“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.”
– W.H. Auden in ‘Partition, 1966
Sir Cyril Radcliffe was packing light when he arrived in India in July 1947, and yet the fate of millions rested upon his shoulders. An envoy of the British empire, Sir Cyril was sent to the Indian subcontinent with the task of drawing a line splitting its territory into a Hindu-majority nation and a new Muslim-majority state. Chosen by Lord Mountbatten, precisely because his lack of knowledge about Indian history and its people would make him an ‘unbiased’ map designer, the lawyer-cum-God would inadvertently create what some have called the most dangerous border in the world.
To divide and rule had been the governing strategy of the British Raj since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, fomenting division along ethnoreligious lines as an effective deterrent against the formation of new independence movements. The spatial organisation of the colony became a game of geopolitical chess, where the British could thin or thicken the borders of the dotted-around princely states, rewarding cooperation with official recognition. These cyclical processes of territorialisation and deterritorialisation contributed to placing tension at the heart of India’s in-the-making national character. Eventually, the historical hostility between religious groups upon which the Crown preyed – while auspicious to the foreign rulers – grew incompatible with the hope for a united independent India.
The story of Partition encapsulates the dichotomic nature of borders as conduits of social relations; because the line that came to divide India and create Pakistan was simultaneously a cause and a consequence of persistently clashing identities. Like all borders, the line reflects its surrounding context, while in turn producing new realities. In other words, while Radcliffe was not the architect of the communal violence that led him to Rashtrapati Bhavan that July, the line he drew on a map did create the conditions for the violence to escalate, becoming institutionalised, inescapable.
By the end of the second World War, the need to protect its own borders against the Axis powers had left Britain under unprecedented financial strain. The world’s power kaleidoscope had swirled and neither of the new blocs, the USA nor the USSR, supported colonialism. Thus imperialism became harder to justify, both within national boundaries – where the psychological effects of the war gave rise to a new social contract in the form of the welfare state and made the flexing of military muscle in the colonies less palatable – and in the colonies, who had contributed enormously to the war efforts with bodies and resources. An increasingly harder to navigate wave of independence movements was the ultimate sign that the tide had changed, it was time to leave India before the reputational damage became unmanageable.
Partition is an all too familiar tale in the history of border-making. A colonial power, map, and pencil in hand, prescribing its subjects a dose of fresh material reality; a painful decolonisation process with long reverberating consequences; and a postcolonial administration whose electoral legitimacy henceforth depends on upholding that otherness on which the national identity relies.
British India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (whose familial ties and death also tell border stories) was given until June 1948 to broker the independence process but deliberately rushed to have it finalised by August 1947, only 6 months after the mission assignment. Talks about the future of the subcontinent between Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the party leaders of the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League respectively, were held under the gaze of a hanging countdown calendar, a sinister symbol of Mountbatten’s unflinching resolve about the date of India’s independence: August 15.
But although the date was widely known, the exact location of the new border line, and therefore the territorial domain of the two soon-to-be nation-states was kept under wraps until two days after the end of Britain’s two-century rule. This echoed the Empire’s habit of designing highly contested borders as they set their colonial possessions free, absolving Britain from managing the ensuing catastrophes.
Predictably, the anticipation worked as a catalyser for communal riots, replicating the macro territorial disputes at a micro-level. In the border areas of Bengal and Punjab, the situation was especially dire. As kinship was reduced to creed, the bonds keeping communities together for a millennium were replaced by overidentification with either side of the religious binary. Vicious sectarianism, pillages, and sexual violence became rampant across the subcontinent, leaving lasting scars on victims and survivors. Before the line was even published, it permeated the social relations it would in time reproduce, turning neighbours into fatal opponents.
When on 17 August 1947 the new border was revealed, an estimated 15 million bodies were set in motion, looking to reach ‘their’ side of the Radcliffe line. Turned refugees overnight, entire villages walked in the direction of the rival country – Hindus and Sikhs rushing to cross into India; Muslims scrambling to get out. Poignantly, being born into a refugee crisis created the first opportunity for diplomatic cooperation between the two countries, in the form of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, a bilateral agreement on citizenship rights for religious minorities.
Nevertheless, the line drawn by Sir Cyril didn’t remain in place. In fact, challenging the border became a political priority for both sides almost immediately after independence. The degree to which border areas like Kashmir are to this day disputed is perfectly illustrated by the fact that Google Maps changes the border’s location depending on who is looking.
Like all borders, the one dividing India and Pakistan is a dynamic, ongoing social process. It is also an important site of investigation for anyone looking to understand how borders are drawn; the worlds they create and, just as importantly, the ones they reflect and entrench. The division between these two nations began long before Radcliffe was born; it was recognised as truth by people prior to its inscription on a map. Then, the partition line mirrors a reality of societal conflict – once artificially inflated by the colonial power – at the same time it carves conflict onto society on a colossal scale.
Mariana Meireles Curado is a postgrad student of MSc Labour, Activism and Development. Since moving to London in 2016, she has worked in the not-for-profit sector and is currently the Communications Manager at the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.