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Published: Sunday, 6/4/2006

Crossing into a once-forbidden land

BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

WAHGAH CROSSING, Along Indo-Pakistani Frontier in the Punjab - It was with much anticipation that I approach the only land crossing between India and Pakistan. This crossing is a short 15-mile drive east of Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan. Beyond the border crossing, the Indian city of Amritsar is another 15 miles.

The Pakistani customs and immigration offices are in small barracklike old structures not unlike the Colonial offices of a bygone era. The personnel match the facilities by their reserved and suspicious demeanor. I am spared lengthy questioning partly because of my American passport and because of a Pushtun ranger from the frontier highlands who happened to be on duty at the gate. Languages have the capacity to bring total strangers together and help open closed doors. The ranger declares me his guest and insists on helping me through the immigration and customs. My name is entered into the computer and mercifully no terrorist with a similar sounding name is on the watch list today, and I am waved through after minimum formalities. There are however many others who had been waiting much longer; poor people making the journey to visit relatives in India. They will eventually move also but not before some palms are greased.

From the Pakistani side to the Indian side one walks in a straight line on asphalt pavement toward Indian immigration and customs offices. A white straight line painted in the middle of the pavement shows the way until the line comes face to face with another line coming from the opposite direction. Both lines end in arrowheads staring at each other. This is the point where both countries have stared at each other since the division of the Indian subcontinent into a Muslim Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India 59-years ago. From this point going both north and south the border is heavily fortified. One can see the steel fortification snaking its way through the fertile landscape for as long as the eye can see.

The Partition, as the division of the subcontinent is commonly referred to, applies to the partition of the Punjab and Bengal into the eastern Indian part and the western Pakistani part. While there were communal disturbances in Bengal 1,000 miles to the east of here, the killings and destruction in Bengal dwarfed in comparison to what was unleashed in the Punjab when the British left in 1947. Out of 4 million people fleeing across the newly created border to the relative safety of their new homeland a million did not make it. In a frenzy of religious and political fanaticism and bloodletting, men, women, and children were put to sword as they fled across this fertile land. Trainloads of refugees arrived at their destination with not a single living soul on board.

So as I walk across the half-mile stretch I cannot help but be overwhelmed with the suffocating weight of history. The irony is that people in both countries have their own version of history. Naturally each version blames the other side of wanton killing and committing atrocities. Sixty years after the partition we still cannot come to terms with what we did to each other. Instead of hanging our heads in shame we take refuge in circuitous reasoning and hide behind the tattered fig leaf of national and religious pride.

Instead we should all hang our heads down in shame for what we did to each other. Perhaps there should be a monument at the crossing where the arrow heads stare at each other. This should comprise of a statue of a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Sikh, instead of pointing fingers at each other, stand in shame with their heads bowed down in accepting the blame for writing one of the darkest chapters in human history. It will not be politically correct but it will be the only morally correct thing to do. It will, I believe, go a long way to bury the ghosts of the partition.

But if we, the subcontinent Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, are so wrapped up in our towering egos, and we definitely are, then we should erect the statue of a character in a Partition-related short story by the famous writer Saadat Hasan Manto. In that story the governments of India and Pakistan decide to exchange mental patients where Muslim lunatics from India were to be brought to Pakistan, and Hindu and Sikh lunatics were to be sent to India.

One such lunatic was Bashan Singh who in his 15-years of confinement in the asylum in Lahore never lied down and even took cat naps standing up. He could not comprehend the exchange of people across the border and wanted to go to Toba Tek Singh, his birth village in Pakistan. But being a Sikh he had to be sent to India. In this confusion the man went to the narrow strip of land between two countries and stands there muttering incomprehensive words to himself that made no sense to those around him just as the exchange of human cargo across the border did not make sense to the insane man. That lunatic was as sober or as crazy as the rest of the people around him. He died there on the barrow strip of land with his face down. In death he was on the narrow ribbon of a line that was neither India nor Pakistan. Perhaps a statue of disheveled man lying face down over the narrow strip would be an apt reminder of those awful times.

Every afternoon at precisely 4:30 in the afternoon the border is officially sealed in a choreographed ceremony with considerable military pomp and circumstance. Smartly dressed soldiers march briskly towards the gates separating India from Pakistan. Their serious and stern looks exude unmistakable contempt for each other. Even the customary handshake before lowering of the national flags is curt and fleeting. Bugles are sounded as two soldiers from each side goose-step toward the gates. They simultaneously lower their national flags to the wild cheering of partisan crowds on both sides. Then, in a visible disdain and dislike of each other, the gate is shut with a loud bang that reverberates across the fertile landscape. Even though their obvious contempt for each other is thoroughly rehearsed and choreographed, things have at times flared to fist fights. But still like actors on a stage the soldiers play their parts with determination and precision.

I cross the gates well before the ceremony and arrive at the Indian immigration and customs building, a rather modern and comfortable facility. The officers are polite and courteous and offer me cold bottled water, a welcome treat in the suffocating Punjabi heat. After minimum formalities, they wave me through. Another short walk and I am now in India and the city of Amritsar is barely 15 miles away to the east.

Blade columnist S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery at the Medical University of Ohio. He was born in Pakistan and recently visited India as a visiting professor of surgery at the Government Medical College Amritsar.

Next Sunday: Goods for American troops in Afghanistan show up at a smugglers bazaar.



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