Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Irony To Remember: Passports before Partition

I've always believed that one of the most fascinating things for a history buff is to spot and acknowledge the many ironies in history. Not just because they give us a chance to compare and contrast, but because they give us an idea of how much we have derailed from what many of our ancestors took for granted. These ironies also provide us a guiding light, if we show the courage to remember and learn from the past.

The history of the partition of British India and the birth of the two nation states of India and Pakistan is one that is littered with remarkable stories and ironies. Here's one that I'd like to share:

To quote Mahatma Gandhi is a national obsession of sorts, and not without reason. Everyone eagerly quotes the need to 'be the change' and not take 'an eye for an eye', to 'hate the sin and love the sinner'. However, some Gandhi quotes seem less sacred than others, even when they are arguably more significant. In fact, perhaps because they are more significant and slightly more inconvenient. Case in point:

“I do not consider Pakistan and India as two different countries. If I have to go to the Punjab, I am not going to ask for a passport. And I shall go to Sind also without a passport and I shall go walking. Nobody can stop me.”
[Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Speech at Prayer Meeting, 16th June 1947]

The India-Pakistan border is today one of the most dangerous borders in the world and boasts of rigorous, strict visa regimes on both sides. The two neighbours have fought several wars and are deeply distrustful of each other. Indeed, it is hard to reconcile the fact that anyone could have ever thought of going to Sindh from Delhi without a passport. And before people dismiss this as the rantings of a disappointed old man, it is important to point out that Gandhi wasn't the only one to think so.

"In the summer of 1947 few could appreciate the full connotations of the division which would ultimately result in some of the harshest border regulations in the world; indeed one newspaper headline read ‘Passport rules believed to be needless at present’ [The Great Partition, Yasmin Khan]

Strange and quite overwhelming for those of us born long after independence, on either side of the border, to imagine this was even considered possible. The horrors of Partition are vital to understanding India and Pakistan. But equally important is the need to understand sentiments that prevailed in the lead-up to August 1947 and how Independence, Partition and its aftermath changed them.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Imagine this scenario

You are a British judge who agrees to draw the line that will, in essence, partition the two sensitive regions of Bengal and Punjab through the Boundary Commission and thereby create the maps of India and Pakistan. 

You've never been to India and you're landing in India only to decide how to divide her best. Apparently, the British Government in India thought this was a smart idea since it proved your neutrality. But how can you decide to partition an area you've never even visited? They had an answer: maps. 


So imagine yourself using the 20th century equivalent of Google Maps to draw the borders of new countries. That's sort of what happened. It would have been a fun thing, to take a pencil, ponder over a map and draw a line where you think is best. But sadly, this was all too real and all too serious, where a flick of the pencil and a line drawn slightly slanted, gave birth to conflicts and disputes that exist till date. A rather dubious, slipshod way for two new nation states to be born, boundaries decided by a man who has never even visited the villages his Line broke into parts.

Now let's see the material at your disposal to help you decide which regions go to which country: a census that was six years out of date. At a time when small populations had already moved from place to place, rendering any census quite irrelevant.

And oh, your decision will impact about 88 million people at that time, and thousands thereafter. No pressure. 

As you thank your lucky stars that you never were in that awful position, here's the name of the man who was: Sir Cyril Radcliffe. The man who gave his name to a line that partitioned India and Pakistan, the Radcliffe Line. 


Wiki informs me that Sir Cyril Radcliffe refused his salary of 40000 rupees after seeing the mayhem occurring on both sides of the boundary that was created by him. The least he could do, I would imagine, after the guilt of that rather thankless job.

{Radcliffe line facts found in Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan are predominantly used here}

Recommended Reading: Drawing the Indo-Pakistani Boundary by Lucy Chester.


This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about Partition and the Indian struggle for Independence,  as India and Pakistan get ready to celebrate their independence days.

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