Breakdown of British Governability During Partition

The matters of public opinion, policy making, and governability are all intrinsically linked and interdependent. Much of public opinion is swayed by secrecy by authorities, promotion of the benefits of a policy while minimizing the appearance of risk, and presentation of political action within international affairs. Such concepts were prevalent in the governing of India by British forces before decolonization which was further complicated by the inadequate implementation of British policies on Indian affairs.

Prior to World War I, British colonization was incredibly extensive and prevalent on all continents and in a number of countries. After World War I, the British Empire began to show noticeable signs of decline in the form of decolonization. Generally, the process was seen as Britain granting independence to their major colonies, India being the first to gain independence. Though the granting of independence may sound progressive, it was only done out of necessity, as Gandhi was leading a successful social movement that caused fundamental changes in the ways in which colonial power was perceived. This movement represents the primary factor that encouraged the collapse of the British Colonial Empire.

The uprisings and conflicts that erupted due to dissatisfaction with British rule have occurred in India over centuries, but it was Gandhi’s efforts that were especially effective. The time period 1915 to 1920 was when ordinary Indians were able to spread and understand Gandhi’s vision to popularize it (Khosla, 2021). The movement which was promoted was a form of nonviolent protest of boycotting British institutions and products. The movement, later labeled ‘Swadeshi’ continued to grow in relevance and resulted in a strain on Britain, with authorities being forced to recognize the significance of the movement.

On a more technical side of the decolonization process, the momentum gained by the Swadeshi movements was also supported by external factors. First, due to the war effort, much of the economic and human resources of Britain were completely exhausted. Second, Japanese forces that invaded the then British colony of Burma began an aggressive expansion in Southeast Asia. As such, in March of 1946, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Clement Attlee issued a speech in which he stated the intent of granting India independence (Ansari, 2017). The combination of these two external struggles with the rising movement within India illuminated the slipping control of the British Empire in India.

Partition, the set of events that encapsulated the separation of British India into two distinct states, India and Pakistan, occurred between the 14th and 15th of August in 1947. It occurred largely due to a late mechanism implemented by the British forces to maintain an agreement over the process of the newly emerging independence. In its early stages, the impact and the events that would occur after Partition was not visible to the involved parties, such as mass migration. The leader of the nationalist activities, the Indian National Congress, aimed to present a unified state with a solid middle. However, organizations that represented minority interests were suspicious, assuming that it would lead to Hindu political dominance.

On the other side, the Muslim population of British India was a large religious minority and was accustomed to the protection of their minority status under the British system.

At the time, the governance of British forces over India was largely based on the ‘divide and rule’ principle.

Essentially, segregation existed between both minorities and large groups in India which were made distinct, through legal systems of social behaviors. However, the governability of these groups by the British came to an end after the forces were able to unify. The desperation of the British governing authorities was obvious, the deal between Pakistan and India was drawn in a hurry by a lawyer with little knowledge of Indian conditions and with a map that was out of date (Verhagen, 2017). By announcing the deal a few days after the independence of the two states, the British also managed to avoid responsibility for the increased migration and violence following Partition. Primarily, it is the result of governments forcing themselves on foreign policy matters and being unsuccessful in garnering the public opinion that they require.

Public opinion is also reliant on the withdrawal of certain information, which could be perceived as a form of national security. However, by making information vital for reasonable judgment unavailable, the existence of government by public opinion is impossible (Speier, 1950). The combination of the British forces not considering the specifics of the people living in India and the secrecy with which the announcements of the new deal came, the governability of the British authorities was completely broken down. Additionally, authorities that promote less-detrimental consequences of certain policies do so in order to garner cooperative public opinion.

This method is especially prevalent during times of conflict, as the consequences that can alter the lives of citizens are numerous while public opinion should remain nationalistic and patriotic by engaging it in ideas of eventual success or gain. The failure of the British forces to recognize the specifics of Indian policies and interior politics led to the collapse of their governability.


Ansari, S. (2017). How the Partition of India happened – and why its effects are still felt today. The Conversation. Web.

Khosla, M. (2021). Democracy and decolonization: How India was made. International Journal of Constitutional Law, 18(3), 1031-1035. Web.

Speier, H. (1950). Historical Development of Public Opinion. American Journal of Sociology, 55(4), 376-388. Web.

Verhagen, F. (2017). Three Perspectives on Partition. A Hindu, Muslim and Western View on the Decolonization of India and Founding of Pakistan [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Radboud University.

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