Indo-Pak border: the road not yet taken

Indo-Pak border: the road not yet taken

By Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali

Nation-states and their borders are products of specific histories, and are shaped by political processes that need to be interrogated. In the Indian subcontinent we need to understand this shared history and reclaim our political imagination to transform the boundaries that divide us.

The highly restricted Indo-Pak border that we live with in the subcontinent today was not created, as some would believe, because of Indo-Pak wars over Kashmir. Rather, it has a very different history. By separating the border from the Kashmir conflict, this history may allow us to think about more open borders as the road not yet taken — the road that lies ahead for finding solutions through affinity rather than difference.

While historians may argue for years to come over the roads that led to the denouement of the partition of 1947, when a line was drawn on maps to demarcate the territories of India and Pakistan, what this line was actually supposed to mean on the ground, in actual people’s lives, was uncertain even to leaders of the time. The record is littered with formulations that may appear fantastical and ridiculous from our present location, but are extremely important for they reveal the many ways in which “Pakistan” was imagined as an Indo-Muslim space that was not severed from the rest of India, and as a territorial entity that would continue to be multi-religious like the rest of India.

For one, while leaving the difficult question of nationality laws to the two emerging postcolonial states the Partition Council went so far as to amend the British Indian passport rules “so that there should be no restrictions on the movement of persons from one Dominion to another”. How citizenship was to be defined in this multi-religious landscape — what would be the national status of Hindus and Sikhs that lived in “Pakistan” or Muslims that lived in “India” – was unclear, but freedom of movement was considered essential to maintain religious, economic and kin ties that the line would divide.

Thus, when the first restrictions on movement of people between West Pakistan and India were imposed on July 14, 1948, this was a shock to people in the region and for many the “real partition.” These restrictions were imposed suddenly by the Indian government in the form of an emergency permit system when north Indian Muslim refugees, that had fled their homes in the midst of partition’s violence, began to return to their ancestral homes in the thousands.

In violence-torn Punjab, the Indian and Pakistani governments agreed to a complete transfer of populations along religious lines. This agreement had far reaching consequences for the rest of the subcontinent that was not included in this agreement. One of those consequences was that the Pakistani government was relieved of the responsibility for creating conditions for bringing back Hindu and Sikh refugees that had fled their homes and lands in the Punjab, and the Indian government for Muslim refugees.

While the Indian government was willing to accept Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan as a whole, it did not want north Indian Muslim refugees to return to India (and thus claim Indian citizenship). On the other hand, the Pakistani government considered Muslim refugees from other parts of India as Indian citizens, and feared a mass Muslim exodus that it would not be able to cope with, given its territorial limits and the substantial number of Muslims on the other side of the line. The Pakistani government imposed a parallel permit system by September 1948, in large part to prevent Muslims that remained in India from coming to West Pakistan.

The unique form of the excruciating passport and visa system for Indian and Pakistani passport holders — visas issued only for specific cities, requiring invitations, endorsements and police reporting – are all remnants from the permit system where people moving were largely those who were returning home, to family and friends, to ties deep enough to make people readily violate permit restrictions. When people were arrested for overstaying on their permits, a flood of court cases over belonging and citizenship followed.

In India, citizenship provisions (articles 5-9) were brought into force on November 26, 1949, in advance of the Indian constitution itself, to address these questions, and article 7 declared the act of “migration” as a basis for losing one’s citizenship. As large numbers of Muslims were forced to contest their citizenship, it made the position of Muslims in India as a whole suspect and subject to scrutiny. On the other hand, the much-debated citizenship laws in Pakistan introduced a “date-line” for “migration,” and along with the introduction of the passport system in 1952, made Muslims who remained in India, “foreigners” in Pakistan.

It is worth noting that there were no restrictions placed on movement between West Bengal and East Pakistan until 1952 when the permit system was replaced by the Indo-Pak passport system, and in the east freedom of movement was considered important to provide security to the substantial religious minorities that remained on both sides of the line. One could argue that this fact, that West Pakistan almost immediately lost most of its religious pluralism with the transfer of populations agreement in the Punjab while East Pakistan did not, affected how the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state viewed East Pakistan, and shaped their parting of ways.

The Indo-Pak border was created to shape and control the massive displacements of partition, to fix the national status of religious minorities, and to create national difference where none had existed before. While the two governments made the border more and more difficult to cross, people repeatedly campaigned for an end to all travel restrictions, while some groups went so far as to argue for the repeal of the transfer of population agreement for Punjab. People resisted the border at every stage of its long and contested making, and divided communities and families held onto emotional connections despite their difficulties.

But sixty years on, the generation for whom the landscape was tangled, who had memories and feelings that told them that the other side was also a part of them, who had friends on the other side, well, that generation is passing away. For the post-1971 generations, the other side has become another country, and worse an enemy country with all its dark stereotypes, our political imagination hostage to fear.

The extreme border controls have divided people but not brought peace or resolutions to conflicts. May one dare to ask, if freedom of movement had been maintained after 1947 what would India and Pakistan look like today? What do we want them to look like in the future?

The writer is Assistant Professor of History, Brown University, and author of ‘The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories’ (Columbia University Press in 2007) [email protected]

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