On 15 July 1947, the Indian Independence Act 1947 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom stipulated that British rule in India would come to an end just one month later, on 15 August 1947. The Act also stipulated the partition of the Provinces of British India into two new sovereign dominions: the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan.
The Indian Independence Act, passed by the British parliament, abandoned the suzerainty of the British Crown over the princely states and dissolved the Indian Empire, so that the rulers of the states found themselves fully independent and were free to decide for themselves whether to accede to one of the new dominions or to remain independent.
Pakistan was intended as a Muslim homeland, while the new India was for the Hindus with a Hindu majority. Muslim-majority British provinces in the north were to become the foundation of Pakistan. The provinces of Baluchistan (91.8% Muslim before partition) and Sindh (72.7%) were granted entirely to Pakistan. However, two provinces did not have an overwhelming majority—Bengal in the north-east (54.4% Muslim) and the Punjab in the north-west (55.7% Muslim). The western part of the Punjab became part of West Pakistan and the eastern part became the Indian state of East Punjab, which was later divided between a smaller Punjab State and two other states. Bengal was also partitioned, into East Bengal (in Pakistan) and West Bengal (in India). Following independence, the North-West Frontier Province (whose borders with Afghanistan had earlier been demarcated by the Durand Line) voted in a referendum to join Pakistan. This controversial referendum was boycotted by the most popular Pukhtun movement in the province at that time. The area is now a province in Pakistan called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The Punjab's population distribution was such that there was no line that could neatly divide Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Likewise, no line could appease the Muslim League, headed by Jinnah, and the Indian National Congress led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, and by the British. Moreover, any division based on religious communities was sure to entail "cutting through road and rail communications, irrigation schemes, electric power systems and even individual landholdings." However, a well-drawn line could minimize the separation of farmers from their fields, and also minimize the numbers of people who might feel forced to relocate.
As it turned out, on "the sub-continent as a whole, some 14 million people left their homes and set out by every means possible—by air, train, and road, in cars and lorries, in buses and bullock carts, but most of all on foot—to seek refuge with their own kind." Many of them were slaughtered by an opposing side, some starved or died of exhaustion, while others were afflicted with "cholera, dysentery, and all those other diseases that afflict undernourished refugees everywhere". Estimates of the number of people who died range between 200,000 (official British estimate at the time) and two million, with the consensus being around one million dead.
A crude border had already been drawn up by Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India prior to his replacement as Viceroy, in February 1947, by Lord Louis Mountbatten. In order to determine exactly which territories to assign to each country, in June 1947, Britain appointed Sir Cyril Radcliffe to chair two Boundary Commissions—one for Bengal and one for Punjab.
The Commission was instructed to "demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. In doing so, it will also take into account other factors." Other factors were undefined, giving Radcliffe leeway, but included decisions regarding "natural boundaries, communications, watercourses and irrigation systems", as well as socio-political consideration. Each commission also had 4 representatives—2 from the Indian National Congress and 2 from the Muslim League. Given the deadlock between the interests of the two sides and their rancorous relationship, the final decision was essentially Radcliffe's.
After arriving in India on 8 July 1947, Radcliffe was given just five weeks to decide on a border. He soon met with his fellow college alumnus Mountbatten and travelled to Lahore and Calcutta to meet with commission members, chiefly Nehru from the Congress and Jinnah, president of the Muslim League. He objected to the short time frame, but all parties were insistent that the line be finished by the 15 August British withdrawal from India. Mountbatten had accepted the post as Viceroy on the condition of an early deadline. The decision was completed just a couple of days before the withdrawal, but due to political manoeuvring, not published until 17 August 1947, two days after the grant of independence to India and Pakistan.
Each boundary commission consisted of 5 people - a chairman (Radcliffe), 2 members nominated by the Indian National Congress and 2 members nominated by the Muslim League.
The Bengal Boundary Commission consisted of Justices C. C. Biswas, B. K. Mukherji, Abu Saleh Mohamed Akram and S.A.Rahman.
The members of the Punjab Commission were Justices Mehr Chand Mahajan, Justice Teja Singh, Din Mohamed and Muhammad Munir.
All lawyers by trade, Radcliffe and the other commissioners had all of the polish and none of the specialized knowledge needed for the task. They had no advisers to inform them of the well-established procedures and information needed to draw a boundary. Nor was there time to gather the survey and regional information. The absence of some experts and advisers, such as the United Nations, was deliberate, to avoid delay. Britain's new Labour government "deep in wartime debt, simply couldn’t afford to hold on to its increasingly unstable empire." "The absence of outside participants—for example, from the United Nations—also satisfied the British Government's urgent desire to save face by avoiding the appearance that it required outside help to govern—or stop governing—its own empire."
The equal representation given to politicians from Indian National Congress and the Muslim League appeared to provide balance, but instead created deadlock. The relationships were so tendentious that the judges "could hardly bear to speak to each other", and the agendas so at odds that there seemed to be little point anyway. Even worse, "the wife and two children of the Sikh judge in Lahore had been murdered by Muslims in Rawalpindi a few weeks earlier."
In fact, minimizing the numbers of Hindus and Muslims on the wrong side of the line was not the only concern to balance. The Punjab Border Commission was to draw a border through the middle of an area home to the Sikh community. Lord Islay was rueful for the British not to give more consideration to the community who, in his words, had "provided many thousands of splendid recruits for the Indian Army" in its service for the crown in World War I. However, the Sikhs were militant in their opposition to any solution which would put their community in a Muslim ruled state. Moreover, many insisted on their own sovereign state, something no-one else would agree to.
Last of all, were the communities without any representation. The Bengal Border Commission representatives were chiefly concerned with the question of who would get Calcutta. The Buddhist tribes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bengal had no official representation and were left totally without information to prepare for their situation until two days after the partition.
Perceiving the situation as intractable and urgent, Radcliffe went on to make all the difficult decisions himself. This was impossible from inception, but Radcliffe seems to have had no doubt in himself and raised no official complaint or proposal to change the circumstances.
Before his appointment, Radcliffe had never visited India and knew no one there. To the British and the feuding politicians alike, this liability was looked upon as an asset; he was considered to be unbiased toward any of the parties, except of course Britain. Only his private secretary, Christopher Beaumont, was familiar with the administration and life in the Punjab. Wanting to preserve the appearance of impartiality, Radcliffe also kept his distance from Viceroy Mountbatten.
No amount of knowledge could produce a line that would completely avoid conflict; already, "sectarian riots in Punjab and Bengal dimmed hopes for a quick and dignified British withdrawal". "Many of the seeds of postcolonial disorder in South Asia were sown much earlier, in a century and half of direct and indirect British control of large part of the region, but, as book after book has demonstrated, nothing in the complex tragedy of partition was inevitable."
Radcliffe justified the casual division with the truism that no matter what he did, people would suffer. The thinking behind this justification may never be known since Radcliffe "destroyed all his papers before he left India". He departed on Independence Day itself, before even the boundary awards were distributed. By his own admission, Radcliffe was heavily influenced by his lack of fitness for the Indian climate and his eagerness to depart India.
The implementation was no less hasty than the process of drawing the border. On 16 August 1947 at 5:00pm, the Indian and Pakistani representatives were given two hours to study copies, before the Radcliffe award was published on the 17th.
To avoid disputes and delays, the division was done in secret. The final Awards were ready on 9 August and 12 August, but not published until two days after the partition.
According to Read, there is some circumstantial evidence that Nehru and Patel were secretly informed of the Punjab Award's contents on August 9 or 10, either through Mountbatten or Radcliffe's Indian assistant secretary. Regardless of how it transpired, the award was changed to put a salient east of the Sutlej canal within India's domain instead of Pakistan's. This area consisted of two Muslim-majority tehsils with a combined population of over half a million. There were two apparent reasons for the switch: the area housed an army arms depot, and contained the headwaters of a canal which irrigated the princely state of Bikaner, which would accede to India.
After the partition, the fledgling governments of India and Pakistan were left with all responsibility to implement the border. After visiting Lahore in August, Viceroy Mountbatten hastily arranged a Punjab Boundary Force to keep the peace around Lahore, but 50,000 men was not enough to prevent thousands of killings, 77% of which were in the rural areas. Given the size of the territory, the force amounted to less than one soldier per square mile. This was not enough to protect the cities much less the caravans of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were fleeing their homes in what would become Pakistan.
Both India and Pakistan were loath to violate the agreement by supporting the rebellions of villages drawn on the wrong side of the border, as this could prompt a loss of face on the international stage and require the British or the UN to intervene. Border conflicts led to three wars, in 1947, 1965, and 1971, as well as the May 1998 dual tests of nuclear weapons and the Kargil conflict of 1999.
There were two major disputes regarding the Radcliffe Line, the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Gurdaspur district. Minor disputes evolved around the districts of Firozpur of Punjab, Malda, Khulna, and Murshidabad of Bengal and the sub-division of Karimganj of Assam.
Chittagong Hill Tracts had a majority non-Muslim population of 97% (most of them Buddhists), but was given to Pakistan. The Chittagong Hill Tracts People's Association (CHTPA) petitioned the Bengal Boundary Commission that, since the CHTs were inhabited largely by non-Muslims, they should remain within India. Since they had no official representation, there was no official discussion on the matter, and many on the Indian side assumed the CHT would be awarded to India.
On 15 August 1947, many of the tribes did not know to which side of the border they belonged. On 17 August, the publication of the Radcliffe Award put the CHTs in Pakistan. The rationale of giving the Chittagong Hill Tracts to Pakistan was that they were inaccessible to India and to provide a substantial rural buffer to support Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), a major city and port; advocates for Pakistan forcefully argued to the Bengal Boundary Commission that the only approach was through Chittagong.
Two days later, the CHTPA resolved not to abide by the award and hoisted the Indian flag. The Pakistani army dealt with the protest but its polemic somewhat remains with some of its non-Muslim majority arguing for its secession.
Under British control, the Gurdaspur district was the northernmost district of the Punjab Province. The district itself was administratively subdivided into four tehsils: Shakargarh, Gurdaspur, Batala, and Pathankot. Of the four, only the Shakargarh tehsil, which was separated from the rest of the district by the Ravi river, was awarded to Pakistan and became part of Sialkot district within the West Punjab province of Pakistan. The Gurdaspur, Batala and Pathankot tehsils became part of India's East Punjab state. The division of the district was followed by a population transfer between the two nations, with Muslims leaving for Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs leaving for India.
The entire district of Gurdaspur had a bare majority of 50.2% Muslims. (In the `notional' award attached to the Indian Independence Act, all of Gurdaspur district was marked as Pakistan with 51.14% Muslim majority. In the 1901 census, the population of Gurdaspur district was 49% Muslim, 40% Hindu, and 10% Sikh.) The Pathankot tehsil was predominantly Hindu while the other three tehsils were Muslim majority. In the event, only Shakargarh was awarded to Pakistan.
Some argue that Muslims were a majority only if the Ahmadiyya community is counted as Muslim. But the Ahmadiyyas had been declared non-Muslim by Muslim clergy. The district was home to a large concentration of Ahmadiyyas, their cultural centres, and their spiritual centre Qadian.
Radcliffe explained that the reason for deviating from the notional award in case of Gurdaspur was that the headwaters of the canals that irrigated the Amritsar district lay in the Gurdaspur district and it was important to keep them under one administration. Lord Wavell had stated in February 1946 that Gurdaspur had to go with the Amritsar district, and the latter could not be in Pakistan due to its Sikh religious shrines. In addition, the railway line from Amritsar to Pathankot passed through the Gurdaspur district.
Pakistan has alleged that the award of the three tehsils to India was a manipulation of the Award by Lord Mountbatten in an effort to provide a land route for India to Jammu and Kashmir.
To counterbalance the relatively small share of Gurdaspur district awarded to Pakistan, Radcliffe attempted to instead transfer Firozpur and Zira tehsils in Firozpur district to Pakistan.
Another disputed decision made by Radcliffe was division of the Malda district of Bengal. The district overall had a slight Muslim majority, but was divided and most of it, including Malda town, went to India. The district remained under East Pakistan administration for 3–4 days after 15 August 1947. It was only when the award was made public that the Pakistani flag was replaced by the Indian flag in Malda.
The entire Khulna District with a marginal Hindu majority of 51% was also given to East Pakistan in lieu of a smaller Murshidabad district with a 70% Muslim majority, which went to India.
Sylhet district of Assam joined Pakistan in accordance with a referendum. However, the Karimganj sub-division with a Muslim majority was severed from Sylhet and given to India. As of the 2001 Indian Census, Karimganj now has a Muslim majority of 52.3%.
The Partition of India is one of the central events in the collective memory in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. On his motivation to write Drawing the Line, playwright Howard Brenton said he first became interested in the story of the Radcliffe Line while vacationing in India and hearing stories from people whose families had fled across the new line.
As a crucial determiner in the outcomes of the partition, the Radcliffe Line and award process has been referred to in many films, books, and other artistic depictions of the partition of India. The specific commemoration of the award or the recounting of the story of the process and the people involved in it has been comparatively rare.
One notable depiction is Drawing the Line, written by British playwright Howard Brenton. Defending his portrayal of Cyril Radcliffe as a man who struggled with his conscience, Brenton said, "There were clues that Radcliffe had a dark night of the soul in the bungalow: he refused to accept his fee, he did collect all the papers and draft maps, took them home to England and burnt them. And he refused to say a word, even to his family, about what happened. My playwright's brain went into overdrive when I discovered these details."