After the bravado and bluster: The end of the show at the Wagah border.
Image: flickr / *_*
After the bravado and bluster: The end of the show at the Wagah border. Image: flickr / *_*

Not just another border

A closer look at an Indo-Pak border crossing that defies the stereotypes.
After the bravado and bluster: The end of the show at the Wagah border.<br />Image: flickr / *_*
After the bravado and bluster: The end of the show at the Wagah border.
Image: flickr / *_*

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.
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