India-Pakistan Border: A Myriad Mesh Of Ceremonies, Politics & Livelihoods
India’s borders are diverse, and fascinating is an understatement because of the sheer variety of situations and practices they unravel. An impromptu visit to one such border in Fazilka was arranged by one of the biggest farmers of Kinnow (a citrus fruit), Mr Sandeep Kumar Sheoran, who owns orchards in Abohar district of Indian Punjab. After conferring with the concerned officers of the Border Security Force (BSF), friends from a school reunion arrived at the Sadqi border post just in time for the flag lowering ceremony. On the Pakistani side, the border village is Suleimanqi.
Though smaller in scale and less attended, the ceremony is equally impressive as the one at the more popular and famous Attari-Wagah ceremony near Amritsar. The article, however, points towards certain unique aspects of bordering practices at Sadqi border post. Academics, internationally, have now concluded that each border is unique, and this border post is a testimony to the same. Specific stories of border meetings with the Pakistani counterparts and their inaction on agreements are the norm here as one expects at the border between two fierce geopolitical rivals.
One popular theme is that of the Pakistanis reneging on an agreement to destroy two similar watch towers built during the medieval period but were located on the either side of the border after the partition in 1947. Indians being naïve, meticulous and stickler to the established agreement destroyed the tower and Pakistanis did not. If this one is about the promise to destroy border infrastructure, another relates to construction of towers by both the sides.
In another instance, again disrespecting the established conventions and norms of the bordering practices in the area, a group of overzealous Pakistani soldiers built a watch tower overnight close to the International Border or Zero Line as it is called in the technical jargon of the security forces. When confronted by the Indian officers, they challenged the Border Security Force to build one and in response, it was constructed overnight without any government finances and approvals but with the help of the villagers. Several such narratives and anecdotes were shared by the BSF personnel.
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To the observer, however, the presence of an electrified fence on the Indian side and tall Saccharum bengalense grass (Sarkanda) on the Pakistani side is indicative of two related phenomena a) the difference in perception of threats from either side and b) the economic disparities that exist between the two neighbouring countries.
On the one hand, politics, economy and security conditions in Pakistan have always been uncertain since Independence. Political history of Pakistan has been rife with instance of military coups, interventions by the military in the governance of life and livelihoods and exile of politicians. Political conditions have been unstable in general. On the other hand, economic condition of the populace, however, has considerably improved in India since the onset of economic liberalization in the early 1990s. Pakistan, a champion of capitalism has not been able to uplift the masses. Pakistani economy has been dependent upon loans and aid from various international agencies (IMF and World Bank) and the economy is now referred to as severely debt-ridden and being dependent on China. Combined with Islamic extremism and the tendency of the Pakistani intelligence services to foment trouble on Indian territory, this cocktail has led to an unstable Pakistani state with numerous issues. For India, this means a heavily fortified western border.
Smuggling, especially of narcotic substances, has plagued the border in Punjab since decades. Flow of drugs from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia (the Golden Triangle) involves crossing into and passage from the territory of Indian Punjab. Impact of this transit is felt in Indian Punjab, as the youth has taken to consumption of drugs and has severe social ramifications and has featured in the elections to state assembly. Political parties have often made it an election issue.
The recent elections brought victory to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which in general rode on its support to the Farmers Movement against the agriculture laws and its reputation as a party which has provided civic amenities, health and education facilities in Delhi. One of the election promises of the AAP was to curtail the use of drugs among the youth and generate employment. The border fence and bordering practices by the BSF personnel play a major role in such promises to materialize.
Punjab is known for its agricultural production and its contribution to the Indian economy. Nonetheless, there are issues which relate to agricultural practices in border villages. As the fence is on the Indian side, a vast tract of cultivable land owned by villagers lies across the fence and along the International Border. Farmers must obtain a few permits from the local administration as well as the BSF and the Army to cross the fence through several gates to cultivate and irrigate their fields. Complications related to the timings for tilling, ploughing, irrigation, harvesting and a host of related activities are resented by the farmers. During military exercises, however, farmers must make way for military vehicles and often standing crops are lost. Furthermore, during military build-ups due to tense geopolitical situations between the neighbours e.g. Operation Parakram in 2001 and the standoff after Mumbai Attacks in 2008, border villages are vacated leading to temporary displacements.
A visit to the Indo-Pakistan border reminds and impresses upon all the problems which prominently play out in the subcontinent and have hindered the prospects of development of regional cooperation when other regions of the world are rapidly integrating.