Past Continuous: How the Boundary That Divided India and Pakistan Came to Be

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

Much of India’s contemporary social conflict is rooted in events triggered by the arbitrariness of the Radcliffe Line. Credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

It requires sober judgement to conclude that the anniversary of Independence Day is not only about exultant celebrations but an equally poignant moment. School teachers, earliest curators of understanding and comprehension, feed such unidimensional understanding of the conclusion of our freedom struggle and it is a tall order to extricate oneself from patriotic fervour.

Teachers bear the burden of promoting a linear view of the decades-long movement though they cannot be apportioned blame for they are themselves products of the educational system they foster. It is only much later that students, by then most have stopped pursuing history as a discipline, realise that for every reason for joy there is a matching basis for sorrow. As a consequence, the majority of society looks at August 15 as a celebratory ritual and anyone pointing out dark memories runs the risk of being labelled disloyal.

Yet there is need to understand why Jawaharlal Nehru in his much lauded ‘Tryst with Destiny‘ midnight speech added a rider to the collective immense joy at attaining freedom “even though clouds surround us, and many of our people are sorrow-stricken and difficult problems encompass us.” Nehru was referring to the tragedy that befell millions of citizens of the two nations breaking free from the colonial yoke. He told the members of the constituent assembly that in this moment of celebration “we think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good and ill fortune alike.”

Jawaharlal Nehru delivering 'Tryst with Destiny' midnight speech. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jawaharlal Nehru delivering ‘Tryst with Destiny’ midnight speech. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nehru did not state so, but millions who celebrated a new dawn by hoisting the Indian tricolour were aware of a tragic dimension of the event: neither India nor Pakistan had a border on that day, leaving millions of people unsure about on which side of the divide their future lay. Even as Nehru was speaking that night in the Central Hall of the parliament and people erupted in a riot of celebrations outside and again in the morning, only two people in the country, ironically neither of them Indian, knew how the border had been drawn. But more on this later.

On June 3, 1947, the Mountbatten Plan was announced, according to which British India was to be partitioned without lack of clarity on the mechanism and basis. The viceroy realised that the process of drawing a line through large tracts of contiguous terrain in Punjab and Bengal that were bound by cultural, linguistics and sub-national commonalities, would be a heart rending process and would not fully satisfy any of the communities and political parties. He thus created a mechanism to insulate the local administration from the process of partitioning and created an illusion of an independent authority undertaking the task.

Mountbatten may have succeeded in separating himself from demarcating the border which in weeks and months to come “was to see more tragedy than any frontier conceived before or since.” Despite this, the necessity to remain focussed solely on the celebratory aspect of I-Day resulted in relegating the process of drawing the boundary as merely an “administrative-technical procedure.” This obviously resulted in its neglect in scholastic writing and consequently in mass media.

Mountbatten in many ways required a fall-guy and this burden fell on Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a barrister by profession and at the time of his appointment, the vice chairman of the General Council of the English Bar. His greatest virtue was that he had never been to India, had no clue about the cultural and political complexity of the task that awaited him. He was chosen because his loyalty to his country was not in doubt and because he could use legal skills – though he was an expert on constitutional matters – that could enable him to arrive at conclusions after hearing to submissions and argument in the two Boundary Commission for Punjab and Bengal.

The colonial regime had its compulsions to appoint someone who had no ‘baggage’ and enable the government to ward off charges from both Congress and Muslim League that they deliberately benefited the rival. But viewed in hindsight, the entire task was conducted mechanically and illogically, triggered violence on an unprecedented scale and uprooted minorities on both sides of the frontier.

Muslim League leaders. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Muslim League leaders. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Radcliffe arrived in India on July 8 and was immediately told that he had barely weeks at this disposal because Jawaharlal Nehru, among others, did not wish to push back independence. Between that day and August 12 when he handed in his award to Mountbatten, Radcliffe used his cartographic pen like a surgeon’s scalpel despite never having held wither in his hand ever. The result was that the border he drew created problems not just for the people who fell on the ‘wrong side’ of the border at that time, but also became reason for eternal conflict between India and Pakistan.

The belief at that time was that the Radcliffe Line would initially act as makeshift borders that would be negotiated later between the two independent governments. Unfortunately, the relationship between India and Pakistan, as it developed, left little scope for such negotiations as a result of which, improvised boundaries thus became permanent dividers of people and their lands. There is little doubt that the entire exercise was monumentally ambiguous and was rammed through in great hurry because of political exigencies.

The British may wish to absolve themselves of guilt for precipitating the biggest ever transfer of population in history but there is little they could do to deny charges that no prior planning went into such a monumental task. Despite his projected impartiality, Radcliffe remained in the public eye a weak man who acted at the behest of Mountbatten, as indeed research establishes on certain crucial matters.

Radcliffe was asked to draw his ‘line’ on the principle of communal majority but this was also applied along with ‘other factors’ that were not spelt out. Nor was it clarified which of the two considerations would be given precedence and when and under what circumstances. Moreover, there was no clarity of what contiguous majority implied. Would this be applied to a district, a tehsil, sub-tehsil, thana, village, town or even a small colony or locality?

Because of the short time available to him, Radcliffe was also not present in Lahore during the crucial hearing of the Punjab Boundary Commission when it asked for interested parties to make submissions and argue their cases. At that time, the barrister was busy navigating the boundary conundrum in Bengal.

Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Both Congress and Muslim League made conflicting claims in Punjab as well as in Bengal. The League, on the basis of contiguous majority, wanted Pakistan to include the divisions of Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi besides many tehsils in Ferozepur, Jullundar, Amritsar, Ambala and Hoshiarpur and even Pathankot tehsil. The Congress in contrast cited other factors like Hindu and Sikh economic dominance to lay claims over Lahore and Gurdaspur.

The Akali Dal as representative of the Sikhs acted in tandem with the Congress and also made its case on the basis of canal systems. The problem for Radcliffe in Bengal was bigger simply because the boundary was six times longer. There was also the viewpoint of the Hindu Mahasabha to consider. Eventually the Radcliffe Line was illogical and the demographic principle was applied randomly and left little but misery in its wake.

Radcliffe left India immediately after handing his award to Mountbatten and did not wait till August 17 when Mountbatten released the boundary. The line virtually ran through houses dividing families and friends. The barrister turned land’s cleaver never returned to either witness or study the ravages of his exercise.

Mountbatten was almost alone in believing that transfer of population would be immediate and complete. The assessment was wide off the mark though mass migrations were more rapid on the western front than in Bengal. All hardship stemmed from Mountbatten’s desire for the British to disengage speedily from the sub-continent.

The Radcliffe line left problems for West Bengal that went beyond the immediate years after Partition. Refugees from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, kept arriving over decades adding to the already high population density in West Bengal for a variety of reasons. By 1981, an estimated eight million or one-sixth of the state’s population was refugee. Much of India’s contemporary social conflict is rooted in events triggered by the arbitrariness of the Radcliffe Line. As India become a more stratified society and the ruling regime sees little reason to make minorities feel secure, it is more important than ever before to stop evoking memories of independence only as culmination of a glorious freedom struggle. It also has to be seen as the heart-rending initiation for a cycle of conflict and violence from which there is yet no deliverance.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.