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Dividing the Subcontinent: The Radcliffe Line and It’s Aftermath

Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 17th August, 2023 11 min read

Dividing the Subcontinent: The Radcliffe Line and its Aftermath

“I cannot quite believe that Lord Radcliffe, a former pupil of Haileybury, knew absolutely nothing about India before it fell to him to divide Bengal and the Punjab.” – The Sphere, 11 January 1964.

Today (17/08/2023) marks 76 years since the Radcliffe Line was drawn. This decided the borders of India and Pakistan. On 15 August 1947, after more than 300 years of British rule, the Indian subcontinent gained its independence and was partitioned into two independent nation states: India and Pakistan (the latter subsequently being divided into East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and West Pakistan). The subcontinent was split along religious lines. Pakistan was created so as to ensure a Muslim majority: India was for the Hindu majority.

Indian nationalists had been aiming for independence for many years. Yet the actual road to partition was an extremely short one. At the end of the Second World War Britain realised that it could not afford to run India much longer and so wished to withdraw. Following nationalist riots in India in August 1946 the British wanted to speed up their departure so as to avoid a civil war. Thus, the British government announced that India would gain its independence by July 1948. In a bid to leave India as quickly as possible this timeline was changed. In June 1947 the British Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, announced that India would gain independence by August 1947, a year earlier than originally intended. He announced that it would be partitioned into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. At this point he did not explain where the boundaries would be.Clipping from the Daily Herald, 4 June 1947 –  WikiCommons. 

In July 1947 the British choose the lawyer Cyril Radcliffe to make an impartial decision as to how to divide the subcontinent along religious lines. Radcliffe had never travelled to India, nor did he have any prior experience of drawing borders. In fact, he barely knew where Bengal and Punjab were, despite these being the two prominent areas which had an equal number of Hindus and Muslims.1 Radcliffe was given a mere five weeks to draw the boundaries that would affect the lives of millions of people for generations. Arguably, he was simply the wrong man for the wrong job. In an interview with Kuldeep Nayyar in 1971, Radcliffe showed how careless and imprudent the decision was, recalling how he had almost given Lahore to India. He described the time he had been given as "so short" and contended that "two to three years" would have been more realistic.2  

On 17 August 1947 the boundaries were published, two days after Pakistan and India had declared their independence. Radcliffe divided the subcontinent into three parts: India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan. Thus, the culturally close areas of Punjab and Bengal were also split. The British Army departed India leaving the two new countries in turmoil. The partition of British India triggered the largest and bloodiest human mass migrations in modern history. 

British Online Archives (BOA) hosts a number of primary sources that cover over 1000 years of world history. BOA is currently publishing a group of collections that contain material from nine of The Illustrated London News’ sister collections: The Graphic, The Sketch, The Sphere, The Tatler, The Bystander, Illustrated War News, Britannia and Eve, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic, and London Life.

The Sphere, 2 September 1947.

These collections contain near-endless material that will appeal to all historical interests, from those interested in social, cultural, and political history to those wishing to explore gender and colonial history. These publications frequently reported upon British India. Indeed, many of them contain news articles on the partitioning of the subcontinent and on the violence that ensued following the announcement of the Radcliffe Line.

The Sphere, 2 September 1947.

On 2 September 1947, a mere two weeks after the borders were decided, The Sphere published a news article entitled “The Sikh-Muslim Orgies of Violence in The Punjab”. This included photographs of the devastating scenes of ruins and dead bodies in East Punjab, particularly in Amritsar (India), Lahore (Pakistan), and Rawalpindi (Pakistan). The article reported upon the  “pillaging, murdering, looting and burning” that took place between Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. The news article also noted how the violence in Punjab was not a “one sided communal war”. It went on to state that “India has never seen anything worse”. One correspondent reported that “in an aerial reconnaissance he saw fifty villages aflame”. Just two weeks after the Radcliffe Line was decided, when this article was published in The Sphere, 10,000 people were murdered in Punjab. The article observed how out of the 300,000 Hindus living in Lahore (present day Pakistan) before partition, at least 10,000 had moved to the Hindu-majority India. Today, 76 years after the incident, we know that at least 14 million people migrated between Pakistan and India and that at least one million people were murdered.The Sphere, 13 September 1947.The following week, on 13 September 1947, The Sphere published another article: “The Two-Way Exodus in The Punjab”. It observed how:  

“Amid the spate of mass killings the Muslims flee westward, and the Sikhs and Hindus flee to the east.”

Similar to the previous article, this article spotlighted the violence between Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims in Punjab. It also reported how those who had not fled to either India or Pakistan were “butchered”. Moreover, the article includes an aerial view of the city of Jalandhar in India on fire. It likewise features photographs of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, who “picked up what few belongings they could and hastened for their lives” in cars and trains. The article pointed out that only 10,000 Hindus were left in Lahore, as nearly 290,000 had fled to India. The article also reported that the death toll in Western and Eastern Punjab had risen to an estimated 200,000 people. 

Furthermore,  the article made specific reference to the fact that women and children were not spared from the violence. The aftermath of  partition generated a great deal of gendered violence inflicted upon women. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 women were kidnapped and raped, with the highest numbers being Muslim women in Punjab. Historian Kamal Bhasin has highlighted how nearly 50,000 women were abducted on their way to Pakistan, while 33,000 women were abducted on their way to India.3 The Sphere, 13 September 1947.In South Asian cultures a family's izzat (Hindi/Urdu for honour) is significant in their communities. Unfortunately, women of the family pay the biggest price when it comes to protecting their family's izzat. South Asian women, those living in the subcontinent and throughout the diaspora, were — and still are — told that their actions or life decisions impact upon their family's honour. In particular, a woman’s chastity affects a family's izzat the most. Due to the kidnapping and rape of women following partition many women were victims of honour killings or forced suicides, the aim being the preservation of their virginity. 

In Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon’s Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (1998), the authors recount how in the Sikh village of Thoa Khalsa in present day Pakistan, 90 women drowned themselves in a communal well when the men in the village found themselves “outnumbered by Muslim mobs and there was no other alternative to save their honour”.In Sheikhupura, in Pakistan, a doctor “opened fire on his womenfolk”. He killed 50--60 women in order to protect them.5 Similarly, a patriarch from Quetta, in Pakistan, beheaded thirteen family members, including his daughters.6 When Butalia and Menon interviewed a male relative of some of the women, he mentioned how these women had been “martyred” rather than killed.7 The articles within The Sphere and the stories of honour killings collated by historians shed light on but a fraction of the damage caused by partition. 

Following the rash decision made by the British government and Cyril Radcliffe, on 17 August 1947 the whole demography of South Asia changed. In an article on the Radcliffe Line, Joya Chatterji, Professor of South Asian History at Trinity College, Cambridge, has observed how the partition of India has often been viewed as a surgical operation or an amputation.8 She has also highlighted how the new borders are often thought of as incision scars. This is certainly the case: the scars left by the drawing of the Radcliffe Line are so deep that even 76 years later they are still extremely raw. While the initial violence subsided after a few months, the scars and trauma of partition are still evident today. Many South Asian families have their own, very real and very sore partition stories. What is more, the decision to divide the country along religious lines has imbedded religious hatred in the people of the subcontinent. The announcement of the Radcliffe Line forced people to flee the villages where their families had lived for generations. Families were thus separated and whole communities were damaged. Horrifically, women were raped and millions were murdered. And the strong cultural heritage and shared history of Bengal and Punjab was divided forever. 

If the primary sources featured within this article are of interest to you, you can have a closer look at them here.


  1. UPSC, “How India lost Lahore to Pakistan? Why Lord Cyril Radcliffe gave Lahore city to Pakistan?”, YouTube, (created 30 December 2021). Available at:
  2. Asianet Newsable, “Radcliffe Line: How Were The India-Pakistan Partition Borders Drawn?”, YouTube, (created 15 August 2021). Available at:  .
  3. “Gendered Violence and the Horrors of Partition: The Price Paid by Women”, The Wire, 15 August 2021, Available at:
  4. Ida Baizura Bahar,“Honour Killing as Engendered Violence against Women in Amit Majmudar’s Partitions”, The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies, 22, no. 1 (2011), 223.
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.  
  8. Joya Chatterji, “The Fashioning of a Frontier: The Radcliffe Line and Bengal's Border Landscape, 1947–52”, Modern Asian Studies, 33, no. 1 (1999), 185.

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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