The Impossible Partition of India

A little-known British civil servant was given the impossible task of dividing India into Hindu- and Muslim-majority states.

Map of the partition of India from Life magazine, August 18, 1947
Map of the partition of India from Life magazine, August 18, 1947

Seventy years ago this week British India was split in two, creating the nations of India and Pakistan, which have been at each other’s throats since.

The partition was carried out a little-known British civil servant, Cyril Radcliffe. A lawyer by training, Radcliffe was given the impossible task of dividing the subcontinent into Hindu- and Muslim-majority states.

Radcliffe had never been in India before 1947 and only got five weeks to complete his work. Two members of the Indian National Congress, representing the new India, and two from the Muslim League, representing what would become Pakistan, were supposed to help him out. But the four often deadlocked, forcing Radcliffe to make all the difficult decisions.

Cyril John Radcliffe
Cyril John Radcliffe

The Welshmen didn’t start from scratch. The British had mapped India extensively, including the preponderance of Hindus, Muslims and other sects in given areas. Radcliffe could also take natural boundaries, like waterways, and irrigation systems into account.

But the information available to him was far from complete and even if he had had all the facts — as Radcliffe himself would later say to justify his decisions — some people were bound to end up on the “wrong” side of the border.

The Punjab, for example, the region that straddles the Indus River, had changed hands between empires for centuries. In Radcliffe’s time, it was populated by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and various smaller ethnic and language groups. No border would have been perfect.

But no one expected the result would be catastrophic.

In the end, some fourteen million people — roughly seven million from each side — fled when they discovered that Radcliffe’s lines on the map would leave them under the dominion of the other. There were communal riots, people died from exhaustion on the road. Nobody knows how many perished. Estimates range from 200,000 to a million. No doubt it was one of the largest and most lethal population transfers in history.