W. H. Auden’s poem “Partition” describes a British civil servant who must decide how to divide land, in the Indian subcontinent, between Muslims and Hindus who hate each other. To prevent further conflict between the two groups, the British government (which once included the subcontinent as part of its vast empire) has appointed this unnamed functionary to decide which lands will belong to which group. He is not a native of the region; he knows relatively little about its history; his maps are outdated; and, although he has two Hindu and two Muslim judges with whom he can consult, the final decisions about how to carve up the territories are ultimately his. His mission is dangerous, because neither group is likely to be entirely happy with the choices he makes. He even runs the risk of being assassinated. Once he has done his job, however, he goes back to Britain – never to return to the countries whose boundaries he has decided. To do so would be too risky: people might kill him because they disagree with his decisions.
Auden’s poem alludes to the period in the late 1940s when the people of India finally won independence from Britain. However, severe tensions between Hindus and Muslims led to the formation of two separate countries: India (a Hindu state) and Pakistan (a Muslim nation). At least half a million people lost their lives in the conflicts leading up to the creation of these two countries. However, although Auden’s poem obviously deals primarily with this particular situation, the poem is also relevant to many other recent territorial disputes between conflicting religious or ethnic groups. The most obvious (and perhaps most dangerous) of such conflicts is the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the middle east. Thus, although Auden’s poem is set in the 1940s and specifies a particular example of partitioning, the poem remains eerily relevant in the present day. This is especially true of the opening lines:
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.