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Explained: Why the 1947 Boundary Commission awards for Punjab, Bengal irked India

On August 17, 1947, two days after Independence, the award of the Boundary Commissions for the partition of Punjab and Bengal was announced. What were the main objections to the awards, and what was the reaction of political leaders in India and Pakistan?

Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. (Express archive photo)

It was on August 17, 1947, two days after Independence, that the award of the Boundary Commissions for the partition of Punjab and Bengal was announced. The award caused much anguish to the people of the two provinces and also to the governments of India and Pakistan. Documents accessed from National Archives of India reveal that the then Law minister of India, B R Ambedkar, and Minister of Industry and Supply, Syama Prasad Mukherjee, proposed to take the matter of the Chittagong Hill Tracts to the UN (the UNO). What were the main objections to the awards and what was the reaction of the political leaders of India and Pakistan?

What were the two Boundary Commissions?

In June 1947, Sir Cyril John Radcliffe, a British lawyer, was made the Chairman of two boundary commissions of Punjab and Bengal and given the task to draw up the new borders of India and Pakistan. He was given a period of five weeks to complete this task and arrived in India in July 1947. The boundary commissions of Punjab and Bengal also included two nominees each of the Indian National Congress and Muslim League respectively. The Punjab commission had Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan, Justice Teja Singh, Justice Din Mohammad and Justice Muhammad Munir as members. The Bengal commission comprised Justice CC Biswas, Justice BK Mukherjee, Justice Abu Saleh Akram and Justice SA Rehman. The Boundary Commissions award was made public on August 17, 1947.

When was the award discussed by the top political leaders of India and Pakistan?

The documents in national archives include minutes of a meeting held at Government house, New Delhi at 5 pm on August 16, 1947, a day before the public announcement of award, where the Governor General of India Lord Mountbatten, Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan, Home Minister of India Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Interior Minister of Pakistan Fazal-ur-Rahman, Defence Minister of India Sardar Baldev Singh, Secretary of the States Department of India, VP Menon and Cabinet Secretary of Pakistan Mohammad Ali were present. Copies of the award had been distributed to them earlier that day.

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What discussion took place with regard to the awards?

Bengal

The minutes of the meeting show that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru protested against the award of Chittagong hill Tracts to Pakistan (East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). He said that he had never considered that the allocation of Chittagong Hill Tracts to East Bengal was possible under the terms of reference of the boundary commission. He said he and his Congress colleagues had given assurances to the petty chiefs from the hill tracts that there was no question of the territory being included in Pakistan and that the area has 97 per cent population of Buddhists and Hindus. “Sir Cyril Radcliffe had no business touching them,” Nehru is quoted as saying.

Lord Mountbatten defended the award saying that the Chittagong district had close economic ties with the hill tracts and that the port required proper supervision of the Karnaphuli river which runs through the hill tracts. He made a suggestion of compromise by re-adjustment of territory which was rejected by Nehru and the Liaquat Ali Khan.

Fazl-ur-Rahman said that the hill tracts could not exist if they separated the district and that the ‘contiguity’ clause of the terms of reference of boundary commissions permitted their allocation to East Bengal. He also objected to the inclusion of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts in India.

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Punjab

Nehru said that he considered that the award of boundary commission in the Punjab was likely to have a bad effect among the Sikhs, who presented a particularly difficult problem. Sardar Baldev Singh said that the reaction to the award would be very unfavourable on the Sikh mind. Liaquat Ali Khan said it would have a similar unfavourable reaction among the Muslims. “He emphasised that he, as Prime Minister of Pakistan, considered it his duty to stand up for the rights of the Sikhs in West Punjab as much as the Indian leaders stood up for their rights in East Punjab. He emphasised that complete religious freedom will be allowed,” the minutes note.

Sardar Patel’s view was that the only solution to the Punjab award was a transfer of population on a large scale.

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Mountbatten said that he had spoken to Jinnah about Nankana Sahib.

“Mr Jinnah had stated that he had it in mind to give the Sikhs any religious assurances that were required in connection with their Gurdwara there. The Governor General suggested that a specific statement on Nankana Sahib might be made by the Pakistan government at the same time as the issue of the boundary commission award.

What was Mountbatten’s further intervention with Nehru over Chittagong Hill Tract?

The archives contain an extract of an interview between Lord Mountbatten and Nehru on August 19, 1947. The extract is given below in full in Mountbatten’s words: “Finally. I told him that I had a long talk with Mr Liaquat Ali Khan on the night of the 16th when he was staying with me urging him to give up the Chittagong Hill Tracts to India in view of the extraordinary position of the people of the district. I told him that Mr Liaquat Ali Khan had agreed that the really essential parts of these hill tracts for Pakistan was the rover Karnaphuli and a strip of about ten miles wide on either bank. He said he would be glad to exchange them for Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. The Prime Minister then intervened to say that they could never agree to give up these two districts. I told that I had foreseen this and had advised Mr Liaquat Ali Khan to ask Pandit Nehru what other asset they could offer in exchange. I pointed out that Muslims had come very badly out of the boundary commission. Finally, I urged Pandit Nehru to take no step about the Chittagong Hill Tracts other than to invite the Government of Pakistan to have a friendly discussion about the matter in the first place, and he agreed”.

On Bengal award, what was BR Ambedkar and SP Mukherjee’s note?

The joint note of the two ministers pointed out that the decision of the award in some vital respects is “unjust and unfair” and against the fundamental policy of the partition and also the terms of reference. A copy of this note was circulated by the Cabinet Secretariat on August 25 to a special committee formed for the legal and other implications on boundary award and which included Home Minister, Food and Agriculture Minister and Defence Minister apart from these two ministers.

The note points out that Cyril Radcliffe was the Chairman of the boundary commissions and that it also consisted of other judges and was not solely composed of Radcliffe. The note also pointed out that Radcliffe and not given any reasons to support the award which he gave. “Nowhere has he set out the principles on which he has based his decisions. It can therefore be urged that the decision by Sir Cyril Radcliffe without reference to principles by which he was guided can be treated as a nullity. This is no mere formal objection. It goes to the root of the matter,” the note says.

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The joint note delves in great detail about the award pertaining to area and population of Bengal, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Jalpaiguri, Khulna, Faridpur and Barisal. Both ministers would in conclusion that the award in Bengal was unjust and arbitrary and will be a source of bitterness and strife now and in future. “We therefore lodge our protest against the award and cannot accept it as final and conclusive. We propose to take up the matter with the Pakistan Dominion immediately. We shall make an attempt to open negotiations with that government and see if any amicable re-settlement is possible. If not, we reserve to ourselves the right to treat this as an inter dominion dispute and refer it to the UNO , claiming the inclusion of the areas outlined above into West Bengal,” the note concludes.

First published on: 12-08-2022 at 06:26:07 pm
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