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Radcliffe Award


Radcliffe Award was the outcome of an official plan announced by Lord mountbatten on 3 June 1947 regarding the partition of India into two separate sovereign states - India and Pakistan. Sir (Later Viscount) Cyril John Radcliffe (1899-1977) who had, by the late 1930s, earned reputation in the Chancery Bar and, during the World War II, served Britain's Ministry of Information, was called upon to chair the Boundary Commissions in India. Radcliffe's appointment as the Chairman of the Boundary Commissions, however, did not generate much controversy though he had neither the background in Indian administration, nor did he have any prior experience of adjudicating disputes of this sort.

According to the June 3 plan, the bengal legislative assembly was to divide itself into two parts, one comprising of the representatives of the Muslim majority districts and the other of the Hindu majority ones. On 20 June, these two provisionally partitioned units met to vote on the issue of partition. The majority of the representatives of the Hindu majority districts voted in favour of the partition of Bengal while those of the Muslim majority districts voted against it. On the basis of this vote the rationale for partition into East Bengal and West Bengal was found. Significantly, it was only after this vote that the Boundary Commission was set up to determine the final border between East Bengal and West Bengal.

Radcliffe had to counter some pressures while making his award. He had to appear even handed to all sides, while keeping in mind the imperatives of British policy for the future of the subcontinent. According to East Bengal Land Records and Survey (1951), out of the total area of 257478 sq km of the old province of Bengal, the newly created province of East Bengal got an area of 130383.19 sq km from undivided Bengal and 12393.15 sq km from Assam (major portion of the district of Sylhet). East Bengal contained a population of 39.11 million, of which 11.4 million were Hindus. On the other hand West Bengal got an area nearly about 72520 sq.km with 21.19 million people, of which nearly 5.3 million were Muslims. In fact, Radcliffe accepted some of the cardinal principles of the Congress. Firstly, that the two parts respectively were to contain as large a population as possible of the total Muslim and non-Muslim population of Bengal. Secondly, the Boundary Commission also accepted the Congress arguments that the ratio of Muslims to non-Muslims in one zone should be nearly equal to the ratio of non-Muslims to Muslims in the other. Thus Radcliffe's award created two states in which the ratio of the majority to the minority population was almost exactly the same.

Interestingly Radcliffe also accepted some other suggestions of the Congress. In fact, he accepted the Congress' argument about the importance of Murshidabad and Nadia river system for the survival of the Hughli and gave the whole of Murshidabad to West Bengal. Moreover, he also decided that Khulna would go to East Bengal, except for those parts that fell to the west of the River Mathabhanga. At the same time, he decided that the tea producing districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri would go to West Bengal, with the exception of the five Muslim majority thanas (police stations) of the Boda-Debiganj-Panchagarh area.

However, Radcliffe did not totally overlook the arguments placed before it by the muslim league. In fact, basing itself on the principle of contiguity, he gave the thana of Boalia in Rajshahi and a portion of Nadia to East Bengal. But despite these decisions, Radcliffe's package resembled the Congress' proposals on partition.

The Radcliffe award led to discontent both among Hindus and Muslims. While the Muslims in Murshidabad and Navadwip were furious to find themselves in West Bengal, Hindus in five southern thanas of Jalpaiguri expressed bitterness against their inclusion in East Bengal. Indeed, the award generated much controversy since it remained surrounded by uncertainties. At the same time, misinformation made it difficult to implement the award. In a sense, though Radcliffe divided Bengal with a precision almost like that of surgeon, the hastily and ignorantly drawn border still remains to be properly defined. [Raj Sekhar Basu]

Bibliography Submal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office, Calcutta, 1977; Jaya Chatterjee, 'The Fashioning of a Frontier: The Radcliffe Line and Bengal's Border Landscape, 1947-1952', Modern Asian Studies, Vol 33, Part 1, February 1999.