Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Indian History Trivia (7): The "Non-Legend" of Cyril Radcliffe

For most of us - the pre- and post-independence generation of India and Pakistan - the reaction would be ...

...Cyril Radcliffe, who?....

... Which, perhaps, is a lesson about how history unfolds - and gets (or doesn't get) documented.... Like a river or wind, it has its own logic and direction (though as humans, we may call it amoral)

Not many books or commentries on the formation of India and Pakistan mention his name... even though, he was literally the true "achitect" of the two nation-states.

His was the un-envious role in the partitioning of the Indian sub-continent. A day before the Indian independence - on the last day of his first and only 5-week visit to the sub-continent - he wrote to his nephew:

"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. Nobody in India will love me... and there will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me. I have worked and traveled and sweated - oh I have sweated all the time."

So who was Cyril Radcliffe? What was his role in "The Partition"?

The idea of partitioning of the subcontinent and the "two nation theory" was in the air since early 1930s (when it was voiced by poet Md Iqbal - the lyricist of "Sare Jahan Se Accha, Hindostan Hamara"), but the actual decision to divide India came much late. It was only on June 3rd, 1947 - less than 2 months before the independence - that the British Parliament passed the Bill, approving the partitioning of the territory into India and Pakistan.

But how do you divide the land, people, their lives and their sanjhi virasat?

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a distinguished barrister, was appointed to draw the boundaries between the two nations. It was only on June 30, 1947, the Governer General of India constituted the two Boundary Commissions for the partition of Punjab and Bengal - each consisting of two Hindu members and two Muslim members.

Radcliffe's task was an unenviable one, given that:

  • he had never ever been to the subcontinent in his life earlier; he did not know its people, and had no first hand knowledge of its culture, economics, or perhaps even history...

  • he had to work with Census statistics, which were outdated and unreliable - the previous major census was done in 1931. In 1941, the British were too preoccupied with WW-II and though the Census was conducted, it supplied meager information to rely on (in fact, there were also reasons to believe that the demographic statistics were falsfied in Punjab and Bengal by the communal elements on both sides). In any case, he had to rely on data and statistics that were clearly obsolete.... and

  • he hardly had any time to do a proper job of the assignment, even if wanted to. He arrived in India on July 8th, 1947 for the first time, and the Award was announced on August 16th... He had to submit his recommendations before the two nations became independent (Pakistan on August 14th and India on August 15th). Within these five weeks, he was given the momentous task of deciding on a boundary that, as one chronicle noted, will divide "more than 35 million people, thousands of villages, towns and cities, a unified system of canals and communication networks, and 16 million Muslims, 15 million Hindus and 5 million Sikhs, who despite their religious differences, shared a common culure, language and history."

    One will never know his thought processes, judgements, and discretions which determined the destiny of two nations, and which created a continental schism that still haunts many. He had insurmountable challenge of creating two homogenous countries - one Hindu and another Muslim - which perhaps was beyond human capabilities. Just a few examples:

  • Religious contiguity, unfortunately, does not follow geography. One of the most sacred Sikh Shrine, Nankana Sahib, was located in Western Punjab - which was surrounded by an overwhelming Muslim population

  • Gurdaspur had a slight Muslim majority, but it was the Sikhs who dominated their economically.

  • There were many shrines of Sufi saints who were equally revered by the Muslims, as well as by Hindus and Sikhs.

  • Lahore had a Muslim majority, but it was Hindus and Sikhs who owned the bulk of banking, insurance and manufacturing.


    Needless to say - and if one puts oneself in Radcliffe's shoes - his was a no-win situation. And not surprisingly, neither the "owners" of India or Pakistan were satisfied by his Award.

    And though he architected the historyof the subcontinent (and its repercussions), and literally created two nations, he remains an unknown figure for most in these two countries...

    The only "homage"(?) he ever got was from the poet W.H. Auden in his lesser-known poem The Partition:

    Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
    Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
    Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
    With their different diets and incompatible gods.
    "Time," they had briefed him in London, "is short. It's too late
    For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
    The only solution now lies in separation.
    The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
    That the less you are seen in his company the better,
    So we've arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
    We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
    To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you."

    Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
    Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
    He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
    Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
    And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
    But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
    Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
    And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
    But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
    A continent for better or worse divided.

    The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
    The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
    Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

    ...Yes, we may sit here today and judge the history in terms of right and wrongs... But what Cyril Radcliffe, inadvertently, did prove - to go back to where we started - History, like a river or wind, it has its own logic and direction (though as humans, we may call it amoral)....

    Earlier Posts in the Series:
    1. The Story of Junagadh
    2. The Foundations of "Nehruvian Socialism"
    3. A "Nation-in-Making"
    4. Legacy of "The Raj"
    5. India's 1st 5-Star Hotel

    The Third Side of the Partition Coin
    "The Partition" by W.H. Auden
    The Other Side of Silence
    Splitting the Difference
    Sanjhi Virasat

  • 1 comment:

    TPS said...

    ...families from both my maternal and paternal side enetered into Indian territory of J&K from (now what is called) PoK, leaving everything behind and have hair raising stories to share....and almost 60 years on they are still suffering in J&K....but reading your post gives me a feeling that it was done in the same way as many decisions are made in Today's corporate world especailly those affecting people...based on data with low credibility and in short durations often pitted against a deadline...whole of the corporate world wants to follow Jack Welch and other Management Gurus but doesn't have the patienec and time for working on the details...and implement solutions and models without ever thinking through...the managers/ leaders at Ground zero often commit a lot to the masses like Leaders of that time, but finally succumb...and a faulty solutions is perfectly implemented and then for years we try to find out what went wrong....when on paper it was so good ( Indian Criket Team)....