Borderland Punjab


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THE border between the nation-states of India and Pakistan has acquired immense political significance as the demarcating point of difference and negotiation ever since its lines were drawn in 1947. The historically aggressive stance taken by either government has been fortified with military backing, vested political and economic interests of their elites, and the ever changing geopolitics of the international context in which such conflicts as Kashmir, the Cold War and subsequently the ‘war on terror’ have required the border’s sustenance as a marker of national territoriality and sovereignty of India and Pakistan.

It is important, however, to be reminded that the border(s) erected in 1947 alongside the partition not only divided people, communities and wider political, economic and civil society activities, but also regions. Punjab was one of these regions which suffered a tremendous shock in the manner in which it was disfigured and then reconfigured as a province within the newly emerging Pakistan and India.

Contemporary discourse on the Punjab border had until recently been dominated by nationalist perspectives on the border’s legitimacy, dictated largely from Delhi and Islamabad. A more regional interpretation of the border and the cross-border potential for communication and exchange, however, highlights how a regional (in this case, Punjab) perspective can indeed supersede the national through the interventions made by regionally-oriented social and cultural spheres. It is these activities and perspectives which permit a transcendental approach to national borders. This article will focus on highlighting the increasing influence that social and cultural politics are having upon the ways in which the border (here particularly referring to the border running through Punjab) is being evoked so as to, even if momentarily, re-imagine it.

The distinction between the two Punjab’s as either Indian or Pakistani in itself alerts us to the fact that the commonality of region, language, culture and locality have been nationalised. A comparative study of borders provides a useful starting point from which to develop an understanding of the specificities of this particular ‘line of control’ between ‘Indian’ and ‘Pakistani’ Punjab. If we examine Punjab’s borderland status as occupying a position of both national demarcation, in that it is the physical site for the border, and allowing a sub-national interpretation of the border’s national significance, a regional view offers much in terms of how cultural politics can influence and help develop alternative perspectives on what it means to be in a borderland space.

The significance of culture in the places and spaces around borders presents a challenge to the political science of international borders, in which it is not merely formal arrangements between nation-states that are of importance. The everyday experiences of people living on those borders and the cultural and political implications of the border, even to those people living in places far from it, have become important signifiers of local, regional and national negotiations with international borders.


The devolution from state-centred to socially and culturally focused practices offers potential for understanding the role of culture in the creation and continuation of borders. The border between the US and Mexico has formed the basis for much recent cultural analysis of borders (Alvarez 1995; Anzaldua 1987), extending the terminology of ‘borders’ to include metaphorically based terms such as ‘borderlands’ or ‘borderzones’. US-based Chicano anthropologist, Rosaldo expresses his concerns about how ruptures of cultural congruity and disjuncture should not be dismissed as zones of transition but as potential ‘sites of creative cultural production that require investigation’ (1989: 87).

Hence, borderlands are constituted not merely as geopolitical international borders, but also in day-to-day interactions and exchanges. The Indo-Pak border imposed upon Punjab, while severing most ties across the areas to the east and west of its expanse, has not been able to terminate local cultures for the sake of a national one. The continuation, proliferation and evolution of Punjabi culture in both Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab, despite the border’s presence, has resulted in a borderland culture which has become increasingly conscious regarding its stature vis-à-vis Indo-Pak relations and the peace initiatives.

The Indo-Pak border until recently did not offer an obvious example of a borderzone, as is the case with the US/Mexican border. It perhaps shares more similarities with examples such as the former East/West German or the Israel/Palestine borders, though even each of these examples carry their own particularities and histories, making direct comparisons difficult and not necessarily helpful. First, the day-to-day exchanges between ‘Indian’ Punjabis and ‘Pakistani’ Punjabis are still very limited and highly mediated through the visa requirements and monitored routes of official travel. Visas must be attained from Indian and Pakistan embassies or consulates in metropolitan centres, making the physical as well as psychological distance across the border seem greater than the miles between Wagah and Attari border checkposts. Despite this, Punjabi popular culture continues to be transmitted and shared through the medium of cultural exchanges, music and satellite television with some, though limited, people-to-people contact. It is the recognition of the shared popular and cultural space which I argue will become an increasingly critical reference point for the future.


The border cutting through Punjab has contributed to border studies with a slightly different set of concerns. The resulting body of partition literature has examined the social, psychological, political effects of the division of India into two nations, focusing primarily upon the costs of loss associated with the emergence of the border. It is through these marginal, non-nationalist histories of dalits or abducted women for example, that the Indo-Pak border has been brought into sharp relief. In the process, it is not only the telling of the partition history that has been re-examined. The multiplicity of engagements with the actual border in terms of the displacement incurred by the border and partition (both physical and metaphorical) have also created a space for a cultural critique of the border.


The regional perspective, I might add, is of paramount importance in presenting another powerful ‘marginal’ perspective. The strength of social and cultural connectivity and commonality in a politically divided East and West Punjab have provided a residual base for communication, peace initiatives and cultural work. This in turn has created the space for a revisioning exercise which, though well short of reunification, attempts to build bridges in various ways to overcome the previous sixty years of separation and divergent experiences.

One example was the unprecedented cricket test between India and Pakistan held at the Mohali stadium in Chandigarh in March 2005. Sporting events usually generate nationalist tension between rival teams and fans. In this case, the site of the match offered an added dimension to the experience; news reports highlighted fans shouting slogans of peace between the two countries and simultaneously cheering both teams even as informal extension of friendship and hospitality were common around the city during the test match days. The loosening of visa restrictions for Pakistan fans coming to see the match was of course a contributing factor. But another was the public reaction and response to the interaction. As one child cricket fan from Chandigarh commented: ‘I have come to cheer both the Indian and the Pakistani teams playing together.’1 Thus, the political relations between the national governments took backstage to the social and cultural politics visible during the cricket match, with the popular imagination of Punjabis as well as non-Punjabi cricket fans on both sides of the border shifting, even if only for the duration of the match, towards a politics of connection rather than difference.


The manner in which the ‘national’ gets played out in the ‘regional’ shows an interesting picture of state-centre dynamics vis-à-vis the border. The aggressively exclusive nationalisms of India and Pakistan drawn around the border have seen three wars (1948, 1965 and 1971), the battle of Kargil (1999) and numerous border skirmishes between armed forces from both sides. The stakes involved have been increased by the entry of both states into the nuclear arms arena with the tests carried out in Pokhran and Baluchistan in 1998 and a subsequent build-up of tension in 2002.

At the heart of the nuclear build-up and international intervention in the crisis have been ‘national’ issues – i.e. issues used to bolster the nationalistic projects: the Kashmir crisis, ‘cross-border infiltration’, ‘cross-border terrorism’ and the brutality of Indian border security forces in Kashmir. Indeed, the battle at Kargil in 1999, the 13 December 2001 attack upon the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, the October 2005 Delhi blasts and the July 2006 Mumbai train blasts further escalated tensions.

People-to-people contact across the border continued throughout these events and times, though not without obstacles. The December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by Kashmiri separatists, allegedly with support from Pakistan, led to the most draconian clamp down on cross-border movement in the history of both countries. All land, air and sea borders were closed to citizens of either country. All air flights between the two countries were cancelled and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was not permitted to overfly Indian air space. The journey time from Pakistan to anywhere in the Far East increased hugely as a result, providing an even greater barrier to the travel of Pakistanis and Indians in the pursuit of dialogue and peace. For example, Pakistani delegates to the Asian Social Forum held in Hyderabad in January 2003 were forced to reach Hyderabad via Dubai, dramatically reducing their representation. The restrictions upon movement during this period were unprecedented, though in line with the intense escalation of jingoistic rhetoric of the time.


More recently, the July 2006 train blasts in Mumbai (7/11) in which an estimated 180 people were killed resulted in much speculation of Pakistani involvement. This further bolstered the rigidity of the border between India and Pakistan with diplomatic and consular services between the two countries being suspended, bringing most people-to-people contact to a halt. Interestingly, the historical pattern of accusation after ‘terrorist’ attacks in India on alleged Pakistan-sponsored militants has recently taken a slightly different turn. In September 2006, Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh reinstated the peace process once the Indian negotiators agreed to make a distinction between the political establishment in Pakistan and other groups in the country who have connections with militancy in India. This signalled a recognition by the Indian side of the wider agenda of the ‘war on terror’ and Pakistan’s tenuous and troubled position within this in the international and regional contexts. In a nutshell, Pakistan would no longer be reduced to a one-dimensional frame as a Muslim neighbour having an undermining and hostile agenda towards India.

A common explanation of this shift in the media is that it suits Pakistan’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the US to become an ally in India’s campaign against terrorism. Others have commented that blaming Pakistan after attacks in India has in the past provided no beneficial outcomes. Regardless, the imperatives for diplomatic peace between the two countries at a national level have largely been driven by external factors, even as demands for peace from within have come from the immediate, local level. Yet, the border still stands and remains a barrier to open communication and movement, all the while being monitored and regulated by ‘national’ forces.


Difficulties in gaining visas for Indian and Pakistani passport holders, the periodic closure of embassies in Islamabad and Delhi or the routing of access to cross-border travel via national capitals are all means of making the border seem impenetrable. For the many divided Muslim families across India and Pakistan, the journey to see loved ones is generally routed between Lahore and Delhi, with no stops other than those involving the numerous ‘security’ checks. Such restrictions upon physical movement not only impede people from visiting friends and relatives on either side but also inhibit communication.

There have, however, been some significant improvements in cross-border travel which are worth acknowledging. The yearly Sikh yatras (pilgrim tours) which take thousands from India to the various historical sites and gurdwaras now in Pakistan have been given a more official status, being organised by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). Even though visas for these yatras remain restricted,2 the general picture of visa acquisition for Indian and Pakistani passport holders has improved since 2005. Another improvement has been the high profile impact that the extension of ‘bus diplomacy’ has had on popular perceptions of the border. In December 2005 two new bus services were introduced from Amritsar, one to Lahore and the other to one of the main Sikh pilgrimage site of Nankana Sahib in West Punjab.


Perhaps the most visible and celebrated example of social and cultural intervention at the border is the peace vigil that takes place on either side of the border each year on 15 August to mark the human tragedy of partition and to call for friendship across the border by civil society. Political activists, journalists, popular figures, border villagers and ordinary people gather each year to express their interest in having freer movement across the border. The vigil in August 2002 was jointly organised by the Hind-Pak Dosti Manch, the Folklore Research Academy and the International Punjab Society as an appeal to restore diplomatic ties and rail and road travel which had been stopped since early 2002. Unfortunately, since the security forces did not allow the participants to approach the zero line to light a candle at the main gate of the joint check post, the ceremony was conducted several hundred metres away. During these gatherings, the border becomes an embodiment of state surveillance and of a constructed ‘difference’ which, looking across the other side of the border, only highlights the fragile claims about of two distinctly separate national cultures.

Attempts to re-route the national through the regional have not been limited to civil society. Pressure has picked up at the state-regional level too. In November 2004, the Punjab government in India sponsored a three-day World Punjabi Conference in Patiala, followed by a five-day sports festival to which writers, scholars, athletes and politicians from both sides of Punjab were invited. The conference and festival was a conscious effort by the (Indian) Punjab state government to promote peace and friendship between India and Pakistan, but through a regional lens and focus. This example alerts us to the changing times in which the Punjab regional/state level can exercise a greater voice in matters regarding the border, given these are suited to other political agendas.


This article argues how a regional focus upon the border can offer us a different lens through which to view the region. For the Indian national project, the border is emblematic not only of the loss inflicted upon a unified India at independence, but also of the problematic relationship that it has with its considerable Muslim minority population. For the Pakistani national project, the border represents the fine line that separates its relatively smaller population and land mass from its much larger, more powerful neighbour. For both the nationalist agendas, the border reifies nationalism at the cost of the region for the political mileage gained from having inhospitable neighbourly relations.


Civil society and popular and cultural activities in Punjab have contributed to a shifting of public discourse on the border over the past few years. This is a process for a less hostile relationship that both the Manmohan Singh and Musharraf governments have to address. This process of cultural activity and a vocal civil society desire to cross the border offers an internal critique of the border’s contemporary meaning. The logo on the recently started bus services between Amritsar and Lahore is symptomatic of this dynamic between people, politics and culture. The bus service is called ‘Punj-Aab Express’ with emblems of both Indian and Pakistan national flags, showing the ownership of both sides of the geographical terrain by India and Pakistan while recognizing that it is Punjab, the land of five rivers, through which the border cuts across. A journey of 37 miles from Amritsar to Lahore, after nearly 60 years of bordered separation, is one which is yet to be travelled.



R.R. Alvarez, ‘The Mexican-US Border: The Making of an Anthropology of Borderlands’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 24, 1995, pp. 447-70.

G. Anzaldua, Borderlands/LaFrontera. Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, 1987.

V. Kalra, and N. Purewal, ‘The Strut of the Peacocks: Partition, Travel and the Indo-Pak Border’ in R. Kaur and J. Hutnyk (eds.), Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics. Zed, London, 1999.

N. Purewal, ‘The Indo-Pak Border: Displacements, Aggressions and Transgressions’, Contemporary South Asia 12(4), December 2003.

R. Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston Press, Boston, 1989.




2. In November 2002 the Indian government restricted the number of visas issued for a yatra planned on the eve of Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary to Nankana Sahib, a gurdwara built at Guru Nanak’s birth place in West Punjab. The SGPC was only able to send 50 yatrees, mostly government officials, SGPC employees or raagis (Sikh priests) out of the hundreds that had applied, which was the cause for much criticism of the Indian government.