It was one of the most dunderheaded moves in an imperial history chockfull with them: the partition of India. Its population distribution was such that there was no line that could neatly divide up the subcontinent. Yet, a boundary commission was given mere six weeks to carve a Muslim-majority state from British India, and two Pakistans were formed. More ridiculous still, the commission was led by a British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe who had never been in the East before.
Indeed he was chosen because he knew nothing about India and therefore absolutely unbiased. Inexperienced and time-crunched, Radcliffe just drew some lines on the map without realizing that his demarcation line went straight through thickly populated areas, villages and sometimes even through a single house with some rooms in one country and others in the other. His error was pointed out by the commission but the scheduled independence day was looming and it was too late to redo the entire thing. Disgraced, Radcliffe refused his salary, quietly destroyed all his papers and left India on the Independence Day itself, before even the boundary awards were distributed. W.H. Auden later pilloried the absurdity of the way he crafted the border in Partition.
The immediate consequences of the partition were horrendous for both countries. Although in retrospect, there probably was nothing the commission could have done. Once the Moslems and the Hindus decided to part their ways, even the most carefully crafted border would have provoked the massive exoduses. But the hurried and indifferent nature of the partition meant the ethnic cleansing that followed was unavoidable.
In India during the Partition were two of the last century’s greatest photojournalists: Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson — both there to document Gandhi, Cartier-Bresson just a few hours before Gandhi assassination. Above, Bourke-White recorded streets littered with corpses, dead victims with open eyes, and refugees with vacant eyes. The partition was “massive exercise in human misery,” later reflected Bourke-White. Self-proclaimed Indophile, Cartier-Bresson later arrived a little later, documented the new way of life, from the fattened maharajahs at the top to those in refuge camps after the partition at the bottom. (below)