Theatre of Partition


Hampstead Theatre (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images).
Hampstead Theatre (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images).

By Amit Roy

OUR days in lockdown are being eased by the chance to watch plays online free of charge.

Last week this includ­ed Drawing the Line, Howard Brenton’s play on the Partition of India, which I first saw in 2013 at Hampstead Theatre.

In 1947, a British judge, Mr Justice Cyril Radcliffe, was sent to In­dia, a country he had never visited before, and given five weeks to draw a line in the Punjab and in Bengal, bringing into being West Pakistan and East Pakistan. He knew nothing about cartogra­phy either.

Just as today’s planners think that 20,000 corona­virus deaths would be a “good outcome”, the vice­roy, Lord Mountbatten, was optimistic that Parti­tion could be achieved with about 100,000 deaths. In the event, one million people died.

Ratcliffe was so “ashamed” of the conse­quences of how he had drawn the line, that he refused a knighthood and his fee for doing the job. He also burnt all his Par­tition papers.

Watching the play again at the weekend brought to mind what Brenton had told me in 2013. He had found it “shocking” that school children in Britain were not taught the story of Partition – thereby drawing a line under, as it were, the Brit­ish Raj in India.

“It is a crucial time in British history: the begin­ning of our decolonisa­tion,” he had pointed out. “It is not a pretty story, but it has created the country we have now in many ways, and we should be more aware of it.”