At its core, Train to Pakistan is a fictional recounting of the 1947 Partition of India from the perspective of a small town that the partition tears apart. In his story, Khushwant Singh deviates from most works of historical fiction in that he focuses on the interpersonal relationships and actions of his characters rather than the larger political and social events of the partition. On one hand, this allows for a greater emotional connection to the story and characters, but on the other hand it leaves the reader somewhat disconnected from the wider political framework in which the novel is situated. Below is a brief timeline of the events leading up to and surrounding the 1947 Partition of India.
1905—The Partition of Bengal divides Bengal, the largest administrative area of British India, into a separate eastern Muslim-majority province and a separate western Hindu-majority province.
1911—In response to riots and Hindu fears of being a minority in the new western Bengali province, Lord Hardinge reunites Bengal.
1914—1.4 million Indian soldiers fight in World War I alongside British soldiers from the British Indian Army, thrusting India onto an international stage.
1916—At the 1916 Lucknow Session of the Indian National Congress, leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League join forces to campaign for greater self-government. Known as the “Lucknow Pact,” this allegiance and its goals are one example of the nationalistic thought beginning to grip India.
1919-—The Montagu and Chelmsford reforms, officially passed in the Government of India Act of 1919, gives greater power to Indian ministers and legislatures, while retaining areas like land-revenue, police, prisons, and control of the media under British control.
1920—India, under its own name, becomes a founding member of the League of Nations, and participates in the 1920 Summer Olympics under the name “British India.”
1924—Lala Lajpat Rai, a Hindu leader, writes about the two-nation theory in a national newspaper, and demands that India be bifurcated into Muslim and non-Muslim populations.
1933—Choudhry Rahmat Ali produces a pamphlet in which the term “Pakistan” is coined for the first time.
1935—The Government of India Act 1935 increases the number of voters in India to 35 million. Furthermore, law and order issues are for the first time transferred from British authority to Indian controlled provincial governments.
1937—Indian has provincial elections in which the Muslim League does poorly, but the Indian National Congress has success. This further drives a wedge between the Hindu and Muslims masses. Muslims grow fearful of being treated unfairly in a possible independent India dominated by the Congress.
1939—When World War II breaks out, Lord Linlithgow, the British viceroy, declares war on India’s behalf without consulting Indian leaders. The Congress provincial ministries resign in protest, while the Muslim League supports Britain in the war effort. This solidifies the political position of the League in the eyes of the British.
1940—The League passes the Lahore Resolution, also called the Pakistan Resolution, which demands that areas of Muslim majority be grouped to constitute independent states that are autonomous and sovereign.
March 1942—Feeling international pressure, Winston Churchill offers dominion status at the end of the war in return for Congress’s support of the war. The League rejects the offer because it doesn't adequately provide for the establishment of Pakistan, and the Congress follows suit.
August 1942—The Congress launches the Quit India Resolution, which calls for drastic constitutional changes. The British sees this as the most serious threat to their rule since the 1857 rebellion, and jails leaders of the Indian National Congress until 1945. This allows the Muslim League to spread its message mostly unrestricted for three years.
February 1946—In the 1946 elections, both the Congress and the League perform well amongst the non-Muslim and Muslim constituencies, which further delegitimizes British rule in the eyes of most Indians.
August 1946—Armed Muslim gangs gather in Calcutta to hear League leaders give incendiary speeches. Later that night, these gangs attack Hindus, starting a cycle of violence later named the “Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946.” The next morning, Hindus strike back and the violence continues for three days, resulting in the death of 4,000 Hindus and Muslims. For the rest of the year and into 1947, the violence between Muslims and Hindus continues and spreads throughout the subcontinent.
September 1946—The Labour government in Britain, exhausted after WWII, decides to end British rule of India, announces that power will be transferred no later than June 1948. A Congress-led interim government is installed, with Jawaharlal Nehru established at united India’s prime minister.
1947—Britain pushes for the establishment of a unified India, but the increasing violence and anger amongst the various sides leads Britain’s last Indian viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, to agree to a mutual plan for independence. In June 1947, the nationalist leaders from the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, the Untouchable community, and the Sikhs, agree to a partition of the country along religious lines. The predominantly Hindu and Sikh areas are assigned to the new India and predominantly Muslim areas to the new nation of Pakistan; the plan included a partition of the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal.
August 14, 1947—The new Dominion of Pakistan comes into being, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah sworn in as its first Governor General in Karachi.
August 15, 1947—India, now a smaller Union of India, becomes an independent country with official ceremonies taking place in New Delhi, and with Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister.
September 1947—As Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs resettle and cross from India to Pakistan and vice versa, massacres, killings, pillaging, and rapes are widespread. About 14.5 million refugees cross borders to what they believe is the relative safety of religious majority. Furthermore, an estimated 2 million Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs are killed in the aftermath of the partition.