Our Deadly Burden
Our Deadly BurdenIndia and Pakistan celebrate their Independence Days as we write these words. Unfortunately, 66 years later, this day reminds us as much of our freedom from colonialism as it does of our continued enslavement to the burdens bequeathed by the departing imperialists. The persistent bloodletting on our borders, the militarisation and consequent brutalisation of the people living along the borders and the role of unsettled borders in fuelling national chauvinism are but the most obvious of consequences.South Asia will truly decolonise only when it overcomes the toxic legacy of our colonial borders.
In the last one year alone, India has had militarised disputes on borders with China as well as Pakistan. While the former did not, thankfully, lead to any loss of life, the border with Pakistan has seen gory incidents of beheadings, sniper attacks and landmine explosions. All this while formally there is a ceasefire between both the countries and clear rules of engagement are in place. The civilians, for their part, live under the constant threat of death, injury and destruction of farms and property. Entire districts have seen their normal life disrupted for generations, such that the insecure, violence-prone and unstable conditions have become the new normal. The situation on the India-Pakistan border (and ceasefire line) is perhaps the worst in south Asia, though others too – India-China, India-Bangladesh, Pakistan-Afghanistan, etc – have torn apart historical communities, cut social and economic ties, and disrupted the movement of people.
The borders of south Asia are notorious for their illogical lines. They had been marked on maps with little regard to the people living on the ground. This has led to a situation where there is hardly a border in south Asia which is not contested. Even on the border between Nepal and India, across which there is relatively easy movement of people and goods, there continues to be more than three score points of disagreement on the alignment. Despite India and Bangladesh having worked out an agreement on the exchange of “enclaves” and the final acceptance of their border, the Government of India has failed to ratify this agreement because of domestic opposition. This also highlights the fact that despite all its protestations to the contrary, the Indian state is often domineering and ungenerous towards its neighbours in the region.
The borders India shares with Pakistan and Bangladesh are a legacy of a rushed attempt to partition British India in the last few weeks of the Raj. It left farmers divided from their fields, rivers cut off from their farmlands and cities deprived of their access routes. This is a festering wound which constantly recreates Partition in the everyday lives of the people living along these borders, particularly when the security establishments of these countries remain so hostile towards their own citizens.
The borders between India and China are a legacy of the British colonial attempts to find a “land route” through their “crown jewel” into China and central Asia (to face off the Russians). The McMahon Line on the cold desert was drawn when few knew the exact coordinates of the Himalayan geography, when the Chinese state was weak and when the Tibetan authorities had little understanding of what was happening. Today’s border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is similarly a bequest of a century of British imperial failures to conquer Afghanistan and the Durand Line has rarely been coterminous with the actual control of territory by Pakistan and Afghanistan; the live demand for a united, sovereign Pakhtoon nation is a testimony to that.
It is a tragic comedy of immense proportions that the post-colonial states of south Asia fetishise these arbitrary, cruel lines on the maps. It is a true measure of the callousness of the ruling elites (as well as of urban “public opinion”, isolated as it is from the traumas of their fellow citizens living on these borders) that all attempts to “solve” the border disputes almost always get reduced to pompous pronouncements like “not one inch of land will be conceded”. The difficulty India’s government is facing in ratifying the border agreement with Bangladesh reveals the persistence of this cartographic fundamentalism. Every state – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and China – and its public have been guilty of this crime, such that even progressive postcolonial leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, or Marxist radicals like Mao Zedong, have exhibited a strange attachment to these colonial borders.
The entire northern mountainous zone of south Asia – stretching from northern Balochistan, through the Hindu Kush and the Pamir Knot and until the Himalayas terminate east of the Brahmaputra – has been a border zone between the civilisations and political formations of the Indus and Gangetic river valleys and those to the west, north and north-east of them. These mountain borders have, over the millennia, not just protected south Asia but also been porous enough to mediate and encourage the movement of people, goods and ideas from one side to the other, helping enrich the cultures of India, Persia and China. Understanding the historical role of the Himalayas shows that borders do not merely separate people, but they are just as much points at which different cultures meet and interact. Similarly, we need to turn borders between all countries of south Asia into points of contact – encouraging the flow of people and trade. The pastoral nomads of the Thar, the Pashtun and Tibetan traders, the divided families of Kashmir and Bengal, among others, should be able to move without hindrance as they have done for centuries. Perhaps going back to this history of the Himalayas will help us overcome the toxic legacy of colonialism and inoculate ourselves from its Westphalian virus.
ye daaG daaG ujaalaa, ye shab_gaziidaa sahar
Faiz Ahmed Faiz
ye daaG daaG ujaalaa, ye shab_gaziidaa sahar
wo intazaar thaa jis kaa, ye wo sahar to nahii.n
ye wo sahar to nahii.n jis kii aarazuu lekar
chale the yaar ki mil jaayegii kahii.n na kahii.n
falak ke dasht me.n taro.n kii aaKharii ma.nzil
kahii.n to hogaa shab-e-sust mauj kaa saahil
kahii.n to jaa ke ruke-gaa safinaa-e-Gham-e-dil
jawaa.N lahuu kii pur-asaraar shaaharaaho.n se
chale jo yaar to daaman pe kitane haath pa.De
dayaar-e-husn kii be-sabr Khwaab-gaaho.n se
pukaratii rahii.n baahe.n, badan bulaate rahe
bahut aziiz thii lekin ruKh-e-sahar kii lagan
bahut qarii.n thaa hasiinaan-e-nuur kaa daaman
subuk subuk thii tamannaa, dabii dabii thii thakan
sunaa hai ho bhii chukaa hai firaq-e-zulmat-e-nuur
sunaa hai ho bhii chukaa hai wisaal-e-ma.nzil-o-gaam
badal chukaa hai bahut ahl-e-dard kaa dastuur
jigar kii aag, nazar kii uma.ng, dil kii jalan
kisii pe chaaraa-e-hijraa.N kaa kuchh asar hii nahii.n
kahaa.N se aaii nigaar-e-sabaa, kidhar ko gaii
abhii chiraaG-e-sar-e-rah ko kuchh Khabar hii nahii.n
abhii garaani-e-shab me.n kamii nahii.n aaii
najaat-e-diida-o-dil kii gha.Dii nahii.n aaii
chale chalo ki wo ma.nzil abhii nahii.n aaii