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The Four Pretenders

The Four Pretenders

In the second of three articles, Rattan Bhorjee discusses the four main characters of Partition

In 1947, after two centuries of British imperial rule, India finally gained Independence. It was partitioned on the 15th August into two independent states consisting of a largely Hindu population in India and an almost exclusively Muslim Pakistan, split into West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Whilst most states were placed into either India or Pakistan in their entirety, two states were internally partitioned: Panjab and Bengal. In early 1947 Cyrill Radcliffe was put in charge of the Boundary Commission by the fledgeling post-war Labour Government, which was both unwilling and unable to continue the colonial occupation of India. The commission looked to divide the country once the concept of Partition became inevitable, and whilst Radcliffe may have been a Barrister, he had never been to India and had no experience or knowledge of India, Indians or the creation of international boundaries., Radcliffe did not visit India until 8th July 1947; the sittings of the Bengal Boundary Commission were held over only eight days, and Radcliffe, due to his dislike of travelling, did not attend any of its public sittings in person. He merely examined the papers presented to the Commission by all parties from his palace headquarters.

The Boundary Commission

The Boundary Commission’s role was to decide which areas went into whose territory through census data. This meant that majority-Muslim settlements would be given to Pakistan, and majority-Hindu or Sikh settlements awarded to India. Partition was an all-too-typical example of the tyranny of empire, where minority rule decided the fate of tens and thousands of Panjabi and Bengali communities. The Boundary award itself was published on the 17th August 1947, days after the independence of India and Pakistan; this was perhaps the main reason for the violence and confusion of partition: People were given their freedom but without the crucial knowledge of where exactly that freedom would lie. Historian Joya Chatterji suggests:

Tragedies could have been avoided, or at least minimised, had Radcliffe and the Boundary Commissioners done their job with greater care and sensitivity; the striking nature of the audacious haste with which they executed their task perhaps is the largest cause for the bloodshed and confusion.[1]

However, I would not equate Radcliffe’s responsibility for the partition to that of its three biggest protagonists: Lord Louis Mountbatten, the final Viceroy of India; Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian Congress Party, protégé of Mahatma Gandhi and the eventual first Prime Minister of India; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the pro-Pakistan All-India Muslim League and first Governor-General of Pakistan.

When Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy, in the words of Perry Anderson, he had two overriding concerns: “To cut a figure fit for Hollywood as the last ruler of the Raj” and, above all, to ensure India would remain a Commonwealth dominion as “the value to the United Kingdom both in…world prestige and strategy would be enormous”[2].

Lord Mountbatten

It was Mountbatten who delayed the publication of Radcliffe’s boundary award to after the two independence days, instead of before. It was Mountbatten who pressured Radcliffe’s Boundary Commission to favour India when handling the placement of strategic military and civil sites. And most importantly, it was Mountbatten who, days after going on national radio with Nehru and Jinnah on 3rd June 1947 announcing the plans for partition, dropped the bombshell that the British would be leaving on 15th August 1947, not June 1948 as had been previously agreed by the three main parties. To push back the partition date by eight months alone would have been catastrophic, but it was compounded by the facts that the announcement came so late and the partition boundary was so slipshod in research and execution

However, this was not incompetence. Every decision Mountbatten took in India was maliciously calculated. Perhaps the most striking was his decision to withdraw the majority of British military forces from India pre-independence, in the full knowledge that Indian and Pakistani forces would be totally unable to oversee the Partition. This military under-provision was exemplified in the most violent region of all during partition: Panjab. Here a British unit of 100 men was left to patrol an area of 40-50,0002 miles, leading to the preventable deaths of several hundred thousand unprotected refugees at the hands of sectarian mobs.'In the third and final part, Rattan presents his final thoughts on the colonial legacies of India's partition and who, ultimately, should bear the most responsibility.

 [1] Chatterji, J (1999). The Fashioning of a Frontier: The Radcliffe Line and Bengal's Border Landscape, 1947-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 185-242.

 

  1. Anderson, P., 2012. Why Partition? London Review of Books [Online] vol. 34 no. 14 pp. 11-19. Available from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n14/perry-anderson/why-partition [Accessed 23 Nov 2020].