During partition, when the job of demarcating boundaries was entrusted to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British barrister, his major claim for this role was his total unfamiliarity with India and its culture! Salil Misra attempts to throw light on the context within which he operated to execute the partition that split up an old and large country, and sealed the fate of millions.
In the discussions on the partition of India, it is often not realised that there was not one partition, but many. On the one hand, the country called India was partitioned into two nation states. But along with the country, two major regions — Punjab and Bengal — evolved through many centuries, were also partitioned. In a way, the partition of the regions was much more serious with extremely tragic consequences.
Punjab and Bengal were the two major regions situated on the north-western and the eastern borders of India. Bengal was the first province to be colonised by the British; Punjab was the last. Both the provinces had acquired a composite identity and culture. The cultures of the two regions took a few centuries to grow and mature. But, all in all, around 18th and 19th centuries, at the time of the British take over, a distinctively Bengali culture and a distinctively Punjabi culture had been firmly established.
The cultural compositeness of the regions was interestingly accompanied by religious plurality. Both the regions had a Muslim majority. But Hindus constituted numerically significant minorities of around 44 per cent in Bengal and 31 per cent in Punjab. Punjab, in addition, also housed the followers of a new faith, Sikhism. The two regions had an interesting cultural and religious profile. Little would anyone have realised till the 19th century, that the religious plurality of the two regions might become one of the factors responsible for the partition of the two regions.
It was virtually impossible for anyone to imagine in the 19th century that Punjab could be physically separated into a Muslim Punjab and a Hindu/Sikh Punjab. And that Bengal would be reorganised as a Muslim Bengal and a Hindu Bengal. So entangled were the cultural lives of the people that a neat geographical separation was simply out of the question. But history is known to have played strange games with the lives of people; games that were unforeseen and unforeseeable; games that changed the lives of people forever.
And so, one fine morning in August 1947, Punjab and Bengal were partitioned with their Muslim and non-Muslim areas torn apart from each other. Someone completely unfamiliar with the two regions (and also with India in general), took hold of the two maps, picked up a pen, looked at the statistics of the religious populations in the districts of the two regions, and drew a dividing line on paper. The dividing line on paper also became the actual dividing line on the ground. The residents on the two sides of the dividing lines were the last to know about it.
They suddenly discovered that they were the citizens of a new nation-state; and their neighbours on the other side of the dividing line were the aliens, and possibly enemies. How did this happen? To unravel this mystery and puzzle, two questions need to be answered first. One, why did India have to be partitioned? Why did Congress agree to it, in spite of being completely opposed to it? Two, was it still possible to go ahead and partition India without dividing Punjab and Bengal? In other words, even if the first partition had become inevitable by 1946, why did the second one have to be done? First question first.
By around 1946, it had become clear that there could not possibly be a settlement of the Indian problem that would be acceptable to all the major parties — British government, Congress and Muslim League. British wanted to hand over power to a united India to take care of their long-term strategic interests. Congress wanted freedom first and then look at the demand of Muslim League for partition. Muslim League, under Jinnah’s leadership, insisted on partition first and considered it as a necessary pre-condition to any kind of independence.
The new British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten put forward a number of schemes, some of which were worse than the partition, as far as Congress was concerned. There was a particular scheme called ‘Plan Balkan’ which threatened, upon being implemented, to reduce India to a large number of small states. The plan made it possible for all the princely states — around 565 of them — to break away from the Union. It thus threatened to completely balkanize India. By comparison, a division into two large states — India and Pakistan — appeared like a lesser evil to Congress.
Demand for Pakistan
But why did Punjab and Bengal have to be internally divided? As mentioned earlier, both regions had enjoyed a cultural homogeneity and compositeness that cut across religious lines. It was simply not possible to neatly carve out separate Muslim and Hindu areas in Punjab and Bengal.
The eventuality of the partition of Punjab and Bengal was almost inherent in the demand for Pakistan, made by Muslim League. Pakistan was demanded on the ground that Indian Muslims were a nation in themselves and therefore needed a separate nation-state of their own.
But the major areas that were demanded for Pakistan (Punjab and Bengal apart from Sind and North-West Frontier Provinces) contained significant and numerous non-Muslim minorities — around 40-45 per cent of Hindus in Bengal and Hindu-Sikhs in Punjab. If according to Muslim League, Muslims could not possibly live with non-Muslims in India, could the significant non-Muslim minorities of Punjab and Bengal be forced to live in the Muslim nation-state of Pakistan?
And so it was decided in June 1947 that both Punjab and Bengal would be partitioned. Two Boundary Commissions were created in July 1947 to draw religious dividing lines across the two provinces in about a month’s time. It is not clear if the enormity of the task had dawned upon either the British government or the political leaders of the country. It amounted to splitting up an old and large country of 400 million people in less than 10 weeks. Boundaries had to be demarcated; the armed forces had to be divided; staffs on the central civil departments (railways, telegraphs, broadcasting, income tax, etc) had to be divided; the assets and liabilities of the two nation-states had to be allocated. But, without any doubt, the most difficult was the demarcation of the boundary lines.
The two Boundary Commissions had equal number of members nominated by Congress and Muslim League. In order to avoid the inevitable stalemate between the two, the Commissions were placed under the chairmanship of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British barrister. His major claim for this role was that he had never set foot on the Indian soil and was completely unfamiliar with Indian cultures and conditions. Interestingly, it was his total unfamiliarity with India that became his greatest asset. In performing the surgery on the Indian soil, he could be brutally neutral. He was alien to Indian culture. And so, cultural and other considerations were not likely to come in the way of drawing the dividing line. Radcliffe could do his job with clinical efficiency, without being tormented by the trauma of it all.
Terms of reference
The terms of reference given to the Boundary Commissions were simple: to demarcate the boundaries of the two provinces “on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims.” Along with the contiguous areas of religious communities, some “other factors” were also to be taken into account. Nobody specified these “other factors”‘, but it was assumed that rivers and canals, geographical and natural factors, and economic life, etc., would also be kept in mind. But it soon became clear to Radcliffe that the considerations of “other factors” would have to be kept to a minimum. When he wanted to know if natural features could be considered suitable boundaries, he was told that Indian rivers, which might appear to be natural boundaries, changed their course quite often and hence could not be considered a reliable criterion for drawing the boundary line. So, overwhelmingly, it had to be a religious divide.
Radcliffe soon discovered that demarcating contiguous lines on religious basis was an impossible task because such contiguous areas simply did not exist. The religious profile and the geographical location of a large number of districts in both the provinces were such that no dividing line could be satisfactorily drawn. Many districts became the site of contentious and rival claims.
For instance, Chittagong district in Bengal had a Muslim majority. But the district also contained the Chittagong Hill Tracts where an overwhelming majority of around 97 per cent consisted of Hindus and Buddhists. The local people, upon hearing that Chittagong as a whole would go to Pakistan, virtually rose in revolt. Nehru and Patel protested to Mountbatten against this decision. But Radcliffe refused to partition the district on the ground that it had a composite economic life. The Chittagong Hill Tracts were the only source of hydro-electric power in East Bengal.
Muslim League leaders also complained that the Boundary Commission had been unfair to them. Liaqat Ali Khan, the future prime minister of Pakistan, complained bitterly that the Boundary Commission had deprived them of Kashmir. Till 1947, there were only two major routes to Kashmir — via Rawalpindi and Sialkot. Both these areas were to go to Pakistan. This geographical access to Kashmir imparted some credibility to Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir. However, there was also a third, somewhat undeveloped, route to Kashmir — the dust tracks in district Gurdaspur, near Pathankot.
Now, Gurdaspur on the whole was a Muslim majority district, but within it there were contiguous Hindu majority and Muslim majority areas. If the areas within Gurdaspur district were demarcated, it would provide India the much-needed access to Kashmir. And this is what happened. This decision, of joining the Hindu majority areas within Gurdaspur with India, gave India rare geographical access to Kashmir. In the Indo-Pak war in October 1947, this passage came in quite handy for Indian forces to rush to Srinagar and prevent it from being taken over by the Pakistani forces. The handing over of parts of Gurdaspur to India remained a sore point with the Pakistani establishment for a long time.
The final report of the Boundary Commission was ready on August 13, but could be shown to Indian and Pakistani leaders only on August 16, after Pakistan had been made. In a way, they were served with a fait accompli. From July onwards, rumours had started spreading about which areas would be in India or Pakistan. All the rumours made the minorities — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — feel very unsafe and vulnerable. A lot of anticipatory violence had begun to spread, particularly in Punjab. In West Punjab, Muslims had started killing Hindus and Sikhs. And Sikhs and Hindus started killing Muslims in East Punjab. Not all the killing, however, stemmed from fear, insecurity and hatred. In some cases, killing was also based on strategic calculations. Killing became a way of emptying land and property of other religious communities and thereby making it available for co-religionists who were expected to arrive as a result of population exchange. All the three communities — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs — indulged in this cleansing operation.
But, in the end, nobody except for a few political leaders, was happy and satisfied with the partition. A whole range of emotional and psychological factors came into reckoning. The Hindus and Sikhs of East Punjab suddenly discovered that Lahore, the soul of Punjab, had been lost to them. They found it difficult to imagine Punjab without Lahore. Likewise, the Muslims of East Bengal found it impossible to imagine Bengal without Calcutta. Sikhs lost the famous Gurudwara at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak at Sheikhupura in West Punjab.
Punjab was traditionally known as the land of five rivers. The name Punjab actually meant five rivers (Punj Aab meaning five waters). Now, suddenly, it dawned upon the people that three of the five rivers — Beas, Sutlej and Ravi — would be in India and the remaining two would be flowing in Pakistan. Bengal had a composite economic life. There were large jute fields in East Bengal which supplied raw jute to the jute industries situated in the western pockets of Bengal. The fields and the industries needed and complemented each other. The partition of Bengal meant that the jute industries would be deprived of raw jute. It thus became clear that apart from a few political leaders, the partition was detrimental to everyone, whichever way one looked at it.
The loss experienced was not just emotional and psychological. Anything between three lakh and 30 lakh people were killed in partition violence. Around 70,000 women were raped and abducted. Over 12 million people were forced to migrate. They were forced to leave the homeland of their forefathers and settle in unfamiliar areas. A large number of Punjabis on both sides of the Radcliffe line still carry the scars of the partition.
Herein lay the absurdity, instability and irrationality of identity politics. Communal politics mobilised people into believing that they were Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, and that their religious identities constituted the core of their lives. In other words, their identity depended on the religion they followed and not the territory they lived on. But suddenly, faced with the possibility of their land being partitioned, the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims of these areas discovered that they were also Punjabis and Bengalis and were being forced to tear themselves apart from the composite Punjabi and Bengali life.
It is said that it is generally the function of the succeeding generations to be astounded by the follies and stupidities committed by the preceding generations. There is no doubt that the partition was a great folly and a man-made disaster. Millions of people paid the price for it. In the end, there was no gainer. Everybody was a loser. Why did such a man-made calamity have to occur, which left only victims and no victors? Why did it have to happen? Nobody knows.
(The author teaches history at the Ambedkar University, Delhi)