12 February 2024

An economic history of the Partition of British India

In August 1947, a rushed and under-defined partition established two nation-states, India and Pakistan, marking the “decolonisation” of British India. Atiya Hussain shows in her PhD thesis that British Indian businessmen had not expected political partition to be accompanied by economic partition and that financial negotiations with Britain were crucial in shaping postcolonial realities at a time when the sovereignties of the nascent postcolonial states were in flux. She tells us more about her research, which lies at the intersection of economic history and memory studies.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

It was a circuitous journey. In October 2005, a ruling by the Supreme Court of India on the “Enemy Property” Act attributed to descendants of those who had migrated to Pakistan the rights over their inherited properties. The ruling was fairly dramatic, maintaining that the Indian government had acted in a mala fide manner, and I tried to write about it as a journalist. But I failed. I found that I had to learn more and more of the history, which then left me no choice but to pursue a doctorate just to understand why India was treating its own citizen as an enemy. Shortly after I began my time at the Graduate Institute, in 2017, an amendment to the Act undid the 2005 ruling of the Supreme Court. 

Can you describe your research questions and methodology?

The imperial retreat in 1947 left South Asians – who had shortly before been British Indians – with the choice of a postcolonial nation: India or Pakistan. The first question I was interested in was, “How does one choose a country?” I realised very quickly that the conception of “country” was entirely unstable, and that the question of choice was, as a result, far more complicated. I turned to financial newspapers to try to understand what economic considerations might underpin these potential choices, and found a fascinating archive in the late colonial weekly Commerce that helped me understand the period of imperial retreat in ways that transcend narrower state-centred histories. I also consulted the archival records of a Bombay-based nationalist business organisation and metropolitan archives, including those of the Bank of England.

What are your major findings?

Broadly speaking, my thesis challenges the separation of political and economic facets of “decolonisation” in South Asia, which I believe is important for other regions where imperial retreat occurred later.

I was taken aback by my first main finding, which is that many businessmen had not expected that the partition of British India in 1947 would also mean the division of an economy that in 1945 had been the tenth most industrialised region in the world. Equally thrilling was when I checked my findings from local archives (of Commerce and the Indian Merchants’ Chamber) against metropolitan archives (National Archives of the United Kingdom and the archives of the Bank of England) and found that Britain’s own financial and economic considerations were significant drivers of the partition of British India and in forming the postcolonial order. 

What could we learn from your thesis in International History and Politics for today’s world?

We are in a time in which narratives still work very hard to justify political positions and national positions. My thesis shows how the chaotic transfer of British power in South Asia transformed the region’s geography, entire cities and communities, leading to competing national narratives that fuel division and hatred on the sub-continent and, more broadly, continue to divide academics. In doing so, it attempts to build tools for us no longer to be in the grip of such divisions, which ultimately obscure history. I believe it is important to question and unpack narratives, in order to be able to address the big questions facing us as humanity. Eternal hatred across national lines does not seem to be in our best interest, whether politically, economically or environmentally. 

Now that your thesis is behind you, what are your professional and academic plans? 

My research contributes to our understanding of “decolonisation” and also to the history of capitalism, and I am looking forward to postdoc and fellowship positions that will allow me to further develop my research. I have an article forthcoming in Business History Review and will present a paper on the ways in which business history can help researchers fill in the gaps left by the significant archival destruction that accompanied imperial retreat. I helped organise a workshop on decolonial histories of economics and finance in Cairo in December 2023 and am keen to foster academic discussions across narratively divided scholarship. 

Based on my doctoral research, I also aim to elaborate a book project situating the reshaping of British India into a postcolonial order shaped by postwar transformation of the global financial system.

*   *   *

Photo of Dr Atiya Hussain

Atiya Hussain defended her PhD thesis in International History and Politics on 13 October 2023. Professor Cyrus Schayegh presided over the committee, which included Associate Professor Carolyn Biltoft, Thesis Supervisor, and Professor Marc Flandreau, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Citation of the PhD thesis
Hussain, Atiya. “Empire Redrawn: Territorial States, National Economies and the Partition of British India, 1940–1950.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.

Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the thesis via this page of the repository. Others can contact Atiya Hussain at

Banner image: This image from the archives of multinational Unilever, under pressure after the war-led boom that had enriched Indian industrialists, speaks to the unsettled and incomplete process of “decolonisation” and postcolonial state formation after Great Britain’s retreat from South Asia in 1947. Dated 1951, and thus after the promulgation of the Indian Constitution in 1950, the advertisement for Unilever’s Sunlight Soap was marked “Used in Portuguese India Only”, but the same images, with text in English, were prepared for the general press in India. Source: extract of an image reproduced with permission from Unilever Archives and Records Management (ref. UNI/GF/MD/AL/1/39/2). 

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.