An Account of the Cleaving of the Subcontinent 60 years ago

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.–W.H. Auden “Partition”

In the South Asian subcontinent, August 14th and 15th commemorate events that are joyous, traumatic and shameful all at once. With the displacement of millions and the deaths of hundreds of thousands accompanying independence (and the birth of Salim Sinai), the chaotic birth of the new states on the subcontinent, while not unique in kind, was unprecedented in scale. The very first foreseeable and immanent task of both new states was the protection of minorities, a task neither met with any competence. In the BBC, a report on the two men that cleaved and scarred the subcontinent:


But [Christopher] Beaumont [private secretary to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission] – who later in life was a circuit judge in the UK – is most scathing about how partition affected the Punjab, which was split between India and Pakistan.

“The Punjab partition was a disaster,” he writes.

“Geography, canals, railways and roads all argued against dismemberment.

“The trouble was that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were an integrated population so that it was impossible to make a frontier without widespread dislocation.

“Thousands of people died or were uprooted from their homes in what was in effect a civil war.

“By the end of 1947 there were virtually no Hindus or Sikhs living in west Punjab – now part of Pakistan – and no Muslims in the Indian east.

“The British government and Mountbatten must bear a large part of the blame for this tragedy.”