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Monica Dispatch

Partition and the Aftermath:
At the Indo-Pakistani Border
June 03, 2000

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India and Pakistan are separated by barbed wire. My friend Regula and I are on the Indian side
I decide to split a minivan ride from Amritsar to Wagah, about 30 km, with my Swiss friend Regula and a New Zealander named Tim. Wagah is the border crossing point between India and Pakistan, and most backpackers visiting Amritsar are either coming from or going to Pakistan. Tim, for example, has just arrived last night from Lahore, Pakistan. We want to see the "closing ceremonies" between India and Pakistan, where representatives from the two countries basically slam their doors on each other.

We arrive around half-past five in the evening and drink chai (Indian spiced milk tea) and mango juice while we wait, chatting with some girls from Delhi who've come with their family to witness this spectacle, along with another 2000 Indians who congregate here every night. Half an hour before sunset we notice people walking through the main gates, so we decide to join the crowds. We end up at a staging ground, where soldiers in their finery encourage us to take seats on the concrete. People mill around, taking pictures of the red, white, and green-painted "India" gate that symbolizes the border.

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Onlookers view the gates that separate India and Pakistan
This border didn't exist 53 years ago and when I look around, I see no traces of the blood shed over this gruesome dividing line. I pass a monument on the Indian side honoring the millions of Punjabis killed during Hindu/Muslim fighting around the time of the partition. Partition was one of the most traumatic events of modern Indian history. I don't know if there's an equivalent monument to the dead on the Pakistani side, only 500 meters away.

Come back in time with me to 1947:

Lord Mountbatten, the appointed viceroy of the British government, faces a difficult situation. Muslims, uncertain about a Hindu-dominated India without British control, support the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The Congress Party, with Jawaharlal Nehru as leader, speaks for the Hindus. Riots and violence erupt everywhere, mostly in the westernmost and easternmost ends of the country where the largest populations of Muslims live. Lord Mountbatten announces that Independence will happen on August 14, 1947, many months before the original target date of June 1948. However, the British government does not address the serious interfaith conflict. Instead, they draw arbitrary lines across the states of Punjab and Bengal.

Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Independence movement, takes no part in the decision for Partition, saying, "I am committed to non-violence. I am against civil war, I am against fratricidal war, I am against Hindu-Muslim riots." Gandhi believes in a united, independent India, but his views are dismissed by Jinnah's demands for an "India divided, or India destroyed."

In the days right before August 14, 1947, the artificial borderlines are announced. A huge exile, the biggest human population exchange in history, begins with over 10 million people changing sides and at least 250,000 people killed because they're on the "wrong side" at the wrong time.

Watch the Closing Ceremonies at the India-Pakistan Border

28.8 56.6 DSL

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for larger view
Close-up of an Indian soldier
Before sunset the Indian soldiers, dressed in khaki uniforms and red headdresses, start to goosestep and salute as they march in formation. At the dividing line between India and Pakistan I can barely see the Pakistani soldiers, dressed in gray uniforms with black caps. During the ceremony, Pakistani and Indian soldiers have a yelling match, trying to drag out a long shout for over two minutes. They also lower their respective flags.

arbitrary - existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance
goosestep - a straight-legged stiff-kneed step used by troops of some armies when passing in review
melee - a confused struggle

People on this side of the border clap their hands in appreciation and cheer the Indian side. At one point, soldiers from both sides meet in the middle, shake hands, and quickly drag the gates closed. The whole crowd then rushes to the gate, trying to take pictures of the other side. In the melee, I wonder to myself about this artificial division and this spectacle here on an arbitrary line drawn half a century ago. Tim and Regula and I take the minivan back in silence, thinking about the scene we've just witnessed.

My new friend Farah, a descendent of the Bhopal nawabs and an Indian Muslim, shared with me the difference between the dates of Independence. Pakistan celebrates Independence from the British on August 14, 1947. India didn't want to share this date with Pakistan, so now India celebrates Independence on August 15, 1947.

Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru had asked Gandhi, "father of the nation," to celebrate the first Independence Day with them in Delhi, but at the time he was working towards peace in the grief-stricken slums of Calcutta. They sent him a message asking, "...we want you to come to Delhi to give us the blessings." But Gandhi replied, "How stupid! When Bengal is burning, Hindus and Muslims are killing each other and I hear their cries of the agony in the darkness of Calcutta, how can I go to Delhi with the glittering lights?"

Religious differences to this day characterize the inhabitants of predominantly-Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh and predominantly-Hindu India.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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