Few episodes in the decolonisation of the British Empire have aroused more controversy than the rush to independence and the partition of India in 1947. In the first half of the twentieth century, the British had appeared to do everything in their power to slow down constitutional advance, the possible grant of ‘Dominion status’ akin to that of the territories of white settlement, and full independence. Such developments as there had been had appeared limited and grudging, while the British had seemed to encourage the rival movement to the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, with ultimately dangerous consequences. Such divisions had been exacerbated by the Second World War. Yet in its aftermath, and with the election of a Labour Government intent on creating a Welfare State and a reconstructed national identity in Britain, the brakes were suddenly off. A slow-moving river, constantly impeded by log jams, suddenly became a ferocious torrent as the independence date was brought forward and as the British authorities sought to get out of India as rapidly and, as they saw it, as honourably as possible.
Winston Churchill, from the point of view of the imperialist wing of his party, famously called it a ‘scuttle’, and much has been made of the arrogance and impatience of the last Viceroy, Mountbatten, eager on his terms to get a job done as quickly as possible and return to his naval career (and redress the alleged slighting of his father during the First World War). It was in this febrile atmosphere that India was partitioned into three geographical (and, then, two political) units involving the division of two of the most important provinces of the sub-continent, the Punjab and Bengal. It was a vast and complex task, involving huge distances, many millions of people, all sorts of assumptions about census returns, as well as geopolitical, ecological, hydrographic, political and many other considerations. Yet it was all accomplished in a period of little more than six weeks by commissions headed by a lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, who had little previous experience of India, certainly ‘on the ground’, and no experience of boundary formation. It perhaps comes as no surprise that he has been excoriated by both sides and has received, in many cases, rough treatment from historians. He himself was well aware that he was on ‘a hiding to nothing’, but set out to do his duty by the British Establishment and the Indian authorities. Inevitably, he himself was horrified by the violence, bloodshed and ‘ethnic cleansing’ which his Award stimulated in the weeks following the independence celebrations. These events have been seen as one of the greatest blots on the escutcheon of the British imperial experience.
Although there has been a plethora of writings about these events, nobody has examined them in such detail and with such judicious balance as Lucy Chester. Using an extraordinary range of sources – private documents, personal interviews, many maps, official documents in Britain, India and Pakistan, as well as field work along the Punjabi boundary itself – she has produced by far the most comprehensive work on the western partition so far published. This involves a careful consideration of the background, of the work of the commissions, and of the tragic and problematic aftermath, sometimes bringing the story down to the present day. Importantly, she attempts to consider what the partition meant for real people, both those displaced and those who continued to live with the boundary line. She also analyses the nature of boundaries and the significance of maps, the latter so often illustrative of the perceptions, designs and objectives of their producers. Above all, she acutely examines the personalities involved, particularly Radcliffe, considering his background, his life history, and the influences that had gone into his make-up. Well illustrated, this book offers a more satisfying approach to the partition, particularly – but not exclusively – of the Punjab, than any previous work. It would be quite wrong to pre-empt her conclusions in this introduction, but it is intriguing that the rushed job accomplished by Radcliffe in such an astonishingly short time might have been no more effectively done if a much longer period had been spent on the Award. Many were tragically overwhelmed in the waterfall of events in 1947, but attempts at a counterfactual history fail to prove that things might have fallen out differently if any other methods had been used. The fundamental tragedy was perhaps the fact of partition rather than its execution.
John M. MacKenzie