Meghalaya-Sylhet: A border without history or logic

A border without history or logic

The partition of India was one of the 20th century's most tragically audacious experiments in social engineering, one that denied millennia of history at the stroke of a pen. Though Partition has been the subject of considerable research, the focus has generally been its study as either a macro-political event, or as a cultural (and personal) disaster. Little work has been done on the individuals, communities and regions that straddle the artificially created borders.

If you take the Northeast of India as a unit, then fully 98 percent of its frontiers are international borders, with the remaining two percent comprising the Chicken's Neck corridor near Siliguri in West Bengal. The international boundaries of the northeastern region all encompass communities that continue across into neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and Tibet/China. These divided communities, as elsewhere in the region, share long histories of kindred language, ethnicity, culture and economic interdependence.

The hill state of Meghalaya is bound on one side by Assam and on the other by a 423 km border along what are today the Sylhet plains of Bangladesh. Colonial records are rife with reference to the commerce that took place between the hill and plain. One report noted in 1841 that, "A considerable trade in cotton, iron ore, wax, ivory, betel leaf and cloths, is carried on between the plains and the hills." The 1879 Statistical Account of Assam similarly found: "the external commerce of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills is chiefly conducted on the southern boundary, through the district of Sylhet. The total value is more considerable than might be expected, owing to the fact that these Hills practically possess the monopoly of supplying Bengal with lime, potatoes and oranges."

The hill folks met the plains people in the haat markets, where the trade was brisk. During 1876, it was estimated that total imports to the Khasi and Jaintia Hills were worth more than Rs 1.5 million. Rice was the major commodity, followed by fish products and textiles, as well as salt, tobacco, tea and coffee, brassware, liquor and the like. Total exports from the area were around Rs 1.6 million, particularly potatoes, limestone, cotton, betel and oranges.

With the redrawing of political boundaries and the emergence of new nation states, the centuries-old commerce evaporated; what little was left went underground. This is still the situation today, nearly 60 years after Partition.

One basket or two

But the locals of Meghalaya have not forgotten this historical trade. In 2001, a group of indigenous Khasi organisations submitted a memorandum to the then-president of India, K R Narayanan, which stated: "We seek Constitutional recognition to our simple Hat Markets, for our open barter trade of our perishable items with Bangladesh which has been existing since time immemorial." The petition lists commonly traded goods, highlighting the fact that most of them are perishable and hence should rely on the traditional markets for quick consumption. The petitioners also lamented the fact that the indigenous peoples were never consulted when the border was demarcated, resulting in the deprivation of traditional rights.

The Khasi assert that the country's trade figures do not reflect the realities on the ground: "The present system of declaring an area as an export and import route will not solve the problem of the thousands of poor people as they are not in a position to involve themselves in the intricacies of export and import as the majority are illiterate. They are just thousands of poor people who want to barter one or two baskets of their perishable items in exchange for fish, etc." A subsequent petition stated that such arbitrary closures of borders and issuance of directives against "these very simple ancient activities is against all humanitarian considerations."

Amidst the din of high-level border talks between Bangladesh and India, however, few seem willing to address these concerns. As if the disruption of barter-trade were not enough, the borderlanders have also had to contend with state-imposed land alienation. The enormity of this problem becomes clear in the Jaintia region of Meghalaya – an area comprised of undulating hills and lowlands, turning golden as the ubiquitous paddy ripens. For centuries, the region has been inhabited by the Khasi-Pnar, a Mon-Khmer people who originally lived in the hills, while cultivating the plains below. But no more: the flatlands are no longer theirs. The logic of Partition in this part of the Subcontinent stipulated that the tribals would live in the hills, while the plains people would cultivate the flatlands. For the Khasi-Pnar, home became India, while their fields suddenly became part of East Pakistan. In one stroke, independent cultivators became a landless people.

Looking back, there is no doubt that the logic that led to the demarcation between hills and plains was flawed and lacking in humanity. Nonetheless, that flaw comprises today's international border with Bangladesh, reinforced with concrete and barbed wire fencing. People like U Ron Pohtam or U Wah Lykroh, who live near border-pillar number 1284-4S in India, have paddy fields that they can see across the border in Bangladeshi territory – being tilled all these decades by someone else. Similar experiences are being repeated in village after village. In the Meghalaya community of Amsku, farmers Shon Lakasiang and his neighbour R Lakasiang are both considered infiltrators because they regularly cross the border to reach their fields, which they refuse to give up. They have been fired at by border guards and classified as habitual criminals. For bringing home their produce, they are now considered smugglers.

At the moment, there appears little doubt that the voices of people like Ron Pohtam will be drowned in the rush to preserve the sanctity of national borders and sovereignties. If, in that process, small communities are rendered stateless or divested of avenues necessary for their survival, it can be assumed that their voices were considered inconsequential to the quest for harmony of the 'civilised' world of nation states.

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Himal Southasian