India and Bangladesh share a 2,500-mile border. Ending a dispute that has lasted almost 70 years, at midnight Friday, July 31, 2015, Bangladesh and India finally closed a deal to swap border territories and thereby untangle their wildly convoluted border. To do this, the two countries initiated the exchange of more than 160 enclaves (including the world’s only third-order enclave – a portion of India surrounded by Bangladesh, surrounded by India, surrounded by Bangladesh). This move will dramatically affect the lives of more than 50,000 people living in the region. Residents of the now-erased enclaves, who have been living in an effectively stateless limbo for all these years, will get to decide whether they want to stay where they are and accept new citizenship or whether they want to relocate (from what is now India to Bangladesh or from Bangladesh to India) and keep their original citizenship.
How did the border ever come to look like a 3-D slice of Swiss cheese in the first place? There are a couple of legends floating around, one involving chess games between maharajas, and another featuring a drunk British officer spilling ink on the 1947 India-Pakistan map. But contemporary scholars believe that they were a result of an 18th century deal signed between the Mughal Emperor in Delhi and the maharaja of Cooch Berar, ending a series of small wars.
After the partition of India in 1947, this situation has made it virtually impossible for folks living in these areas to gain access to state amenities like hospitals, schools, markets, etc. Technically, the exchange will end one of the world’s craziest border disputes, but on the ground it will make things very complicated. For instance, it will rip families apart, leaving some stranded on one side of the border while their relatives choose to relocate to the other.
Our colonial histories, it seems, are replete with drunken, flamboyant and careless spontaneity, legendary or real. Take the case of Kashmir, where the colonized have turned 360 degrees and donned the colonizers’ garb; their military presence is almost 700,000 strong in that country. According to Angana P. Chatterji in the book Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, “70,000 [Kashmiris] are dead and over 8,000 have been disappeared. More than 250,000 have been displaced (1989-2010).” All this is the fallout from the failure of a Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority princely state to make up his mind whether to accede to India or Pakistan at the time of India’s independence from the British almost 70 years ago.
This border dispute has continued boiling at a time when the current right-wing nationalist government in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is putting in place Hindu fundamentalist policies affecting hundreds of thousands of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) and other minority communities, including Muslims and Christians. India, a country in which Hindus considered the cow to be sacred, is home to 300 million cattle and also the world’s #1 beef exporter. In early March this year, Modi’s Hindu-dominated government amended the ban on cow slaughter to include bulls and bullocks. This beef ban has already claimed three lives. On September 28, Mohammed Akhlaq of Bisara village in western Uttar Pradesh was lynched to death and his son Danish assaulted by a mob. On October 10th in Himachal Pradesh in the presence of police, Noman, a 28 year old truck driver was lynched to death by a mob. And on October 9, 18-year-old trucker Zahid Rasool Bhat, succumbed to burn injuries in Delhi’s Safdarjang hospital from a petrol bomb attack in Udhampur district in Kashmir.
Against this hypocritical backdrop, India has been cracking down on cattle smuggling (which drives the local economy in Bangladesh – 2 million cattle are smuggled to Bangladesh from India every year) claiming killing a cow is “equivalent to raping a Hindu girl.” India has a shoot-to-kill policy along the Bangladesh border. According to a January 2011 Guardian article, “Over the past 10 years Indian security forces have killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Bangladeshis, turning the border area into a south Asian killing fields. No one has been prosecuted for any of these killings….against unarmed and defenceless local residents.”
And the latest news about the fascist RSS (India’s leading Hindu nationalist organization and the driving force for today’s policies in Modi’s India) is that they “are going to shed their [decidedly unstylish khaki] shorts once and for all in a bid to attract more young people,” while simultaneously luring the government to adopt western-style immigration policies because they are concerned with the Muslims migrating to India from Bangladesh into the border states of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar. A resolution titled “Challenges of Imbalance in the Population Growth” was discussed during a recently held meeting of the RSS. I suppose their wearing of stylish long pants gives their Muslim-bashing agenda a more American-style “Hinduland Security” edge, no?
The same Narendra Modi who was denied a visa by the US after he encouraged Hindu-on-Muslim violence when he was chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 was warmly welcomed into this country in September, 2015 by many, including Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. “There is tremendous excitement for your visit amongst all Googlers,” he said. Modi got a 30-foot-long red-carpet welcome when he landed in the Bay Area on September 26, along with thousands of cheering Indian-Americans and a hug from Mark Zuckerberg.
About 1,700 miles east and 40 days after this greasy Silicon Valley spectacle, artist Shubho Saha, from Bangladesh, and I staged a short collaborative performance titled No Man’s Land in front of a Kansas audience, where Shubho was the visiting artist-in-residence at the Salina Art Center.
In No Man’s Land, itself a spontaneous performance using our voices and gestures, Shubho and I exchanged between us the colors, smells and textures of raw food: rice, spices, and a chunk of oxymoronically Hindu beef, while simultaneously erasing the dead colors of our imposed synthetic identities. We performed our gestures not on a long red carpet but within a tight, eight-foot diameter double spiral labyrinth (to evoke that third-order enclave). While enclaves now cease to exist, crores are slated to be spent by India, Trump-style, on building new walls to keep Bangladeshi nationals from crossing over. So yes, while our countries’ borders are becoming more linear, our Hindu-centric policies are continuing to spin round and round, making everyone dizzy by design.
Let us shake our minds free from staccato, elite, patriotic cries and take a look at what’s really happening to the people and the very mountains, rivers, and lands mentioned in our beloved national anthem, in Gujarat, Maratha, to our Vindhyas — the very song to which we stand at attention and sing before every Bollywood movie in India’s picture halls these days. Jaya he.