The partition of the Indian sub-continent sparked one of the largest uprooting of people in the twentieth century. In the lead up to Partition there was a lot of uncertainty amongst the population of India and many letters were written to the Government asking whether they need to move and if they will keep their jobs. Despite this uncertainty, it was anticipated that Hindus and Sikhs would continue to live in Pakistan and similarly, Muslims would continue to reside in India and so little preparation was made by the British, Indian and Pakistani governments for a large exchange of populations.
Communities that had co-existed together for centuries were suddenly divided and many no longer felt safe to stay in the place they had always considered home. Violence had been escalating in the lead up to partition and became organised and targeted. The casualty figure is unknown and hotly contested with estimates ranging from 200,000 to over 2 million deaths.
Military Evacuation Organisations (MEOs) took charge of organising the movement of populations by rail and air travel with thousands of Muslims leaving East Punjab and as many Hindus and Sikhs leaving West Punjab. This movement of populations reinforced a hard-border between India and Pakistan along religious lines. Those that could not afford to travel to their new homeland by rail or air made their way on foot using bullock-carts to transfer their belongings.
The journeys undertaken by migrants were very difficult. Ghulam Mohammad, the Pakistan finance minister, described a Muslim refugee convoy from Amristar to Lahore as ‘growing too weak to move. Most of them are moving on foot without any supplies’. On arrival to refugee camps, life often did not become easier. Supplies of vaccines began to run out despite government efforts to obtain vaccines. Without vaccines, many of the refugee populations became vulnerable to disease such as cholera, malaria, or diarrhoea. In Delhi, camps were set up in monuments like Purana Qila, Feroz Shah Kotla, Humayun’s Tomb and Safdarjung’s Tomb.