Lines on a Map
“But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided.
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he went to 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.”
W. H. Auden, poem titled “Partition.”
|Sir Cyril Radcliffe dividing a land he never knew.
The Mountbatten Plan for the partition of British India into two sovereign states of India and Pakistan was agreed with the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League. After approval by the British government, Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India announced it on June 3, 1947. A major outstanding issue was the division of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal and demarcation of their boundaries. For this sensitive and urgent task, Lord Mountbatten chose his friend, the forty- eight year-old Sir Cyril Radcliffe as the Chairman of the Boundary Commission. He was educated at Oxford, became a leading barrister in England and had worked with Mountbatten before.
Radcliffe had never set foot on the soil of India and there was no time to get to know the sub-continent now. Meanwhile, the communal relations had turned from bad to worse. Riots had flared up in the Punjab and Bengal, where, even though the Muslims were in overall majority, the Hindus were present in significantly large numbers, and in many areas, they were in a clear majority. He had to separate about eighty million people and divide 175,000 square miles of land. The United Nations had refused to do the job. Radcliffe accepted it only reluctantly and in the mistaken belief that he would have six months to settle disputes relating only to selected districts and their assignment to either India or Pakistan. In fact, within a period of thirty-six days he had to divide into two a land and a people, which were joined together in many ways for about one thousand years. This was because the date for the emergence of the two new states was set for August 14, 1947.
It was July 8, 1947. Radcliffe had arrived in Delhi. He wore clothes better suited to England than the oppressively hot weather of Delhi as there was no time to send for appropriate clothing. He was summoned by the Viceroy to meet Nehru and Sardar Patel for Congress, and Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan for the Muslim League. Sir Cyril pointed out that it was a considerable task that had been assigned to him. He spoke of the vastness of India, of the multitudinous population, of the difficulty of slicing hectares of territory on each side of the Subcontinent so that communities of people would be cherished, districts saved from division, towns and villages linked to their land. He insisted that this job would take years to decide, but he realised that the matter was urgent. How long had he got? “Five weeks,” said Mountbatten. Before Sir Cyril Radcliffe could express his astonishment and dismay, Nehru interrupted: “If a decision could be reached in advance of five weeks, it would be better for the situation.” The others, Jinnah included, nodded in agreement. Mountbatten had already obtained a signed pledge from both the sides that they would abide by Radcliffe's award, no matter what it contained.
Two commissions were set up, one for Bengal and the other for the Punjab, both headed by Radcliffe. He was provided with the assistance of four judges as members in each commission, two nominated by the Congress and two by the Muslim League. However, due to their partisanship, no agreement could be reached between them on any issue. The entire burden, therefore, fell on Radcliffe who had to make decisions on every matter. He assembled the census reports and all the maps and poured over them day and night. The demarcation was to be on the basis of contiguous Muslim or non-Muslim majority areas, taking into account “other factors”. This vague terms of reference gave the Chairman considerable leeway. There were major cities, seaports, industries and irrigation systems and the like which had to be allocated keeping in view their impact on the economy and viability of the provinces. There was also a keen interest to preserve the British political and commercial interest in the divided subcontinent. There was not much time to travel to different parts of India, which was vast. Therefore, people were invited to Delhi to present their respective arguments for determining which of the disputed areas will go to either of the two countries.
With regard to Bengal, Radcliffe accepted Congress' argument that the ratio of Muslims to the non-Muslim population should be nearly equal in each of new provinces of West and East Bengal. It also accepted the Congress' argument that for the survival of the Hughli, the Murshidabad and Nadia river systems were essential. The whole of the Murshidabad district went to West Bengal, which also got the tea producing districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, except the five thanas of the latter, which went to East Bengal. It also got Khulna, and parts of Nadia, which became the new district of Kushtia. Most of the Muslim majority Sylhet district in Assam came to East Bengal, after a referendum, which favoured a union with Pakistan. The allotment of Calcutta to West Bengal was a big loss for East Bengal. According to some, Radcliffe divided Bengal with the precision of a surgeon, but the hastily drawn border still remains to be properly defined. In some areas, the border bifurcated villages, with each part in a separate province. In others, it went right through a house, with some rooms in West and others in East Bengal. In the Punjab, the Gurdaspur district, with a Muslim majority, was awarded to India, reportedly under Nehru's pressure through Mountbatten. This allowed Indian access to the disputed Muslim majority state of Kashmir and facilitated Kashmir's accession to India. The non-Muslim majority district of Chittagong Hill Tracts was awarded to East Bengal to give a buffer area to Chittagong, a major city and port.
Radcliffe's work was completed on August 13, but Mountbatten decided to hold on to it for two days to let the transfer of power ceremonies to proceed smoothly on August 14 for Pakistan and August 15 for India. The Radcliffe Award was announced on August 16, 1947. In the charged atmosphere of communal violence, it was anticipated that no body would be entirely satisfied with the award and terrible outbursts of violence will engulf the affected areas, where atrocious killings and burnings were continuing since the previous year. The details of the award were kept a secret until the last moment. Provincial authorities and the army demanded in vain advance notice to arrange preemptive measures to avoid large-scale killings. In the end, about 12 million people fled the borders as the partition became a reality, a migration dominated by terror and violence. Approximately one million people died in the initial weeks of independence.
As soon as his task was hastily completed, Radcliffe started to pack his bags and leave with equal haste. On August 14, he wrote to his stepson, admitting that, “There will be roughly 80 million people with grievance who will begin looking for me. I don't want them to find me.” He was so worried about being assassinated that a complete search of the airplane had to be conducted before it took off on August 15, hours after India achieved its independence.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe accepted no payment for his work. He never returned to India, a land he forever changed. The lines drawn by him on a map divided a people and a subcontinent into two. It would create decades of conflict, three wars between India and Pakistan and millions of suffering refugees. Independence came at a very heavy price.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington
(R) thedailystar.net 2006