Dateline Radcliffe Line Comment

Radcliffe Line has a colour: green

“We villagers have been living peacefully, without any confrontation or trouble,” says Ranjit Singh, among the many farmers living on the Indian side of the border. Photo: Bishwanath Ghosh

“We villagers have been living peacefully, without any confrontation or trouble,” says Ranjit Singh, among the many farmers living on the Indian side of the border. Photo: Bishwanath Ghosh

One cannot be certain whether green has always been its colour, though one can say with absolute certainty that the line, when it was drawn 68 years ago, was red — soaked in the blood of some one million people killed in riots preceding and following the Partition of India. Not to mention the blood and tears of another 12 million who were uprooted from their homes because of the line and who never forgave its creators.

For that matter, even Cyril Radcliffe never forgave himself. He was summoned to Delhi in 1947 — he was neither an administrator nor a cartographer, but only a lawyer, who had never set foot in India before — with the specific assignment of partitioning Punjab and Bengal on religious lines. He arrived on July 8 that year, and having done his job, left India the very day it attained Independence, burning all his papers and without collecting his fee, 40,000 rupees — so appalled he was by the killings.

Sixty-eight years on, even though it politically divides India and Pakistan — and also India and Bangladesh, >Radcliffe Line largely remains an imaginary line, dotted by pillars, making little difference to the lives of people who are settled on the line. If you had an aerial view of the border, all you will see is greenery below you, farmers bent over their fields — difficult to tell which of the green patches belong to India and which don’t.

In contrast to Wagah spectacle

“Don’t go by what you see at Wagah every evening,” said Ranjit Singh (38), a resident of village Udhar Dhariwal (about 35 km from Amritsar district), not very far from the Wagah post, when I met him at his home.

He was referring to the daily flag-lowering ceremony, the display of a coordinated confrontation between exceptionally tall border guards from India and Pakistan — an event that draws thousands from both countries to the well-known border post on the Grand Trunk Road.“We villagers have been living peacefully, without any confrontation or trouble,” he said.

Ranjit Singh should know better. He is among the many farmers who live on the Indian side of the border and every day cross the barbed wire fencing erected by the Border Security Force (BSF) to work on their fields that touch Pakistani land.

Pakistani farmers, whenever they see us, they ask, ‘Sardar sahab, how are you? All well?’ We too enquire about their well-being and then we go about our work. We do not socialise with them because the BSF has asked us not too, but at the same time we are also not enemies, said Ranjit Singh.

If you had an aerial view of the border, all you will see is greenery below you — it is difficult to tell which of the green patches belong to India and which don’t.

While hostilities between India and Pakistan get reported, what is not widely publicised is that trains still run between the two countries: every Monday and Thursday, a train each from Delhi and Lahore meet at Attari, a small station near Amritsar, and they return to their original stations once the passengers are exchanged after immigration clearance. This apart is from two buses that run every day Delhi-Lahore and vice versa. There are also the goods trains and countless trucks that keep the trade going across the border.

“In our village, we do hear of narcotics smuggling, we do hear of packets being flung from the other side of the fencing. But such things do not interest us, neither do we show interest, because if we do, we might get into trouble. Bus, apne kaam se kaam rakkho (we stick to our business),” said Ranjit Singh.

Farmers like him are allowed to cross the fencing between 8 am and 5 pm, and they must hold a photo ID, Border Fencing Gate Pass, issued by the BSF.

When I asked Ranjit Singh to show me his farms, he took me to the terrace of his house. “There, that’s the fencing [about 200 metres away],” he pointed to me, “and beyond that — from there to there — is my land. But that tree standing near my land — that tree falls in Pakistan. We almost work in Pakistan.”

All my eyes picked up, however, was the verdant greenery.

I could visualise Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar running through the fields, their arms outstretched, in the direction of the waiting heroine, with two dozen dancers cheering them on.

Along Bangladesh

The setting was even more idyllic across the breadth of the country, in a village in West Bengal called Digaltari, >bordering Bangladesh , where I had been to four days before.

In Digaltari, I visited — accompanied by an officer from the BSF — the house of a man called Pagla, who was born when the Radcliffe Line had already been in existence for eight years. Pagla, in Bengali, means a crazy or eccentric man. No one knew why Pagla was called Pagla — not even Pagla himself. He had a proper name, though: Nadir Sheikh.

Next to Pagla’s tin house stood, barely 10 ft away, an identical house. They had a common courtyard. From the shrubs separating the two houses sprouted a weather-worn pillar: ‘977 | 7-S IND’ — which meant the Radcliffe Line ran through the courtyard, placing Pagla’s house in India, and his neighbour’s in Bangladesh.

The children and the chicken running about in the courtyard didn’t recognise the border. Neither did adults when the need arose.

“There are 12-13 houses here, some in India, some in Bangladesh. We always visit one another’s homes during weddings and funerals. This place is like my own village,” said Pagla.

Members of his neighbour’s family — who had gathered outside their house out of curiosity but were careful not to cross the imaginary line because the BSF man was present — agreed vehemently. “We are always together in times of need,” a male member said.

As a child, Pagla studied in a nearby madrasa and went on to become a farmer, growing paddy, jute and sometimes wheat. His son, who studies in a nearby high school, now works in a brick kiln near Delhi. About 30 per cent of the men in this cluster work in big cities in north India, mostly as labourers. They come home once a year, during the harvest season.

“If I go stand where the boy is standing now,” I asked aloud, to no one in particular, “Will I be entering Bangladesh?”

“Yes!” came the answer in unison.

I looked at the BSF man, who didn’t look very pleased.

Pagla’s neighbours urged me, “ Aasen na! Aasen na! Kichhu hobe na !”( Please come, please come, nothing is going to happen to you.)

Pagla too egged me on, “ Jaan na! Kichhu hobe na! ” (Go ahead, nothing is going to happen to you.)

I took two strides and I was in Bangladesh — even if for a few moments.

As we walked out of Pagla’s house, with boys of varying ages escorting us to the car, the BSF man pointed to the paddy field right across the road — a Bangladeshi paddy field — where stood a number of women and children, as if suddenly frozen as statues: they were all looking in our direction.

“Do you see them?” the BSF man said, “They were about to cross over but stopped when they saw us. They will cross over the moment we leave.”

“But why do they want to cross over?” I asked.

“To get to their homes. Their homes fall on one side of the Indian territory, their fields on the other. If they walk through India, they will reach home in no time, whereas if they keep to Bangladeshi territory, they will have to take a long detour, several kilometres, to get home.”

“At least 20 kilometres,” said one of the boys who had escorted us out.

I felt sad and angry. It is always the poor who are the worst sufferers of calamities — natural or manmade. But Radcliffe Line, even though it partitioned the country 68 years ago, has not entirely succeeded in dividing people living on the border. They still ignore the imaginary line to attend each other’s weddings and funerals. Though in the highly-guarded western border, they would need a visa for that.

(This report is the first in a series - Dateline Radcliffe Line - by Bishwanath Ghosh.)

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Printable version | Jun 26, 2022 11:08:50 pm |