That had been Viceroy Lord Mountbatten’s idea. He didn’t want the celebrations to be marred by recriminations on both sides. As if that was possible.
The British had long lost the opportunity for a peaceful and orderly handover of power. With the failure of the 1942 Cripps’ mission and then the three-member 1946 Cabinet delegation (with Sir Stafford Cripps playing the key role again), partition was inevitable. But how do you divide a subcontinent? Drawing the line was never going to be easy.
The man chosen for the task was Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a man who hadn’t travelled further east than the Gibraltar. But it fell on this 48-year-old Inner Temple barrister to do this impossible task — and that, too, in just five weeks.
While Radcliffe may have known little or nothing of India, he was, after all, the ultimate establishment man, which is probably why he was picked for the job. He had studied at Haileybury (Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister then, also went to the same school) and then Oxford. After that he had a brilliant career as a barrister. During the war, he had been director-general in the ministry of information, responsible for censorship and propaganda. It was Radcliffe who had run a campaign against Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit when she visited the United States. Radcliffe had also harassed P.G. Wodehouse ‘when he made ill-judged broadcasts while in German captivity’, wrote Patrick French.
So, the Establishment Man reached India and began work as a ‘neutral umpire’ in New Delhi on July 8. He would live separately, guarded by a massive Punjabi armed with two pistols. He would take his own decisions; no one would be around to influence him. But it wasn’t such a secluded existence for Radcliffe, after all. He dined with British military commander Claude Auchinleck (maybe the Auk needed consoling; his wife had run away with his friend), Lord Mountbatten, Punjab Governor Sir Evan Jenkins and many other members of the British high society.
It’s hard to believe that Radcliffe did not discuss the boundary issue with the others who all knew much more about India than he did. But more than anything else, Radcliffe had a cheat sheet. In February 1946, the ever-underrated Archibald Wavell, the viceroy Attlee unceremoniously sacked while sending in Mountbatten, had drawn up a contingency plan. Wavell knew what was coming. And he understood the need for a wellthought-out boundary line. Helping him were Reforms Commissioner V.P. Menon and Sir Benegal Rau.
So, what did Radcliffe have to go with? Maybe some advice from veterans, Wavell’s map, and outdated census data. And with this he had to divide a subcontinent in 36 days. Its people, villages, rivers, canals, roads. And to compound matters, the weather was frightfully hot, and Radcliffe came down with a bout of dysentery.
Seventy-four years later, it might be easy to say, ‘Poor fellow, he was only a lawyer with a brief; what more could he possibly have done?’ But in 1947, everything hinged on this lawyer and his brief. Would he award Gurdaspur to India or Pakistan? Would he really award a part of Ferozepur to Pakistan, so that it had better control over its water supply?
In fact, he almost gave away a part of Ferozepur to Pakistan. In the first week of August, during a lunch with his commissioners at a club in Simla, he said he would give Pakistan a part of Ferozepur because India was getting Gurdaspur. But that was not to be. When word got out, there was frenzied behind-the-scenes activity that made the ‘neutral umpire’ change his mind — and the boundary line — within days.
He handed over all the Awards to Mountbatten on August 13, but Mountbatten ruled that the Awards would not be made public till August 16. So, on August 15 a free India still did not know its exact boundaries.
When at 5pm, on August 16, Liaqat Ali Khan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Baldev Singh gathered in the Council Chamber of Government House, three hours after the Awards had been sent to them, no one looked happy. It would be months before things settled down. For the moment, freedom had arrived, and with it the horrors of Partition.
For Radcliffe, it was time to go home. He boarded a flight out on August 17. He never came back. Later, when a reporter asked him if he would ever like to visit India, he said: ‘God forbid. Not even if they asked me. I suspect they would shoot me out of hand — both sides.’