Cyril Radcliffe: Lawyer Who Drew Haphazard India-Pakistan Border

Cyril Radcliffe drew the India-Pakistan border weeks after arriving in India for the first time in 1947 without knowing much about the regions he divided haphazardly leaving tens of thousands dead and uprooted

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Bhanu Chak is a typical central Punjab village. Located in the middle of lush wheat and mustard fields, it is the first Pakistani village along the high chain-mailed border fencing with India. Prior to Pakistan’s creation, its demography was like the rest of Punjab. Muslims had a slight numeric edge but lived harmoniously with their Hindu and Sikh neighbours.

Harmonious co-existence was the norm across rural Punjab before the British divide-and-rule policy created bad blood and ended up splitting the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Cyril Radcliffe, an English lawyer, drew the unnatural border between the two countries. He split homes, villages, fields, rivers, bridges, and pastures before leaving immediately upon the completion of the task in August 1947.

Cyril Radcliffe had arrived barely five weeks earlier in July 1947 in India for the first time to draw the border. He knew little about the regions he was supposed to divide, and he did not have the luxury of time to study them either. 

Cyril Radcliffe spent most of the five weeks in a Delhi bungalow, struggling with heat and humidity. He relied on demographics and census tables for the division. He would later accept that it would have taken years to settle on a proper boundary, which considered natural features, canal headworks, communications, and culture.

Cyril Radcliffe would never return to the Indian subcontinent. He suspected he would be shot if he did. Radcliffe’s description of the unforgiving Indian summer as a foretaste of ‘the mouth of hell’ proved literal. The haphazard division he presided over triggered violence at a scale never seen before. 

Freedom from the British meant nothing to the millions who were either killed or uprooted because of the violence. It brought with it the onerous task for the two newly created nation-states of rehabilitating millions of scarred refugees. People who had mansions and large estates were turned into paupers overnight.

Before Cyril Radcliffe’s line sliced through Bhanu Chak and reduced it to insignificance, it was a thriving village halfway between Lahore and Amritsar along the Grand Trunk (GT) Road. The storied GT road connected Kabul in Afghanistan to Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), around 3000 km away, until 1947. 

Trade thrived along the road for centuries, bringing prosperity to the villages and towns abutting it before border controls became more rigid with each India–Pakistan conflagration. Indian farmers uprooted from the border villages would cultivate their fields on the Pakistani side until 1971 when Pakistan lost its eastern wing (now Bangladesh) in the war with India. 

The cross-border movements have since become impossible, more so for ordinary village folks such as the residents of Bhanu Chak, whose ancestors were uprooted from Alwar and Bharatpur in India due to the genocidal violence in 1947. Bhanu Chak came out of its obscurity briefly in 1999, when it was chosen as the venue for a 19-gun salute ahead of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit for the inauguration of the Delhi–Lahore bus service.

The visit was the first by an Indian leader to Pakistan in 10 years—the dividend of a thaw in their ties. It raised the hopes of the divided families. But little has changed since. Crossing the border to meet their relatives remains a dream for most divided families as it was in 1999. A usual pattern has followed in India–Pakistan ties. Crisis after crisis had the two countries go one step forward, and two steps back.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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