“I was so rushed I had not time to go into the details,”  – Cyril Ratcliffe.

The political leaders of the independence movement in British india were unable to agree on a united post-colonial future. The result was a plan for a territorial division. The task was huge and fraught with difficulties. The consequences were traumatic.

August 15th marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the partition of India. So many scholarly words have been written to describe what happened, why and the impact on millions of people who found themselves on the wrong side of new lines or forced to take sides.

W.H. Auden, writing in 1966, captured the decision process in a remarkable poem

Ruthlessly dispassionate and coldly bureaucratic – that’s Auden’s take on the partition of India. He reveals the dilemma of the official dispatched from London to get the job done.

The administrator who chaired the committee to define the new boundaries between India and Pakistan  – Sir Cyril Radcliffe – had no familiarity with the Indian subcontinent. His job is to wash the empire’s hands of responsibility by drawing new maps, new frontiers to divide the continent into two countries. He arrives unbiased but ignorant – a government official charged with a complex task with enormous ramifications under a tight deadline.

Britain was officially done with India and wanted a solution. Auden’s account in unsparing. 

Auden depicts him shut up in a lonely mansion in a hot and hostile environment and under pressure. That plus “a bout of dysentery that kept him constantly on the trot” (classic Auden detail). In seven weeks the new boundaries were set although the maps were outdated and there was no time to consider the realities for millions of people affected by the arbitrary new frontiers. 

It’s a terrific poem. Try reading it out loud.


Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
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.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.


The Partition of India in 1947 was a geo-political and religious separation that divided one country into two.

It marked the end of 89 years of British colonial rule and was a two-nation solution along religious lines designed to create an independent Muslim homeland in Pakistan and an independent India. 

Instead of the intended peaceful separation, partition brought disruption, chaos and violence.

Partition tore communities apart that had lived side by side for centuries. It tore at the concept of a united India. It inflamed ethnic and religious conflicts that gave rise to appalling sectarian violence, a refugee crisis and years of homelessness, riots, and war. It left a lasting legacy of bitterness and loss. 

Taslima Nasreen’s poem Denial presents the enduring agony of that boundary line – the Radcliffe Line – through Bengal and India. (From the selection Ay Kosto Jhenpe, Jiban Debo Mepe, 1994)

Just one perspective from so many.

For another, try Bapsi Sidhwa‘s wonderful novel, Cracking India, originally published as Ice Candy Man, 1988 in the U.K. Or watch Earth the Deepa Mehta’s 1998 film based on the novel. 

The story is set in Lahorenow the capital of Pakistani Punjab) and the time is right before and after partition. The story centers at first on Lenny, young girl who has been the victim of polio. She narrates the story as her adult self looking back on the events that ripped her childhood life apart.

Lenny’s middle class family is Parsi and it hopes to be neutral in the brewing tensions between Hindus, Sikhs and Moslems. Lenny has a nurse – her ayah – the beautiful Hindu Shanti. She is part of a religiously diverse group of friends who gather in the park to hang out together. With the violence that comes with partition the friendship – like India – is shattered.

The Delhi artist Anjolie Ela Menon fled from the city of Rawalpindi in Pakistan during Partition. She was seven. Read her story of and other first hand accounts here: “The wounds have never healed”: living through the terror of partition.

Her painting “Mataji” (grandma) shows a old woman whose pain and grief are palpable. It is easy to imagine the root of her sorrow. Millions of people were forced to flee their homes and the eruption of  violence was ferocious. Those who fled across the new border knew unimaginable horror and then lived with memory as well as the enduring displacement and loss.

Anjolie Ela Menon. Mataji. 1983

Jimmy Engineer, The Last Burning Train of 1947. 2009, Pakistan

Untitled, Tyeb Mehta1973 India

1947, Pran Nath Mago of Gujjarkhan.

M.F. Husain, Indian Households, 2008-2011. Husain reflects on the domestic lives of India’s citizens, showing the daily routines of three ordinary urban families. The major religions of India are represented, with three generations sharing their homes and their faith. More details at the link.

Tale of Three Cities – another remarkable painting by M.F. Husain.

Tale of Three Cities. M.F. Husain, 2008-11

Three of India’s great cities assume different symbolic meanings. Delhi represents India’s nationhood, Varanasi its spiritual centre and Kolkata its culture and activism.

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