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Cyril Radcliffe: How a poem on Partition undid the man who drew the lines between India and Pakistan?
During the final stages of our freedom struggle in the 40s, the voices for splitting the Indian subcontinent into Hindu and Muslim dominant regions also became more strident.

Much earlier than expected, Lord Mountbatten suddenly called a meeting with the major political parties on 2nd June 1947. Next day, All India Radio announced the decision to partition the country. After the announcement, the Viceroy and other national leaders spoke on the subject. Along with Independence, a new country Pakistan was about to be born. No time frame had been fixed or announced.

Few days later, Mountbatten when asked by the press, for a time frame for independence and the partition, perhaps impulsively replied: '15th August 1947'. It not only took the Indian leaders by surprise, even the British government in London was taken aback! During the seven weeks left, there was hardly any time left to work out the nuts and bolts of a million issues. Nobody knew about lines which would demarcate the two nations. Which part of a district or a province would be in which country! "Even chairs, tables, petty cash, books in the libraries, drums and trombones in a police band, etc. were to be divided." A Manto story deals with lunatics in an asylum, being sorted out according to their religions! Surely, this was not the way to divide the complex and second largest population in the world!

In the ensuing seven decades, volumes have been written about the colossal tragedy of partition, the brutal genocides and possibly history's largest cross border migrations. Authors of 'Freedom at Midnight' called it 'the most complex divorce in history'. The after-effects of this divorce even now continue to become darker by the day.

Anyway, this write up is about the slipshod manner and indecent haste, with which the lines were drawn to delineate West Pakistan and East Pakistan.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe was a well known London lawyer. He loved to share his time between the courts and his cosy plush club. Suddenly, out of the blue he was asked to proceed to India, to preside over the delineation of the two countries. He had never been to India and knew nothing about its cultural, religious or political complexities. Or even its terrains! Reluctantly, he accepted to proceed to India, only because His Majesty's government demanded it. This was the beginning of his tragic personal saga.

Arriving in July 1947, he was given an outdated map on which he had to draw lines, now known as Radcliffe Lines. He was also provided with province-wise population statistics. Had he gone strictly by population statistics, each major city provided its own peculiarities of Hindu/Muslim/Sikh majorities, but being religious, cultural or industrial centres dominated by another religion. To confound the matter, communal riots and migrations started while the lines on the map were still being drawn. He realised that whatever he did was going to be a tragic and a messy legacy.

Radcliffe's lines were amazingly announced only on 17th August: two days after India's Independence!

It is estimated that about 7 million Muslims and equal number of Hindus and Sikhs left their homes and crossed over. Life photographer, Margaret-Bourke White's iconic photos have documented for posterity the tragic tales of these migrations by foot, bullock carts, trucks and overloaded trains. His task done, but shaken by its cruel consequences, Radcliffe left for England, a disappointed man. Back home, he returned the 3000 UK pounds, the grateful British government had paid him as his fees. But this is not the end of his saga.

In 1966, famous poet WH Auden wrote a longish poem 'Partition', as he was moved by the massive tragedy of Partition and the blunderings by Radcliffe. The poem was very critical of Radcliffe. The last few lines of the poem are reproduced at the end of the article.

Recently, Ram Madhvani who directed 'Neerja', has produced a 9-minute film, 'This Bloody Line', about a drawing room scene in Radcliffe's country home thus:

A friend rang up Radcliffe to inform him that the day's newspaper carried a poem about him and the partition. Delighted, that at last something favourable may have been published about him, the near blind Cyril asked his wife to read out the poem aloud. As she slowly started reading, he realised that she was omitting the passages unfavourable to him. In Ram Madhvani's words: "I worked on portraying his stages of grief — denial, anger, sadness and acceptance. In that acceptance, Radcliffe tries to seek forgiveness, which is why he is seen going to church at the end."

Will Radcliffe remain a footnote in history, as a loyal Britisher who created tragic blunders, while serving the Crown? A reluctant participant in one of history's greatest tragedy!


Last lines from 'Partition' by WH Auden

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,

Having never set eyes on this 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 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 quickly forgot

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,

Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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