The geopolitical wound called ‘the border’ cannot stop the cultural undercurrents. The ‘artistic border’ is artificial. It should not be there, and it is up to us to erase it.
– Gomez Pena
The cultural and political identities of people living in international borderlands are constantly in contradiction with one another. Borderlands often serve as buffer zones between hostile neighbouring states, yet people living on opposite sides of a border tend to share cultural attributes. As such, inhabitants of these areas often face severe crises of identity. Borders are also frequently incongruous with economics, as transnational trade tends to render these lines obsolete. While the world remains politically divided, almost every state today seeks to play down the existence of its boundaries for the sake of economy. This disconnect, between a state’s political and economic affairs, becomes increasingly stark by the year.
The 4096-kilometre frontier between India and Bangladesh runs through one of the most densely populated borderlands in the world. It is also one of the most porous borders. As such, these neighbours continue to reflect the essence of what Clifford Geertz referred to in his 1963 essay “Old Societies and New States”, in which he described the role played by traditional cultures and social structures, particularly “primordial ties and sentiments”, in the process of political development. Here Geertz is referring to ties of kinship, tribe, custom, language, region, religion and so on – connections that function as traditional means of social placement, as well as sources of personal security. When citizens prefer to emphasise racial, regional or religious loyalties at the expense of the nation state as a whole, they come to pose a threat to the viability of newly formed states.
The border between Bangladesh and West Bengal runs through what Geertz might call an ‘old society’. Close familial ties, as well as social and economic relationships, continue to exist across the border. The semi-permeable nature of the border means that it is possible for these communities to maintain these strong ties, as well as to engage in crossborder trade. At issue, however, is how people living on both sides of the border maintain their identity against the backdrop of the border economy.
A new border
The two-nation theory that ultimately resulted in Partition ignored many cultural and linguistic commonalities shared by Hindu and Muslim Southasians. Though religious differences were seen in that context as strong enough to undermine all other commonalities, faith ultimately proved an insufficient binding force. On 21 February 1952, the Pakistani government attempted to suppress a mass agitation of students at Dhaka University, demanding the recognition of Bengali as a national language. Although the government eventually acceded to these demands, the economic and cultural disparities between East and West Pakistan continued to grow, and the groundwork for their eventual split was laid.
On 25 March 1971, the Pakistani military began an ‘ethnic cleansing’ process in East Pakistan, which Islamabad’s military leaders said was essential for the maintenance of the country’s territorial integrity. Large numbers of the East Pakistani Bengali population took shelter across the border in India, particularly in Assam, Tripura and West Bengal – with the population of the latter, especially the Bengalis of East Pakistan, sharing a common culture and language. What came to be known as Bangladesh’s War of Liberation continued for nine months, and the death toll, it is said, climbed to more than three million.
By the end of November 1971, almost ten million East Pakistani Bengalis had taken refuge in India’s east and Northeast. During this process, the Bengalis of West Bengal had shown great support for their kin from East Pakistan. After the relations between these two communities had plummeted following Partition, there was the sense that a re-unification was underway. On 3 December 1971, India declared war against Pakistan, following strikes against Indian Air Force bases in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. Thirteen days later, the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dhaka. When the fighting was over, the East Pakistan-India border had become the frontier between India and the new state of Bangladesh.
Centrality of the field
Almost every village economy in Southasia depends on agricultural production, and the border villages of India and Bangladesh are no exception. Due to periodic flooding, this deltaic area is highly suitable for paddy production, and fields can yield three crops a year. Jute in particular is a crucial cash crop. Bangladesh and India together supply more than 85 percent of total global demand for jute, and much of this comes from these borderlands.
The recent introduction of artificial fibres has greatly reduced the worldwide demand for jute, however. This has hit the Bangladesh-India border region hard, causing a steep drop in the viability of jute as a cash crop in these areas. An increase in the number of nuclear families in the frontier area in recent years has also led to the fragmentation of cultivable land, as it is divided among smaller and smaller numbers of family members. Moreover, high fertility rates (2.2 percent in West Bengal, in 2004; 3.1 percent on the Bangladeshi side, as of 2006) contribute to an increase in family size every year. Due to this fragmentation of landholdings, many locals can no longer depend on agricultural production to meet their expenses. In addition, the extensive use of chemical fertilisers has reduced the productivity of these lands over time, a problem further exacerbated by natural disasters and ecological changes due to human intervention. As such, many families on both sides, though they continue to engage in subsistence production to meet part of their needs, are currently in the process of giving up agriculture as their primary occupation.
Commonalities between the agricultural communities on the two sides go well beyond farming methods and the impact of globalisation. Although there has been some pressure on the Bangladesh side for Muslim women to not engage in income-generating activities, for instance, both Hindu and Muslim women on both sides of the border participate in crop-processing work. The only agricultural activity not done by the women of either community is ploughing.
Rain is a decisive factor in paddy cultivation, and the sky is subsequently a central concern for villagers throughout the Bangladesh-India frontier. A delay in the monsoon rains brings hardship, and so communities in these areas have long performed a unique ritual to entice the rain gods. Villagers begin by digging a small hole in the middle of a field and filling it with water. A frog is then blessed with vermillion, and put into the hole. The reverberating sounds that the frog makes as it descends below the surface of the water are believed to be heard by the rain gods, who will hopefully send clouds to the area’s farms. Although communities on the Indian side of the border continue to follow this ritual, it has in recent decades been halted by clerics on the Bangladeshi side, who claim that Islam does not permit the worship of deities.
While distinctions in belief have led border communities in India and Bangladesh to practice different religious observances and rituals, families in this area have inherited a host of cultural festivals that date back to the common historical evolution. For instance, poush shankranti is widely celebrated in border villages throughout the frontier area. This holiday falls on the last day of the Bengali month of poush (around mid-January) on the occasion of nobanno – a term derived from the Bengali words nobo and anno, literally meaning ‘new rice’. On the occasion of Nobanno, a family’s eldest son carries a basket filled with newly harvested paddy atop his head, and proceeds to symbolically drop the rice into the aanchol, or the spread-out end of the sari, of his mother or wife. The fact that this act is performed only by the eldest son is also indicative of the crossborder proclivity towards systems of male primogeniture.
Following Nobanno, the borderland communities celebrate Poush Shankranti by preparing various types of pitha, a special type of pancake made from the new rice, which is dipped in molasses. Because neither of these festivals is religious, but rather closely tied with the agricultural traditions of the area, both Poush Shankranti and Nobanno are still widely celebrated on both sides of the border. To this day, such festivals and related traditions offer an opportunity to establish cordial relations among the frontier communities – an important fact, given that the local economies of both sides remain significantly intertwined.
Passports and visas never figure in the daily interactions of the border communities. At most, people on the Indian side who own agricultural fields within the 300-metre-wide no-man’s land are asked to show a special identity card issued by the Border Security Force in order to visit their lands. Farmers on the Bangladesh side face no such hurdles.
There are two important village markets in the Bangladesh-West Bengal borderlands, one on either side of the border. These are Boira, in West Bengal’s Parganas District, and Dihi Union, in Jessore District on the other side. Both villages are centrally located and well connected to other villages. Nearly all essential household commodities are available at these markets, which are made up of kuchcha (makeshift) and pucca (permanent) shops, street hawkers and buyers from neighbouring or distant villages. People also regularly cross the border to visit these markets, in order to purchase commodities that are either not available or prohibitively expensive in their local markets.
Apart from local markets, there are two weekly haat (temporary market) days in these borderland villages. On the Indian side, the village haats are generally held on Tuesdays and Saturdays; in Bangladesh, on Sundays and Wednesdays. Haat committees on both sides of the border fix the days for holding these weekly markets, and assure that the haat days on either side do not coincide with each other, thus allowing people to join their own village weekly haats as well as those across the border. People from neighbouring and distant villages come to visit these haats to sell homemade products and to purchase household necessities. Haats have traditionally offered an opportunity for people living in different villages to maintain regular contact with their relatives and acquaintances. As such, ongoing trade has been one of the most important ways in which communities in these areas have maintained social ties. Indeed, were it not for such trade, crossborder communities may have acceded to the imposition of an international line in the sand long ago, which would inevitably have curtailed their traditional movements and connections.
According to World Bank figures, informal trade accounts for at least three-fourths of all trade between India and Bangladesh, which stands at around USD 2 billion. Both New Delhi and Dhaka are thus seriously concerned about ‘illegal’ local crossborder trade, which regularly deprives both state administrations of the import and export duties levied on legal exchange. As agriculture becomes less profitable, however, crossborder trade is increasingly becoming the easiest means for people on both sides of the West Bengal-Bangladesh border to make a living. Essential goods such as rice, wheat, sugar, salt and cattle are regularly ‘smuggled’ from the Indian side to Bangladesh, while Bangladeshi products such as cosmetics, soap, cigarettes and electronic goods find their way into West Bengal.
Due to these economic constraints, coupled with the historicity of the act, the vast majority of local crossborder traders cannot truly be considered as ‘smugglers’, though this has long been the official rhetoric. Despite state-imposed embargos on unregulated trade, few official actions by either India or Bangladesh have been able to dent this trade. But Indian authorities are currently constructing a barbed-wire fence all along the border, in the hope of stopping infiltration from Bangladesh and reducing the level of illegal crossborder trade. This massive construction project is slated to finish by 2010. People on both sides of the border worry that the fencing will increase interference by border-security guards in local social life, as well as greatly reduce the level of interaction between the crossborder communities. At the same time, however, locals do not foresee the border-fencing as seriously impinging on crossborder trade. Border personnel on both sides, they claim, are more interested in personal gain than in the welfare of the state. As such, they continue, fencing will simply encourage security-agency employees to earn more money from the crossborder traders, while the locals will find various ways to make the fence irrelevant.
Regardless of the official stance, border communities in these areas continue to depend greatly on this type of trade, a fact that has led to a number of differing local views on illegal crossborder trading. Some worry that it is a way by which to earn ‘easy’ money, claiming that doing so not only makes people lazy due to high mark-ups, but that it is also results in the moral degradation of the youth. Indeed, even school-going children are engaged in illegally ferrying goods across the border, often at the insistence of their parents. While most deal in essential commodities, some crossborder traders can truly be considered as smugglers, trafficking alcohol, illegal and over-the-counter drugs, such as cough syrups. In part as a result of the trade, drug mafias in the borderlands encourage young people to take drugs from them on credit, with an eye towards addicting them. Many also suggest that such children could become addicted to easy, ‘dishonest’ money, and cite this as a reason for the increasing number of primary-school dropouts on both sides of the border. From 2001 to 2002 alone, the dropout percentage in villages on the Bangladesh side of the border increased from 2.4 to 3.2, and on the Indian side from 2.9 to 3.1.
These negative aspects notwithstanding, most community members agree that important social and economic factors make crossborder trade necessary. Those living along the frontier, they note, have few means of income. Despite the fact that many families can no longer depend on agricultural production, industrialists in both India and Bangladesh have been hesitant to set up industries so close to a border that is often under dispute. Illegal trading, though risky, is one of the few sure-fire ways for many to earn money.
Maintaining cordial crossborder relations is crucial for people on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border. Relations are not limited to business, but extend to the personal and the familial. Invitations are often extended to people on the other side during commonly attended celebrations and other social functions. Business dealings take place in an environment characterised by congeniality and trust. Outside of social occasions, traders meet regularly at places within the no-man’s land known to be negotiation sites. These places are called ghats, and each is known by a different name, such as purvo (eastern) ghat or dokkhin (southern) ghat. Warm crossborder social connections are the bedrock of the high level of trust characteristic of the negotiations that take place at these ghats. This is illustrated by the lack of hesitation to supply goods on credit, despite the high risk of government seizure during transportation.
Border guards on both sides have long been placed on high alert to prevent crossborder trading. How successful guards have been, however, has always depended on their relationships with the local community. In general, traders pay guards a lump sum for access to the ghats, as well as fixed prices for each consignment of goods. This reign of individual interest exposes the limited grip of the state – whether Bangladeshi or Indian – in border areas.
Far from being faced with irresolvable disputes over the use of common resources, communities in the Bangladesh-West Bengal borderlands tend to feel a sense of solidarity in their common situation. Farmers from both sides who cultivate in the no-man’s land meet regularly to share food, stories and agricultural innovations. Only distinctions in religion divide these people into separate communities. The border thus seems imaginary or irrelevant, in that social and economic ties continue as if it did not exist. Even while the central governments may be on the verge of war, border economies bind crossborder communities into an ongoing relationship. The breakdown of that relationship would have a drastic effect on all – a fact that everyone involved understands intrinsically.
From time to time, both New Delhi and Dhaka feel the need to restrict movements across their boundaries for the sake of their state identities. But this is not due to worry over encroachment by a group of people who are vastly different, but rather due to a perceived threat from the shared cultural features of those across the border. Day-to-day interactions between peoples of the frontier, crossborder trading, sharing of common natural resources, exchanges of new ideas about local conditions, participation in common cultural festivals – all of these, after all, seriously call into consideration, and potentially undermine, the reality of a political border. Fortunately for local and national communities alike, such traditional connections are vastly more difficult to sever than most policymakers would wish.
~ Antu Saha is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of Delhi