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Deserted By A Line In The Sand

A train journey to Pakistan border, tracing lives in the Thar

UDAY SINGH RANA | AUG 14, 2017


On a rainy morning, an ageing man with fiery red hair alights from a train at Munabao railway station. Mangto Ram has canisters of water in one hand and three green passports in the other. He is carrying holy water from the River Ganga back home.

The two women accompanying him are also carrying small canisters. “Har kisi ko mauka nahi milta Ganga Ji ke darshan karne ka. Jo nahi aa paye, unke liye Ganga Jal le ja raha hoon (Not everyone gets the chance to visit the Holy Ganga. I am carrying Ganga water for those who could not come),” says the Pakistani citizen, all set to return home.

Mangto Ram is a resident of Pakistan’s Sindh province, which is home to most of the Hindus in Pakistan. To visit Haridwar in India, he took the Thar Express, which cuts across the harsh terrain of Thar Desert to connect Karachi in Sindh to Jodhpur in Rajasthan. It is one of the two trains that run between India and Pakistan. Locals jokingly refer to it as the ‘poorer cousin of the Samjhauta Express’, which connects Amritsar and Lahore.

Every Saturday, the Thar Link Express departs from Bhagat Ki Kothi Railway Station, on the outskirts of Jodhpur, and makes a 320 km journey to Munabao on the international border. The train then crosses over into Pakistan, where it is known as the Thar Express.

COLONIAL LEGACY

The rail links in the Indian subcontinent have an undeniable colonial legacy. The British Raj established the Indian Railways not for the convenience of Indians but to ease the transport of raw materials from the hinterlands to ports. It was a matter of time, therefore, that a railroad link was established between the two major port cities of Bombay and Karachi.

In 1900, the Sind Mail (as the train was known back then) chugged along from Bombay to Karachi via Ahmedabad, Palanpur, Marwar, Pali, Jodhpur, Lun, Barmer, Munabao, Khokhrapar, Mirpur Khas and Hyderabad (Sindh) Railway Stations. The Sind Mail continued to ferry passengers from one country to another for 65 years.
Nestled between sand dunes, just half a kilometre from Pakistan, is Akali village in Rajasthan's Barmer district. In this parched border village, the struggle to survive is far more real than any man-made border, which meant little for the people of Akali before the border fence was set up.
A TALE OF SINDH AND RAJASTHAN

When Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew a line in the sand in August 1947, dividing the landmass into two separate countries, Munabao and Khokhrapar, known hitherto as ‘twin villages’ found themselves on opposite sides of the border. “It is impossible,” says a local, “to tell one village from the other.” After all, Sindhi and Marwari are spoken on both sides of the border. Sodha Rajputs and Sindhi Muslims live in both places.



The same boti mutton and Bajre ko roti are served to guests on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. Musicians on both sides have grown up singing the same songs without ever having met each other. The same parched expanse of the Thar stretches on for miles on both sides. Today, there is no human settlement in Munabao, only a Border Security Force (BSF) outpost and a railway station. All residents of the village shifted to nearby villages over the period.

If partition hadn’t happened, I would have been able to see my daughter easily. - Chattar Singh
For locals, the border is arbitrary and unnatural. Vasudev Bhootra, who runs a sweets shop near the border, came from Pakistan in 1965 as a five-year-old. “We used to live in a Pakistani town called Gadra. Back in the days of the British Raj, if one had to go to Gadra, they had to take a train to Gadra Road railway station.

When they were drawing the border, my family thought Gadra would fall in India. Oddly, the railway station is in India but the town is in Pakistan. This is what happens when an angrez (British man) draws the borders for a country he doesn’t understand.”

The story of Barmer's famous Gadra Laddoo, which has become a favourite among locals and visitors alike whose recipe originates in Gadra City, Pakistan.
The story of Munabao and Khokhrapar is a microcosm for the larger cultural links between Sindh and Rajasthan. Chattar Singh Sodha, a resident of Umerkot in Sindh, looked like he was barely able to compose himself. His hair, whatever was left of them, were dishevelled and his eyes sunken from hours of crying. He had just left his 21-year-old daughter with her husband and family in Rajasthan’s Jalore.

He knows that for her to travel to her home in Pakistan will not be an easy task. “We are Rajputs and want to marry within our community. So oftentimes, we end up finding a rishta (match) in India. Similarly, there are many Muslim families in Rajasthan who get their daughters married in Pakistan. Agar taksim na hoti toh apni beti ko asani se dekh leta. Ab na jaane kab mulaqat ho usse? (If partition hadn’t happened, I would have been able to see my daughter easily. Who knows when I will get to meet her again?),” says the teary-eyed father.

The division of the two countries, however, could not stop the Sind Mail from connecting Bombay and Karachi. Munabao and Khokhrapar were the stations where immigration and custom formalities took place. But what partition couldn’t do, war did.




1965 WAR AND DISRUPTION OF THE RAIL LINK

The journey from Jodhpur to Munabao takes over six hours by road. The topography changes rapidly along the route. Vegetation grows sparse and eventually vanishes. For miles, one sees nothing but sand. The famed virgin sand dunes of Barmer take over. If one was to step out of the car onto an empty stretch of the highway, he would hear nothing but silence. There is no one to be seen for several kilometres at end. Not a single shot has been fired on the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan since 1971. But this was not always the case.

In 1965, India and Pakistan fought their first major war and some of the older residents remember fearing for their lives. “I was a five-year-old living in Pakistan at the time. I remember hiding when we heard the sound of guns or that of fighter jets flying overhead. We knew we would never be safe in Pakistan, so we made our way to India,” says Bhootra.

During the war, Pakistan Air Force bombed the Munabao-Khokkhrapar rail link. After this, the rail link was disrupted and remained shut for 41 years. But for those who had family ties across the border, not travelling to the other side was not an option. Imdad Khan, a resident of Padmana village, which is hardly a kilometer from the border, says, “My aunt lives in Pakistan. My father has always been close to her. So he had to go see his sister. Back when the Thar Link Express was not functioning, people from this region had to travel to Amritsar, cross over to Lahore and then make the long journey into Sindh.”

Munabao and Khokhrapar are just 10-kilometre away from each other. But before the train began, a round trip would mean people would have to travel a staggering 4,000 kms. All this for a distance that could easily be covered on foot.


FEBRUARY 2006: THE LINK RESUMES

In February 2006, the train once again made its journey from Jodhpur to Munabao. An old British-era rail link was revived and the Sind Mail was rechristened the Thar Link Express in India and Thar Express in Pakistan. It leaves from Jodhpur at 1 am every Saturday and chugs into Munabao at 7 am. At Munabao, the passengers are asked to de-board. After hours of immigration formalities, the train moves from Munabao and covers the remaining 500 meters of Indian Territory before entering Pakistan.

The Thar Link Express, the lesser known of two trains that link India and Pakistan, is a caravan of stories that spill across the border. This British era rail link was shut after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, but was revived in 2006 and serves as an alternative to the Samjhauta Express.
When the Sind Mail ran before 1965, Pakistani custom officials used to conduct formalities at Khokhrapar station. In 2006, ahead of the grand reopening of the rail link, Pakistan constructed the brand new Zero Point Railway Station, which is just 50 meters from the pillars demarcating the International Boundary. For six months, the Thar Link Express crosses over to Zero Point Railway Station, where passengers alight and board the Thar Express, run by Pakistan Railways. For the other half of the year, it is the Pakistani train that crosses from Zero Point to Munabao. Passengers are only allowed to board at Jodhpur. Pakistani citizens who travel to India, are not allowed west of National Highway 68.

I will apply for a visa this year and travel to Pakistan. - Imad Khan
But the last station on the Indian side of the border doesn’t come without its glitches. There are no functional mobile networks here. When News18 asked immigration officer Kailash Meghwal whether the landline phones at the railway station worked, he confessed that they did not. In the event of an emergency, another official says, those at Munabao railway station would have no means of contacting the outside world for help.


TRAIN OF HOPE

Akali village is nestled between two sand dunes, just 500 meters from Pakistan border. The first Pakistani village on that side, Sajan Jo Par, is visible from atop the dunes. Locals in Akali worship a deity called Jata Mata. There is a small temple in the village here but the main temple now lies in Pakistan. A village elder looks on sadly towards the border and says, “I have always wanted to visit the temple on the other side. But it would cost money to travel to Delhi for a visa and Jodhpur to board the train.”

But for others, it gives them hope that travelling to that ‘foreign’ land is now within their reach. “I have never been there (Pakistan). But my father has. I will apply for a visa this year and travel to Pakistan. I will take this train. Is baar apni bua se zaroor miloonga (This time, I will surely meet my aunt),” says Imdad Khan.


FEBRUARY 2006: THE LINK RESUMES

Akali village is nestled between two sand dunes, just 500 meters from Pakistan border. The first Pakistani village on that side, Sajan Jo Par, is visible from atop the dunes. Locals in Akali worship a deity called Jata Mata. There is a small temple in the village here but the main temple now lies in Pakistan. A village elder looks on sadly towards the border and says, “I have always wanted to visit the temple on the other side. But it would cost money to travel to Delhi for a visa and Jodhpur to board the train.”

But for others, it gives them hope that travelling to that ‘foreign’ land is now within their reach. “I have never been there (Pakistan). But my father has. I will apply for a visa this year and travel to Pakistan. I will take this train. Is baar apni bua se zaroor miloonga (This time, I will surely meet my aunt),” says Imdad Khan.

Frames

A short documentary on Akali village in Rajasthan's Barmer district.

In Photos

Munabao Diaries- a glimpse of the train that goes to Pakistan.

Podcast

An Evening with Indian folk musician Kamaal Khan.

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