Long division – An Irishman’s Diary on India and partition

August 15th marks the 70th anniversary of the declaration of Indian independence

August 15th marks the 70th anniversary of the declaration of Indian independence


This August marks the 70th anniversary of the declaration of Indian independence, an event mired by mass violence, migration and new national boundaries.

The architects of the partition of Ireland had concluded the only rational solution to communal strife and nationalist demands was to partition the “jewel” in the British Empire.

Some in both Ireland and India regarded partition as temporary, both had boundary commissions and both suffered from violence as a result.

The partition of India was welcomed by the 25 Indian students and guests at the Gresham Hotel on August 15th, 1947.

India’s new flag of saffron, white and green colours was unfurled to great applause. The Gresham Hotel was packed with people attending the reception given by the India League and was attended by the lord mayor of Dublin, Patrick Cahill, a Fine Gael member.

The only member of the India League in Dublin who was Muslim was the general secretary, Dr LP Choudry.

Choudhry, speaking with optimism that pro-Treaty Irishmen in 1922 would recognise, said “we know there is Pakistan, but we believe it is only for a short time, and that in due course those who have stood out will realise their folly and will come back to a united India”.

Many in the Indian Congress, like their nationalist counterparts in Sinn Féin regarding the creation of Northern Ireland, did not see how Pakistan would function as a separate state.

The president of the India League was acutely aware of Irish history and the pursuit of independence and “we want to convince you that, though partitioned, Pakistanis and Hindus can and will live in peace together. We revere and respect Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, just as you Irish revere and respect Wolfe Tone and Henry Grattan”.

Messages of congratulations came from the taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, who had sent a note to the Bombay Chronicle: “Ireland wishes India God-speed and hopes that in freedom the Indian people will find unity, prosperity and happiness for themselves and an opportunity to play a significant part in promoting the wellbeing of the human race”.

An editorial in The Irish Times argued that the partition of India was unfortunate but “partition, as Irishmen have reason to know, is an imperfect and irritating answer to a political problem: but the conflict between the Hindus and Moslems of British India would not permit of any other decision”.

The violence that was to come had long been predicted, but it was the conduct of the British army that was hailed by the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who praised “the good qualities of the British solider, and I should like our own army to develop those qualities” .

This was the same army who had perpetrated the massacre of Amritsar, when hundreds of civilians were massacred in a square during a peaceful protest.

The Irish Independent argued that “one united nation would have been preferable to two” but that ideal was not “abandoned in a fit of absent-mindedness”. India “comes into existence without international violence because the government of Britain has adapted itself to the new world and has acted as the principal agent in the moulding of two great new nations”.

The complexity of the task ahead for the people of India and Pakistan concerned the Irish Press, which noted that, “as was the case with this country, self-government begins with vast problems over-ripe for settlement which have accumulated during the years of oppression”. The path to independence for both Ireland and India was long, the paper noted, and “the Irish people have long interested themselves in Indian affairs and the names of the most prominent of Indian affairs are well known in every part of Ireland . . . yet the ideal of Indian freedom, like the ideal of Irish freedom, has drawn to itself such immeasurable self-sacrifice that in the end it also must be realised. Certainly the purchase price has been paid a thousand times over. It is the wish of this nation that the Indian people will use their independence to achieve unity and greatness for themselves and that their ancient culture will flourish anew to enrich the world”.

The historical parallels between the partition of India and Ireland have attracted scholars to the subject for decades.

Partition, as witnessed in Ireland and India, rarely solves intractable communal violence. Indeed, Palestine was next to be partitioned in 1948. The legacy of partition in all three states is still an ongoing process and one that affects every community.