Radcliffe and the partition of Punjab

August 14, 2022

Long after the award, the author’s role remains under scrutiny

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n Pakistani textbooks, Radcliffe and Radcliffe Award are targets of virulent criticism. He has been apportioned much of the blame for the unprecedented population exchange – nearly 10 million people - and loss of lives – nearly 1 million. The euphoria about independence allowed the community suffering to be described as justifiable collateral sacrifice.

The partition of the Punjab is arguably the most well-documented subject of modern Indian history. Scores of books have been published in India, Pakistan and abroad on this traumatic last chapter of colonial presence and opening page of the new nation states of India and Pakistan. Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition, Vazira Fazila’s The Long Partition, Rabia Umar Ali’s Empire in Retreat, Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Ian Talbot’s People on the Move, and Stanley Wolpert’s Shameful Flight are a few recent titles. Radcliffe props up as the most notorious figure in the Partition drama. Less documented, nonetheless, are Radcliffe’s views about the partition over which he sat as the chief author of a blood-soaked boundary. What was his self-assessment?

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Punjab Boundary Commission (PBC), after whose name the India-Pakistan boundary is known as the Radcliffe Line, was a leading lawyer, sent by the British government to determine borders resulting from the partition agreement. His main qualification for this job, besides his legal acumen and competence, was his neutrality. He had never visited India in his life and consequently was expected to have neither friends nor foes in this part of the empire. He had to accomplish this herculean task on the basis of maps and various kinds of quantifiable data. He had arrived in India with no preconceptions.

Radcliffe was not alone in this assignment. He was assisted by four judges from the Lahore High Court who sat with him as part of the commission. They were Justice Din Muhammad, Justice Muhammad Munir (later chief justice of Pakistan and author of the book From Jinnah to Zia), Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan and Justice Teja Singh.

The commission convened in the Lahore High Court to hear the submissions of various contenders. The Muslim League, Congress and the Sikhs were all represented by their lawyers. Counsel also represented lesser players like Christians, Anglo-Indians and Scheduled Castes. Radcliffe, who was also chairing the Bengal Boundary Commission, stayed in Delhi, where records of the daily proceedings were sent to him to read. The mandate of the PBC was “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.” The commission was also to “take into account other factors.”

The Muslim thrust of the argument for awarding an area to their country, Pakistan, was based on population. The Hindus, especially where they were less populous, argued to protect their economic interests. The places with an intensive concentration of Hindu-owned businesses and properties should go to India, they argued. On the same lines, the Sikh community wished to protect their investments in canal colonies and religious places on the basis of the “other factors” logic.

Just as Muslims had demanded separate electorates by pushing the point of their being long-time rulers of India, the Sikhs claimed that they had been rulers of the Punjab before it was annexed by the British. In addition to it, the land from Ambala to Chenab River was of spiritual significance to them as important Sikh shrines were located there, they argued. Furthermore, Lahore, the vibrant, historical and cultural capital of north India, was claimed by each community.

Radcliffe props up as the most notorious figure in the Partition drama. Less documented, nonetheless, are Radcliffe’s views about the partition over which he sat as the chief author of a blood-soaked boundary. What was his self-assessment?

Justice Din Muhammad’s comments on the fate of Lahore and its non-Muslim claimants sufficiently explain the essentialist communal understanding of the problem. He wrote, “their sheet-anchor is that they own more houses, pay more taxes and run more commercial and educational institutions. But these factors can never avail the non-Muslims in depriving the Muslims of this town.” He goes on emphatically, “Lahore has not only been a seat of Muslim government for nearly eight centuries but has also been a cultural, religious and social centre of Islam and considering that along with this the Muslims claim a clear majority of the population, no justification can be found to attach this town to East Punjab”. His argument was capped by averring in the end that “to deprive West Punjab of Lahore would be tantamount to robbing a living organism of its heart.”

A recently published book, The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab, quotes from a letter written by Radcliffe to his stepson on the eve of August 14, 1947. This provides an important text through which it is possible to peep into his mind. He wrote, “I thought you would like to get a letter from India with a crown on the envelope. After tomorrow evening, nobody will ever again be allowed to use such stationery, and after 150 years British rule will be over in India — down comes the Union Jack on Friday morning and up goes — for the moment, I rather forget what, but it has a spinning wheel or a spider’s web in the middle”. These are expressions of melancholy in the twilight of a long-time empire approaching the dusk of its last day and sarcasm on the newly adopted flag of India, seen in the juxtaposition of the glorious Union Jack if these words are read under the surface. The naming of only one flag of India, and not of Pakistan, signifies that he subconsciously considered India as the successor state of British India.

Radcliffe went on, “I am going to see Mountbatten sworn as the first governor-general of the Indian Union at the Viceroy’s House in the morning, and then I station myself firmly on the Delhi airport until an aeroplane from England comes along”. Why it was necessary to confine himself to Delhi airport? He anticipated backlash for doing the partition in these very significant words: “nobody in India will love me for the award about the Punjab and Bengal and there will be roughly 80 million people with grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me”. It was going to be a shameful flight, not only for the British empire, but also Radcliffe.

An important failure that has attracted less attention from Partition historians was on the part of the Punjab Boundary Force, which began operations on August 1, 1947. Its supreme commander was Maj Gen Rees. He was supported by senior Indian officer Brig Dhigambir Singh and Col Ayub Khan (later president of Pakistan). The force was answerable to Auchinleck and through him to the Joint Defence Council composed of the two governors-general and defence ministers of the new dominions. The operating officers, Singh and Khan, were given a 55,000 strong force. The area to police was large but the Punjab Boundary Force, during its thirty-two days operations, demonstrably failed to maintain peace in the turbulent areas of the province, leaving people alone to deal with one another. Consequently, the process of partition and its legacy turned India into lasting grief for Pakistan, just as it turned Pakistan into lasting grief for India.


The writer has PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and is head of the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has also worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at abrar.zahoorhotmail.comHe tweets AbrarZahoor1



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