The Radcliffe Line became the border between India and Pakistan on 17 August 1947 after the Partition of India. The line was decided by the Border Commissions chaired by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who was to divide equitably 175,000 square miles (450,000 km2) of territory with 88 million people.[1]

Britain's holdings in South Asia were granted independence in 1947 and 1948, becoming four new independent states: India, Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Pakistan (including East Pakistan, modern-day Bangladesh). Sikkim, then an independent country, is not shown on this map. Neither are the State of Hyderabad, Portuguese India or French India shown. The Maldives, highlighted on the map, did not gain independence until 1965


At the beginning of discussions leading to the independence of India, it became apparent to the Moslem participants that a united India would be a Hindu-dominated India. Led by Mohammad Jinna, the Muslim League pressed for a partition of India into a Hindu nation and a Moslem nation, threatening calamity if this were not done: "India will be divided or destroyed." Numerous problems with such a division were brushed aside and the parties did agree to a partition. On July 15 1947, the Indian Independence Act 1947 of the British Parliament stipulated that the British Raj of India would end in just one month's time on August 15, 1947. It also stipulated the partition of India into two sovereign dominions: the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims in British India. The problem was that no dividing line had been demarcated, let alone surveyed: the task was too great to perform in the tima available.

Pakistan was intended as a Muslim state while India was secular with a Hindu majority. Muslim-majority regions in the north were to become Pakistan. The provinces of Baluchistan (91.8% Muslim before partition) and Sindh (72.7%) were granted entirely to Pakistan. However, two provinces did not have a uniform majority -- Bengal (54.4%) in the northeast and Punjab (60.1%) in the northwest.[2] The western part of Punjab became part of West Pakistan and the eastern part would became the Indian state of Punjab. Bengal was similarly divided into East Bengal (in Pakistan) and West Bengal (in India). Following independence, the Northwest Frontier Province (whose borders along Afghanistan had earlier been demarcated by the Durand Line) voted in a referendum to join Pakistan.[3]

The Punjab's population distribution was such that there was no line that could neatly divide Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Likewise, no line could appease the Muslim League headed by Jinnah, and the Indian National Congress led by Nehru and Patel, as well as the British. Moreover, any division was going to entail "cutting through road and rail communications, irrigation schemes, electric power systems and even individual landholdings."[4] However, a well-drawn line would minimize the cases of separating farmers from their fields, and minimize the millions of people who would be have to relocate.

As it turned out, on "the sub-continent as a whole, some 14 million people left their homes and set out by every means possible -- by air, train, and road, in cars and lorries, in buses and bullock carts, but most of all on foot -- to seek refuge with their own kind."[5] Many of them were slaughtered by an opposing side, some starved or died of exhaustion, while others were afflicted with "cholera dysentery and all those other diseases that afflict undernourished refugees everywhere".[6] Estimates of the number of people who died range between 200,000 (official British estimate at the time) and two million, with the consensus being around one million casualties.[6]

Process and key people

A crude border had already been drawn up by Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India prior to his replacement as Viceroy, in February 1947, by Lord Louis Mountbatten. In order to determine exactly which territories to assign to each country, in June 1947, Britain appointed Sir Cyril Radcliffe to chair two Boundary Commissions—one for Bengal and one for Punjab.

The Commission was instructed to "demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of the Punjab on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. In doing so, it will also take into account other factors."[7] Other factors were undefined, giving Radcliffe leeway, but included decisions regarding "natural boundaries, communications, watercourses and irrigation systems", as well as socio-political consideration.[8] Each commission also had 4 representatives—2 from the Indian National Congress and 2 from the Muslim League. Given the deadlock between the interests of the two sides and their rancorous relationship, the final decision was essentially Radcliffe's.

After arriving in India on 8 July, Radcliffe was given just 5 weeks to decide on a border. He soon met with his college alumnus Mountbatten and travelled to Lahore and Calcutta to meet with commission members, chiefly Nehru from the Congress and Jinnah, president of the Muslim League.[9] He objected to the short time frame, but all parties were insistent that the line be finished by 15 August British withdrawal from India. Mountbatten had accepted the post as Viceroy on the condition of an early deadline.[10] The decision was completed just a couple days before the withdrawal, but due to political manoeuvring, not published until 17 August, two days after the grant of independence to India and Pakistan.

Problems in the process

Boundary-making procedures

All lawyers by trade, Radcliffe and the other commissioners had all of the polish and none of the specialized knowledge needed for the task. They had no advisers to inform them of the well-established procedures and information needed to draw a boundary. Nor was there time to gather the survey and regional information. The absence of some experts and advisers, such as the United Nations, was deliberate, to avoid delay.[11] Britain's new Labour government "deep in wartime debt, simply couldn’t afford to hold on to its increasingly unstable empire."[12] "The absence of outside participants—for example, from the United Nations—also satisfied the British Government's urgent desire to save face by avoiding the appearance that it required outside help to govern—or stop governing—its own empire."[13]

Political representation

The equal representation given to politicians from Indian National Congress and the Muslim League appeared to provide balance, but instead created deadlock. The relationships were so tendentious that the judges "could hardly bear to speak to each other", and the agendas so at odds that there seemed to be little point anyway. Even worse, "the wife and two children of the Sikh judge in Lahore had been murdered by Muslims in Rawalpindi a few weeks earlier."[14]

In fact, minimizing the numbers of Hindus and Muslims on the wrong side of the line was not the only concern to balance. The Punjab Border Commission was to draw a border through the middle of an area home to the Sikh community.[15] Lord Islay was rueful for the British not to give more consideration to the community who, in his words, had "provided many thousands of splendid recruits for the Indian Army" in its service for the crown in WWI.[16] However, the Sikhs were militant in their opposition to any solution which would put their community in a Muslim ruled state. Moreover, many insisted on their own sovereign state, something no-one else would agree to.[17]

Last of all, were the communities without any representation. The Bengal Border Commission representatives were chiefly concerned with the question of who would get Calcutta. The Buddhist tribes in the Chittigong Hill Tracts in Bengal had no official representation and were left totally without information to prepare for their situation until two days after the partition.[18]

Perceiving the situation as intractable and urgent, Radcliffe went on to make all the difficult decisions himself. This was impossible from inception, but Radcliffe seems have had no doubt in himself and raised no official complaint or proposal to change the circumstances.[1]

Local knowledge

Before his appointment, Radcliffe had never visited India and knew no one there. To the British and the feuding politicians alike, this liability was looked upon as an asset; he was considered to be unbiased toward any of the parties, except of course Britain.[1] Only his private secretary, Christopher Beaumont, was familiar with the administration and life in the Punjab. Wanting to preserve the appearance of impartiality, Radcliffe also kept his distance from Viceroy Mountbatten.[4]

No amount of knowledge could produce a line that would completely avoid conflict; already, "sectarian riots in Punjab and Bengal dimmed hopes for a quick and dignified British withdrawal".[19]. "Many of the seeds of postcolonial disorder in South Asia were sown much earlier, in two centuries of direct and indirect British rule, but, as book after book has demonstrated, nothing in the complex tragedy of partition was inevitable."[20]

Haste and indifference

Had the Commission been more careful, gaffes in the division could have been avoided. For example, there were instances where the border was drawn leaving some parts of a village in India and some in Pakistan. Since he had just a month, Radcliffe saw little point in being careful to skirt villages. His border was drawn right through thickly populated areas instead of between them. There were even instances where the dividing line passed through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other.

Radcliffe justified such casual division with the truism that no matter what he did, people would suffer. The thinking behind this justification may never be known since Radcliffe "destroyed all his papers before he left India".[21] He departed on Independence Day itself, before even the boundary awards were distributed. By his own admission, Radcliffe was heavily influenced by his lack of fitness for the Indian climate and his eagerness to depart India.[22]

The implementation was no less hasty than the process of drawing the border. On 16 August, 1947 at 5:00pm, the Indian and Pakistani representatives were given two hours to study copies, before the Radcliffe award was published on the 17th.[23]


To avoid disputes and delays, the division was done in secret. The final Awards were ready on 9 August and the 12 August, but not published until two days after the partition.

According to Read[24], there is some circumstantial evidence that Nehru and Patel were secretly informed of the Punjab Award's contents on August 9 or 10, either through Mountbatten or Radcliffe's Indian assistant secretary. Regardless of how it transpired, the award was changed to put a salient east of the Sutlej canal within India's domain instead of Pakistan's. This area consisted of two Muslim-majority tehsils with a combined population of over half a million. There were two apparent reasons for the switch: (1) the area housed an army arms depot and (2) contained the headwaters of a canal which irrigated the princely state of Bikaner, which would accede to India.

Likewise, it is not known how Radcliffe was persuaded to award the Chittagong Hill Tracts to Pakistan. This came as a shock to Patel and Nehru who had assumed the areas would be awarded to India since they were 98% non-Muslim. Similarly, the decisions to keep Muslim majority districts of Murshidabad and Malda in Bengal were also kept so secret that the inhabitants hoisted Pakistani flag there till the award was made public on 17 August, 1947.[citation needed]

The truth of how these decisions were made may never be known since Radcliffe destroyed all of his records and Mountbatten expressly denied any special-knowledge or favouritism.


After the partition, the fledgling governments of India and Pakistan were left all responsibility to implement the border. After visiting Lahore in August, Viceroy Mountbatten hastily arranged a Punjab Boundary Force to keep the peace around Lahore, but 50,000 men was not enough to prevent thousands of killings, 77% of which were in the rural areas. Given the size of the territory, the force amounted to less than 1 soldier per square mile. This was not enough to protect the cities much less the caravans of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were fleeing their homes in what would become Pakistan.[25]

Both India and Pakistan were loathe to violate the agreement by supporting the rebellions of villages drawn on the wrong side of the border, as this could prompt a loss of face on the international stage and require the British or the UN to intervene. (This did not prevent them from getting into immediate conflict over the former princely state of Kashmir, as this territory was not a part of the Radcliffe agreement.) Ultimately, the conflicts led to three wars, in 1948, 1965, and 1971, as well as the May 1998 dual tests of nuclear weapons and the Kargil conflict of 1999.

Disputes along the Radcliffe Line

There were two major disputes regarding the Radcliffe Line, the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Gurdaspur District.Minor disputes evolved around the districts of Malda,Khulna and Murshidabad of Bengal and the sub-division of Karimganj of Assam.[citation needed]

Chittagong Hill Tracts

Chittagong Hill Tracts had a majority non-Muslim population of 97% most of them Buddhists, but was given to Pakistan. The Chittagong Hill Tracts People's Association (CHTPA) petitioned the Bengal Boundary Commission, that since the CHTs were inhabited largely by non-Muslims they should remain within India. Since they had no official representation, there was no official discussion on the matter, and many on the Indian side assumed the CHT would be awarded to India.

On 15 August 1947, many of the tribes did not know to which side of the border they belonged. On 17 August, the publication of the Radcliffe Award put the CHTs in Pakistan. The rationale of giving Chittagong Hill Tracts to Pakistan was that they were inaccessible to India and to provide some buffer area to Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) a major city and port and also it was argued that its only approach was through Chittagong.

"Two days later, the CHTPA resolved not to abide by the award and hoisted the Indian flag. The Pakistani army dealt with the protest but the problem has not yet been solved."[26]

Since the split of Pakistan creating Bangladesh, the CHT has been the site of some of systematic human rights violations. The "Netherlands based Organizing Committee for CHT Campaign reported 278 cases of Human Rights violations committed between July 1985 to December 1985. The human rights abuses include murders, torture, rape, arson, robbery, abduction and electoral fraud. The policy of the Bangladesh government had been to make the indegenous inhabitants minority by encouraging settlements of Bengali Muslims in their place."[27]

Gurdaspur District

Gurdaspur district (with a Muslim population of 50.6%), except for the sub-division of Shakargarh, was given to India. Gurdaspur District had a slight Muslim majority, because Ahmadiyya community were counted as Muslims even though they had been declared non-Muslims by Muslim clergy (there was large concentration of Ahmediyas in that area because their spiritual centre Qadian is located in Gurdaspur district). The proportion of Muslim to non-Muslim population in the district as a whole was 50.6 and 49.4 respectively with Shakargarh and Gurdaspur tehsils with a slight Muslim majority of 1% each while Batala tehsil had a Muslim majority of 53% and Pathankot tehsil had an overwhelming majority of non-Muslims at 67%. In the end only Shakargarh tehsil which was separated from the rest of the district by the Ravi river was awarded to Pakistan leaving the rest of the district with a slight majority of non-Muslims, but it was speculated that at the insistence of Lord Mountbatten it was awarded as such to East Punjab, so that if the kingdom of Kashmir wanted to integrate with the Indian Union, it would be accessible to India. In any case Pathankot tehsil would have gone to India and it had a direct rail road link with the adjoining areas of Hoshiarpur and Kangra districts of East Punjab. Another point was that Batala and Gurdaspur would provide buffer to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar which otherwise would be surrounded by Muslim territory of Pakistan. The last point that was argued before the boundary commission by Mountbatten and others was that if the area east of the Ravi river was considered as one block consisting of Amritsar and most of Gurdaspur district(excluding Shakargarh), it would have a slight non-Muslim majority. Also, by doing so majority of Sikh population (58%) would fall in East Punjab, by doing the opposite a slight majority will be left in Pakistan which would exponentially increase the number of Sikh refugees. This was an attempt to pacify the Sikhs for they lost major tracts of lands in West Punjab. An attempt was made by Radcliffe to transfer Firozpur and Zira tehsils to Pakistan instead. This was opposed by the Maharaja of Bikaner because Harike headworks on the confluence of Satluj and Beas rivers, from where a canal, the only source of water for his desert state originated, was in Ferozepore. It was only after he threatened Mountbatten that he would accede his state to Pakistan if Ferozepur was awarded to West Punjab, that the award was changed at the last minute and all of Ferozepur district was awarded to India.

Malda District

Another disputed decision made by Radcliffe was division of Malda district of Bengal, the district overall had a slight Muslim majority, but was divided and most of it including Malda town went to India. The district remained under East Pakistan administration for 3–4 days after 15 August, 1947.It was only when the award was made public, the Pakistan flag was replaced by the Indian one in Malda.

Khulna & Murshidabad Districts

Also, entire Khulna District with a slight Hindu majority of 52% was given to East Pakistan in lieu of the much smaller Murshidabad district with 70% Muslim majority, which went to India.


Sylhet district of Assam joined Pakistan in accordance with a Plebiscite. However, the Karimganj sub-division with a Muslim majority was severed from Sylhet and given to India. As of the 2001 Indian Census, Karimganj has a Muslim majority of 52.3%.

Later disputes

South Talpatti Island

South Talpatti Island is a small offshore island of Bangladesh which emerged in the Bay of Bengal in 1970 silt deposition after a cyclone. Bangladesh controls the island, citing its territory per Radcliffe Award. India, however, first occupied the island and disputes Bangladesh's claim.

See also




  1. ^ a b c Read, p. 482
  2. ^ Smitha, Independence section, para. 7.
  3. ^ See NWFP and "North-West Frontier Province." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. 10 Sep. 2009.
  4. ^ a b Read, p.483
  5. ^ Read, p. 497: "Ten million of them were in the central Punjab. In an area measuring about 200 miles (320 km) by 150 miles (240 km), roughly the size of Scotland, with some 17,000 towns and villages, 5 million Muslims were trekking from east to west, and 5 million Hindus and Sikhs trekking in the opposite direction. Many of them never made it to their destinations."
  6. ^ a b Read, p. 499
  7. ^ Mansergy
  8. ^ Read, p. 483
  9. ^ Read, p. 482-3
  10. ^ Read, p. 418: "He wrote to then Prime Minister Clement Atlee, "It makes all the difference to me to know that you propose to make a statement in the House, terminating the British 'Raj' on a definite and specified date; or earlier than this date, if the Indian Parties can agree a constitution and form a Government before this.""
  11. ^ Read, p.482: "After the obligatory wrangles, with Jinnah playing for time by suggesting calling in the United Nations, which could have delayed things for months if not years, it was decided to set up two boundary commissions, each with an independent chairman and four High Court judges, two nominated by Congress and two by the League."
  12. ^ Mishra, para. 19: "Irrevocably enfeebled by the Second World War, the British belatedly realized that they had to leave the subcontinent, which had spiraled out of their control through the nineteen-forties. ... But in the British elections at the end of the war, the reactionaries unexpectedly lost to the Labour Party, and a new era in British politics began. As von Tunzelmann writes, 'By 1946, the subcontinent was a mess, with British civil and military officers desperate to leave, and a growing hostility to their presence among Indians.' ... The British could not now rely on brute force without imperiling their own sense of legitimacy. Besides, however much they 'preferred the illusion of imperial might to the admission of imperial failure,' as von Tunzelmann puts it, the country, deep in wartime debt, simply couldn’t afford to hold on to its increasingly unstable empire. Imperial disengagement appeared not just inevitable but urgent."
  13. ^ Chester, Boundary Commission Format and Procedure section, para. 5
  14. ^ Read, p. 483, para. 1.
  15. ^ population?
  16. ^ Read, p. 485
  17. ^ Read, p. 484-485. "After the 3 June 1947 plan had been announced, the main Sikh organization, the Shiromani Akali Dal, had distributed a circular saying that 'Pakistan means total death to the Sikh Panth [community] and the Sikhs are determined on a free sovereign state with the [rivers] Chenab and the Jamna as its borders, and it calls on all Sikhs to fight for their ideal under the flag of the Dal.'"
  18. ^ Read, p. 481}
  19. ^ Mishra, para. 4
  20. ^ Mishra, para. 5.
  21. ^ Heward, 45. As cited in Chester, Methodology section, para. 1
  22. ^ Read, p.484: Years later, he told Leonard Mosley, "The heat is so appalling, that at noon it looks like the blackest night and feels like the mouth of hell. After a few days of it, I seriously began to wonder whether I would come out of it alive. I have thought ever since that the greatest achievement which I made as Chairman of the Boundary Commission was a physical one, in surviving."
  23. ^ Read, p.494
  24. ^ p.490
  25. ^ Read, p. 487-488
  26. ^ Calcutta Research group
  27. ^ Genocide