[The narration of Radcliffe’s personal thoughts and interactions can be attributed to Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins’ Freedom At Midnight]
The 15th of August is an easier occasion to mark for India than most others. It’s a well-documented period of our history, and tends to strike a chord of familiarity with even the youth of today, despite them not having as close a connect to it than events closer to our time. For example, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the late 1970s.
However, in stark contrast lies the nearly 70-year-old celebration of Pakistan’s Independence Day on 14th August and India’s on 15th August, which can rarely conjure up plausible explanations as to why such a brutal separation of life and land was necessary at all, not to mention the little documented nature of the methodology that was used for such a critical decision. How then, would the millions of Indian and Pakistani youth react to the fact that the ultimate design of this partition was taken up by a British official whose South Asian experience was limited to five weeks of his entire lifetime?
The summer of 1947 could arguably be one of the hottest periods in the history of the sub-continent, due in no part to the weather, but rather the high voltage sectarian differences which shed light on all of India’s political cracks. The once-united front of India’s freedom struggle now lay divided between Jinnah and the Muslim League’s demands for a separate homeland (later to be called Pakistan) for Indian Muslims and the Indian National Congress’s belief in preserving India’s territorial and religious integrity. If the deep distrust between these leaders wasn’t enough, the scattered princely states’ insistence to remain independent and the threat of groups such as the RSS and Sikh Extremists, troubled a nation — best known through history as the world’s most powerful colonist — 4,000 miles away.
A ticking carnage
The British had entrusted the delicate task of solving the ‘India’ situation to her last Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. A charming and effective negotiator, Mountbatten was able to convince Nehru and Jinnah into an agreement. They had already decided that the provinces of Punjab and Bengal be split into two to form West and East Pakistan, and the princely states had been offered a choice of either joining the dominion of India or Pakistan.
But even while explaining the nuances of the agreement to 10, Downing Street (the official residence of the British Prime Minister) in May 1947, Mountbatten had stressed that time was a deficient resource. While the British had earlier given themselves the deadline of June 1948, the deteriorating situation in India had made Mountbatten give a prophetic warning of Britain being immersed in a ‘sub-continent sinking into civil war,’ if she didn’t leave India soon. It was from this urgency that the rush to execute the partition – right from financial wealth and debts to the chairs and books –was born. This included the lands through which the borders between India and Pakistan would be born.
The Mountbatten Plan had called for the members of legislative assemblies of Punjab and Bengal to decide through simple majority if the province was to be partitioned or not, while the Sylhet district in Assam and North-Western Frontier Province were to hold a referendum on whether they would join Pakistan or remain with India. But the intricate details of the borders which would divide the two countries were yet to be decided, for which two Boundary Commissions were created. The Punjab Commission was represented by Justices Mehr Chand Mahajan and Teja Singh, while Pakistan was represented by Din Mohammed and Muhammad Munir. Justices C.C. Biswas and B.K.Mukherji represented India in the Bengal Commission with Abu Saleh Mohamed Akram and S. A. Rahman advocating for Pakistan.
The final negotiations were soon to end up in a deadlock, an unsurprising result for many, and now, the decision would lie solely in the hands of one man, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the common Chairman of both the commissions who had never visited India.
Are lawyers better at drawing lines?
Greatness had accompanied Cyril Radcliffe all his life. An Oxford Graduate with a fellowship of the prestigious All Souls College of the University, Radcliffe was regarded the most brilliant barrister in England in 1947. The son of a wealthy sportsman, Radcliffe was a practising lawyer working from his office at Lincoln’s Inn in London when he was summoned by the Lord Chancellor on the afternoon of 27th June, 1947.
The Lord Chancellor explained that since Nehru and Jinnah could themselves never agree on the borders, they had entrusted this task into his hands instead. Any person who knew the country would certainly be disqualified as being prejudiced by either side and Radcliffe’s admirable legal reputation and his ‘equally admirable ignorance of India’ made him a suitable candidate.
Radcliffe was baffled by the announcement. He barely knew where Bengal and Punjab were, and trying to divide them was the last job in the world he wanted to be responsible for. He was also aware what a thankless job it was, a thought he would never be able to shake off even after he finished his work. “I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand, both sides,” Radcliffe would admit to an interviewer years later.
But this didn’t deter the eminent barrister from accepting the job, partly driven by a deep sense of duty. Lucy Chester’s Analysis and Commentary of the Indian Partition states how Radcliffe wasn’t as ignorant or unbiased as the Indian leaders had assumed. He had served as the Director General of the British Ministry Of Information and his established background ensured that he was intimately familiar with the goals and interests of the British Government. While there was no evidence to support his bias against Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, he was certainly in favour of preserving British interests.
So, was it unfair to wonder whether his decision to accept this responsibility was the ultimate trigger for the disastrous events which were to follow? Not quite. “Yet to blame his ignorance, or the radically shortened timetable for the massacres to come is too easy,” argues Nisid Hajari in his new book Midnight’s Furies, something which gains tangible credibility if we consider the role of the other British Diplomat involved - Lord Mountbatten.
The Viceroy was fully aware that no conceivable border would have satisfied the Sikh or Muslim demands. A British Official in London in fact, stated that the reason Mountbatten had created the commission was ‘to keep the Sikhs quiet until the transfer of power.’ He believed that by the time the Sikhs faced the reality of their situation, the British would be gone and they would be waist-deep into the problem of the new dominions. The selfish motive behind Britain’s haste in declaring India’s Independence is a reality of the British Colonial rule few in 2015 seem to acknowledge, especially where narratives are more focused on the Hindu-Muslim Divide or the reparations.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe made his maiden visit to India on July 8, 1947 as one of history’s most bureaucratically callous decisions took shape. The commission’s terms of reference stated “demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. In doing so, it will also take into account other factors,” the operative guideline being that religion was to determine the fates of millions and the history of two countries. The Indian Independence Act was passed by the UK Parliament and came into force on 18th July, as it declared India and Pakistan as Independent dominions - without any defined borders.
When Mountbatten and Radcliffe met upon his arrival, the former didn’t provide any comfort to his new guest. There was no clarity offered into the ‘other factors,’ which needed to be considered and for the first time, Radcliffe was briefed about his deadline for the project - 15th of August. The newly unveiled information now meant that Radcliffe would never even be able to see the lands whose fates he was going to ultimately seal. He warned Mountbatten that the paucity of time would mean that errors and mistakes, perhaps even grave ones, would creep in.
Jinnah, Nehru and Patel told me that they wanted a line before or on 15th August. So I drew them a line
When Mountbatten remained insistent, Radcliffe personally summoned Nehru and Jinnah and posed the same question - “Was it absolutely essential to have definitive partition lives, however defective, drawn by 15th August?” The two South Asian stalwarts, who rarely agreed on the same ideas, insisted that it was. “Jinnah, Nehru and Patel told me that they wanted a line before or on 15th August. So I drew them a line,” Radcliffe would later remark.
Radcliffe just flew once over parts of North India, before he would actually demarcate the borders. When he visited Lahore, he found the observations of Mountbatten about the defiant commissioners to be true. People would approach him with pleas and personal requests for his border decision to spare their assets and lands, while there also remained a threat to his security and well-being. Radcliffe wasn’t pleased with the members of the commission and their biases, as he would tell Kuldip Nayar years later in 1971. A Muslim member of the Bengal Commission came to him privately and pleaded for Darjeeling’s inclusion in Pakistan because, “my family goes to Darjeeling every summer and it would be hard on us if the place went to India.”
The entire decision now rested on Britain’s most eminent lawyer who would lock himself in a bungalow in Delhi with maps of India and provinces. The decision on Bengal came relatively easier, though Calcutta did preoccupy his mind for a bit. The confusion of ‘other factors’, the unreliable census figures, and the lack of geographical experts on the commission now plagued Radcliffe as he would make his final decision. The geological, economic and logical decisions had to be weighed against the diktat of religious division as Mountbatten’s pressure to deliver the verdict in a timely manner loomed.
‘I wonder if there is any chance of getting it out by the 10th?’ concluded a 22nd July note from the Viceroy to Radcliffe. ‘I will certainly bear in mind the importance of the earliest possible date for the award. I do not think that I could manage the 10th. But I think that I can promise the 12th, and I will do the earlier day, if I possibly can,’ replied Radcliffe on a decision, which would ultimately affect 88 million nervous citizens of the regions.
I am going through this terrible job as fast as well as I can and it makes no difference because in the end, when I finish, they are all going to start killing each other anyway.
When he was ready to finally draw this line, a single thought haunted him,” I am going through this terrible job as fast and as well as I can and it makes no difference because in the end, when I finish, they are all going to start killing each other anyway.”
A preliminary sketch of the map drawn on 8th August showed that Ferozepur would be awarded to Pakistan. But on Nehru’s insistence that no sliver of Pakistan should pierce the vital defence line of Sutlej River and additional pressure from the Maharaja of Bikaner whose irrigation lines depended on the canal headworks in Ferozepur, not to mention a threat of Bikaner’s accession to Pakistan, Mountbatten had to sit over lunch with Radcliffe on 12th August in a meeting which would taint both men.
The truth can wait till the party’s over
Mountbatten convinced Radcliffe to award Ferozepur to India as he left for Karachi to join Pakistan’s freedom celebrations. The viceroy’s aides would then ask Radcliffe to ensure that the redrawn maps weren’t published till the Viceroy had left for Karachi. Mountbatten was fully aware that the revelations of the Punjab plan would upset the Muslim League and the award of a Buddhist majority hill in Bengal to Pakistan would outrage Congress. These would surely upset the celebrations which had been planned for the Independence of the two countries. Thus, emulating the considerations of a party planner considerate of delaying the hefty bill of a client’s opulent gala, till after the death of the celebration, Mountbatten effected that India and Pakistan meet their ‘trysts with destiny’ without any definitions as to what constituted each nation.
The plans were finally revealed by Mountbatten to both the parties in the afternoon of 16th August as the violence, which had existed in Punjab for several months took on a brute force which words can barely elicit. Millions of terrified men, women and children now struggled to cross over borders which suddenly divided their neighbours, while the politicians argued and protested gainst the ‘Radcliffe Line’ with the question of Kashmir now gaining momentum. The only proper road to Kashmir, the princely state ruled by a Hindu with a majority Muslim population, lay in Gurdaspur, whose awarding to India had made its accession hang in balance. While Nehru and Patel had stated before they would raise no objections if Kashmir chose to join Pakistan, the inclusion of Gurdaspur would now give India an opportunity to lay claim over Kashmir.
The end tally of casualties in India and Pakistan from the violence of Partition stands between 500,000 and one million, with close to 14 million displaced refugees in India and Pakistan while Cyril Radcliffe would be nowhere close to the violence he had inadvertently given birth to. Radcliffe had flown out of India on 14th August to never return again.
I had no alternative; the time at my disposal was so short that I could not do a better job. However, if I had two to three years, I might have improved on what I did.
“‘I had no alternative; the time at my disposal was so short that I could not do a better job. Given the same period I would do the same thing. However, if I had two to three years, I might have improved on what I did’’ Radcliffe would tell Kuldip Nayar years later. Radcliffe insisted that he had no idea about the Kashmir issue he would give birth to through his awarding of the district as he refused his fee of 3,000 pounds when he learnt of the devastation in the aftermath of the partition. Britain’s foremost lawyer would become a figure of despicable proportions in a span of six weeks, with no greater vilification of his role in the saga than W.H.Auden’s poem.
The multiple afflictions, which plague India and Pakistan to this date can in some form find their origin in the haphazard drawing of the Radcliffe line. Was it the fault of Radcliffe alone or that of Mountbatten’s supposed India bias? Are the nearly 80-year-old events simplified to lay blame on one or multiple entities without their own complications? It would be naïve to assume so.
I nearly gave you Lahore. But then I realised that Pakistan would not have any large city. I had already earmarked Calcutta for India.
Perhaps the best summation of the partition can be in historian Mushirul Hasan’s words, “man-made catastrophe brought about by cynical and hot-headed politicians who lacked the imagination to resolve their disputes and the foresight to grasp the implications of dividing their country along religious lines.” An addition in Mr Radcliffe’s own words will perhaps provide an even more complete picture of the reasoning, which changed the shape of the Indian Subcontinent. “I nearly gave you Lahore. But then I realised that Pakistan would not have any large city. I had already earmarked Calcutta for India.”
[ The narration of Radcliffe’s personal thoughts and interactions have been taken from Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins’ Freedom At Midnight]
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