W.H. Auden on Partition

Since on the “Brown Roundup” thread, there was some spirited discussion about baby Prince Louis and his being named after Lord Mountbatten, I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem “Partition”. It’s a short poem, so I’m just going to copy it out from my edition of Auden’s Collected Poems (Edited by Edward Mendelson).  The poem appears on pages 803- 804 of the volume.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission

Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

With their different diets and incompatible gods.

“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late

For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:

The only solution now lies in separation.

The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,

That the less you are seen in his company the better,

So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.

We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,

To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day

Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate

Of millions.  The maps at his disposal were out of date

And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,

But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect

Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,

And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,

A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,

Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

–May 1966

 

The poem speaks for itself.  The central character (never actually named in the poem itself)  is Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

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10 Replies to “W.H. Auden on Partition”

  1. It is all very nice to beat Cyril Radcliffe now. At the time of events, Congress , Muslim League and other political parties of India never challenged vocally the mission of Cyril Radcliffe, it’s terms, methods or anything. It is a collective failure of the Indian Independence leaders. When Independence was within striking distance, they could have taken longer view of things, and exchanged Agitator hat for Statesman hat. Contrast: even though World war 2 ended in 1945, by 1944 the allied leaders had met and decided on post war order of the world, and had even designed many aspects of UN and other international organizations. Indians did lack the foresight and planning and execution capability of western leaders and that is a hard fact. To give it’s due, Congress was thinking about shape of economics, politics, etc before 1947 ; and when presented with a challenge like Jinnah , they were stumped

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    1. My reading of the poem is that it is specifically about the way in which the Radcliffe Line was drawn. Of course, Sir Cyril came to do a job. He had no role in deciding that Partition was going to happen. Congress and the League had accepted Lord Mountbatten’s June 3 plan before Sir Cyril appeared on the scene.

      What I like about Auden’s poem is the simple direct language and the way he tells it like it is.

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          1. Auden certainly made Sir Cyril look like a fool. But the way the Radcliffe Line was devised was a travesty.

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  2. Auden clearly knew very little about partition and therefore wrote a nice poem about a character who mostly just did his job the best he could and had nothing to do with causing partition or its tragic aftermath.
    As they say in India, hota hai (it happens).. in this case, hota hai that a great poet wrote a famous poem that actually captures next to nothing about the tragedy.

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    1. I think the first stanza actually captures a lot about Partition:

      “Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission

      Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

      Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

      With their different diets and incompatible gods.

      “Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late

      For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:

      The only solution now lies in separation.”

      The line “between two peoples fanatically at odds/ with their different diets and incompatible gods” just gets to the whole essence of the thing, at least in my view.

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  3. Radcliffe has to bear the responsibility of the partition tragedy along with other cast of characters. Following orders is no excuse. As a knowledgeable cartographer he should have warned the powers that be that given the amount of time this is an impossible task involving lives of thousands. Instead of refusing to be part of it, he did an half-assed job of drawing borders. As a consequence, some ones front yard lays in one side and the backyard in the other country. Another’s kitchen in one country and bedroom in another. West draws a line in the sand and leaves the natives to face consequences.

    To clarify, I am not against partition but only the way it happened. Compare this to breaking up of Soviet Union into fifteen units with no news of any consequence.

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    1. Breakup of the USSR was a different order. USSR was only a ‘Union’ of the constituent Republics , each with it’s own borders, history and culture and a past. USSR was made only in 1918 with explicit rights of constituent Republics to leave the USSR In fact apart from USSR – Ukraine, Kazakhstan and others also had UN seats . That their ‘ independence ‘ was totally illusory was a different matter and understood by all as they all had to follow the orders the orders of All-Union Communist party . Pre 1947 India was in no way comparable to the USSR of 1989.
      Russians got sick of Communism in 1991, and just got rid of the Communist Empire , come what may . Since Russia was the core of USSR , Russia declaring independence means , other Republics were left to their own devices. History must thank Russia for the peaceful management of decline and oblivion, it could have been much worse

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    2. I agree. The Radcliffe Line was drawn in secrecy and no one knew where the border was. Punjab was arbitrarily divided. In the last two lines of the poem, Auden implicitly refers to the fact that neither the League nor Congress was happy with the Radcliffe Line.

      Anything that caused so many deaths and made so many refugees cannot be a good thing. But Pakistan exists now (So does Bangladesh) and those facts are not going to change–barring some major catastrophe.

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