Partition of British India

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Postwar 1945-present

Curriculum topics: The British Empire

Download: Lesson pack

What can The National Archives documents reveal about the partition of British India?

In the below video, Iqbal Singh, Hannah Carter and Eleanor Newbigin introduce a document relating to the partition of British India. They explore what this document’s tone and content can tell us about British official’s attitudes to the violence that occurred after partition. Students also hear an oral testimony from Iqbal’s aunt whose family were displaced in 1946 due to growing tensions in British India. There is an accompanying resource pack you could use to explore this topic further.  

The video and resource were launched at a plenary session at the SHP conference 2022.



  1. Look at the Starter Document.

Context –

The document is titled ‘communal disturbances’. ‘Communal’ is not a term we use a lot today but was used in British-India by officials to describe tensions between religious groups. It was thought that Indian people had stronger religious beliefs than British people and, as a result were more likely to resolve things through violence.

  • What type of document is it?  
  • When was it sent?   
  • Who sent it and who to?  
  • Why was this document sent? 
  • What do you notice about the numbers and figures that are used? 
  • What is the tone of the document? 
  • How do you think British officials got the information for this document? 
  • What does the title ‘communal disturbances’ reveal about how British officials viewed the violence?  
  • How useful is this document for exploring what happened in the months following the Partition of British India?

2. Explore more documents relating to the partition of British India.  

1. Decision making

Context – 

1a- Photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru- the first Prime Minister of independent India (left) Lord Ismay- Chief of Staff to Lord Mountbatten (centre left) Lord Mountbatten- British Viceroy of India (centre right) Muhammed Ali Jinnah- First governor-general of Pakistan (right)

Look at Source 1a, a photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Ismay, Lord Mountbatten, and Muhammed Ali Jinnah.

  • How would you describe the expressions of the leaders?
  • What could you infer about relations between the different leaders?
  • What can you see in the background of the room? How does this relate to the decisions being made?
  • When do you think this photograph was taken in the decision-making process of partition?

Look at Source 1b, personal notes from Lord Ismay.

Context –

Lord Ismay was chief of Staff to Lord Mountbatten and therefore closely involved in negotiations.  

  • What audience was intended for this document? Hint- look at the text at the top of the document.
  • It is described as a ‘personal note.’ How does this affect the tone of the document?
  • How does Lord Ismay describe the partition of British India and the following months? (See Section 2 and 3)
  • What does he suggest about who is responsible for the way partition happened and the violent outcome?

2. Violence following the Partition of British India: Sikh case study 

Look at Source 2a, a 1947 map of the Punjab, India and Pakistan boundaries.

Context –

Lahore was a special place for the Sikhs. It was the location of many important Sikh religious and historical sites. In addition Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born in Nankana Sahib, near Lahore. However this was a Muslim majority area and was made part of Pakistan. This didn’t take into account that non-Muslim people had strong connections to this area, they had businesses and had played a large role in developing the Punjab. Before the boundary line was drawn there were appeals from many in the Sikh community to give greater acknowledgement to Sikh history and heritage than they feared a focus on Muslim and non-Muslim populations would allow.  

  • What does the red line and the red dotted line show on the map? 
  • When do you think this document was made? Hint: Look at the date mentioned in the key.  
  • The boundary lines for Pakistan and India were drawn mainly by looking at the percentage of Muslim people in the population. What group of people may have objected to this and why?  

Look at Source 2b, a 1946 letter from Santokh Singh.

Santokh Singh was a writer who wrote in Punjabi, with a Sikh father and a Hindu mother. He is writing to Lord Pethick Lawrence, a British politician involved in the negotiations leading to the partition of British India.  

  • What is the tone of the letter? Give an example to support.  
  • What does it reveal about the concerns of the Sikh population relating to the partition of British India?  

Look at Source 2c, a  report from The Times.

  • What does the newspaper article suggest about the situation in Punjab by late August? 
  • Why do you think the British government are collecting this newspaper article?  

Look at Source 2d, a page from 1948 report by J.S.H. Shattock.

Context –

J.S.H Shattock was based at the British High Commision at Delhi. The British High Commission reported between its offices in India and also informed bodies like the Commonwealth Relations Office in London about what was happening in India. 

  • How does Shattock describe the situation in the Punjab during August and September 1947? 
  • What does this document suggest was the impact of this violence?  

3. Communal tensions- British perspective

Look at Source 3, notes on British involvement in India from 1945. 


This is a page from a set of notes made by an unknown British official. ‘Communal’ is not a term we use a lot today but was used in British-India by officials to describe tensions between religious groups. It was thought that Indian people had stronger religious beliefs than British people and, as a result were more likely to resolve things through violence.

  • When was this document written? 
  • How is this document written?  
  • What did the author mean by the title ‘communal differences’?   
  • What does the author think is causing divisions between religious groups? Hint: Look at the paragraph that begins ‘Consequently neither Hindus or Muslims are willing…’
  • How effective does the author think British rule in India has been? Hint: Look at the final paragraph.

4. Forced displacement of people 

Look at Source 4, a report on refugee movements after partition.

  • What type of document is this? 
  • What language is used to describe displaced people?  
  • It was made by the international news agency Reuters. What do you think its purpose was? 
  • How do you think the author gathered their information?  
  • How does the language and tone of the document compare to the Starter Source?  

5. Oral Testimony

Listen to the oral testimony from Iqbal’s aunt about partition.

Context –

These are extracts from a conversation with Iqbal’s aunt whose family were displaced prior to the partition of British India. There are themed audio clips and a typed transcript.  

  • What type of document is this?  
  • What challenges did Iqbal’s aunt face when her family were displaced? 
  • Iqbal’s aunt shows a lot of empathy for Mr Ansari who was Muslim and recognition that he must have felt loss, like her family did. 
  • How does that challenge some of the simplistic ideas about ‘non- Muslim’ and ‘Muslim’ people in the Starter Source?  
  • How useful do you think oral testimony is as a source to learn about partition? Explain your answer.  

Creative activities

Here are some graphic drawings by the artist Pins inspired by Iqbal’s aunt’s testimony. These are suggestions for activities you could do.  

  • Pick another scene from the testimony and create a graphic drawing of it. You can use words and captions.  
  • Listen to more oral testimonies from people who lived through Partition using other archival collections. Create a graphic drawing of their story. 


Introduction to Partition  

The partition of British India occurred in August 1947 when the British government withdrew from India after almost two hundred years of British rule. 

People in British India had called for independence for decades. But, until the early 1940s, very few people–in Britain or India–would have thought that this independence would take the form of dividing up land. 

A very important reason for British rule in India was military resources, particularly soldiers. In 1942, a point of uncertainty in the war for Britain, and growing Indian opposition to colonialism, the British government announced they would leave India after the war. There were many different political leaders and groups who disagreed about how to make everyone feel represented after Britain left. Muslims only made up a quarter of the population but these communities were not spread evenly. There were a few areas where Muslims were most of the population. There were calls from some Muslim leaders for these regions to have greater independence. Divisions grew.  

By late 1946 British officials had given up on finding a solution in which many different groups could be represented within a single state. In February 1947 Lord Mountbatten was sent to oversee Britain’s withdrawal. On the 3rd June 1947 he stunned everyone by announcing with leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah that Britain would give power to not one but two new governments – the government of India and the government of Pakistan, a year earlier than previously planned.  

Officials from Britain and British India were given just 9 weeks to work out how British India would be divided. The final borders split the eastern and western areas of British India and ran through the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, important areas economically and politically with a roughly 50:50 split of Indian and Muslim populations.  

Independence was declared on 14th and 15th August 1947 but the borders of these two new nations were announced 2 days later on the 17th of August. This meant that people celebrated independence without knowing for sure quite where the line between these two countries would be drawn 

People living in the regions affected by partition felt scared and uncertain about their future – not wanting to end up on the ‘wrong side’ of the border. In the months around August 1947 over 15 million people are thought to have migrated across the new borders. In Punjab in particular this huge human migration was accompanied by brutal violence- some of which we can see as a reflection of the fear and uncertainty of what was going on, of the future. However it is important to stress that much of the violence was not random but orchestrated by militias connected to various political parties who wanted to secure the best possible outcome after the British left India.   

Communal disturbances  

Our mystery document begins with the heading ‘communal disturbances’ which is a word we do not really recognise today. But it was a term that was widely used by officials in British-India to describe tensions between different religious groups. The use of the term ‘communal’ instead of just saying ‘religious’ showed that the British thought they were dealing with something specific to Indian society. It was thought that because of strong religious ideas Indian people were most likely to resolve things through violence. Religion was always assumed the cause, not more specific, local issues, which enabled officials to see the violence as something they were not responsible for, that it was caused by timeless differences between people.  

Documents at The National Archives 

The documents at The National Archives alongside those at the British Library India Office collection and records published in the Transfer of Power collection are some of the major collections of records in the UK about the period we are studying. While there is some duplication, the records at The National Archives are particularly strong for records of policy making at the highest level and for records of British armed forces stationed in India.  

Teachers' notes

This film and set of resources is suitable for an assembly, form time or a lesson on the history of the partition of British India. The film is around 10 minutes in length. 

There is an accompanying glossary to support students.

Class activities: 

Teachers may want to use the documents included in the resource to extend learning. It is suggested that students look at the Starter Source first. This is the same document used in the film. You might want to encourage students to come up with a question relating to the Starter Source, these questions could be returned to at the end of the lesson/series of lessons.  

Then students could work in smaller groups looking at the other documents. There are questions they can explore and they are invited to draw comparisons with the telegram.  

There is also a creative outcome that is suggested inspired by Iqbal’s aunt’s testimony.  


Starter: Telegram, September 1947. Catalogue ref: DO 142/416 .

1a. Photograph of: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Ismay, Lord Mountbatten, and Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

1b. ‘The Indian Situation’ – personal notes from Lord Ismay, 1947. Catalogue ref: DO 121/69

2a. Punjab, India and Pakistan boundaries, 1947. CO 1054/76

2b. Letter from Santokh Singh, 1 June 1946. Catalogue ref: CAB 127/106

2c. Report from The Times, 25th August 1947. Catalogue ref: DO 142/416 

2d. Page from report ‘Appreciation of the East Punjab’ by J.S.H. Shattock, 16 March 1948. Catalogue ref: DO 142/439

3. A brief survey of the work done in India by the British, October 1945. Catalogue ref: WO 208/755

4. Report on refugees after Partition, October 1947. Catalogue ref: DO 142/416

5a. Oral testimony from Iqbal’s aunt about the Partition.

5b. Dehra Dun Valley by PINS © Bhupinder Singh, 2022

5c. Mr Ansari House by PINS © Bhupinder Singh, 2022

External links

Partition Museum- Oral History  

SOAS- India: People partition oral archive 

1947 Archive 

The National Archives- Panjab 47 

Connections to curriculum


  • Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day
    • Indian independence and end of Empire
    • Britain’s place in the world since 1945
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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4, Key stage 5

Time period: Postwar 1945-present

Curriculum topics: The British Empire

Download: Lesson pack

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