Recalling Radcliffe’s division of India

It was the worst tragedy in the history of India. The impact was everlasting and would be melancholically endured by…

Recalling Radcliffe’s division of India

It was the worst tragedy in the history of India. The impact was everlasting and would be melancholically endured by generations of Indians and Pakistanis.

On the one hand, the nation was gleefully celebrating Independence Day and on the other a perennial line crystallised by Sir Cyril Radcliffe was forcing unwitting millions to migrate amidst horrendous and brutal violence which led to the killings of almost a million and migration of more than 13 million humans.

In fact, the demarcation of boundaries between West and East Punjab and between East and West Bengal was the most contentious and vexed issue between Congress and the Muslim League. Jinnah initially wanted United Nations Organisation to divide the two nations but later discarded the idea as UNO procedures were found to be lengthy and spacious.


He then suggested that the three Law Lords (senior members of House of Lords) should constitute the boundary commission. But it was found that the members would be too old to withstand the heat of the Indian summer.

Lord Listowel, the then Secretary of State for India (Mountbatten’s boss), proposed that Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the then Vice-President of the London Bar Association be appointed to head both the Boundary Commissions for Punjab and Bengal. Both Nehru and Jinnah agreed to his appointment.

Cyril John Radcliffe was born on 30 March 1899 at Llanychan, in Denbighshire in Wales. He had his education at Haileybury College and at New College Oxford. He did his law from Inner Temple and practised at Chancery Bar.

He married Antonio Mary Roby and was issueless. He had some serious medical problems and had never been to India earlier. He was considered to be unbiased and enjoyed an excellent reputation for integrity. He practised as a top civil lawyer in London.

In the Radcliffe commission, the Muslim League nominated Justice Din Muhammad and Justice Muhammad Munir as members of Punjab Boundary Commission while the Congress nominated Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan and Justice Teja Singh.

The Bengal Boundary Commission consisted of Justice Abu Saleh Akram, Justice SA Rehman (League nominees) and Justice CC Biswas and Justice BK Mukherji (Congress nominees). All the nominees were high court judges. Both boundary commissions were constituted before the arrival of Radcliffe on 8 July 1947.

Christopher Beaumont, ICS (1936- Punjab) was appointed the Radcliffe Commission’s Secretary and KVK Sundram ICS (1927 batch-Central Provinces) as OSD to the Commission. He was OSD with the Governor General and Viceroy of India at that time. Mr V.D. Aiyer from the Viceroy’s office became Assistant Secretary of the Commission. Mr Sundram’s father-inlaw, Sardar Harbans Singh was a rich Jat Sikh landlord of Amritsar. Radcliffe had animatedly close relations with KVK Sundram and his wife.

The public sittings of the Commission relating to the Province of Bengal took place at Calcutta from 16 to 24 July (except Sunday, 20 July) and those of the Punjab Boundary Commission at Lahore from 21 July to 31 July (except Sunday, 27 July).

Radcliffe visited Calcutta and Lahore, but in view of the fact that he was chairman of both the commissions, whose proceedings were taking place simultaneously, he did not attend the public sittings but made arrangements to study daily the record and material submitted. The public sittings relating to Sylhet district were held on 4th, 5th and 6th August 1947.

Both in Lahore and Calcutta, the public sittings were held in the premises of their respective High Courts. As both commissions did not reach an agreement, Radcliffe alone gave the awards, demarcating the boundaries of Punjab, Bengal and Sylhet district of Assam and thus of India and Pakistan. Mountbatten released the Awards on August 16 1947.

In Lahore, the Congress was represented by Mr. M C Setalvad, a top lawyer of Bombay assisted by Bakshi Tek Chand. The Muslim league was represented by Sir Zafrullah Khan, a former member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council earlier and later Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister. The Akali Dal was represented by Harnam Singh Jhalla, a Lahore High Court advocate.

The Muslim League made the unreasonable demand of virtually the whole of Punjab as it was a Muslimmajority State but later pruned it to 24 districts of pre-partition Punjab leaving five districts of Ambala Division (Ambala, Karnal, Rohtak, Hissar and Gurgaon) for India.

However, the vaulting ambition turned into smouldering desire when the award was announced. It raised significant objections regarding the award as the tehsils of Ferozepur and Zira in Ferozepur districts, Nakodar and Jalandhar in Jalandhar district, Ajnala in Amritsar district and Gurdaspur and Batala in Gurdaspur district had Muslim majority and were almost contiguous to West Punjab (Pakistan), yet they were given to East Punjab or the Indian Punjab.

The whole of the Muslim majority district of Murshidabad and the greater part of Muslim majority district of Nadia, which were contiguous to East Bengal, were awarded to West Bengal in India.

The documents and information now available show that Sir Cyril Radcliffe showed the original draft of the proposed Award to the Governor General and Viceroy on 9 August 1947 at a lunch at Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff, Lord Ismay’s house in Viceroy’s Estate (present day Rashtrapati Bhawan) and on further consideration, he made the Award in terms which departed from the first draft.

This point was confirmed by Chaudhry Muhammad Ali (later Prime Minister of Pakistan) who stated that on 9 August he saw a map in Lord Ismay’s room showing the boundary of West Punjab as given in the Award on 16 August 1947.

Christopher Beaumont ICS (1936- Punjab), the secretary of the Radcliffe commission confirmed that frontiers had been secretly redrawn to favour India. He confirmed that in a newspaper article in “Daily Telegraph”, London on 24 February 1992.

British Prime Minister Clement Attlee had asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth, Philip Noel-Baker to look into allegations by Sir Zafrullah Khan, foreign minister of Pakistan, who had denounced the alterations in the Radcliffe Award in the Security Council.

In the report to the PM, it was stated that Sir Cyril admitted he had shown the Award to authorities in Delhi (Lord Ismay and Lord Mountbatten) and thereafter it was changed. The revelations by Christopher Beaumont, the secretary of Radcliffe Commission, conclusively prove the same.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe left India on 14 August 1947, never to return to the land he divided. It is said that he had been forewarned by an astrologer that he would be brutally killed if he ever visited India again. He didn’t even take his fee of £5000. He died on 1 April 1977 in London.

The credit for saving precious Indian territory goes to Pandit Nehru whose close propinquity with Lord Mountbatten and vaulting sagacity made India’s genuine claims plausible to him. Cogent alterations were got done in the award in time, which a beholden nation and generations of Indians would always remember with gratitude.

The writer is a Senior IAS officer of the Punjab Cadre and is working as Secretary to Government of Punjab.