Skip to main content
Leicester Special Collections

Case Study - Partition of India

In August 1947 India was divided into two separate states - India and Pakistan. The division was based on religious lines, a Muslim majority in Pakistan and a Hindu majority in India. Pakistan itself was split into two parts in the east (East Bengal, which became Bangladesh in 1971) and in the west (Western Punjab).

Partition led to one of the largest migrations in history. Some 10 to 12 million migrants moved across the new borders in Punjab and Bengal. There was extreme violence between communities, with an estimated death rate of anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million. People lost everything: families, homes, land and livelihoods. State boundaries changed and set up many problems for the future, some continuing to this day, for example in the unresolved conflict over Kashmir. The memories of eyewitnesses of these events remain raw.[1]

Link to map of India showing the new boundaries imposed by Partition -

The disruption of Partition caused many people to move from their homes and some felt that they no longer had a future in the new India or Pakistan. Mr Paul-Clark recalls local corruption and food shortages in Calcutta as a motivation for leaving, while Mr Attwall saw political nepotism as a barrier to advancement and decided to try his luck elsewhere. Depending on family circumstances there might have been options to move to countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United States. Lots of people had either family, friends, or other connections in the UK and decided to start a new life here.

There were labour shortages in the UK after WWII so migrants were encouraged by the Government to come and fill vacant jobs. This continued up to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which was introduced to impose immigration controls in response to growing concerns about the perceived high levels of migration. 

Video of Partition of India and Pakistan 1947 -

Link to BBC webpages about Partition -

Two Leicester Mercury articles about the Partition of India

Newspaper articles from the Leicester Mercury (click to enlarge).

Looking at the Leicester Mercury newspaper it is notable that, at the time of Partition, there were only a couple of stories covering it. Headlines in Leicester around this time included: temperatures hit 114F during a late summer heatwave, the government were dealing with a shortage of dollars and a lack of aid from the USA, industry in Leicester was experiencing labour shortages, after four months of living in a camp East European voluntary workers in Harborough were still waiting for work. The Mr Leicester page noted that there were so many different accents to be heard in the City, " might sometimes wonder whether this was the Midlands of England or a spot in Central Europe."

The scale of the violence at the time of Partition was staggering. Estimates suggest the number of deaths as anywhere between  200,000 and 1 million, while more than 10,000,000 people were displaced, creating a huge number of refugees.

Often, single men came to the UK alone, sometimes married men came with the intention of earning enough money to bring their families over later. For example, Mrs Thiaray recalls her brother leaving India for the UK, her father following, and then the family coming later.[2]

On top of language issues there was also the problem of qualifications gained in India not being recognised in the UK. This was something that the Europeans, returning from India, also had to contend with. Qualified teachers, medics, engineers etc. often found themselves working in factories until they could gain new qualifications.

People came to Leicester because it was prosperous, although in the 1950s and ‘60s more South Asians moved to Coventry and Birmingham than Leicester. For example, Mr BS Attwall started working in Coventry, then moved to Courtaulds, then decided to have a go at market trading in Leicestershire. Eventually, he set up his own knitwear business in Leicester and was very successful.

Four years after Partition, the 1951 census counted 569 people in Leicester from India, 49 from Pakistan and a further 18 from East Africa. In 1961 there were 1,827 people from India, 109 from Pakistan and 1,630 from East Africa. By 1971, with increased migration from both India and East Africa, but before the Asian Ugandan arrivals of 1972, there were 11,510 from India, 775 from Pakistan and 6,835 from East Africa.[3]

Page compiled by Surrinder Bhatia.

[1] Quoted from Bonney, R., Hyde, C., & Martin, J., Legacy of Partition, 1947–2009: Creating New Archives from the Memories of Leicestershire People, Midland History, Vol. 36 No. 2, Autumn, 2011, 215–24.

[2] All individual names and quotes are taken from the Legacy of Partition collection at the East Midlands Oral History Archive and the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland.

[3] Virdee, P., From Diasporas to Multi-Locality: Writing British Asian Cities, Working Paper (2009) p.4 at (Accessed 03/05/2019)