Partition Was a Mistake

In the aftermath of WW2, the British finally decided to relinquish control of India to attend to the reconstruction necessary after years of German bombing. A very large contingent of Indian Muslims, lead by Jinnah, were convinced that a united Indian republic with a Hindu majority would mean bad times for the Muslim minority. They agitated for the departing British to carve out a separate state from India to be a Muslim theocracy. Thus was created Pakistan, a state whose population was split across two discontiguous parcels of land on either side of the what remained India — that’s where the bulk of the Muslim population lived.

With the benefit of seven decades of hindsight we can now look at the available data to consider whether the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was necessary or useful. There are two related questions to answer:

  1. Was partition necessary to prevent systemic discrimination against Muslims?
  2. Has partition given Muslims in Pakistan (and Bangladesh) a better life than they would have otherwise had?

Normally a contrapositive like this is very hard to determine but fortunately in this case we have a control group: the ~200 million Muslims who still live in India, a number that has always closely tracked the population of the state still called Pakistan. We can use them as an excellent proxy for what life would have been like for Muslims under a united India.

Let’s tackle the issue of discrimination first. A Pakistani newspaper took an in-depth look at the plight of Indian Muslims in 2015 and concluded that, while poorer Muslims living in the North-West parts of India do face some challenges, those in the rest of the country are doing OK. Among the data it analyzed were the prevalence of laws banning slaughter of cows. While several states do ban cattle slaughter entirely, the majority of them do allow it in limited form (e.g. bulls only in many areas). In the absence of any national ban on cattle slaughter, however, we can reasonably infer that, had India remained unified, the areas that were predominantly Muslim would have continued to allow cattle slaughter.

An aspect not considered by the aforementioned piece is representation on the national cricket team. Since cricket is easily India’s most popular sport, the inclusion of Muslims on it would suggest that discrimination against them is not as severe as originally feared. Indeed, historically Muslims have been represented on the team in numbers reflective of their proportion in the population at large. The team that won the World Cup in 2011, for instance, had two Muslims on it out of eleven total players, which is roughly the same as the ~15% of India’s population who are Muslim. India even had a Muslim as captain of the team during the 90's.

What about all the riots where Hindus killed Muslims? Indeed, there have been thousands of these over the decades. But none of them have been sanctioned by the government and it is highly unlikely that they would have happened in the areas that now form Pakistan and Bangladesh, which would have been predominantly Muslim anyway. It’s important not to conflate numerous acts of illegal violence with state-backed discrimination, which is what was feared in 1947.

OK, so I think we have sufficient evidence to conclude that fear of state-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims living in what became Pakistan was unwarranted. What about the other question: has the existence of two separate Muslim countries carved out of India meant that Muslims in those countries are faring better then Muslims who remained in India?

To answer this question let’s consider literacy as a proxy for which we have good data. In 1951, just a few years after partition, both India and Pakistan had a literacy rate of ~18%, which was quite low. It has gone up substantially across the board since then but how have Muslims in India fared compared to those in Pakistan and Bangladesh? Well, Pakistan’s literacy rate in 2017 was 58% while Indian Muslims had a literacy rate 10% higher than that (but still 5% lower than Indian Hindus) as of 2011, at which point Bangladesh had a literacy rate of just 47%, although it has since improved drastically. So even though Muslims have fared worse in India than Hindus on this measure, they’ve still done better than the Muslims living under supposedly more favourable conditions.

We’ll consider one other metric as a proxy for prosperity: poverty rate. The proportion of Indian Muslims living below poverty level was 31% in 2005 and was estimated to have dropped below 26% by 2011. Meanwhile, the same statistic in Pakistan fell from a much higher 50% in 2005 down to 36% in 2011 and in Bangladesh from 40% in 2005 down to 31% in 2010. We can see here that on this metric too Indian Muslims have been faring better than their brethren in the two adjoining Muslim countries that were once part of India.

[I looked into life expectancy but there’s barely any difference there between Indian Muslims and Pakistanis.]

I think we now have a pretty reasonable basis for concluding that partition did not do well by the Muslims who ended up in Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) compared to those who remained in India.



I have my way with words.

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