17.08.

1947: Radcliffe Line Drawn between India and Pakistan

1947: Radcliffe Line Drawn between India and Pakistan
Photo Credit To Wikipedia Commons/ Members of the 1946 Cabinet Mission to India meeting Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Story Highlights

  • Historical event:
  • 17 August 1947
  • Although he had never previously visited India, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was assigned to draw a boundary demarcation line between the Hindu and Muslim territories. He was given only five weeks to finish his work, and had to draw the boundary lines so quickly that even some villages were split in two. There were even cases where the line passed directly through individual houses, so that some rooms were became part of India while others remained in Pakistan. It is estimated that as many as one million people may have died due to all the problems caused by the demarcation.

One of the most controversial state boundaries in the world, the one dividing Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, was officially declared on this day.

The most interesting fact about this boundary line was that it was drawn almost exclusively by one man: Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British Law Professor at Oxford. Namely, by 1947 Britain wanted to get rid of its colonial empire as quickly as possible, while the Hindus and Muslims wanted to achieve independence. The problem was that the huge Indian Empire, ruled by King George VI of England, stretched from Afghanistan to Thailand and was populated by people of many different faiths which had a great difficulty coexisting. These included the Muslims (modern Pakistan and Bangladesh), the Buddhists (modern Myanmar, previously known as Burma), and the Hindus (all other regions). These three religious groups were granted their own states but others, such as the Sikhs, were not.

Although he had never previously visited India, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was assigned to draw a boundary demarcation line between the Hindu and Muslim territories. Since the Muslims and Hindus were mutually hostile, many decisions rested on Radcliffe’s judgment alone. He arrived in India on 8 July 1947 and met his Oxford colleague Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy of India. Radcliffe was given only five weeks to finish his work. He protested, but was rebuked – Mountbatten had only agreed to become Viceroy on the condition that he was allowed to perform his duties as quickly as possible (Mountbatten was also to be the last Viceroy of India).

Despite having an education in Law, Radcliffe did not have any specialist knowledge relevant to determining state boundaries. Even worse, he did not have enough time to perform the necessary field research. Radcliffe had to draw the boundary lines so quickly that even some villages were split in two, and there were even cases where the line passed directly through individual houses, so that some rooms were became part of India while others remained in Pakistan.

Another problem were the Sikhs, who were neither Muslims nor Hindus, and desired a state of their own. However, cared about this, and they ended up divided between India and Pakistan. The newly-established border determined the fate of some 88 million people – Radcliffe had taken on a massive responsibility.

The result of this hurried and more-or-less random demarcation process can only be described as catastrophic. Between 10 and 12 million people decided to leave their homes so that they could move to India or Pakistan. Border skirmished broke out almost immediately. It is estimated that as many as one million people may have died due to all the problems caused by the demarcation. Once Sir Cyril Radcliffe received word of this, he refused the 40,000 rupees he had earned for his work.

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