Transition 089 - Featured Article

Splitting the Difference

Amitava Kumar

The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

—W. H. Auden

On the day when they behold the angels, the evildoers will not rejoice.
The angels will say to them: “You shall never cross that barrier.”

—The Holy Qur'an

There is a tall brick gateway on each side of the border. One side proclaims in Hindi, “Mera Bharat Mahan.” Our India Is Great. On the other side, the sign is written in Urdu: “Pakistan Zindabad.” Long Live Pakistan.

I had arrived in Lahore a few days before, on a Pakistan International Airlines jet. Passport in hand, I took my place in a line before a row of desks where customs officials sat. Two men in mufti fell in beside me, and one of them asked for my papers. He had recognized my Indian passport. His right eye was filmy, and it remained fixed on something to my left while he questioned me about my itinerary: where I was going, where I would stay, how I knew my hosts. I looked up to notice that the line had disappeared. An official waved me over, ignoring the plainclothes policemen. “Welcome to Pakistan,” he said.

It's a forty-minute drive from Lahore to Wagah, where the border lies. The road to Wagah wends its way through small pastoral villages full of brick kilns, buffaloes, and mustard fields. There were boys playing cricket in dusty plots by the roadside. There were gaudily decorated buses—one of them had an F-16 painted on the driver's side, with the word “Pilot” emblazoned underneath. There were cattle, bullock-carts, and turbaned men on foot. Every few minutes, we passed another emaciated dog, barking insistently, guarding its stretch of broken highway. I was just thinking how similar this was to the landscape on the other side of the border when Anwar Muhammad, my driver, asked, “Do you have wide roads like this in India, too?” I lied and said no. I was trying to be friendly to each and every Pakistani. I was going to the border, after all.

Suddenly, Anwar pulled over. We would have to walk the rest of the way. Anwar explained that the only vehicle allowed to cross the border was a bus that ran between New Delhi and Lahore. The route was opened in early 1999, and Atal Behari Vajpayee, the prime minister of India, had made the inaugural trip. The words “Sada-e-Sarhad” (Call of the Border) were painted on both sides of the bus. Vajpayee had greeted his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, here at Wagah. But only a few months later, war broke out. The fighting was once again along the Line of Control that functions as the border in the disputed territory of Kashmir. The battle was fought in and around a town called Kargil, among snow-covered Himalayan peaks. Soon after the cease-fire that ended the fighting in Kargil, Sharif was deposed in a military coup. Still, the bus soldiers on, rolling through the gates at Wagah four times a week. When we got out of the car to walk, I noticed that Anwar was carrying a light machine gun.

As I approached the border post, a young Pakistani guy walked just ahead of me, cigarette in hand. Two men were sitting on chairs by the side of the road. One of them gestured sternly at the cigarette. The azaan, the call to prayer, had just sounded from a nearby mosque. “It's Ramzan,” the man said in Urdu. The smoker quickly stamped the cigarette out. The man on the chair told Anwar to remove the magazine from his gun and give it to the guards farther up the road.

After passing under the arched gateway, you walk for a long stretch toward a guard who protects a white line across the tar road. This is the Zero Point. The border between India and Pakistan is approximately 1,250 miles long, but the Zero Point is the only place where you're allowed to cross. White arrows point at the line from either side, as if you could miss it.

* * *

Wagah. Throughout the subcontinent, that single word conjures memories of Partition, the monumental act that carved Pakistan out of India in 1947. The idea of a separate Muslim state, free from Hindu domination, had first been voiced in 1930 by the poet Mohammed Iqbal. Seventeen years later, when the idea became a reality, the creation of a new country for Indian Muslims was accompanied by unimaginable violence. More than a million people died. Partition precipitated the largest exodus in recorded history. How many migrated across the brand new border? Fourteen million? Eighteen million?

The British, preparing to grant India its independence, had announced the plan in June of 1947. Three weeks later, they set up a Boundary Commission to separate the Muslim-majority areas from the Hindu-majority ones. In a matter of weeks, the British had created Pakistan. Little thought was given to the millions who lost their homes overnight. People who had only just won their freedom from Britain were now told that they were refugees. The principal architect of Partition, Cyril Radcliffe, had never been to India before. He knew nothing about it, save what he picked up in five weeks in a New Delhi office, studying unreliable maps and outdated census statistics. The day before Independence, Radcliffe wrote to his nephew:

    Down comes the Union Jack on Friday morning and up goes—for the moment I rather forget what, but it has a spinning wheel or a spider's web in the middle. I am going to see Mountbatten sworn as the first Governor General of the Indian Union at the Viceroy's house in the morning and then I station myself firmly on the Delhi airport until an aeroplane from England comes along. Nobody in India will love me for the award about the Punjab and Bengal and there will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me. I have worked and traveled and sweated—oh I have sweated all the time.

When you go to Wagah and stand near the white line that divides the two countries, it is impossible not to think of Radcliffe. Perhaps it's too easy to blame the British. The novelist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas once asked, “Did the English whisper in your ears that you may chop off the head of whichever Hindu you find, or that you must plunge a knife in the stomach of whichever Muslim you find?” And yet Indian nationalism was a response to British rule. The ideology of nationalism is an ideology of difference, a return to roots, a vision of wholeness. That's why so many visitors to Wagah seem to take comfort in a white line painted on the ground. The line assures the viewer that the border exists, clearly defined and zealously protected. The line returns more than one-sixth of the world's inhabitants to a moment in their history, more than fifty years ago, when they awoke to freedom.

Those who seek such reassurance are severely tested by other lines. I'm thinking of the lines composed by Urdu and Hindi writers who write about Partition. Many of those visiting Wagah are familiar with Saadat Hasan Manto's classic short story “Toba Tek Singh.” It tells of Bishan Singh, an old inmate of a lunatic asylum, who is also called by the name of his village in Punjab: Toba Tek Singh. When he is told about Partition, Singh exclaims, “Uper the gur gur the mung the dal of the laltain.” That is neither Punjabi nor English nor Hindi nor Urdu—it's just gibberish. In the story, no one seems to know whether Toba Tek Singh belongs in India or Pakistan, and his insanity becomes a mirror that reveals the fundamental absurdity of maps and nations. “Toba Tek Singh” ends with an aerial view of its eponymous character.

    There, behind barbed wire, on one side, lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other side, lay Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

Where did Toba Tek Singh lie? If the painted line is the border, then where is the “bit of earth” in between? In Wagah, that's what the young man who'd been asked to extinguish his cigarette wanted to know. He addressed his question to a Pakistani Ranger. At that moment, the guard was showing me the hobnailed soles of his standard-issue sandals. He looked up at the young man and gestured vaguely toward the barbed wire.

* * *

A week later, I was at a literary festival in Delhi, listening to Gulzar, an Urdu poet and filmmaker from Bombay. Born in a village called Deena in what is now Pakistan, Gulzar crossed into India by train during the riots in the months before Partition. As he remembers it, “I was still a child then, and I had to step over the corpses.” At the festival, Gulzar sat on a panel devoted to Partition literature, and he had invited me because he knew that I had just been to Pakistan. The meeting was held in a sunlit brick amphitheater, with strings of marigold hung from the surrounding trees; mustard flowers waved in the fields beyond. Gulzar read a series of works, concluding with a poem entitled “Toba Tek Singh.”

Gulzar's poem is faithful to the details of Manto's story: the poem's narrator wants to go to Wagah in order to tell Bishan Singh that the ordeal of Partition still continues. There are hearts that have yet to be divided; 1947 was only the first partition. Bishan's Muslim friends have succeeded in crossing the border, though some only as corpses. Bishan's daughter used to visit him once a year, an inch taller each time; now she is diminished by an inch with every passing year. The poem opens with the narrator hearing the call from Wagah:

    I have to go to Wagah and meet Toba Tek Singh's Bishan
    I have heard that he is still standing on his swollen legs
    exactly where Manto had left him.
    He still mutters “Uper the gur gur the mung the dal of the laltain.”

Listening to Gulzar read his poem, my thoughts returned to the young man in Wagah. The truth is, there is no neutral territory between India and Pakistan. In his new book Amritsar to Lahore, Stephen Alter writes:

    One of the great disappointments of my own journey was to discover that there is no such thing as a no man's land. At both the railway and road crossings, the territory of each country is entirely contiguous. Nothing separates these two nations, except for manmade structures like fences and gates. . . . Pakistan ends precisely where India begins.

So why is the myth of the no man's land so persistent? I think it has something to do with the power of literature. Alter himself admits that Toba Tek Singh came to mind when he visited the border. Indeed, for many readers, Toba Tek Singh has long been the symbol that captures the meaning of Partition. Bishan is the fool who does not know whether he belongs to India or to Pakistan, and his no man's land is a limbo of existential doubt and despair. But I think another reading is possible. Maybe Bishan is staking a claim to the “bit of earth which had no name.” Maybe he is saying yes to both nations. And maybe a no man's land is the only place where he can do that.

* * *

On May 11, 1998, three explosions rocked the desert wastes of Rajasthan. Hours later, Prime Minister Vajpayee held a press conference, announcing that the world's largest democracy had conducted a test of its nuclear weapons. Of course, this was no mere scientific experiment; the test was a threat, intended to intimidate Pakistan. Newspapers and governments around the world denounced the detonations, but India was unbowed. By the end of the month, Pakistan had exploded its own nukes, realizing the dream of an “Islamic bomb” and answering India's challenge in kind. When fighting in Kargil erupted the following year, Indian and Pakistani leaders exchanged nuclear threats no fewer than thirteen times. The most remarkable thing about the contest of tests was the rhetoric, a kind of medieval machismo. Bal Thackeray, leader of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena Party, was positively exuberant: “We have proved that we are not eunuchs any more.” India had named its missile system Prithvi, Hindi for “earth.” But Pakistan assumed the Prithvi in question was Prithvi Raj Chuhan, a twelfth-century Hindu king who resisted the Afghan invader Shahabuddin Ghauri, founder of the first Muslim kingdom in India. As it happened, Pakistan had just named one of its own missile programs after the aforementioned Afghan invader.

To all appearances, the two countries were more divided than ever. And yet despite all the military posturing, ambivalence about Partition runs deep. Indeed, even as they flaunt their nuclear arsenal, the ultra-nationalists of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) harbor fantasies of erasing the border: their dream is to reunite the territories, by force if necessary, in order to create an undivided India. Theirs is a dream of unity—albeit a murderous dream. The dream exists on the other side of the border, too. In Pakistan, a militant Islamic group recently resolved to wrest Kashmir from Indian control and then use the province as a beachhead for a jihad against the whole of India. No one better embodies this Pakistani dream than Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the militant Harkat-ul-Mujahideen group, who was released from an Indian jail on New Year's Eve 1999 in exchange for hostages from a hijacked Indian Airlines flight. Azhar has warned India:

    Allah has sent me here, and if you cast an evil eye towards my beloved country, I will first of all enter India with 500,000 of my mujahideen, inshallah. That is why I am touring almost the whole nation these days. Half a million are ready, and according to the messages I am getting from across the country, I have many more mujahideen than these. The mothers are giving me their sons and asking me to make them like Bin Qasim [the Arab conqueror of Sind in 710 A.D.], not the worshippers of the West. The sisters are handing me their brothers and asking me to convert them into the warriors of Islam. The elders are telling me that our beards are white but even today we are ready to take up guns and come with you.

For fundamentalists on either side, the present is just a prelude to the past. Both sides dream of rolling back the clock—and rolling back the border.

These competing fantasies of unity have bred a new kind of affinity on the subcontinent. As the filmmaker and peacenik Anand Patwardhan puts it, “Cross-border solidarity has been the only silver lining in the mushroom cloud.” We were sitting in a makeshift editing room in Patwardhan's Bombay apartment. As we talked, I looked at a freeze-frame on his monitor. It showed a famous Bollywood personality, mouth open, in the midst of uttering a patriotic inanity about how each bit of dirt is sacred to Indians. Patwardhan continued: “Ever since India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, relations between peace activists in India and Pakistan have blossomed.” While much of the country was celebrating the first nuclear blast, he explained, Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy deepened a dialogue between citizens who want to work for peace in both countries. In seven years, the forum has sponsored four successful conferences, and peace activists now gather every New Year's Eve at Wagah for a candlelight vigil at the border.

Do good fences make good neighbors? The peace activists certainly want better relations between India and Pakistan, but they aren't lobbying for unification. Although they are eager to ease restrictions on travel and trade across the border, they nevertheless want the border itself to remain intact. In a better world, they suggest, borders won't mean so much; indeed, the nuclearization of the subcontinent reveals the arbitrariness of the division. Who needs armed guards and a white line when you can exterminate a city with the push of a button? The white line at Wagah seems almost obsolete, an artifact from an era when fighting a war meant moving troops across a border.

* * *

The metal gates on both sides are pulled shut at sunset, at the same precise instant, by opposing teams of guards. This evening ceremony is called Beating Retreat, and it's the most popular tourist attraction in Wagah—on the night I saw it, there were visitors from all over the world. Soldiers from both India and Pakistan present arms. Then the national flags are lowered amid much blowing of bugles. Commanders from the two border patrols march up to one another and shake hands. The tourists applaud. Before the event is over, spectators on both sides are allowed to rush forward and gaze at each other from a distance of about fifteen feet. Throughout this ceremony, the guards mirror each other perfectly: their goose-stepping, their aggressive gestures, their shouted commands, all in sync. But the two enemies make sure not to cross the line that holds them apart. So how do they learn to perform this intimate dance? How well do we know each other? How hard do we work to remain enemies?


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