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Five Weeks’ Notice: The Rush to Partition a Subcontinent

Five Weeks’ Notice: The Rush to Partition a Subcontinent

“I nearly gave you Lahore,” said the man who drew the map of a new India in 1947. “But then I realised that Pakistan would not have any large city. I had already earmarked Calcutta for India.” It was an admission made quite nonchalantly by Cyril Radcliffe to veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, over a cup of English tea. Nayar recalls Radcliffe’s words in his book Scoop! (2006), written after he interviewed him in his Bond Street flat in the 1970s.

Radcliffe was a London barrister who had “never travelled east of Paris”, let alone visited the land he was asked to carve up. He had no experience in the matter and yet Lord Mountbatten, the Governor-General overseeing the transfer of power from Britain to India in 1947, felt his very inexperience as a cartographer or administrator made him perfect for the job. He believed Radcliffe would approach it without bias.

Five weeks is all he was given. Just five weeks.

Cyril Radcliffe | Wikimedia Commons

Radcliffe arrived in India on July 8, 1947, to chair two boundary Commissions – one for Bengal and the other for Punjab – that would partition the undivided Indian subcontinent into two new nations, India and Pakistan.

He couldn’t have been more ill-equipped for the job. 

All he had at his disposal were outdated maps and old Census reports. An on-ground study was out of the question as it would have been “impossible to undertake a field survey in June because of the heat”, said Radcliffe, whose boundary in the west would separate Pakistan from Kashmir, an area he was “not even aware of” and would hear about only after he returned to England.

Two boundary commissions were appointed to draw the Radcliffe Line – one for Punjab and the other for Bengal. Each was chaired by Radcliffe and comprised four other members, two from the Indian National Congress and two from the Muslim League. All of them were serving judges.

The members of the Punjab Boundary Commission were Justices Mehr Chand Mahajan, Teja Singh, Din Mohamed and Muhammad Munir, while the Bengal Boundary Commission consisted of Justices C C Biswas, B K Mukherji, Abu Saleh Mohamed Akram and S A Rahman.

Radcliffe was not pleased with their recommendations. One Muslim League member, he later revealed, urged him to include Darjeeling in Pakistan, saying he and his family vacationed there every summer and “it would be hard on us if the place went to India”.

With just five weeks to cleave a massive subcontinent, Radcliffe was bound to make errors and stir controversies. In Bengal, for instance, many Hindu-majority towns and villages found themselves in East Pakistan. The error was eventually corrected, giving these border towns two Independence Days!

A bitter controversy marked the allotment of two crucial tehsils in Punjab that had first been given to Pakistan but were later awarded to India before the official Radcliffe Line was announced. These were Zira and Ferozepur tehsils, both Muslim-majority areas, which were switched to India to provide the country a link to Jammu & Kashmir. The story goes that the switch was made at Lord Mountbatten’s behest, to ‘favour India’.

When Nayar met Radcliffe in 1971 and asked him whether he was satisfied with the border he drew, the barrister said he had so little time that he could not do a better job. “If I had two to three years, I might have improved on what I did,” said Radcliffe.

His understatement continues to echo through the annals of history.

WH Auden | Wikimedia Commons

Referring to the impossibility of Radcliffe’s assignment, noted poet W H Auden composed a poem titled Partition (1966), whose lines went thus:

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

Radcliffe is said to have been so disturbed by the violence that had erupted on both sides of his line that he left India on 15th August 1947, the very day it was severed from Pakistan and achieved Independence. He apparently burnt all his documents and maps, and didn’t even collect the 40,000-rupee fee that was due to him.

The truth is, any line that divided India and Pakistan would have resulted in the violence and bloodshed that followed Partition. Cyril Radcliffe just happened to be the man chosen to draw it.

Cover Image: Members of the Punjab Boundary Commission (Left: Justice Muhammad Munir, Justice Din Muhammad; Centre: Cyril Radcliffe; Right: Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan, Justice Teja Singh)

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