A 'High Iron Railing': Plans to Implement Partition in the Palestine Mandate and British India

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American Diplomacy


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.