Brittle Borders of Fragile Indian nationalism

The village of Dawki in Meghalaya is one of the many border crossing between India and Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi village of Tamabil lies on the other side of the border. It was my first ever visit to an Indian border town. I have heard many stories of Wagah, of the highly performative patriotism injected through military rituals that take themselves all too seriously, an emotive national anthem, and stern looking faces to remind us of the border that separates us. And so I expected something of a spectacle. Instead as we drove along to Dawki, we saw little or no military presence. In its place, for about 15 to 20 kilometres that lead up to Dawki from the town of Jowai, we saw what were easily over a thousand trucks lined one behind the other filled with stones, men sitting in the shade of their trucks cooking their next meal on makeshift stoves, waiting to cross over into Bangladesh to feed its construction industry. We learnt that it used to be coal, but ever since the National Green Tribunal placed an interim ban on what is called ‘rat-hole’ coal mining and its transport in Meghalaya in 2014, it has since shifted to stones.

We reached the border only by stopping along the way and asking for directions. Few signs of the Border Security Force are to be seen but where they are, each check point or outpost is marked by a Hindu temple. We got to the border that seemed to be something of a tourist destination for the predominantly Assamese and Bengali tourists that come to Dawki for boating in Umngot river (in Indian waters!), and of course to see the border. In contrast to the images built up by stories of the Wagah border, the little outpost houses only a small number of BSF jawans. One man stands at the actual border crossing. A little white pillar to the right numbering 1275 indicating the pillar number marks the limit of Indian territory. On the left side stands an Indian flag. On the Bangladeshi side lies a locally made barricade with a single wooden log that is opened manually when trucks cross. An arch of sorts lies above with a board saying ‘Welcome to Bangladesh’. There is no flag, and no security forces on that side. To the right of this lay open fields, donned with little red flags in the middle, indicating the border, India this side, Bangladesh that side. Cows feed on the grass on the Bangladeshi side. The BSF jawan standing at the border shows us the tree in the distance that continues to mark the border, India here, Bangladesh there.

As we walked towards the border, we were told not to go further and were stopped about ten feet before the actual final line, the little white pillar that said ‘India’ on one side. Next to it stood a lone man in a lungi carrying a tray of food items he was trying to sell. We asked the BSF jawan, who seemed to hail from what sounded like Haryana, if we could buy what man was selling. He quickly shook his head in a stern gesture.

‘Lekin phir woh bechega kaise?’ (But then how will he sell?)

‘Arre woh paagal hai, bas aise hi khada rehta hai, sunki aadmi hai’ (Oh he’s a crazy man, keeps standing there like that, he’s crazy)

‘Woh kya bech raha hai?’ (What is he selling?)

‘Aise hi kuch sade hue puraane se ber bech raha hai. Kuch 5-10 rupai ka samaan hoga, hum ko bewakoof samajhke 25 rupai mein bechta hai. Hum ko thagata hai salaa’ (Some rotten old berries. They must cost something like 5-10 rupees, but he sells it to us [Indians] for 25 rupees. He cheats us like that)

Another individual who just arrived asked him again if he could go buy what he was selling and with incredible patience he politely denied him the permission again. ‘Bechara(poor thing), said the man. The BSF jawan retorted, ‘koi bechara vechara kuch nahin hai. Apne logon ko jaa ke beche(he is no poor thing. Let him go and sell to his own [Bangladeshi] people).

We watched this interaction in amusement, wonderstruck at the jawan who got so riled up about a poor lone man selling what we discovered were the most deliciously pickled berries typical to most parts of the Northeast and parts of Bangladesh for a measly sum of 20 rupees. As the jawan retorted he should go back and sell to his own people, I thought of the more than thousand trucks waiting to reap generous profits from across the border. It was amusing all the moreso because even as the BSF jawan got all riled up, the vendor remained unfazed, standing firmly on his side of the border, quiet, resolute, and non-reactive. The border was no Wagah, but nevertheless there was a spectacle performed for us. An official in civil clothes stood between us, ten feet away from the border, and shouted at the vendor, threatening to beat him to pulp, humiliating him, even as the vendor looked on knowing fully well the Indian official could do little to harm him, as long he stuck to his side of the border.

A local man who seemed to be well acquainted with the BSF jawan offered to buy the glass of pickled ber for me and I quickly took him up on his offer. Distracted when the transaction took place, I missed that moment to thank the vendor. As we stood around, eating the ber and relishing its flavour, thinking about the BSF jawan who made the vendor out to be a crazy man standing at the border trying to sell Indians rotten things, the border opened on the Bangladeshi side and three empty trucks with Assam registration plates drove back into India, probably after a successful sale of stones. A few minutes later the border opened again, two young boys with rucksacks holding green passports, indicating Bangladeshi passports, crossed the border, being watched the whole time by the conglomeration of Indian tourists, to proceed to have their papers checked by Indian authorities. Once done, they proceeded to haggle with the local taxi guys for a decent price to get to Shillong. That’s how it should be isn’t it, my friend commented, cross the border by foot, get to the other side, find a ride and visit Shillong.

Meanwhile an Indian official urges tourists to take a photo with the Indian flag, which they promptly do. We are a nation that does as we are told. An Assamese woman does some self-reflection. She comments to her family, ‘look at us, we keep criticising Bangladeshis and now we have come to see their country‘. So much for self-reflection. Meanwhile, there isn’t quite as much of a flurry of tourist activity on the Bangladeshi side. They go about their daily work, some construction activity, a few shops, and a few people sit around watching us watch them. An Indian tourist clarifies for his own understanding, asking the BSF jawan, ‘woh jo log wahaan baithein hain, woh Bangladeshi hain?‘ (those people sitting there, are they Bangladeshis?). As photos are clicked and selfies abound, the jawan’s job is to see to it that no one goes too close to the border, or in other words, no one goes too close to the man selling berries, constantly asking people to move back. He tells us this prohibition from going till the last point, the ‘India’ pillar, is relatively recent. Earlier they would even let people go all the way till the barricade.

‘Yeh inhi logon ki vajah se band hua hai(this has happened because of them), indicating the vendor, says the jawan.

kyun, kya kiya inhone?’ (why, what did they do?)

‘log sab udhar tak jaate the, yeh log apna sab bechte the. Phir kha ke yahin sab phaink dete the. Ab yahaan koi safai karne wala bhi nahin hai, toh pura ganda rehta tha. Humare senior jab aaye toh phir humse poochte hain, tumhare kya woh rishtedar lagte hain kya?’ (everyone used to go till there, these guys used to sell their stuff. Then after eating they would throw the glasses around. Now there is no one to do the cleaning here, so it was all strewn around with garbage. Our senior came and saw this and asked us, are they your family or what (indicating the vendors)?)

I laughed hearing this explanation, and wondered whether he really didn’t see that the problem was we didn’t know how to dispose off our garbage, or whether he was simply performing this anti-Bangladeshi sentiment for us, absurdly crystallised in the ill-will harboured towards that lone vendor selling pickled ber for 20 rupees. He did repeat the story twice to us, making me think he may in fact believe his version. Maybe he has told it so many times, maybe they discussed it often amongst themselves, maybe they were bitter because they were reprimanded by their seniors, but irrational as the logic was, it was the easiest to believe. We laughed and remained amused at how the Indian armed forces and state officials remained engaged in a battle of ego with the lone vendor, asserting their Indian patriotism and nationalism in a one upmanship with him. It appeared the primary task of the jawan standing at the border crossing, smartly dressed in his uniform, donning his gun, manning the border, was to keep us away from the Bangladeshi vendor of pickled berries so that we wouldn’t buy them, so that we wouldn’t throw the remains around and dirty the surroundings.

It was a hot day, and tired from standing in the hot sun with his tray of food, the vendor placed the tray to rest for a minute, over the ‘India’ pillar. My friend quickly picked up the camera to catch the shot – Bangladesh offending Indian nationalism in that one moment. And as he took the photo, it caught the attention of the jawan, who took note of the tray on the pillar and shouted from across, ‘abbe table samajh ke rakha hai kya, utha apna tray!‘ (do you think it is a table, pick up your damned tray!). The three of us burst out laughing unable to control ourselves. The Bangladeshi took much of the nationalist paraphernalia for what it was, a little piece of concrete painted white with a flat top, just right to rest his tray.

Even as my first encounter with the border was unlike anything I had imagined or expected, and full of these hilarious little anecdotes, the absurdity of which bring out the hollowness and fragility of Indian nationalism, shaken by the lone vendor selling pickled berries for 20 rupees, it was also tragic at the same time – the man standing resolutely at the absolute last point of the border, offering us a little something to beat the heat with, Indians standing ten feet away refusing his offerings. The whole time, all I wanted to do was to thank the man for his ber and tell him it was delicious. But am I allowed to speak to him? To communicate with him? Can I wave to him? Will I be reprimanded by the BSF jawan? Will they take it out on him? Despite the border crossing being one few could take too seriously, the border itself loomed large creating between us a distance so vast, even as we stood a mere ten feet apart, that we remained two people, of two countries, alien, staring at each other in silence, watching them watch us watching them, as though we were looking out a window from afar. I never did thank him, but only kept looking in his direction, hoping, maybe, he could tell that we very much enjoyed his pickled berries.

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Vasundhara Jairath Written by:

Vasundhara is an activist associated with New Socialist Initiative

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