ANALYSIS: Drawing lines of partition —Sikander Amani - Monday, February 28, 2011

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The circumstances and the spirit of the Treaty of Tordesillas shed a light on the 1947 partition of South Asia. In both cases, we see the same claims of quasi-divine status in attributing lands, without any consultation with the people most affected by the attribution — the very inhabitants of the said regions

We have all read the (or at least one) story of partition. We have all read about how it came about — the Lahore Resolution, the growing tensions between the Muslim League and Congress, the instrumentalisation by both of their respective constituencies, the personal enmity between Jinnah and Nehru, especially after the failure of the Cabinet Mission Plan, the cowardice and outright partiality of the British, and in particular of their last Viceroy, Mountbatten. However one views the political considerations that led to the separation of the subcontinent into two states, it is difficult, in the light of its infinitely tragic toll, to see it as justified. It generated a displacement of an estimated 10 million people, the greatest migration in mankind’s history, the death of anything between one and three million people, the abduction and rape of countless women. The indignity of Great Britain, which in its “shameful flight” (Churchill) basically washed its hands of the whole affair, remains undiminished almost 70 years later.

One particularly galling aspect of the whole tragedy, albeit a less apparently bloody one, was the neat, surgically precise work of the Radcliff Boundary Commission, empowered in 1947 with drawing the line soon to separate the two countries. Sir Cyril Radcliff had been given a time limit of five weeks for the Commission to complete its work. As has often been noted, Radcliff handed in his work without once having set foot in the regions he was entrusted to dissect. His Commission worked with often outdated maps, obsolete census, and massive political pressure, including from the very pro-Indian Mountbatten. This stemmed from the fact that, while Muslim and Hindu majority was supposed to be the main factor in awarding the districts along the line, some “other factors” could be taken into consideration (a major argument for the Sikhs who argued for almost all of Punjab to be handed to India, on the basis that some of their most important places of worship would all end up in Pakistan — as they eventually did). What was surgically precise on paper turned out, as we know, into a butchered vivisection on land.

But the historical details of drawing the line are well known. It is, however, interesting to reflect on the representation of power it supposed. One man (well, five, but Cyril Radcliff later stated that the four other members were too partisan to be of any objective help) was entrusted with deciding what lands would go to whom; one man was empowered to decide from afar the exact future territory of two new states. The nature of the gesture — a single person whose “impartial”, rational mind, from a distance, was the supposed guarantee of the fairness of the deal, in a quasi-divine manner — is mind-numbing.

Long ago, another line was drawn with similar hubris: the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1494. The Treaty of Tordesillas divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe — the “New World” — between Portugal and Spain, along a meridian in the Atlantic Ocean, some 2,000 km west of the Cape Verde islands. The lands to the east would belong to Portugal, and the lands to the west, to Spain. The Treaty was ratified by the representatives of the two crowns, Joao II, King of Portugal, and Isabella and Ferdinand, Queen and King of Spain. But the presiding power of the agreement was Pope Alexander VI. Indeed, in the medieval European conception of the universe, God had a Dominium Mundi, a universal jurisdiction over the whole world, founded on his act as Creator. As his worldly representative, the Pope had the authority to attribute new (hear: empty, or at least emptiable) lands, with the express purpose of Christianising them. The Pope was empowered by none other than God himself to decide sovereignties, territories, and religion. Quite a seal of legitimacy.

And so Pope Alexander VI drew the line. However divinely inspired, he too became subject to political pressure, and the line was modified to suit the disgruntled Portuguese, who felt they had been cheated in the attribution process: the line was thus moved westward, so that they could gain a foothold on what was to become the tip of Brazil. When it comes to plundering and looting continents, God’s word surely can be adjusted to ground realities.

The circumstances and the spirit of the Treaty of Tordesillas shed a light on the 1947 partition of South Asia. In both cases, we see the same claims of quasi-divine status in attributing lands, without any consultation with the people most affected by the attribution — the very inhabitants of the said regions. Radcliff (and the British more generally) and Pope Alexander VI truly thought they were in the best position to decide on the line separating new territories; Congress and the Muslim League, for all their cries of democratic principles and their often demagogic appeals to the people, never once envisaged a local referendum nor considered including the affectees’ voice in the decision-making and line-drawing process. In a way, partition supposed an omniscient, panoptical view of the earth similar to the old Christian notion of Dominium Mundi, with the added element of a modern, post-Westphalian element of territorialised power.

Perhaps partition turned out so tragically because it fundamentally rested on a combination of the worst of both medieval and modern conceptions of power and geography: the medieval inheritance of a land viewed almost as the private property of a superior power who is free to attribute, dispose of, or divide it, on the one hand, and the core of political modernity, with national sovereignty seen as inseparable from a very narrow understanding of territory, on the other. Modern nation-states consider territory as the foundation of power as well as a spatial container of an identity and a culture. Hence, in the case of partition, where identity was defined along one single parameter (Muslim/Hindu), the need for what in effect became an ethnic or religious cleansing of the newly acquired territories. Modern political power relies on its territorialisation, which both materialises authority and magically enforces it. The issue of boundaries has therefore been viewed as the most crucial question of political modernity. Borders are the concrete markers of our agency and of our citizenship — in effect, of our identity — which made Radcliff’s work even more explosive.

Radcliff’s pencil line on an old map of Punjab in the spring of 1947 changed the face of the subcontinent, and, in a way, of the world, just like his predecessor’s, Pope Alexander VI’s, did back in 1494. Its combination of hubris (as befits any colonial power) and modern territorialisation of power turned out to be the deadliest combination of all.

The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at

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