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Response to Review no. 995

I thank Pippa Virdee for her thoughtful review of my recent book, Borders and Conflict in South Asia: The Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the Partition of Punjab. She captures my argument and the key themes that support it. This book takes the Radcliffe Boundary Commission as a lens with which to view the 1947 division of India and Pakistan. The procedure by which the Radcliffe Commission delineated a partition line in Punjab, the maps it used, the final award it issued, and the impact that award had on residents of the divided area provide insight into larger problems with the partition process. The root of those problems was the British effort to pull out of India as quickly as possible. Britain’s haste was rendered more damaging by its effort to maintain its international reputation, preserve the appearance of an orderly and dignified withdrawal (rather than a forced retreat), and lay the blame for any disorder on the people of India and Pakistan.

As Virdee notes, I use maps to shed new light on this division. It is important to clarify my views on flaws in the cartographic information amassed by the British Government of India. There is no question that British maps of India were extremely problematic, not least in the way that they represented religious communities. I do not, pace Virdee, believe that ‘it was not the cartographic information that was flawed’. My argument is that better maps would not necessarily have led to a better boundary, given that the partition process was founded on the idea of separating Muslims from ‘non-Muslims’.

Virdee suggests that my counterfactual analysis of alternative partition proposals considers only ‘maximum demands for territory’. This is incorrect. Given the assumption shared by so many – including myself, when I began this project – that Radcliffe’s line was largely to blame for the 1947 violence, I felt it important to consider the likely results of a range of potential solutions. Some were indeed maximum demands, while others ran through central Punjab. Considering the likely results of this variety of proposals convinced me, and I hope will convince my readers, that drawing the new boundary in a different location within Punjab would not have prevented the violence of 1947. Any of the lines suggested would have sparked mass killing, given the situation in Punjab at the time. For the causes of that violence, we must look at the situation in which Radcliffe’s line became the Indo-Pakistani boundary.

Virdee and I agree that ordinary people took part in the violence of partition; my emphasis was on the fact that members of all religions played a role in that violence. She also notes that Jinnah suggested the idea of a population exchange; here my point was that nationalist leaders of various parties discussed this possibility but then dismissed it. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify these aspects of my book.

Perhaps most importantly, Virdee and I concur on the value of examining the ground-level impact of high-political decisions. This is a book that aims to combine history from below and history from above. At one moment, it quite literally presents history from the air, as when Mountbatten’s airplane, carrying the new Indian leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, flies low over a stream of refugees fleeing on foot across the new boundary (pp. 133–4). I then turn to the experience not only of those refugees but also of those who remained to make their living in the new borderlands (chapters six and eight). This combination, I hope, will illuminate both the dangers and the opportunities provided by these dynamic new territories.