Home Political History of India Radcliffe Line: When a lawyer with no knowledge about India decided her fate

Radcliffe Line: When a lawyer with no knowledge about India decided her fate

The pain has may be a distant memory but the Radcliffe line is a constant reminder that the line that cut across India in 1947 still bleeds. 

On 15th July 1947, the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was passed in the British Parliament. It was decided that the British rule in India will come to an end on 15th August 1947. India was to be divided into India and Pakistan. Pakistan would comprise of West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh).

Pakistan and two-nation theory

Pakistan wanted to be a Muslim-nation state while India remained secular. The Muslim majority provinces of British-India were to be part of Pakistan. That included Balochistan which had about 91.8% Muslim population before partition and Sindh province, which had about 72.7% Muslim population prior to the partition.

However, Bengal in the east and Punjab in the north-west had a significant Muslim population. The western part of Punjab became part of erstwhile West Pakistan. And the other part remained with India. Similarly, Bengal was divided into West Bengal and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Division of land

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However, the division of land was difficult to get consensus on. In Punjab, it was difficult to demarcate Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. There was also an additional division of infrastructure between the countries that needed to be taken care of. People left their homes and took refuge amongst their own kind. Non-Muslims from Pakistan who wanted to live in India came to this side while Muslims from India who wanted to live in a Muslim country went to Pakistan. A lot of bloodshed and horrors followed.

In February 1947, Lord Mountbatten was made the Viceroy of India. Prior to him, Lord Wavell had drawn up a rough border of India. However, in order to determine which territory will go to Pakistan and which will remain with India, in June 1947, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was appointed to chair Boundary Commissions for Bengal and for Punjab.

Cyril Radcliffe

Born in 1899, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been India before, was given the Herculean task of dividing India into India and Pakistan. In June 1947 he was informed that he had to draw up the borders. He was to divide the portion of Punjab on the basis of a contiguous portion of Muslim and non-Muslim population. Radcliffe and other members of the commission were all lawyers with absolutely zero experience or specialised knowledge.

Driven by a sense of duty, Radcliffe took up the humongous task.

Drawing up the border

The commission had no advisors to guide them through. There was not enough time to carry out a survey and gather regional information. Congress and Muslim League, both had their representation in the commissions but it did not help. The politicians could hardly see eye to eye on matters.

One of the most difficult tasks was a division of Punjab which also had a huge Sikh population. While many Sikhs did not want to be part of Muslim-dominated Pakistan, a few were also demanding a separate country.

To appear neutral, Radcliffe also maintained distance from Lord Mountbatten. He was looked upon as neutral and unbiased. However, while he may have been neutral or unbiased towards the Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and others, he was still loyal to the Crown.

Lord Mountbatten and Sir Radcliffe both knew that there was no way the border was drawn will be fully acceptable to either of the parties. Sir Radcliffe had never seen the land he was about to divide. He would decide the fate of undivided India and divide it such that the repercussions would be echoed even after decades. He warned Lord Mountbatten that owing to lack of time, drawing up of borders will have errors and the mistakes may be grave.

Radcliffe even reached out to Jinnah and Nehru whether drawing up the boundaries was absolutely necessary before 15th August. The two, who barely agreed upon any issues, were absolutely sure about this one. India had to be divided by 15th August 1947.

He knew that no matter what he does, people would suffer and there would be a pain.


Lahore had about 64.5% Muslim population prior to partition but over 80% of the city’s assets were owned by Hindus and Sikhs. Lahore was originally set to be part of India. But then he gave it to Pakistan sinc, without Lahore, it would not have any big city. Calcutta from Bengal was to be part of India, so that would leave East Pakistan also without the big city. Unfortunately, the partition was based on the religion of population, not assets.


While the majority of urban population from Lahore settled in Amritsar, the rural population settled in Ferozepur district. Despite being Muslim-dominated regions, these portions were awarded to India. Since Ferozepur and Zika tehsils were on the right side of Sutlej, logically, they should have come to India anyway.

Map of Punjab during partition (image: homegrown.co.in)


Gurdaspur had four tehsils, of which Shakargarh was dominated by Muslims. Shakargarh went to Pakistan while the remaining three, Pathankot, Batala and Gurdaspur remained with India. The Muslims left for Pakistan from Gurdaspur district and the Hindus and Sikhs came to India.

Another reason for Gurdaspur being awarded as part of India was the natural resources. Moreover, Bari Doab Canal which provides water to places like Amritsar originated in Madhopur near Pathankot. Amritsar was given to India because of the significance it holds to the Sikh community. Hence, it was natural and logical that rest of the tehsils of Gurdaspur district come to India.

Pakistan, however, wasn’t too happy with it because it believed that Lord Mountbatten handed over Gurdaspur to India so that it can give India an easy access to Kashmir, which also wanted its own sovereign.

Chittagong Hill Tracts

Despite having over 97% non-Muslim population, it was awarded to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It borders with Myanmar, Tripura (India), Mizoram (India) and Chittagong (now Bangladesh). Despite that why it was awarded to Pakistan is a mystery only Radcliffe could have answered.


Malda, the present day hub of fake currency notes, had an overwhelming Muslim majority population and had even hoisted Pakistan flag for first few days after 15th August 1947. Between the 12th to 15th August, 1947, it was unclear and undecided whether it will stay with India or go to East Pakistan. During these few days the district was under a Magistrate of East Pakistan. However, when the details of the Radcliffe award were published, the district came over to West Bengal on the 17th of August. 1947. Malda sits between Bihar and Bangladesh. Had it been given to Bangladesh, Darjeeling, Cooch Behar and Siliguri would have also gone to Bangladesh.

Khulna, Murshidabad and Karimganj

Khulna with marginal Hindu-majority went to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) while Murshidabad which had predominantly Muslim population stayed with India. Murshidabad, just like Malda connects India to the north-east. Karimganj in Assam shares its border with Tripura in India and Sylhet in Bangladesh. While most of the Sylhet region joined East Pakistan, Ratabari, Patharkadi, Badarpur and portion of Karimganj. This subdivision was then merged into Cachar district of modern day Assam.

The violence

The partition remains one of the bloodiest part of India’s modern history. Over a million people lost their lives and left over 12 million refugees in what was once their home. There are horror tales of murder, rape, neighbour and friends turning on one other. Radcliffe was so horrified at the events that transpired that he refused Rs 40,000 fees he was offered to draw up the border. He burned all his working paper and left India on 15th August 1947 never to return.

The pain has may be a distant memory but is a constant reminder that the line that cut across India in 1947 still bleeds.

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