The partition of August 1947 - a "great" legacy of Cyril Radcliffe

Published on Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The partition of 1947 - a "great" legacy of Cyril Radcliffe A.H. Jaffor Ullah

Believe it or not, India which used to be known as Hindustan to millions of north Indians was partitioned into two countries 62 years ago by the scissors of an English Barrister. The two-nation theory of Muhammad Ali Jinnah however became obsolete in less than a quarter century in 1971 when former East Pakistan became an independent entity to be known as Bangladesh.

On August 14 and 15 every year both Pakistan and India celebrate their Independence Day with fanfare; however, this is not to be the case in Bangladesh, which celebrates March 26 as their Independence Day. The importance of August 14 or August 15, 1947 should however be emphasized to Bangladeshis. Because had there been no partition on August 14, 1947, I doubt it very much if there would be an independent nation by the name Bangladesh. In all likelihood, the land we all lovingly call Bangladesh would probably be a state or province by the name East Bengal. Therefore, it is befitting to recall the legacy of one man who artificially carved India to make two nations on August 14 and 15, 1947. This unassuming Englishman was a lawyer by the name Cyril John Radcliffe.

Cyril Radcliffe was born in 1899 who later became a lawyer in England. He did not travel much outside England except going for a vacation somewhere in Italy. At the age of 48, he was summoned to New Delhi barely on June 3, 1947 barely 37 days before India would be partitioned into two independent nations. He was appointed as the chairman of the Boundary Commission whose sole job was to submit a report that would contain "the partition map."

Radcliffe's office was in New Delhi where a whole bunch of government workers were working feverishly to partition the undivided India solely based on the latest census report, which contained the most valuable information on the composition of Hindus and Muslims of any village. Totally based on that information, the Boundary Commission was cutting the maps of two very important provinces of undivided India namely, East and West Bengal and Punjab. He was given this extraordinary power to divide these provinces based not only on census data but also on the geography of the land. Special consideration was given on the flow of the river; therefore, the Radcliffe could still give a Muslim-dominated part to India and a Hindu-dominated part to Pakistan at his whim. His decision would be final and that would seal the fate of tens and thousands of people living in those disputed areas both Bengal and Punjab.

Lord Mountbatten was the last viceroy of pre-partition India who had his office in Delhi. He wanted Cyril Radcliffe and the rest of the Indian Boundary Commission members to work inside an office that would be in isolation and near the viceroy's office. In theory, the Radcliffe Commission should be working without any outside interference, however, if any lobbyists representing either the Congress Party or the Muslim League had made any contact with him or his counsels within the Commission is an open question.

Cyril Radcliffe fulfill his duty by carving out India and Pakistan and by slicing densely populated Punjab and Bengal just in time to deliver the political map of India and Pakistan to Lord Mountbatten on August 13, 1947 and for this he was later bestowed numerous official titles from her highness Queen Elizabeth II. The list include: Baron of Werneth in the County of Lancashire and Law Lord, these titles he received in 1949. He was also given the title the First Viscount by the Queen. He died at the age of 78 in 1977. Six years before his death he saw the erstwhile East Pakistan whose map he so "carefully" constructed become an independent nation, Bangladesh.

I learned a great deal about Cyril Radcliffe years ago by reading a masterfully crafted book entitled "Freedom at Midnight" penned by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. This book was one of the many works that inspired the English movie director, Sir Richard Attenborough, to make the epic film "Gandhi" in 1982.

I was lucky enough to meet the French writer, Dominique Lapierre, in 1998 when he visited New Orleans where I have been living for the past quarter century. I talked to the writer on how they approached the complex and ever so delicate issue of the division of Bengal and Punjab because so much controversy had mired the partition of India.

Incidentally, Collin and Lapierre had pictured Cyril Radcliffe rather comically and they thought the British lawyer was ideally suited to divide India because he had no connection to India whatsoever. To my knowledge, the English Barrister never did visit either India or Pakistan in the next 30 years after the independence while he was alive!

According to the book "Freedom at Midnight" Cyril Radcliffe was so petrified when he realized that his sharp scissors that cut the two provinces of British India would dramatically change the lives of millions of people; he even asked the last viceroy, Mount Batten, to send him back to England immediately after the independence of both Pakistan and India. He had this idea inside his head that any disgruntled Hindu or Muslim may kill him for the job he did in short 5 weeks. It was a thankless job for Radcliffe to partition undivided India and while doing so he must have made many enemies. Is it a small wonder that the diminutive British lawyer was so eager to hop into an airplane parked on the tarmac in New Delhi airport?

Even though India was divided some sixty-plus years ago, it is still a contentious issue. Many Muslim intellectuals of Bangladesh still question the inclusion of Murshidabad district into India on the other hand the inclusion of Chittagong Hill Tracts to East Bengal province of Pakistan with only 5% Muslim population raised some eyebrows among many Indian intellectuals of 1940s and 1950s. The bottom line is that the Radcliffe Commission was rushing way too much to meet the deadline set arbitrarily by the last viceroy of British India, Louis Mountbatten, which was August 14, 1947.

Mr. Cyril Radcliffe delivered speedily the maps of two newly formed nations in about 37 days. I hardly know the border demarcation which was done in Punjab but the Radcliffe Commission did a very shoddy job partitioning Bengal and parts of Assam. The commission created so many salience or protuberances that it hardly makes any sense. The black marketers, border security forces, and local politicians - all benefited from these weird demarcations.

I have a special interest in the partition of British India because I was born right after Cyril Radcliffe used his scissors using his unsteady hand to divide Bengal; secondly, my family repatriated from Shillong, Meghalaya to our ancestral home in Sylhet. Hardly 5 months ago in late February 2009, I walked past the Tamabil-Dauki land border to venture into Meghalaya and finally reached Shillong six decades after my birth. Sometimes I wonder whether Cyril Radcliffe and his commission performed dutifully their job when I learnt that tens and thousands of people had died as a direct result of the partition of India. Never mind how many people had to be uprooted from their ancestral homeland to falsely prove that Muhammad Ali Jinnah's Two-nation theory may bring peace and prosperity to the lives of itinerant Muslims who made the fateful trip to a new but unaccustomed place. Philosophically, however, I still wonder whether the partition of India was a worthwhile event of history and made any sense to displaced folks. As I pointed out earlier, this is a contentious issue. With that I will bring a closure to this short write-up on a lengthy political process that got started in 1906 right in Dacca. The history buff will know what I am talking about.

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

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