Dispatch from India’s border with Bangladesh
On the edges of the Indian state, where the Khasi Hills meet Sylhet, the border is often a notional line, easily crossed
Early morning, I stepped over the threshold, crossing the border between home and the world. We drove out of Shillong. The next invisible yet perceptible border we crossed was that between city and countryside. The closely huddled concrete buildings gradually became distant, and trees and farms sprouted in the spaces between them. Somewhere past Mylliem village, the last traces of the city petered out. The neat blacktop road unwound like a tape over rolling green hills. Mist rose from the deep valleys, merging with the clouds hanging low above.
About 2 hours out of the city, we reached the cascading Bophill Falls, where the water crashed white and foaming into natural pools it had carved in the rocks. It flowed further into other waterfalls and other pools, in a series down to the plains less than a kilometre away. I asked a villager walking by, “Bangladesh kahan se shuru hota hai (Where does Bangladesh begin)?" He replied in the same language, pointing to a place where the hills ended and the plains began.
His accent and appearance suggested that a language other than Khasi was his mother tongue. I asked him, in Bengali, if he spoke that language. He did. His name was Nikhil Karmakar. Despite his very Bengali name, he was, however, not Bengali—he described himself as a “bagani manush", a man of the gardens.
The garden people are tribals from what is now Jharkhand. Their ancestors were brought to Assam by the colonial British administration to work as labourers in the tea gardens. After 1874, Sylhet became a tea-growing area in Assam. With Partition in 1947, the district and its residents became East Pakistanis after a closely contested referendum.
Generations have suffered the consequences of Partition. Karmakar and his tea tribe brethren continue to live in a no man’s land between citizenship and statelessness. Hundreds of thousands of them working in Sylhet were denied the vote in that fateful referendum of 1947. Millions, tea tribals as well as Bengalis, became refugees. Most tea tribals are still denied the vote in Meghalaya. The ethnic boundary here is between the local tribes and outsiders. And though they have lived in the area for three-four generations, the tea tribals are outsiders.
I asked Karmakar where he was from. Pyrdiwah, he replied, naming the village at the foothills bordering Bangladesh that my photojournalist friend Sanat and I were heading to. It is known now as Padua in Bangladeshi records. It is a village with a largely forgotten place in history.
In olden days, borders as barriers to free movement did not exist in these parts. The first border that came into existence here was the one drawn by the British. In the 1780s, Pandua, as it was known then, was a place of some importance. According to an essay by historian David Ludden published in the journal of the Asiatic Society Of Bangladesh, it was a river port at the foot of the Khasi Hills, the key location of border trade between the Khasi rajas in the hills and the Bengali, British, Greek and Armenian traders in the plains. The people around the port were a community of Bengali Khasis—an ethnically mixed population that spoke both languages, and lived under the rule of a former Mughal jagirdar.
Fighting began when the hill Khasis seized Pandua in 1783, following an insult to one of their kings. The East India Company responded with force. The fighting continued for years. The Bengali Khasis, led by zamindars with names very different from today’s typical Bengali or Khasi—Aboo Singh and Ganga Singh—joined battle against the British. Eventually, in 1791, the British and the Khasi rajas arrived at a deal. The Khasi territories would end at the foothills. The plains would become part of British Bengal. And Pandua—or Pyrdiwah—would stay with the Khasis.
The border as a barrier between the Khasi and Bengali identities, and between hills and plains, was thus drawn. The border as a place that both separates and connects died. The Bengali Khasis began to vanish from history and memory.
Pandua was also the place where the first Khasis crossed a religious boundary. A Bengali Christian missionary named Krishna Chandra Pal, who had been converted by William Carey, arrived in Sylhet from the Serampore Mission near Kolkata. He made his way to Pandua and stayed there for eight months. During this time, he was able to convert two Khasis from their traditional animistic faith, which shaded into Hinduism, to Christianity. In time, this would become the main religion of the Khasi Hills.
Today, Pyrdiwah is a nondescript village on a forgotten border in Meghalaya.
A bunch of men were sitting at the village tea shop, chatting, when we reached. We asked, in Khasi, for tea. The conversation shifted seamlessly to Sylheti, the dialect of Bengali spoken across the border. The men showed the way to the house of the village headman, or rangbah shnong. It was a bit of a walk, on a winding cemented path through groves of betel nut. A river, more than half of it dry, ran on one side, occasionally visible from the path. Seeing some boats and men a short distance away from us, we went down to the riverbed and walked the 50 or so metres to the water’s edge. “Where is the border?" I asked. One of them pointed to the shore behind me. “This is Bangladesh," he replied.
We had crossed the border.
I looked around to see if I was about to end up in Sylhet jail. A tin shed on a hill on the Bangladesh side looked like the local outpost of the Bangladesh Border Guards. There was no sign of anyone heading in our direction. On the Indian side, there was no sign of the Border Security Force either.
On our short walk back to Indian soil, we bumped into a line of Khasi women clad in the traditional toga-like wraps known as jainsems, their lips and teeth red from chewing the raw betel leaf and nut combo called kwai. “Koir teika aaitasoin (Where are you coming from)?" one of them asked me in chaste Sylheti. Shillong, I replied, and they halted briefly to chat. They were from Lamapunji village, across the river in Bangladesh.
Before 2001, children from Lamapunji would cross the border every morning to attend school in India, Pyrdiwah’s 33-year-old headman, Francis Lamin, told us. This stopped with the invasion of Pyrdiwah by Bangladeshi forces that year.
On 15 April 2001, three battalions of the Bangladesh Rifles and Bangladesh army entered Pyrdiwah, imprisoned the local Border Security Force (BSF) men, and took over the village. Lamin was away in Pynursla, a nearby town, when it happened. His neighbour Simone Khonglah, 50, recalls the incident vividly.
“Our relatives from that side had warned us of a build-up of forces two days before the incident. We warned the BSF but they could not believe such a thing would happen. When the Bangladeshis came that night, we escaped on foot, leaving everything behind," she says.
“When we returned four days later, we found they had stolen everything. They only left my pig," complains Khonglah.
Even now, bands of raiders from across the border steal their cattle. Just five days ago, a cow belonging to a landless farmer named Durga Rai had been stolen from the village.
The Bangladeshi invasion of 2001 was the outcome of the fact that the border previously ran through the village. A border pillar demarcating the boundary between the two countries, which now sits buried in the river sand, used to be behind Khonglah’s house till 2015. Francis’ house, where we were sitting, was officially in Bangladesh. However, the place had remained under Indian administration since 1971. But when the BSF tried to construct a pucca road to Pyrdiwah—technically in Bangladeshi territory—the matter escalated. The Bangladesh Rifles attacked, and the BSF attempted retaliation 80km away in Baroibari, which was Indian territory under Bangladeshi “adverse possession". Tempers flared, leading to the brink of war, with mortar fire opening up from both sides and fighter jets doing sorties.
However, the villagers would rather live with such risks than see a border fence constructed, because it will mess with their lives. If it comes up at the zero line, they will lose easy access to the river. If it is built 150 yards from the zero line, as is the norm, the village will be outside the fence. For all practical purposes, it will be in Bangladesh. “We will have to abandon our homes," Lamin says.
In his front yard, a pile of construction material sits gathering moss. It has been sitting there for seven years. Lamin is waiting for the border fencing issue to be resolved so that he knows where he can safely build a pucca house.
About 15 minutes down the road from Pyrdiwah is the village of Lyngkhat. I had heard that half of Lyngkhat’s football field lies in Bangladesh. On reaching the village, we found the field located next to a mountain stream in which a few local anglers were fishing. Small groups of men sat around the edge of the field near the stream, chatting, watching life go by. It was an idyllic scene.
Until 2015, there used to be a border pillar in this village too; the line of the erstwhile border was not clear to me, and was of no apparent concern to the villagers. The border had never made a difference to their football games, said village headman Soli Tynsong. They had not needed visas to cross the half-line. The matter has since been officially resolved (through the historic Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh in 2015), and the border is now on the far side of the field.
A man sitting near the goalpost on the Indian side had watched us chatting with Tynsong and asked him, in Sylheti, who we were. I answered, saying we were visitors from Shillong. The man’s next question took me by surprise. “Are you Hindu or Mussalman?" he asked.
Hindu, I replied, though not quite a regular at the temple. “And you?" I asked.
“I am Mussalman, bhai," he said.
“From that side?" I asked.
“Yes," he replied. “Today is bazaar day here so I came by."
Just as we were warming up for a longer chat, another Sylheti man came muttering, “Let’s go. They are coming with guns and sticks."
We looked past him. About 50m away, two BSF men were charging in. Suddenly all the men rose and took to their heels. At least two entire football teams worth of men raced across the field towards the far goalpost, and Bangladesh. The BSF men, referees with weapons calling foul on a transgression of border rules, gave chase.
“What will happen if they catch anyone?" we asked Tynsong.
“One year in jail," he replied.
The Bangladeshis made it safely across. Once over the notional line that is the border, they stopped to grin at the BSF men they had just outrun.
I looked around to see where my friendly discussant, who had only introduced himself by his religious affiliation, was, but he had melted away.
From that goalpost in Lyngkhat village, Delhi and Dhaka are both distant realities. The nameless Bangladeshi and I were merely two men standing in the middle of a football field and having a chat before the cartographic imagination of a long-dead British lawyer named Cyril Radcliffe intruded, ending our conversation.