Borderline Crazy

In this primer to a multi-part series, read how England's top lawyer found himself at the centre of one of the bloodiest partitions in history.

Updated - November 10, 2021 10:01 am IST

Published - October 12, 2015 01:55 pm IST

The British government felt Radcliffe was the right man for the job because of his ‘admirable legal reputation and his equally admirable ignorance of India’. — Photo: The Hindu Archives

The British government felt Radcliffe was the right man for the job because of his ‘admirable legal reputation and his equally admirable ignorance of India’. — Photo: The Hindu Archives

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Sir Cyril Radcliffe. A name that is brushed up to memory every Independence Day for both Indians and Pakistanis (to the Bangladeshis too, in a way). Who was this man? Why was he, of all people, chosen for this task of drawing perhaps one of the most controversial borderlines — all of 1,800 miles — on the world map?

Radcliffe was not a cartographer, far from it. All that we know of the man from historical records is that he was born into a wealthy family, won a fellowship to graduate from Oxford and lived life out of his London office as a prosperous lawyer — England’s brightest one at that.

He was all of 48 years when he was summoned to India in June 1947 and instructed to chair two commissions that would recommend where the partitioning lines fell on the eastern and western fronts.

The last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, along with the British government were very sure that Radcliffe was the right man for the job because of his ‘admirable legal reputation and his equally admirable ignorance of India’. The second assumption was quite a loose one given Radcliffe’s previous stint as the director-general of the Empire’s information ministry during the Second World War. But then again, there is still no definitive evidence to prove he was biased towards either Hindus or Muslims while arbitrating on the partition issue.

His deadline for submission was advanced within the already short timeframe, and Radcliffe still managed to meet it. A quick reading of the reports produced from both the Punjab and Bengal commissions show that Radcliffe advocated that division happen along existing Tehsil/Thana lines rather than using natural boundaries like rivers or streams. It is quite clear that he considered economic impacts as well and chose not to cut off railway lines or important routes in an awkward manner. The primary reference for awarding a district to either India or Pakistan though was the 1941 census of India — an outdated record and in Radcliffe’s opinion, quite an unreliable one.

The show however had to go on and it did, with Radcliffe playing umpire to two sets of eminent lawyers (nominated by the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League) who punched arguments back and forth for a stipulated period of time. Radcliffe had the final word in case of a dispute, and gave his judgments quite reasonably. All this despite the intense Indian summer and a bout of dysentery adding to the Englishman’s woes.

He produced his final report on August 12, 1947 as he promised but would have possibly been put off by the Viceroy’s sudden decision to delay the formal announcement. Imagine working overtime for your employer for more than three weeks straight (with serious sickness), delivering the result well before time and having it shelved for reasons unknown. Well, not entirely unknown … Mountbatten did reason that he did not want to disrupt joyous celebrations on both sides with grim news of who finally got what (whispers in the corridors of power allegedly spoke of how this was a strategy to make it seem that Britain had least responsibility for the violence that followed and even how this was to buy time and convince the Maharajah of Kashmir to join India). All that effort and the two nations actually remained one in theory till August 17, 1947! We’ve been celebrating it all wrong, eh?

Much before all this, Radcliffe had had enough. He’d packed up his bags and left for dear old London, disgusted by the repercussions of his action. He chose to keep mum about this assignment for a long time. A radio lecture of his in 1951 for the BBC about British rule in India however seems to express his contempt in a way, from the introductory lines:

Close to about seven decades after the accelerated chapter of independence, debates still rage on how much Radcliffe was complicit in triggering diplomatic tensions that simmer and boil to this day. Were Gurdaspur and Ferozepur strategically awarded to India because Nehru influenced Radcliffe more than Jinnah did? Was Radcliffe just playing the part of a lawyer to his client Mountbatten without actually being evenhanded? We’ll never know. But remember that a quaint old English barrister was put in charge of leaving two deep scars on either end of a country, as the colonial masters clawed back to their base.

Look forward to more in our series "How Radcliffe went borderline crazy" where we give first-person narratives on how key regions along the line are holding up today.

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