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A border that was never accepted
By Rina Mukherji



Subha Das Mollick's documentary Crosswinds Over Icchamati, attempts to dwell deep into the psyche of Bengali people divided against their will.

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Partition has bisected farms and villages forcing people to smuggle foodgrains

At a time when a lot is being said about the secular outlook that Jinnah had, film-maker Subha Das Mollick questions the logic that divided the nation, and declared brothers who had lived alongside for hundreds of years foreigners overnight.

Off and on, the eastern border assumes centre-stage when human rights activists question the excesses resorted to by the Border Security Forces in the line of duty. The porous Indo-Bangladesh border, the lack of demarcation of the international border over several kilometres, a large part of it formed by the mighty river Icchamati, are viewed as the biggest culprits. Yet, little is known about why this is so. Subha Das Mollick’s documentary Crosswinds Over Icchamati, attempts to answer these very questions, and examines the human tragedy that rent many homes apart.

Unlike the Western border between Kutch and Sindh, or even East and West Punjab, the eastern border between India and Bangladesh is a densely-populated region full of verdant greenery, fertile fields, and huge rivers. Largely peaceful, the Bengali Muslims along the border had rarely ever quarrelled with their Hindu neighbours. The socio-economic landscape had been so designed that the farms were in what is now Bangladesh, while the markets or village haats were in what is now India.

When the borders were drawn by the officials of British India, the local population was flabbergasted. In the words of a 95 year old Mani Mohan Sardar, “ We saw some government officers frequent these parts a little before independence. We knew India was becoming independent. But had little inkling about what the big shots were deciding in Delhi. Then a meeting was organized at the maidan here. We were told that the village would be divided. The farms that side were to be part of Pakistan. Our side would remain in India. We were given time to leave, if we wanted to.”

And did the Muslims leave? “Only those who had nothing left. Those who had land and houses, did not.”

Therein lies the story. This little village on the border near Petrapole did not experience bloodshed. But the knife of vivisection that divided the nation, cut across their lives. There were millions of others who had to leave their lands and homes and move to India, compelled by marauding mobs. The same happened to many who had to leave for Pakistan.

“The initial years saw people continue with their daily routine, since the borders remained fluid. The farmers from the other side continued their weekly trips to the market on the Indian side. Cattle and other goods continued to be taken across for being sold. Over the years, as attitudes hardened at the political level, things became difficult,” Sardar tells us in the film.


Since obtaining visa is difficult, most people on the border prefer to sneak
acrossto meet relatives

Cyril Radcliffe’s line has rent apart families, and homes. Parents on both sides of the border are unable to meet daughters and sons, save by managing to sneak across. The money to be spent on passports and visas is beyond them. Besides, the disruption of trade due to partition has so impoverished families that they must resort to illegal trade to survive.

Today, such movement has been termed ‘smuggling’. Every single day, the Border Security Force (BSF) apprehends villagers and keeps stopping them from taking rice, prescription drugs, and foodstuff across to Bangladesh. The simple transactions that spelt their daily routine once are now a crime. The BSF is viewed as harsh, and mean.

 

The problem lies with the people themselves - they have never reconciled themselves to partition. “We are all into smuggling. We are poor, how do we survive?”

The ludicrous arrangement was such that Cyril-Radcliffe’s line ran across homes, hearths, farms, orchards dividing them into India and Pakistan. How could such a border be fenced?

Moreover, the very concept of a ‘No Man’s Land’ takes a beating in this case.

Normally, several kilometres of no-man’s land separate two countries along any international border. But in the case of India and Bangladesh, this could not be effected. This is because countless farmers whose homes lie in India, must go across to till their farms that fall within the no-man’s land. Every morning, the BSF checks these farmers and lets them across, and again lets them in. The poor farmer must waste a good amount of time on registering his name and address before being allowed access to his own farm, and repeat the process when he returns back home. In winter, when daylight is at a premium, it means a loss of precious working hours. This makes it particularly difficult during harvest time.


Durga Puja celebrations on the Icchamati river on India-Bangladesh border

The Zamindars of Taki had vast tracts of land on both sides of the Icchamati river. Today, the Icchamati forms a tenuous border between two countries, with its two banks representing India and Bangladesh. However, the annual Durga Puja celebrations continue to be one event when the Radcliffe’s line is unable to keep apart the hearts that bind the two Bengals together. The Indians and the Bangladeshis line both banks as the idols get immersed, and join in unison to bid farewell to the Mother Goddess. The BSF and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) supervise the ceremony, with loudspeakers blaring instructions to people from both countries to keep to their side of the Icchamati. Often, long-separated relatives and friends are seen meeting mid-river to exchange pleasantries, since legal travel to the other side is too expensive for poor, ordinary folk. “We cannot afford the money to be spent on passports and visas,” as many point out.

Even where riverine tracts are absent, a road marks Bangladesh, while the sloping ground beneath is India. People must be careful never to step on the road if Indian, lest they be shot! The same applies to their Bangladeshi counterparts.

Life in the border villages is a constant struggle, with the border guards monitoring every move. The poverty that has accompanied with the disruption of legitimate trade, and the blocking of roads to the other side is a major reason behind the smuggling people resort to. Women often use their undergarments and lingerie to smuggle foodgrains to Bangladesh, where food is expensive. This calls for harsher punitive measures by the BSF.

And yet, there are many advantages. As a lady sarpanch points out, the constant vigil by border guards prevents any crime in these areas. The BSF also rush in to rescue any one drowning or hurt at any time of the day. Robberies and break-ins are unheard of.

Thus, the fear of the BSF is a prime mover of everything that is done here - good or bad. The policy of posting jawans who do not speak the local language is another factor responsible for the innate hostility with which the locals view the guards along the border. The division of a nation along religious lines was not accepted by the people; but today, it has resulted in a conflict between state and society. This has seen the people overstepping their limits, and often harming the interests of the nation they are citizens of.

However ridiculous the border seems to locals, one does not perceive any sign of these walls breaking down in the near future. Political exigencies felt by leaders thousands of miles away affect the lives of ordinary citizens; this is even more so in the case of families rent apart along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Using the Icchamati as a backdrop, the film-maker has dwelt deep into the psyche of a people divided against their will. Unfortunately, the film has constrained itself by only examining the social processes that mark the Indian side. There has been no attempt to examine the lives on the Bangladeshi side.

This is the only criticism one can level at an otherwise well-made, beautifully executed film that raises several burning questions.

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Rina Mukherji  |  rina.mukherji@gmail.com

Rina Mukherji is a writer, poet and journalist. She is a keen commentator on issues concerning marginalized communities, environment and development. She is based in Kolkata.

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