Lucy P. Chester. Borders and Conflicts in South Asia: The Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the Partition of Punjab. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. xv + 222 pp. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-7899-6.
Reviewed by Bernardo Michael (Messiah College)
Published on H-Asia (October, 2010)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
The Partition of Punjab in 1947
The British poet W. H. Auden captured some of the drama surrounding boundary commissioner Cyril Radcliffe’s demarcation of the boundaries of India and Pakistan in 1947 when he wrote:
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided. 
Lucy Chester’s book on the Radcliffe Boundary Commission seeks to understand both Radcliffe the man and the context within which he operated to execute the partition in the Punjab. She examines the interests of the colonial state, the preoccupations of Pakistani and Indian nationalists, the pressures of international politics, Radcliffe’s unique role, and the impact of the partition on the everyday life of ordinary citizens. The book is divided into two parts. The first half focuses on the “high politics of British withdrawal and of Indian and Pakistani independence. The second half deals with the impact of the partition process on the ground, in the everyday lives of inhabitants on both sides of the new boundary. The process of partition on the face of it witnessed the delineation of 2,500 miles of boundary in about six weeks by a British lawyer with no experience in boundary making and who had never lived in South Asia. Chester’s book clearly lays out the poor organization, haste, and lack of coordination that marked the process of partition. The colonial state’s claim that partition was an objective, ordered, balanced, and planned affair with active South Asian participation was mostly a pretense driven by the need to placate international criticism and avoid any responsibility for the subsequent fallout. Involving Pakistani and Indian nationalists allowed the British to occupy the high moral ground that partition was an indigenous affair for which South Asians would ultimately have to bear responsibility (see chapter 2). The neutrality of the British government in this process cannot be determined with certainty, as the government and especially Viceroy Mountbatten were not disinterested observers.
The real strength of Chester’s work is her careful study of the Radcliffe Commission itself. Made up entirely of eight South Asian judges and headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a widely respected lawyer and loyal servant of the British government, the commission was given six weeks (June-August 1947) to decide the boundaries of India and Pakistan (both in Punjab and Bengal). Chester’s work convincingly reveals that given this timeframe, the boundary commission’s work turned out to be a hasty affair. There was little preliminary study, no reliable data to support its work, and a general sense of confusion about how to execute the boundary award. The burden to delineate the boundaries of Pakistan and India then fell on the shoulders of Radcliffe. While careful not to compromise the interests of the British government, Radcliffe’s line tried to balance the division of Punjab’s religious minorities with the water resources (especially the canal networks) of the region. In the end 64 percent of Punjab was given to Pakistan along with about 60 percent of the population. In the final analysis, Chester concludes that Radcliffe’s boundary decision was perhaps the best that could have been made under the circumstances; at least it was better than other boundaries being suggested by various parties involved in the process (see chapter 7). In the latter half of the book (chapters 6-9) Chester maps the fallout of the Radcliffe Award in terms of the violence, death, and destruction that followed, tearing apart the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. While succeeding decades witnessed a reduction in the levels of cross-border raids and skirmishes, the Indo-Pakistan boundary became increasingly militarized with an array of paramilitary forces, fences, and electronic surveillance.
The story of partition cannot be understood within the narrow context of the Radcliffe Commission. Chester’s book could have provided some background information on the wider forces at work leading up to partition--such as the rise of religious nationalisms in South Asia with all their inherent contradictions and poignant legacies. This would have helped readers situate the Radcliffe Commission against a wider tapestry of historical forces. Wider contextual factors that informed this process such as the emergence of communal identities and their linkages with nationalism within the subcontinent especially need to be given more attention. The focus on borderlands (chapter 8) could have been more ambitious in terms of connecting her study with emerging work on borderlands from across the world. Readers interested in the history of cartography might express similar sentiments, calling for further comment on how her work informs this emerging field of inquiry. For instance, while imperial cartography drew lines on maps to simplify and make territory legible, it ignored the complexity of these spaces, defined as they were by multiple networks of social and economic association. Such state projects have conceived of tragedies around the world..
Lucy Chester’s book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the partition of India and Pakistan. The book, through it focus on Radcliffe, tries to connect the realms of high politics and everyday life on the ground. Her treatment of Radcliffe is nuanced and tries to understand him in terms of his family, childhood, and early life experiences. Chester could have done more in exploring the connections, if any, between his wartime work on press censorship and the manner in which he conducted the boundary proceedings. We know far too little about his motivations or the life experiences that might have informed his decisions while determining the Indo-Pakistan boundary. Finally, while not the explicit thrust of her book, a brief account of how the Radcliffe line progressed in Bengal would have been most useful for readers curious about the emergence of East Pakistan. However, in the end, Radcliffe will always remain an enigmatic character, perhaps largely due to his penchant of systematically destroying his papers. A stalwart for empire, he was unwittingly drawn into a growing maelstrom that came to be called partition, to which he was appointed to give it its cartographic epitaph.
. This fragment of Auden’s poem on the partition is cited in Willem van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London: Anthem Press, 2005), 74, n. 8.
. See for instance, Masood Ashraf Raja, Constructing Pakistan: Foundational Texts and the Rise of Muslim National Identity, 1857- 1947 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
. Eric Tagliacozzo, Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1865-1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
. A recent work that tries to explore such themes is James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Bernardo Michael. Review of Chester, Lucy P., Borders and Conflicts in South Asia: The Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the Partition of Punjab.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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