Skip to main content

by Lucy Chester

When the British Empire withdrew from South Asia in 1947, it carried out a hasty and poorly planned partition. When it withdrew from the Palestine Mandate in 1948, imperial officials chose not to divide Palestine. Prior to the Palestine decision, British officials spent decades examining the practical implications of partitioning the Mandate. During the same period, the British resisted discussing the possibility of partition in South Asia, only to hastily divide India and Pakistan in 1947.1

Despite their radically different approaches, these cases demonstrate three important points about the relationship between infrastructure, power, and partition (defined as territorial division carried out by a third party). First, infrastructure expresses state and colonial power.2 Second, in the case of Mandate Palestine, infrastructure illuminates how imperial priorities limited and ultimately doomed prospects for an Arab-Jewish partition. Detailed planning contributed to Britain’s rejection of partition in Palestine. Third, in South Asia, Britain’s lack of serious planning and failure to understand what partition would involve facilitated a territorial division marred by ethnic cleansing and mass migration—while also creating two proudly independent states.

The implementation of partition is significant because of its impact on residents’ everyday lives. Infrastructure and its preservation (or disruption) also have major implications for the economic viability of new states created by partition. And discussions of the practical impact of partition matter because of infrastructure’s relationship to national and, in this case, imperial visions and priorities.

The human costs of Britain’s 1947 partition of India and Pakistan have received a great deal of scholarly attention, and rightly so.3 These costs included massive displacement, hundreds of thousands dead, and widespread rape and abduction of women and girls. Less attention has been paid to the new boundary’s disruption of infrastructure systems.4 These systems included the elaborate canal networks that made Punjab, in India’s Northwest, the breadbasket of the subcontinent. In April 1948, India actually shut down a major portion of Pakistan’s water supply, before the two parties negotiated a temporary solution the following month. In 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty, a landmark success in Indo-Pakistani relations, provided a long-term solution. In other words, it took a great deal of time and expertise to find a lasting solution to this one aspect of an incredibly complex physical division.

Any partition has the potential to disrupt crucial networks, including transportation, communication, agricultural, and energy systems. In the 1940s, these networks included railroads, roads, telegraph lines, water supply lines, electricity networks, and oil pipelines. The way these features of the colonized landscape were divided, diverted, and in many cases destroyed has had lasting implications for post-British states. In many cases, the conflict that accompanied Britain’s withdrawal gave rise to new landscape features, such as guard posts, fences, walls, and even minefields. The Indian case demonstrates that any serious plan to implement partition must consider how to divide such systems without leaving borderlands areas isolated and economically devastated.

Historical and Scholarly Context
This article is part of larger book project that examines imperial and anti-colonial connections between British India and Mandate Palestine in the 1920s-1940s. India and Palestine differed in crucial ways, including size, administration, and length of British control. India was much larger and was an empire in its own right (controlled through a mix of direct and indirect rule), while Palestine was a mandate, governed in accordance with League of Nations requirements (at least in theory). British control over South Asian territory dated back to the eighteenth century, while the Palestine Mandate originated in the post-World War I period.

Another key difference between India and Palestine is, of course, the fact that the British partitioned India and Pakistan in 1947, while rejecting partition in the Palestine Mandate during the same period. The Palestine decision came after decades of British, as well as Jewish and Arab, debate over the form that partition might take in Palestine. In India, by contrast, British officials avoided any serious consideration of territorial division until only months before what became a rushed and chaotic division.

Domestic politics in India, Mandate Palestine, and Britain played a crucial role in shaping the events of 1947 and 1948. I discussed Indian issues, including debates over the shape of independence, the influence of the princely states, and the central role of the Sikh community, in my book on the 1947 partition.5 The larger project from which this article draws analyzes nationalist and anti-colonialist connections between India and Palestine, in addition to British thinking.6 I also hope to examine the development and reception of Muslim demands for the partition of South Asia in a new book project, now in the early stages, on the geographical imagination of Pakistan.

This article has a narrower scope, focusing on British thinking about the practical details involved in implementing partition in Palestine (and the lack of such thinking for India). Here, I am primarily interested in British discussions of what Penny Sinanoglou calls “concrete planning.”7 The historiography of Palestine partition planning is rich in analysis of politics and strategy, and development and construction are important parts of the literature on Mandate-era nation-building.8 But the role of infrastructure in partition planning specifically has received relatively little attention.9

Political aspects of partition continue to interest historians and other scholars in part because of their ongoing policy relevance. On the face of it, it may seem pointless to discuss how outmoded hydroelectric systems and obsolete telegraph lines could have been, but were not, divided. There is value in examining this material, in part because elements of the infrastructure under discussion (such as mandate-era police forts) are still features of the Holy Land’s landscape and because some of the issues discussed (the titular “high iron railing”) are still central to Israeli-Palestinian relations today.

This article is not an exhaustive catalog of implementation plans, but an exploration of their role in imperial policy. It focuses on plans that merited debate at the top levels of British government. I do not mean to imply that the concept of partition was solely the product of British thinking—far from it. In both Palestine and India, ideas about partition emerged from a complex colonial environment in which many players interacted.

I focus on British discussions for several reasons. The first is practicality; such a sprawling topic, with such a vast literature, requires clear boundaries of its own. Second, British planning has contemporary policy relevance, because it illuminates evolving discussions of partition carried out by a party that anticipated being responsible for that partition; it therefore made plans from the point of view of potentially having to carry them out itself. Third, British discussions highlight the role of the imperial context. Part of my argument is that imperial patterns of thought about categorization, territory, economy, and defense played a central role in the development (or lack thereof) of partition plans for both India and Palestine.

This article analyzes three major British considerations of partition in the Palestine Mandate: the 1937 Peel Plan, the 1938 Woodhead Report, and wartime discussions in the Cabinet Committee for Palestine. It then examines to the extremely limited British planning for partition in India and the impact of that planning failure. Finally, it draws conclusions about imperial priorities, the larger context of individual partition cases, calls for speed, and the quest for clarity.

The Peel Commission (1936-1937)
In the earliest discussions of dividing Palestine, British officials repeatedly cited the “impracticability” of such plans as a reason for declining to explore them further.10 The 1936-1937 Royal Commission marked the first time the highest levels of British government considered partition for Palestine. Headed by Lord Robert Peel (a former Secretary of State for India), it became known as the Peel Commission. It proposed dividing the mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with some territory remaining under British control. But it was more of a rough sketch than a detailed proposal.

The Peel report focused on the political benefits of partition and did not include a detailed examination of the practical aspects of a territorial division. It offered its partition plan primarily as an indication that the principle of partition offered a foundation on which “an actual plan can be devised which meets the main requirements of the case.”11 Details of the division took up only 14 pages of the 396-page report. The commission admitted that partition involved immense practical difficulties, which seemed almost to grow as they were analyzed: “The closer the question is examined, the clearer they stand out.”12

The commission suggested that the British Government establish a “Partition Department,” which could deal with irrigation, development, and population-exchange issues that would be too much for the Palestine Government to handle.13 This suggestion for the formation of a dedicated department might appear to be an acknowledgement of the huge amount of work any partition would require, but in fact what the commissioners envisioned a department with fairly limited responsibilities. It would deal with new development projects intended to expand the amount of land open to settlement and cultivation; there is no indication that they thought it might be useful to have such a department examine the complex issues of dividing other aspects of infrastructure, coordinating the creation of the proposed Joint Harbor Board, or simply managing the inevitable practical challenges of a territorial division. This limited Partition Department was, arguably, an indication that the Peel Commission did not grasp the scope of the solution they were suggesting.

Although the Peel sketch plan did not go into great detail, it flagged several areas as potentially problematic. In particular, it noted “the problem, sometimes said to be insoluble, created by the contiguity of Jaffa with Tel Aviv.” As one possible solution, it proposed separating the predominantly Arab town of Jaffa from the almost entirely Jewish town of Tel Aviv by a narrow, cleared belt of land controlled by Britain (as the mandatory power) and, if necessary, patrolled by mandatory police.14

The Woodhead Commission (1938)
Almost as soon as the Peel Commission released its report, in July 1937, the British government became uncomfortable with the partition proposal, which was alienating crucial Arab allies. The Foreign and India Offices both worked to overturn it. In late 1937, the British Government began to form a technical commission, ostensibly in order to investigate the feasibility of partitioning Palestine. In practice the Foreign Office saw it as a means of escaping the Peel plan. Headed by Sir John Woodhead (fresh from a term as Governor of Bengal), this commission became known as the Woodhead Commission—and informally as the “Re-Peel” Commission.15 The report of the Woodhead Commission constitutes the most important British analysis of the practicability, as it was repeatedly called, of partition for Palestine. It was a much more detailed analysis than the 1937 Peel plan or any earlier discussions.

One of the striking elements of the Woodhead Report was its emphasis on defense, which emerged from this document as perhaps the leading imperial priority. It was masked as an altruistic desire to defend the Holy Places and even nakedly imperial interests were described as “defence requirements,” rather than choices or priorities: practically forced upon the British, rather than something Britain was enforcing upon a subject territory. For example, the report stated that the Jerusalem enclave needed an airbase to allow the mandatory power “to fulfill the responsibility for the defence of the Enclave”; military action was presented as imperial duty rather than a form of aggression or hegemony. Certainly defense seemed like a higher priority than the division of Jewish and Arab people and property. Despite its sense that defense was an overriding priority, the Woodhead Commission was forced to conclude that it was “impossible to divide” Palestine in any way that would create boundaries that “will have any real military significance.”16 Only in mutual cooperation could the post-partition states of Palestine find safety: “The only real security for any partitioned area in Palestine is to live at peace and in friendship with its neighbor.” In other words, partition in and of itself could not solve the mandate’s problems. Partitioned states would not be secure unless at peace.

Special attention was paid to railways, which had military and economic significance, enabling troop transport as well as the movement of goods and materials. The Woodhead Commission’s report showed that boundaries could potentially disrupt this crucial network. Major sections of the Palestine Railway ran through both the proposed Jewish and Arab States, with smaller segments in mandated territory and the Jerusalem Enclave. The southernmost section of the line connected with the Suez Canal railway, and the commission concluded that it should remain under British control, “in view of the importance of this portion of the railway as a line of communication for the Mandatory Power.”17 This decision, based on the Suez Canal’s central role in imperial defense, suggests that imperial strategic considerations trumped all others.

The commission recognized that many elements of Palestine’s administration and infrastructure were unitary and would not function well—or at all—if divided. It also realized that densely populated urban areas posed a particular challenge. It rejected Jewish proposals to assign part of Jerusalem to the Jewish state, in part because such a division would disrupt networks, in this case water supply and drainage systems, that were “designed and constructed as a single unit.”18 The commissioners were dubious that shared infrastructure would remain effective. They recognized the potential of shared systems to act as irritants to post-partition political entities.19

Separating predominantly Arab Jaffa from almost entirely Jewish Tel Aviv posed another challenge. Here, the commission envisaged dividing Jaffa and Tel Aviv areas with a broad, straight road on either side of a “high iron railing,” which should be “as straight as possible.”20 Engaging deeply, over five dense pages, with the nitty-gritty of urban boundary-making, the commission offered a block-by-block delineation of the line, recommendations for the physical nature of the barrier that would mark it, and analysis of its inherent challenges to policing. The report did not, however, have much to say about the effect of the boundary on local residents.

One member, Thomas Reid, rejected partition completely. He argued that plan agreed to by a majority of the commissioners “would not and could not be implemented.”21 Reid’s dissent came closest to acknowledging the local, familial, and even individual costs of partition. Analyzing the case of Tulkarm, where the majority plan would drive a boundary through Arab areas, he expressed concern at the prospect of leaving farmer’s homes on one side of the line and their fields on the other.22 Reid emphasized that the mandate’s infrastructure networks were built to serve the mandate as a whole. He wrote, “a system of communications by rail, road, and wire exists which, like other branches of administration, was devised for all Palestine.”23 There was no way to divide the territory of Palestine that would preserve the full function of these systems, and without them, the resulting states would not be viable.

By late 1938, the British Government was deeply concerned about the damage a Palestine partition could do to its relations with Arab allies. Having received the Woodhead Report, it concluded that it demonstrated that “the political, administrative and financial difficulties involved in the proposal to create independent Arab and Jewish States inside Palestine are so great that this solution of the problem is impracticable.”24 In short, the Woodhead Commission’s detailed exploration of the practical difficulties involved in implementing partition provided cover for a decision made primarily on political and strategic grounds. In 1939, the British Government released a new white paper. This document profoundly changed Palestine policy in many ways, not least by declaring an end to British consideration of partition in Palestine.

The Palestine Cabinet Committee Plan (1943-1944)
And yet, in 1943, Winston Churchill invited his War Cabinet to reconsider the question of partitioning Palestine. He formed a high-level Committee on Palestine, which included Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India. Amery devoted much attention to the Palestine issue (while simultaneously staving off any serious discussion of partition in South Asia.) The Palestine Cabinet Committee circulated two top-secret reports, in 1943 and 1944.

The December 1943 report recommended partition as the best solution to the Palestine problem, but criticized key elements of the Woodhead Commission’s plan. It was particularly critical of the notion of separating Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which were, it argued, “in fact, one town.” Perhaps unnerved by the urban nature of this particular proposed boundary, the committee called the Woodhead proposal for a “high iron railing” between the two towns “fantastic.”25 It proposed placing Jaffa in the Jewish state.

And yet this committee harbored fantasies of its own, especially in regard to speed. Partition could produce peace, it argued, “if the cut is made swiftly and decisively.”26 The conclusion underlined this point vigorously: “There is much to be said for a King Solomon’s judgment when there is reasonable hope of each half of the baby surviving and leading a lusty life of its own. But it can only do so if the cut is swift and clean.”27 This metaphor implied that the division could resemble a surgical procedure, in which speed and cleanliness would improve the patient’s chances for survival.

In a January 1944 memo to Churchill, Amery enlarged upon this theme. He asserted, “The one thing that can make a judgment of Solomon possible is the swift and clean cut. What we cannot afford to do is to saw away slowly at a squealing infant in the presence of two hysterical mothers and amid the ululations of a chorus of equally hysterical relatives in the Arab and Jewish world.”28 This extraordinary image carries a different emphasis than the report’s conclusion, which had focused on the positive outcome that a “swift and clean cut” could bring. Amery’s graphic language, which depicted a clumsy, even brutal medic “saw[ing] away slowly” at a wailing child while dismissing onlookers’ grief as “hysterical,” offers an uglier take. These private comments suggest that the optimism of the official report concealed Amery’s fears that partition, if not executed properly, could have grim results. For Amery, speed was the essential element of effective implementation.

In October 1944, the committee issued another report. It again urged partition but acknowledged its “inherent” difficulties: “They are unquestionably great and the closer the question is examined the more clearly do they stand out.”29 (This last is a striking echo of the Peel Commission’s complaint that “the closer the question is examined, the clearer they [partition’s difficulties] stand out.”30) It highlighted the need for joint administration of common services and devoted special attention to the regional rail system, noting that “it would be wholly impracticable to administer it otherwise than as a single entity.”31

These problems were, the committee argued, outweighed by the challenge of continuing with the mandate. The report continued, “these difficulties do not seem to us so insuperable as the difficulties inherent in the continuance of the Mandate, or in any other alternative arrangement.”32 In other words, although partition would involve many practical challenges, they could not match the difficulty of maintaining British control of Palestine.

The Cabinet Committee plan went nowhere, due in part to Churchill’s fury at the November 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne (Britain’s Resident Minister in the Middle East) by Jewish terrorists.33 For the top levels of British government, this wartime discussion was the last serious attempt to craft a plan to partition the mandate. By the time the United Nations approved its own partition plan in November 1947, the British refused to have anything to do with its implementation.

One major theme that emerges from this wartime consideration of partition is Amery’s conviction that the how of implementing partition was crucial. It was perhaps even more crucial than the content of a partition plan. As emphasized by his baby-sawing metaphor (which he recycled at least three times), Amery was convinced that Britain could only hope to create an effective partition if it did so quickly; division done wrong—that is, slowly—was bound to fail. One need not agree with Amery’s views on speed to recognize the value of his call for more attention to implementation.

South Asia and the Radcliffe Boundary Commission (1946-1947)
Just as partition for Palestine was losing support within the British government, partition for India was gaining ground in Muslim nationalist circles there. The Muslim League, a religious nationalist party, called for the creation of a new state for South Asian Muslims. Its primary rival, the Indian National Congress, advocated a secular India. The British Government, which saw Indian unity as a key element of its imperial legacy in South Asia, was reluctant to legitimize the idea of Pakistan with any serious discussion of what partition might involve.

In 1946, a handful of British officials began to consider the practical implications of partitioning South Asia.34 The March 1946 Cabinet Mission was a high-level effort to find a solution that would allow Britain to withdraw from a united India. Having already decided that partition was undesirable, the delegates had little interest in seriously considering the practicalities required to establish Pakistan. The initial draft of the Mission’s proposal for an interim government summarized the political and demographic arguments against Pakistan and concluded that delegates had “been forced to the conclusion that there is no practicable scheme whereby the Muslim majority areas can be brought together to form an independent Sovereign State wholly separated from the rest of India.”35 The use of the word “forced” did little to disguise the Mission’s eagerness to dismiss the Pakistan idea.

The Mission’s proposals referred to issues of infrastructure and administration only to reinforce its (prior) conclusion that partition was not acceptable. Its initial draft made no mention of these questions. The second draft stated candidly, “The foregoing arguments [re demographic, cultural, and political reasons not to partition] are most strongly reinforced by other considerations of an economic and military character.”36 In other words, these issues were secondary to the political and demographic bases already cited (cultural justifications were also added at this stage). The draft went on to cite the transportation, postal, telegraph, and irrigation systems that had been “established with a view to a united India” and could not be divided without damage to both successor states. Later drafts removed this candor (as well as, oddly, the reference to irrigation, which proved a major problem during the actual 1947 partition).37 The opening sentence of this paragraph was revised to read: “Apart from the great force of the foregoing arguments there are weighty administrative, economic and military considerations.”38 The British objection to an Indian partition was largely political at this stage.

Determined to keep India united as Britain withdrew, the Cabinet Mission proposed a confederal arrangement, with a weak center that would allow provinces significant autonomy. Many scholars regard this proposal as the last serious chance for independence without division. But by June, this effort to frame a plan that would enable Britain to transfer power to a unified India had failed. Fearing that the structure of the proposal could ultimate lead to the creation of Pakistan, Congress refused to give its consent.39

The Cabinet Mission demonstrated that British leadership had little interest in grappling with the practical requirements of a policy they hoped to avoid. The exception that proves the rule is Viceroy Archibald Wavell’s top-secret “breakdown plan.”40 Intending to spur British leaders in London to prepare more seriously for withdrawal from India, Wavell laid out an almost provocatively bleak scenario in which Britain was forced to leave India without any agreement to preserve its unity.41 Wavell’s military chief argued that it was impossible to craft defensible partition boundaries.42 Overall, any partition scenario would involve “appallingly complicated financial and administrative problems.”43 Wavell’s plan went nowhere; in fact, it earned him the sack. He was replaced in March 1947 by Lord Louis Mountbatten, who presided over the partition Wavell had sought to avoid.

Mountbatten’s charge was to get the British out of South Asia. Shortly after his arrival, concluding that the Muslim League and Congress leaders were irreconcilable, he turned to partition. The division was scheduled for mid-1948, but in early June 1947, Mountbatten announced that it would take place on August 15 of the same year. Partition in South Asia was thus an extremely rushed affair, with little time for consideration of the major practical problems involved in an undertaking of such magnitude. Whereas Palestine’s partition was debated over decades but never materialized, India’s partition was decided very late, leaving only months to prepare.

The boundary commission that divided British India into India and Pakistan in August 1947 did not exist until the summer of that year.44 When it was finally assembled in early July, the South Asian commission was made up of Congress and League representatives, headed by a British chairman, noted lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe. Although the Radcliffe Commission was ill equipped to draw a boundary, it did allow the British to escape their South Asian responsibilities quickly by providing the hastily drawn line necessary to make partition a reality. But the commission’s legalistic approach was inappropriate to the geographical issues at hand, which required more expert knowledge than the commission members had, given that none of them had experience in boundary-making.

The commission’s terms of reference directed it to divide Bengal, in the northeast, and Punjab, in the northwest “on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. In doing so, it will also take into account other factors.”45 The “other factor” that proved to be the greatest challenge was infrastructure, particularly Punjab’s irrigation canals. As Radcliffe later wrote, “I was deeply impressed—as anyone concerned would be—by the great importance of not allowing the physical division of territory to sterilize the working of the interrelated irrigation systems.”46 Punjabi grains were an important part of the subcontinental food supply, and the productivity of Punjabi agriculture depended heavily on the region’s elaborate irrigation. But the partition plan dictated that Punjab be divided in two.

In the text of his boundary decision, Radcliffe discussed canals, canal headworks, roads, railways, and ports before turning to population factors. In the Punjab award, he explicitly stated that “there are factors such as the disruption of railway communications and water systems that ought in this instance to displace the primary claim of contiguous majorities,”47 and the Bengal award demonstrated similar concerns with maintaining “railway communications and river systems,” as well as preserving the relationship of the Nadia and Kulti river systems with the port of Calcutta.48 His private secretary, Christopher Beaumont, confirmed this point, recalling that, after contiguous majority areas, “water was the key. And railways would come second, and electricity would run third.”49 Muhammad Munir, one of the Muslim League judges on the commission, independently recalled that “the preservation of the present [1947] irrigation system was an obsession with Sir Cyril.”50 Radcliffe’s interest in Punjabi irrigation was second only to his determination to divide the province along religious lines. Despite his attention to this question, Radcliffe found that any line would inevitably disrupt the water supply to one side or the other.

The irrigation systems and other infrastructure of Punjab and Bengal had been built to function under a single administration. They were never intended to be divided. No partition line Radcliffe could have concocted would have allowed Pakistan and India to operate their infrastructure separately, without cross-border interference. In the few weeks he had, Radcliffe tried to minimize infrastructure disruptions, but he was well aware that his proposal was flawed. In his attempt to draw the boundary near the Sulemanki canal headworks in Punjab, for example, he emphasized that his intention was to award this equipment to Pakistan and acknowledged that the reality of the terrain might necessitate later adjustments to the boundary.51

To the British and to most Indian leaders of the 1940s, religious categories were a primary consideration, within the larger context of their desire for a speedy British withdrawal. Indeed, religion was the only consideration explicitly recommended to the boundary commissions in their terms of reference. However, when British officials were confronted with the reality of partitioning India, it became clear that infrastructure questions were a close second. In some cases, as explicitly stated in his award, Radcliffe gave these considerations more weight than he gave to the determination of contiguous religious majorities.52

The emphasis on infrastructure can be traced to Britons’ own conception of their task in India and of the legacy of their imperial rule. In the Indian case, British imperialism was inextricably related to the concept of stewardship: the notion that the British had an obligation to educate Indians so that, at some future date, they would be able to take on self-government. This undeniably paternalistic concept may sound implausible to twenty-first century ears, but many Britons took this “duty” seriously. When Hastings Ismay, one of Mountbatten’s top aides, described his sadness over leaving India, his regret was prompted at least in part by the thought that the British Empire’s accomplishments in India—roads, railways, and irrigation canals—might be threatened by Partition. By the early twentieth century, he wrote, “law and order prevailed throughout the land. Roads, railways, canals and harbours had been built, and vast areas of hitherto waterless desert had been brought under irrigation.” 53 Radcliffe’s own comments reflect the same notion of Britain’s imperial legacy. In a BBC address on 2 October 1947, he said, “The gifts we brought were Roman… Like the Romans, we built our roads, bridges and canals and we have marked the land as engineers if we have not improved it as architects.”54 This comment places the raj squarely in the ranks of the world’s great empires, emphasizing the value of the material improvements it bestowed upon its subjects.

The haste of the 1947 partition drastically reduced the efficiency and economic independence of Pakistan, parts of northern India, and what is now Bangladesh. Radcliffe strove to preserve what he saw as imperialism’s legacy of modern infrastructure for the two new nations. However, there was no practical way to divide between two states—hostile states, as it soon became clear—a unified system of infrastructure.

In both South Asia and Palestine, the aftermath of the British withdrawal was bloody and chaotic. In the subcontinent, riots over the spring and summer of 1947 escalated into ethnic cleansing in the divided areas.55 Casualty figures are unreliable but range from 200,000 to one million dead. Another ten to twelve million refugees crossed the new boundaries in both directions.56 The roads and railways of northern India were not immediately divided, because they were thronged with fleeing refugees. Their closure was a gradual process, in part because they were crucial conduits for displaced people.57

The irrigation system of Punjab was another matter. The distribution of water between India and Pakistan was initially governed by a standstill agreement, signed on 18 December 1947. That agreement expired on 31 March 1948; the following day, India cut off Pakistan’s water supplies from the Hussainiwala headworks and the Upper Bari Doab Canal. This interruption came during the planting season for the summer crop and shut down a large portion of Lahore’s municipal water supply, causing severe disruptions in Pakistani Punjab. As the upper riparian, India was in a stronger position, and Pakistan agreed, on 4 May 1948, to pay India “such ad hoc sum as may be specified by the Prime Minister of India.” In exchange, India reopened the closed canals.58 This temporary agreement lasted until 1960, when these problems were largely resolved by the Indus Waters Treaty, a notable success story in Indo-Pakistani relations. The treaty divided the river system of the Punjab in two, giving India rights to all the waters of the three eastern rivers, while Pakistan relied on the three western rivers. Pakistan subsequently constructed link canals to carry water from these western rivers to eastern Punjab, making it less dependent on Indian cooperation.59

As for Palestine, the British referred the mandate to the United Nations, which set up yet another boundary commission. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) traveled to Palestine in the summer of 1947 and proposed yet another variation on partition. British leaders, who continued to believe that avoiding partition was the best way to preserve their vital alliances with Arab leaders, were displeased. When the UN approved UNSCOP’s partition plan, Britain refused to cooperate in its implementation. The UN proposal eventually collapsed under the weight of British, and later American, non-cooperation, and the law-and-order situation in Palestine spiraled out of control. By the time the British withdrew in May 1948, a civil war was well underway. With the British gone, Jewish leaders declared an independent state, Israel, on May 15, 1948. Conflict escalated, with Israeli forces ultimately proving victorious. Several thousand people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled their homes; their situation remains a source of tension between Israel and its neighbor states.60 Britain’s withdrawal from the Mandate brought the Palestine conflict to the international level.

Imperial priorities were central to British partition planning in both Palestine and South Asia. Their plans focused on the need for defensible boundaries, and where such lines were not possible, military authorities issued urgent warnings to civilian decision-makers. Discussion of transportation and communication systems, especially in Palestine, focused on how best to preserve their contribution to Britain’s strategic needs, such as procuring oil and maintaining access to the Suez Canal.

A related point is the importance of the imperial context. British planning for India and for Palestine was shaped by broader imperial needs. At key points, these two cases overlapped. It is no coincidence that Peel, Woodhead, and Amery all had extensive Indian experience, and that Wavell, the one highly placed Briton to push for advance partition planning in India, had served in Palestine. To evaluate partition planning in each case without considering the effect of the other is to miss key factors guiding British thinking. Perhaps most important among these factors was the desire to maintain Muslim and Arab alliances with and loyalty to the British empire.

Third, the issue of speed was key. Amery saw speed as the single most important ingredient in a successful partition of Palestine. But in India, speed was arguable destructive, for it proved impossible to craft a last-minute partition plan without disrupting key systems.

Finally, these two cases highlight the imperial fantasy of the “clean cut.”61 In both India and Palestine, British officials repeatedly used surgical analogies to describe partition. The Peel report referred to the “clean cut[ting] out” of an “ulcer.”62 As discussed above, the Cabinet Committee for Palestine envisioned a “clean and swift… cut.” In India, multiple actors described partition as surgery, amputation, dissection, or vivisection.63 Such analogies speak directly to the issue of implementation›but they have the effect of disguising partition’s inherent difficulties and complications. Woodhead’s “high iron railing” expresses a similar imperial fantasy of straight lines, clean cuts, and clear separations.

The imperial obsession with categorization and clarity found perhaps its most powerful expression in partition. But in India as in Palestine, binary divisions—Arabs here and Jews there, or Indians here and Pakistanis there—offered imperfect solutions. In neither case was it easy to identify the “ulcer”, let alone to remove it with a “clean cut.” Partition was far from antiseptic. Not even its champions, such as Pakistani leaders, felt that it left the patient healthier than before. Present-day proponents of partition would do well to consider the difficulties of past partitions when planning the implementation of future divisions.bluestar


1. I am grateful to the organizers of the May 2014 conference on “Global Conflict and Conflict Management” at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, at which I presented an earlier version of this article, for prompting me to consider these issues. I am also grateful to American Diplomacy‘s reviewer for his careful engagement and helpful suggestions.

2. Jo Guldi places the origins of the “infrastructure state” in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain; Roads to Power (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012).

3. See for example Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1998) and Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001).

4. Important recent work on infrastructure in South Asia includes David Gilmartin, Blood and Water: The Indus River Basin in Modern History (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015) and Daniel Haines, Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Water in the Making of India and Pakistan (Oxford: Oxford UP, forthcoming 2017).

6. For some preliminary thoughts, see Lucy Chester, “On Creating a ‘Palestinian Pakistan,'” Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (May 2011) 17-18.

7. “British Plans for the Partition of Palestine,” The Historical Journal 52:1 (Mar 2009) 133.

8. The works of Wm Roger Louis and Michael J. Cohen are particularly valuable examples; see Louis’s British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) and Cohen’s Britain’s Moment in Palestine (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014). Jacob Norris addresses development in Land of Progress (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013).

9. Notable exceptions include Gideon Biger, An Empire in the Holy Land (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994) and Roza El-Eini, Mandated Landscape (London: Routledge, 2006). Sinanoglou, op cit, also touches on infrastructure in insightful ways.

10. In 1929, for example, the US Consul General in Jerusalem wrote that he and the Br high commissioner agreed that the idea of granting Jews an autonomous region around Tel Aviv was “entirely impracticable” because of agricultural and hydro-electric reasons. Sinanoglou, op cit, 137.

11. Government of the United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Palestine Royal Commission Report (Cmd 5479) [hereafter Peel Report] (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1937) 380.

12. Peel Report 376.

13. Ibid 392.

14. Ibid 385.

15. Victor Cazalet letter, 13 Jan 1938, PREM 1/352, UKNA.

16. Government of the United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Palestine Partition Commission Report (Cmd. 5854) [hereafter Woodhead Report] (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1938) 22.

17. Woodhead Report 170.

18. Ibid 76.

19. Ibid 76-77.

20. Ibid 41.

21. Ibid 281.

22. Ibid 269.

23. Ibid 277.

24. Cmd. 5893, in PREM 1/352, folio 43, UKNA.

25. Palestine Committee Report to the War Cabinet, 20 Dec 1943, PREM 4/52/1 f. 140, UKNA.

26. Ibid f. 137.

27. Ibid, f. 145.

28. India Secretary Minute to Prime Minister, 22 Jan 1944, PREM 4/52/1, f. 178, UKNA.

29. Palestine Committee Report, 16 Oct 1944, PREM 4/52/1, f. 73, UKNA.

30. Peel Report 376.

31. Palestine Committee Report, op cit, 16 Oct 1944, f. 67.

32. Ibid, f. 73.

33. Michael J. Cohen, “The Moyne Assassination,” Middle Eastern Studies 15:3 (Oct 1979) 370-371.

34. This move resulted in part from British Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s desire to forge a new India policy, one quite different from that of his predecessor Winston Churchill. But Churchill and Attlee alike resisted any efforts to get them to think seriously about a South Asian partition. Attlee also rejected the idea of a British-enforced division in Palestine, just as Churchill had done in 1944.

35. TP VII p. 305.

36. Ibid p. 364, emphasis added.

37. Ibid p. 389

38. Ibid p. 531.

39. Ibid doc. 603 and enclosure.

40. Wavell to Pethick-Lawrence, 7 Feb 1946, TP VI.

41. It is tempting to speculate that Wavell’s experience in the Middle East, particularly his time commanding British forces in Palestine and Transjordan during the Arab Uprising of the late 1930s, drove his insistence on evaluating the pros and cons of a South Asian partition.

42. Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck, “A Note on the Strategic Implications of the Inclusion of ‘Pakistan’ in the British Commonwealth,” TP XII, Appendix I, Doc 6.

43. TP VII 570.

44. For a detailed discussion of this commission and its work, see Chester, Borders and Conflict, op cit.

45. TP XII 744-5.

46. Radcliffe letter to Aloys Michel, 28 March 1965, cited in Michel, The Indus Rivers (New Haven: Yale UP, 1967) 164, fn 47.

47. TP XII 746-7.

48. Ibid 751-2. In Bengal, partition also separated jute fields from mills, with catastrophic effects on the region’s important jute industry. For more on partition’s impact on Bengal, see Willem van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London: Anthem, 2005) and Joya Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007).

49. Beaumont, author’s interview, 8 Feb. 2000.

50. Nazir Hussain Chaudhri, Chief Justice Muhammad Munir (Lahore: Research Society of Pakistan, 1973) 53.

51. TP XII 749.

52. Ibid 746-7.

53. Hastings Lionel Ismay, The Memoirs of General Lord Ismay (London: Heinemann, 1960) 411.

54. Cyril Radcliffe, “Thoughts on India,” in Not in Feather Beds (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968) 5.

55. These riots were preceded by the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, but there was a distinct pause (as well a geographic distance) between that event and the Punjab-centered violence of 1947.

56. Patrick French, Liberty or Death (London: HarperCollins, 1997) 347-49.

57. Joya Chatterji, “The Fashioning of a Frontier,” Modern Asian Studies 33:1 (Feb. 1999) 185-242.

58. India: Bilateral Treaties and Agreements, vol. 1 (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 1994) 42-3.

59. This paragraph draws on the excellent analysis in Michel, op cit, 195-204.

60. Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, The Palestinian People: A History (Cambridge, US: Harvard UP, 2003) 156-166.

61. Thanks to my colleague Phoebe Young for stimulating my thinking on this point.

62. Peel Report 390.

63. See Chatterji’s important discussion of surgical metaphors in “Fashioning,” op cit, 185-186, 242.


Author Lucy Chester is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at CU Boulder. She earned her PhD in History from Yale and is the author of Borders and Conflict in South Asia: The Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the Partition of Punjab (Manchester UP, 2009). Professor Chester’s current research examines connections between British India and the Palestine Mandate in the decades leading up to Britain’s withdrawal. She is also beginning a new project on geographical imaginings of Pakistan. Her recent publications have appeared in the Journal of Historical Geography, Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, and an edited volume on Order, Conflict, and Violence (Cambridge University Press).

Also by the author: Borders and Conflict in South Asia: The Radcliffe Boundary Commission and the
Partition of Punjab (Manchester UP, 2009)
Now available in paperback.


Comments are closed.