leadership, perceived as more authentic than the present day.
Hindutva popularized an ideology of return to an inviolably pure Hindu rashtra, or nation, and trumpeted cultural and political unity among Hindus. Muslims—cast as invaders and interlopers—muddied national waters. As historian Gyanendra Pandey has put it, “Muslims were considered anti-national, which is to say, anti-Indian.”
Two years after “Hindutva” was born, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant volunteer organization, was formed to hasten the spread of Hindu patriotism and to petition for the establishment of a Hindu national home. In imitation of European fascism, RSS members adopted militaristic uniforms and performed daily yoga exercises in lieu of army drills. After independence, the RSS was banned by the government three times, the first time following the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by former RSS member Nathuram Godse, who reviled the political leader for his religious tolerance.
“The RSS thesis was that Hindus and Muslims are two different nationalities and that India is the holy land and birthplace of the Hindus. Anybody else who wants to live here had to pay a penance,” Dayal said.
The RSS is commonly referred to as the ideological parent of the BJP, which in turn serves as the group’s political wing. In power federally since 2014, the BJP has given ultranationalist and anti-Muslim viewpoints, fomented in the lead-up to Partition, a mainstream platform.
Late last month, the BJP, which won state elections in Assam in 2016 after promising a crackdown on illegal immigration, announced that 4 million Assam residents—mainly Bengali-origin Muslims—are to be stripped of their Indian citizenship. The law requires that residents furnish documents proving that they arrived in Assam before March 1971, when refugees entered the state after fleeing war in soon-to-be Bangladesh. BJP officials have reportedly pledged to help Hindus missing the necessary documents—and only Hindus.
In Assam, floods of Hindu and Muslim Bengalis have caused seismic demographic shifts, creating Muslim-majority districts and squaring both populations off against indigenous Assamese. Like a colonial power, the Indian government has relied on a policy of divide and rule to manage the Northeast. “Many nationalities have been pitted against each other,” Junaid said. This has paved the way for new forms of regional and linguistic nationalism, and it has allowed Hindu nationalist parties such as the BJP to gain ground, even while reinforcing the cracks in the state.
“This peculiar fear of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh causing a demographic shift is being exploited,” explained journalist Pradip Phanjoubam, the author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers.
Ideologies of exclusion—and a surge of separatist movements—have not only isolated the Northeast from the mainland, but have also meant that migrant populations have also not been able to fully settle. “Partition was the beginning of a refugee and nationality problem that Assam is stymied by even today,” Phanjoubam said.
With millions of Muslims now stateless, the burgeoning refugee crisis has been likened to the plight of the Rohingya—some 40,000 of whom are living in India and have also been threatened with deportation by the Modi administration.
In a Rohingya slum in South Delhi, home to 80 refugee families, reverberations of Modi’s policies have been deeply felt. “We’re happy being in India. We love India,” said 47-year-old camp resident Halima Khatoon. “But the government is saying that we can’t stay here. Rather than sending us back, tell Modi to just drop a bomb here and kill us all.”
The BJP has brought back the modus operandi of Partition—consolidation and exclusion—to put forth a vision of Hindu unity, all the while maintaining an electoral upper hand. In the 71 years since Partition, they have recast the founding of India not as independence from British colonial rule but as liberation from Muslim invaders.
“Freedom to Hindus meant that they would have to condemn the Holocaust that Muslims reaped on them,” reads the website of the BJP, explaining the evolution of the Hindutva movement. “Hindus are at last free. They control their destiny now … India in turn is finally free.”
The text concludes with the unnerving insistence, emphasized in bolded, capital lettering, that “THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS ONE FAMILY.”