The Birth and Partition of a Nation: India's Independence Told in Photos

August 15th, 1947, inaugurated one of the cruelest and most enduring ironies of decolonization. India, a British property with over 4,500 years of civilization and a population of 415 million, finally achieved independence. But it was a triumph that opened a social, historical and geographic wound that has yet to fully heal: the new Indian state was partitioned into two.

Violent divisions between the subcontinent's Hindu and Muslim communities, and Muslim League leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah's longstanding campaign for an Indian-Muslim political entity in the event of a British withdrawal, made partition the expedient choice for a weary and overextended post-war British government. On June 3rd, 1947, British Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten announced that, as of August 15, India would be split between separate majority-Hindu and majority-Muslim countries.

The border between the future modern states of India and Pakistan was created under the supervision of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a London barrister who was given only five weeks to draw the new borders. The resulting armed conflict persists today, from Hindu-ruled yet majority-Muslim Kashmir, to the bifurcation of Pakistan into remote eastern and western haves that later waged war. Millions of Pakistani Bengalis lost access to Kolkata, a regional metropolis that now sits on the Indian side of the border. As political scientist Lucy Chester recounts, the Radcilffe Line was "a failure in terms of boundary-making, but a striking success in terms of providing political cover to all sides." 

India was independent, India's Muslim minority had its own independent state, and the British were in a position to leave their troublesome colonies behind. They were incomplete victories: up to 17 million people were eventually displaced, and 1 million killed, in the sectarian violence that followed partition. Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India's independence movement, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in January 1948 over his perceived sympathies toward India's Muslims. A devastating civil war in East Pakistan resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1972. India and Pakistan fought wars over Kashmir in 1947, 1965, and 1999. The Kashmir conflict still serves as an ostensible justification for Pakistan's support of anti-Indian terrorist groups -- as well as for both countries' development of nuclear weapons. 

Today, democratic India is a regional power, and Bangladesh is an emerging democracy -- even troubled Pakistan boasts one of the world's top 30 economies. Still, even 65 years later, the full cost of partition has yet to be fully paid. Here is the story of that fateful day, and the days immediately before and after, told in photos.

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Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Gandhi in 1944. Gandhi opposed partition, while Jinnah's Muslim League lobbied for some kind of autonomous Muslim political entity in the event of a British withdrawal. He was briefly speaker of Pakistan's National Assembly before his death in 1948. (Wikimedia)


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Relations between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs was tense in the run-up to independence. By March 1947, a barbed-wire barricade separated the various religions' respective quarters of Peshawar, Pakistan, and the Sikh-Hindu minority observed a self-imposed curfew. (AP)


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On one of the most consequential days in modern Indian history, the Times of India reported "frenzied enthusiasm" and "wild scenes of jubilation." (Wikimedia)


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Lord Louis Mountbatten, the First Earl Mountbatten of Burma, addresses India's Constituent Assembly on August 15th, 1947, to announce independence. Mountbatten was the eventual victim of another British colonial entanglement - -he was assassinated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in 1979. (Wikimedia)


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Mountbatten salutes the Indian flag at an Independence Day ceremony as Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first Prime Minister, looks on. (AP)


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Jawaharlal Nehru salutes as he is sworn in as India's first Prime Minister at an August 15th, 1947, ceremony at Delhi's Red Fort. (AP)


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India and Pakistan found plenty to fight over, including the status of Jammu and Kashmir, a majority-Muslim border region whose ruler had opted to remain a part of India. In this picture, Indian troops defend the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar. When hostilities ended in 1948, India controlled about two thirds of the troublesome area, whose final border has yet to be demarcated. (AP)


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Muslim refugees attempt to flee the New Delhi area by train in September 1947. In total, as many as 9 million Muslims would migrate from India to Pakistan in the aftermath of partition. (AP)


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Sikh refugees from the Pakistani side of the Punjab. Researchers estimate that over 5 million people, most of them Hindus and Sikhs, migrated from Pakistan to India in the years immediately following partition. (Wikimedia)


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Muslim refugees flee sectarian fighting near the city of Amritsar, on the Indian side of Pujnab, in August of 1947. (AP)


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The Somerset Light Infantry, the last British troops to leave India, parade through Mumbai in February of 1948, shortly before their departure from the country. (AP)

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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