Saturday, January 3, 2015

Living at the Borders: Travelling in the Thar

A shepherd on way to Tanot
Divided by history, united by geography, India and Pakistan share a long border- physical as well as metaphorical. The Border Security Forces (BSF) stands at the Indian land making sure that no one trespasses the line- once drawn on paper almost seven decades back.

I travelled to the Indo-Pak border area in the Thar desert region near the city of Jaisalmer. Tanot, a small village- known only for a temple which witnessed miracles during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and for border pillar no. 609, which stands between the two countries. These pillars are testimony to decades of separation, enmity and wars. 

Travelling to Tanot, which lies around 100 kilometres from Jaisalmer city, one realises the harsh situations under which people live. I was travelling in the winters. But the temperature rises up to 50 or 55 degree Celsius in the hot Indian summers. The region between Tanot and Jaisalmer has many small villages. And one wonders how people survive in the region. “Humans can survive anywhere. People not only live here, but have to work hard as labourers even in the month of May and June. One has to eat at the end of the day. That is most important.” shared Narayan Singh, our driver and companion during the journey in and around Jaisalmer.

The meeting point of India and Pakistan
Reaching Tanot border was not easy. One requires special permission from the BSF. Thank to Narayan and his friend Jetharam, who work in the Forest department of Rajasthan government. I got special official permission to go to the Tanot border. There is one post- pillar no. 609, which is open for public who can visit it after due permission from the BSF.

Unlike the rhetorical Wagah border which stands for the romantic version of the Indo-Pak border, with special shows for the visitors on both the sides, Tanot (or the Babliyaan border) stands there- silently, speaking the dry stories it witnessed over the decades.

Sunil Singh, while protecting india
“Nothing happens here. When I was posted in Jammu and Kashmir, the situation was much tensed. The civilians live very near the borders in Jammu and Kashmir. Here you will find nothing for around 100 kilometres. This is Thar.” Sunil Singh, a BSF soldier posted at the pillar no. 609 shared. Sunil was posted in the Jammu and Kashmir borders for over 6 years. He joined BSF in the year 2002. Since then he has been posted to many Indian borders. “When I was posted in Tripura, people from Bangladesh used to cross the border regularly. They would come to steal a kilogram of Sugar, Salt or even collect scrap materials, which they could barter in Bangladesh. You cannot even imagine the poverty. We had orders to shoot them. But it is too difficult to shoot poor people who risk their lives for food, to survive- to live one more day.” remembered Sunil while having a random conversation with me, sitting on top of the check post- at the desert border of India and Pakistan.

I wondered how Sunil lives there, and various other borders- with no mobile connectivity, no means of entertainment, in extreme weather conditions. This is the first question which comes to every civilian’s mind. Sunil smiled. “This is the life we chose.” he answered promptly, without thinking twice, as if he had either been giving this answer for years or it really did not matter to him.

“In the Jammu and Kashmir region, soldiers from both the side of the borders fire at regular intervals.” You wonder if this is the only mode of entertainment for the soldiers across the border. This statement also made me remember Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story ‘Tetwal Ka Kutta’ (Dog of Tetwal), where a dog wanders across the Indo-Pak border for food. One day the Indians soldiers see the dog. They claim that it is an Indian dog and put a board on its neck with its Indian name ‘Jhapar Jhunjhun’. When the Pakistani soldiers see the dog on their land, they claim it is a Pakistani dog and name it ‘Sapar Sunsun’. One day the dog finds a piece of chapati at the border. It goes to eat it. Meanwhile soldiers on both the sides of border, claiming their superiority, start the firing. The dog is scared. It runs as quickly as possible to reach the food. He is shot, near the chapati. I wanted to share this story with Sunil, but could not share, as we were busy discussing other more (or maybe less) important topics.

“In the Kashmir region one has to be more aware. Civilians live very near the borders. They can give shelter to people coming from the other side. You never know. Muslims may give shelter to muslim.” Sunil said the last line being conscious, not sure which religion I belonged to. This, of course, I assumed.

While leaving the post, I came across a board where it was written “Remember, Women Also Serve the Borders”, with picture of women in BSF uniform. I asked Sunil, “Are there women at the borders? I cannot see one here.”

He looks at me from the top, while I say goodbye
“Yes they are- in the regions of Punjab and few other places. They help in checking the visitors like.” said Sunil from the top of the post, while I stood at the bottom.

“And at the border, like you?”

“No. Not at the border pillars. How can they do all that.” said Sunil with a smile.

I left the place with smile on my face as well.

The miraculous Tanot temple
While returning back, I stopped at the Tanot Mata Mandir. The temple is known for the miracles it witnessed during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak war. Pakistan army dropped bombs inside the temple complex, but not a single bomb exploded. The living bombs are still kept inside the temple complex, very much near the Goddess’s idol.

Later I also visited the more famous Longewala border, where the Hindi feature film Border was shot on one of the chivalrous episodes of Indian army in the 1971 war. One can only wonder how films and limitations of fiction romanticises the struggle which the people- the soldiers, the inhabitants of the regions- face on a day to day basis.

While travelling around 250 kilometres I came to terms with the fact that even after around 7 decades of independence and subsequent partition, the border areas remain far from the race of development which rest of the nation is celebrating with joy. The Pakistan region on the other side of the border remain similarly, or even more, isolated.

Sunset in the Thar, on way back
In Thar there is no hope for the region to pace up with the speed of cities far away. It remains the protecting shield, with many wounds.

This article was first published in LokMarg on January 3, 2014

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