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70 Years On: What Happened When The British Army Left India

On the 15th August 1947, India ceased to exist as a British colony. In its place were created two separate sovereign states, India and...

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On the 15th August 1947, India ceased to exist as a British colony. In its place were created two separate sovereign states, India and Pakistan.

Now, 70 years on, we look at the reasons for the sudden withdrawal of British troops from the sub-continent, and the seismic ripples it left in its wake.

Almost immediately after the two new states who were independent of British rule came into being, the withdrawal of British troops from the nation began.

On 17th August the first major unit made its exit from the former colony - a large contingent of the Royal Air Force sailed from Bombay (as it was then known) back to the UK.

Of course, the total withdrawal of all British troops took time - it wasn’t until February 1948 that the final departures took place.

The British Raj, once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, quickly unravelled throughout the 1940s.

The strain that World War II had put on the British Government and its people was certainly an important factor in its decline as in the wake of a war that had decimated the country, the British people elected a Labour government - a government which had a tradition of supporting the Indian claims for self-rule.

This, combined with pressure from the US to end Western Imperialism, Japanese expansion and a growing feeling of discontent with British rule among the indigenous population of India lead to the fall of British rule.

Partition

However, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint one root cause of the British Government’s withdrawal.

Lord Mountbatten, India’s last Viceroy, brought with him a desire to transfer power from the British Government swiftly and efficiently.

It was his negotiations which saw the deadline for the withdrawal of British troops move forward from June 1948 to August 1947.

In the weeks leading up to independence, responsibility for maintaining law and order was handed over to India's own Armed Forces.

However, British withdrawal signalled the end of the British Colonial Indian Army, overseen by Field Marshal Auchinleck, as troops were divided between India and Pakistan according to religion - Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the sudden decision meant that millions were left stranded on the wrong side of the border and therefore one of the largest mass migrations that the world has seen had begun.

Indian Army

Nearly 14 million refugees fled their homes, and there were violent clashes on both sides as communities who had lived in harmony for years turned on one another.  

It was women who suffered the most as a result of the violence caused by Partition

In a culture that prized a woman’s honour above all other virtues, the raping and kidnap of each side’s women became a means of dominating the other group.

Throughout Partition, it is estimated that around 75,000 women were raped, abducted, and forcibly impregnated.

But on the day that the British Army began to withdraw, Field-Marshall Auchinleck issued the following statement to the British Forces:

“Nearly two hundred years have passed since British soldiers first came to India. There are but few of the many corps and regiments of the British Army which have not played their part in war and peace in building up what eventually became the Empire of India under the British Crown”

“…This great change means that there is no longer any need in this country as a whole for units of the British Army or the Royal Air Force to form part of the two new states [India and Pakistan]”.

Despite the statement's triumphant tone, historians are predominantly in agreement that Lord Mountbatten’s haste in withdrawing the British forces from India and essentially splitting the country in half was the major reasoning behind the chaos that was Partition. 

70 years on, and the two nations still bear the scars of those bloody years; the narrative of violence established in the days of Partition continues to inform the two nations’ attitudes towards one another.