Barney White-Spunner’s ‘Partition’ recounts the irreverent process of defining the boundary lines of India and Pakistan

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New Delhi | Published: August 13, 2017 5:16:23 AM

The monsoon should have arrived by the end of July, that deluge of rain ‘when nature is washed green and breathes again’ and when ‘for a few days, cool air and the smell of damp earth are blessings beyond price’, but it didn’t.

In these excerpts from Partition, the writer recounts the irreverent process of defining the boundary lines of India and Pakistan, an act that resulted in the killing of over a million people and displacement of at least 10 million.

The monsoon should have arrived by the end of July, that deluge of rain ‘when nature is washed green and breathes again’ and when ‘for a few days, cool air and the smell of damp earth are blessings beyond price’, but it didn’t. The terrible, humid, cloying, all-enveloping heat just continued as if it would never end.

There was nowhere to escape it. One of those it affected most was Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had never been east of Gibraltar, and who was now ensconced in a bungalow on the viceroy’s estate. He had two weeks to finalise drawing the partition lines on the maps of Bengal and the Punjab. Christopher Beaumont had been appointed as his secretary and minder.


Beaumont found the two panels of judges assigned to sit on the respective Boundary Commissions were ‘not much help as they always divided along communal lines’. There had been open sessions in court but again the arguments presented went almost entirely based on whether the person advancing them was Hindu or Muslim. There was little objectivity. ‘Drawing the line was always going to be impossible to make acceptable and partition of the Punjab was always going to be acrimonious’, Beaumont continued, ‘it was a tremendously difficult job as the villages were all mixed up, especially the areas around Lyallpur, Ferozepore and Ludhiana’. The problem was made so much worse because ‘there was not enough time. It was rushed through. Much more thought should have gone into it, more advice taken’ but there was no time. Beaumont had always been ‘hugely impressed’ by Nehru, for whom he had worked in the Foreign Ministry. ‘He was very able, very easy to work with’, but he was also emotional and ‘he got the Punjab wrong – he didn’t really understand the Punjab. He didn’t believe the slaughter would occur and he persuaded Mountbatten it wouldn’t happen – so Mountbatten disregarded men like Jenkins’ who really knew what was going on’.


Radcliffe’s report was ready by 12 August. He had, he would always maintain, completed it without interference or bias. Later he would be accused of changing his allocation of the important Punjab city of Ferozepore and the district of Zira immediately to its east. Both had a small majority Muslim population and logically, under Radcliffe’s guidelines, should have gone to Pakistan. Ferozepore was an important city which controlled the water supply to Bikaner state, immediately to its south in Rajputana, and was a major arsenal. It also had an important bridge over the River Sutlej. Jenkins had been particularly concerned about its future, predicting it could be a serious flashpoint should it go to Pakistan, and wanted to know whether he should deploy troops there. He had also been concerned about Gurdaspur, north-east of Amritsar and which controlled the land route to Kashmir. Radcliffe had, Beaumont said, sent Mountbatten a note with a draft map explaining what he was recommending so that he could give Jenkins early warning. This had, allegedly, been shown to the chairman of the Central Waterways Committee, Lala Adjudhia, who promptly told Patel. The evening before the report was due to be submitted, V. P. Menon appeared at Radcliffe’s bungalow and said the viceroy wanted to talk to him in private. Beaumont said he was not available so Menon went away but the next day Radcliffe was summoned to lunch with just Mountbatten and Ismay. When he came back he allegedly changed the line so that Ferozepore and Zira went to India. The allegation is that the Maharajah of Bikaner, an important ally in the princely camp, put pressure on Mountbatten alongside Nehru, threatening to accede to Pakistan if Ferozepore went. In 1948 the Pakistan government claimed to have found Radcliffe’s original map and complained to the United Nations but by that stage Radcliffe had shredded all his papers. Opinion was originally split as to whether this incident actually happened. The accession of Bikaner to Pakistan seemed incredible to many. Maharajah Gagul Singh, son of the great Sir Ganga Singh, who had been the only non-white member of the Imperial War Cabinet in the First World War and one of India’s most progressive autocrats, had been one of the first to declare for India. However, in February 1992 Beaumont published his own account, drawing on his papers that he had deposited in All Souls, making it clear that Radcliffe had changed his allocation. The pressure may have come direct from Bikaner, an old friend of Mountbatten’s, but it was likely to have been reinforced by Nehru; Beaumont thought that his assistant secretary, Ayer, had been secretly briefing Nehru via V. P. Menon throughout the process and that it was him who was to blame rather than Lala Adjudhia. Nehru also seemed to know that the Chittagong Hill Tracts were destined for Pakistan well ahead of any official announcement. Nehru was equally known to be concerned about Gurdaspur because of its link to his beloved Kashmir, a remarkably prescient concern as events were soon to prove, but Beaumont did not think that Radcliffe had changed that city from Pakistan to India despite subsequent accusations.

What Mountbatten definitely influenced was the timing of the Boundary Commission announcement, which he wanted delayed until after the independence celebrations on 15 August. He justified this by saying that although ‘there was considerable advantage in immediate publication so that the new boundaries could take effect from 15th August’, it had also ‘been obvious all along that the later we postponed publication, the less would the inevitable odium react upon the British’. Given that his job was to serve Attlee, there was some sense in that rather selfish view but many felt the uncertainty made the situation in the Punjab even worse. Auchinleck, never allowing an opportunity to criticise Mountbatten to pass, complained that it ‘was having a most disturbing and harmful effect’ but Mountbatten had his way and delayed briefing the political leaders until 16 August with the public announcement the next day.


Early in the evening of 14 August, back in Delhi, Nehru’s ministers, the men and women who would form India’s first government, were blessed in Dr Rajendra Prasad’s garden. A Brahmin holy man intoned scriptures while they were anointed with holy water and the red vermilion dot, the Hindu ‘third eye’, was placed on their foreheads. Later that evening, as the clock approached midnight, they started to gather in the Constituent Assembly. Hundreds of thousands would join them outside. Kushwant Singh, who had been practising law in Lahore, had driven down the Grand Trunk Road to be there. He described it as the most ‘eerie’ drive he had ever had. The road was deserted. He did not see a soul, no traffic, no bullock carts and no people apart from jeeps full of armed Sikhs whom he assumed had been butchering Muslims. The atmosphere in Delhi was extraordinary. The crowd was enormous. People were yelling and there was a great feeling of enthusiasm and euphoria. Everyone was shouting Gandhi’s name; he was credited with bringing India to freedom, even though he was now hundreds of miles away in Calcutta. The celebrations were wild, even though half the population of Delhi was living on the pavements or in refugee camps. There was a huge upsurge of goodwill towards ‘the Brits’ with ‘stiff colonels lifted shoulder high and carried around the city’. Somehow everything the British had done in the past had been forgiven.

Pages 209-223

Excerpted with permission from Simon & Schuster

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