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Laying down the line forever

Cyril Radcliffe, a stranger to India, took five weeks to partition the country. Ravi Chaturvedi writes.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2011 12:47 IST
Ravi Chaturvedi

It is well-known that Cyril John Radcliffe, a British barrister, was vested with the responsibility of partitioning imperial India. The present Press Club of India, located on Raisina Road, was the place where Radcliffe used to live. Since it was his residence-cum-office, it became the place from where the division of the Indian subcontinent into two new nations was plotted and planned.

Radcliffe's house was a small bungalow, built as a hutment during World War 2 like many other adjoining buildings. Barring the Press Club today, most of the other buildings have been replaced by new ones. The partitioner of India was born in 1899 and was a leading lawyer in England whose only visit outside Britain was while on a vacation to Italy.

He was appointed the chairman of the Boundary Commission set up with the passage of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, by the British Parliament. It had four more members, all legal luminaries of their time, two representing India - Mehar Chand Mahajan (who later became Chief Justice of India) and Teja Singh - and two from Pakistan - Din Mohammad and Mohammad Munir. Importantly, the authorities in Britain had zeroed in on Radcliffe because he had no prior connections to India. Being a stranger to India, he was influenced by the advice of Fredrick Burrows, the then governor of Bengal. However, to keep up his neutral posture, Radcliffe kept a safe distance even from the viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, and the whole task was carried out in utmost secrecy.

A crude border had already been drawn up by the earlier viceroy, Lord Wavell. This initial exercise provided Radcliffe with a launching pad to determine exactly which territories to assign to each country.

After arriving in India on July 8, 1947, Radcliffe was given just five weeks to demarcate the border. He soon travelled to Lahore and Calcutta to meet commission members, chiefly Jawaharlal Nehru from the Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, president of the Muslim League. Radcliffe objected to the short timeframe, but all parties were insistent that the demarcation be finished by August 15, the date decided for the withdrawal of the British from India. Mountbatten had accepted the post of viceroy only on the condition of an early deadline. The task was completed just a couple of days before the withdrawal. But due to political manoeuvring, the plan was not published until August 17, a day after the formation of Pakistan and two days after the independence of India.

The commission was instructed to "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 also took into account undefined factors that provided Radcliffe some leeway, but included decisions regarding "natural boundaries, communications, watercourses and irrigation systems", as well as socio-political considerations. Given the deadlock between the interests of the two sides and their rancourous relationship, the final decision was essentially Radcliffe's.

Radcliffe's report was submitted, the Partition map presented in August 1947 and imperial India was partitioned into independent India and Pakistan along the 'Radcliffe Line', a division of 175,000 sq miles (450,000 km) of territory inhabited by a population of 88 million people. Thus began the biggest mass migration in human history.

(Ravi Chaturvedi is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.)