The choreographed aggression of flag-lowering ceremonies on the Wagah border dividing Punjab and frequent cross-border gunfire in Jammu and Kashmir are stereotypical images of the Indo-Pak border. They tend to resonate especially on the days that commemorate the birth of both countries – August 14 for Pakistan and August 15 for India. In both states, national narratives dominated by such images ignore other border crossings between the two neighbours. This is especially true of border crossings that emphasise not the animosity but the continuing links that exist across the border. The Munabao-Khokhrapar crossing on the Sindh-Rajasthan border is an example.
Substantive efforts to connect the border regions of India and Pakistan have centered on bus services and cross-border trade meant to connect the two Punjabs and the two Kashmirs. On the Munabao-Khokhrapar border, however, despite continuous demands to open the land route for trade, the only connection between Rajasthan and Sindh is the passenger train – the Thar Express. Recent media reports of the ‘exodus’ of Hindus from Sindh underline the need to enable further cross-border exchanges in these contiguous area, rather than hampering them as current regulations do.
One step in this direction may come from recent efforts to step up Indo-Pak trade in petrol and petroleum products. At the first meeting of the Experts’ Group on Trade in Petroleum & Petrochemical Products in New Delhi in July, officials discussed the possibility of a dedicated rail route on the Sindh-Rajasthan border. Oil was discovered in Barmer, Rajasthan in 2004, and the British energy giant Cairn and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) have set up a joint oil production facility at the site. This offers great potential for the Rajasthan-Sindh border since currently the only other point for trade in petrochemical products is the Attari-Wagah railway line, which is restricted to trade in petrochemical products of the Indian Oil Corporation.
Trade was also the main reason for the first train line ploughing through the desert area as far back as the late nineteenth century. According to the Rajasthan State Barmer District Gazetteer:
The first railway line in this area, a branch line of the Jodhpur railway from Luni Junction to Pachpadra via Balotra [all three are in Rajashtan] was opened on March 23, 1887. The main intention does not appear [to be] to provide passenger facilities but to enable the fuller exploitation of the salt beds.
Writing The Meter-Gauge of Sindh, Owais Mughal says the Karachi Chamber of Commerce was keen on greater connectivity with present day Rajasthan in the late 19th century, but though the Eastern Indian Railways did propose the idea of a broad-gauge line from Kotri (lower Sindh) to Delhi through Sindh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, the idea was shelved. It was only in December 1900, according to the Barmer District Gazetteer, that the line connecting Barmer and Sadipalli (Sindh) was laid out under the management of the Jodhpur-Bikaner Railways on what is now the Munabao-Khokhrapar route.
The start of railway services through Barmer was a setback for Jaisalmer, which was earlier an important centre of trade in the region. According to the Rajasthan State District Gazetteer of Jaisalmer in 1973: “… Jaisalmer enjoyed the privileged position of falling on important trade routes connecting prosperous trade centres in Sind, Punjab, Bikaner, Jodhpur and Bahawalpur states and beyond upto Kabul.” Lieutenant Colonel KD Erskine, in the Rajputana Gazetteers, Vol. III-A, 1909, estimates that Jaisalmer’s transit duty was about 3 lakh INR every year. While there is no doubt that Barmer was more of a transit point and that the bulk of trade with Sindh passed through Jaisalmer and Kutch (Gujarat), Barmer too was famous for certain imports even before the rail service began.
Major CKM Walter, in the Mallani Gazetteer of 1879, lists horse and camel gear as Barmer’s main export to Umerkot in Sindh. Janet Kamphorst, in In Praise of Death: History and Poetry in Medieval Mewar, underlines the close trade links between Rajasthan and Sindh, saying that “the Than Mata Hinglaj temple in district Barmer was built along the trade route connecting Sind, the Western Thar Desert , the Rann of Kutch and eastern Rajasthan.” In his book Smuggling as Subversion, Amar Farooqui argues that Western Rajasthan-Sindh provided important routes for the opium trade. Interestingly, smuggling through this route continued even in the aftermath of Partition. The Barmer District Gazetteermentions16 cases of opium smuggling in 1960 as a consequence of the porous border.
Rail and trade
While the national media treats the Munabao-Khokhrapar train as a connection between Rajasthan and Sindh, it is especially relevant for inhabitants of the ‘Dhat’ region, which spreads approximately 400 square kilometres on both sides of the border from Umerkot (Sindh) to Jodhpur (Rajasthan). Umerkot, which was ruled by the Rajput Sodha clan, a caste which lives on both sides of the divide, was an independent kingdom under Jodhpur in the Sindh province of undivided India. In fact, because of the close links between Umerkot and Jodhpur, the then-Maharaja of Jodhpur, Hanwant Singh, contemplated the idea of joining Pakistan. His meeting with Jinnah, who was ready to sign a blank cheque, only strengthened this desire, but ultimately he ended up joining India after being persuaded to do so by his relatives. The descendants of the Umerkot royalty have continued cross-border marriages after Partition. The former Raja of Umerkot, Rana Chander Singh, who died in 2009, married the daughter of Rani Lakshmi Kumari Chudawat, a Jaipur-based Congress politician and historian. Chander Singh’s daughter is also married in Jaipur.
The links in the region go beyond royalty. The Sodha Rajputs are traditionally required to marry Rajputs, but also to marry outside their clan, thus requiring them to look for alliances in India. The visa restrictions between both countries, however, make this difficult. The Maheshwaris and Lohanas are some of the other Hindu castes in Sindh today.
While other sections of the border witnessed major upheavals at Partition, Rajasthan remained relatively peaceful, even though there was significant cross-border migration. The level of violence was nowhere near that witnessed on the Punjab border.
It was not 1947 but the Indo-Pak war of 1971 which proved to be the game changer on this part of the border, since it was then that Hindus from Sindh, worried about persecution in Pakistan, fled to India. The cross-border train service had already been stopped following the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and resumed only in 2006. Hindu Singh Sodha, a 15-year-old at that time he fled Pakistan in 1971, has set up the Seemant Lok Sangathan, which has been fighting for citizenship rights for all Hindu refugees from Sindh. During the war, Muslims from this region also fled to Pakistan.
Until the border was fenced, it was common for villagers on both sides to cross over, often simply to buy vegetables. Sodha recalls that the border was so porous until 1965 that even marriage parties used to cross over, and neither the State Armed Police Battalion (predecessor of the Indian Border Security Force) nor the Pakistani Rangers ever stopped them. Even smuggling of goods was extremely common.
The opening up of trade through the Munabao-Khokhrapar route offers immense opportunities, especially for businessman of other states such as Gujarat, who will benefit from the revival of the old Kutch-Sindh trade route. But local businesses will also gain. Jodhpuri marble is in demand in Pakistan, as is henna from Rajasthan, whereas there is demand for the Thar cow from Sindh in Rajasthan. Sodha states that there are numerous enquiries from the Karachi Chamber of Commerce seeking exchanges with the Marwar Chamber. A Pakistani delegation visited Jodhpur in 2009 to explore possibilities of trade through the Rajasthan-Sindh border.
Today, the number of passengers on the cross-border rail service every week rarely crosses 400. This reinforces the need to ease travel restrictions. The train halts at Munabao (district Barmer), but only for a customs check. Passengers can only board and alight at Jodhpur, which is over 300 kilometres from the border. On the Pakistani side, there are three stops – Khokhrapar, Mirpur Khas and Hyderabad.
At the border the Indian train gives way to a Pakistani one, forcing passengers to alight and re-board. Though the majority of those who travel on this train are from Barmer, passengers have to travel 800 kilometres to Delhi just to secure a Pakistani visa from the Pakistan High Commission, since there is no consulate in Jodhpur. A consulate at Jodhpur would ease this problem, though it is not clear whether the Indian government would agree to one being set up so close to the border. Since there is no stop at Barmer, all passengers have to begin and end their journey at Jodhpur, which is about 200 kilometres away, even though on the Pakistani side there are three stops. Despite lobbying by local politicians, these strict rules are never relaxed, even for ailing passengers. No foreigners are allowed to go west of National Highway 15 in India, thus requiring relatives of Pakistani passengers to come all the way to Jodhpur if they want to meet them.
Though it is not a high-profile border crossing, connectivity across the Munabao-Khokhrapar border is no less important than cross-border initiatives across Punjab and Kashmir. On 15 August, as India celebrates its Independence Day, the Munabao border will be vibrant and alive. Civil society activists have planned a music festival of desert musicians on the Indian side of the border. While the artistes may still not be able to cross freely, the notes of Thar musicians will not be stopped from crossing to the other side by the border fencing, the lack of transport facilities, or the mutually hostile bureaucracies.
~ Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based writer and foreign policy analyst.