Sunday, 17 September 2017

Can't Get There From Here:Along Dangerous Borders.

"Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals" - Mahatma Gandhi.

I'm not sure what to think about the fact that the BBC has decided to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence with a season that puts all the focus on partition and none on independence itself. It's not that the division of then British India wasn't important. It caused anything up to two million deaths and displaced over ten million people along religious lines so of course it was important. It's just that the wider picture seems to have been ignored and it's not just so the British can look like the good guys. The British Raj quite often come out of this story looking anything but that.

That, somewhat large, caveat aside all the programmes I've caught have been worth seeing. They've been informative, emotional, and even-handed. The one I enjoyed the most though was, perhaps typically for me, something of a travelogue. A travelogue with a difference though. A two headed one. Dangerous Borders:A Journey across India & Pakistan was a trip along the border between those countries from each side with Adnan Sarwar taking the Pakistani side and Babita Sharma the Indian.

Sarwar, of Pakistani heritage, served with the Royal Engineers during two tours of Iraq and now works as a photographer and filmmaker and speaks in a broad Lancashire accent that reveals his Burnley upbringing. Sharma, like me, was born in Reading, and has worked for BBC Radio Berkshire, South Today, and now reads the news on World News Today. Her family have their roots in India.

So the programme makers have chosen well. Instead of going for big league celebrities they've gone for people of a more intellectual bent but also people with a personal history in the region. They're both young (well, younger than me), attractive, enthusiastic, and they're good communicators too. You can't help liking them. As the viewer flips from one side of the border to the other, from one presenter to the other, and we follow each of them on their two thousand mile trek north there's a small part of me that hopes at the end they'll run across the partition line, embrace each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Failing that I'd at least like to be friends with both of them.

It's not that sort of show though and it's not that sort of border either. It's the sort of border Gandhi feared. A dangerous one which, sadly, hatred seems to flow across with much easier passage than love. Sharma, whose Hindu family were forced to move to India, seventy years ago starts her journey in Gujarat. In Adipur, a low rise city of white painted buildings just eighty miles from the border which was created specially for refugees fleeing partition. Gandhi's ashes are laid to rest there and, seemingly because Gandhi met Charlie Chaplin in London in 1931, Adipur hosts a Charlie Chaplin convention which sees hundreds of men and women dancing in the streets dressed up as The Little Tramp.

Karachi, where Sarwar starts his trip, is a much much bigger place. A huge city, the most populous in Pakistan, and the beating heart of the country. As if immediately to disprove Western expectations of Pakistan he meets up with an artist who paints pictures of uncovered women but then instantly confounds our surprise by admitting that this is done at great personal risk. In 2016 the model, activisit, and social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch, at the age of 26, was murdered by her own brother for 'bringing disrepute' to their family. Her 'crime' had been taking selfies with a religious leader.

Despite this the catwalks of Karachi we visit with Sarwar are freer than I'd expected, even if the main market for the clothes is across the border in India. Over there Sharma's teamed up with an all female, all ages (the youngest is 22, the oldest a fresh faced sexagenarian) biker group in Adipur. As they take their collection of Royal Enfields and dirtbikes on the road we're shown that female freedoms have always had to be fought for.

Quite literally in the case of the women Sarwar meets in an all women's boxing gym in a poorer part of Karachi. He meets a teenage boxer so devoted to pugilism she even practises during Eid. Each punch seems to be a gradual chip away at decades, centuries even, of misogyny.

These women are not the only ones who find life tough in Karachi. The city has had a large East African population for as long as anyone can remember and although Islam forbids discrimination and there's no caste system there is still, surprise surprise, racism at play. It doesn't seem to matter how well tended a garden is, the weeds always seems to come through. Here as with almost everywhere else on Earth. Perhaps the racists could be fed to the two hundred plus 'magical' crocodiles that the Sufis keep in the lakes around the tomb of Manghopir instead of the sacrificial meat brought along regularly as offerings by devotees?

India, of course, does have a caste system and although it's illegal to discriminate based on it almost everybody still does. The clues to what caste you come from are not easy to hide. They're in your name. Sharma itself reveals Babita's family to have once belonged to the Brahmin caste, the uppermost caste in all India. Many others see the Brahmin, due to the great privileges bestowed upon them, as oppressors. Babita seems sad about this but it's unlikely that had she been born a Dalit her family would've ever had the opportunity to move abroad or been fortunate enough to experience any of the other opportunities they must've had. There's no two ways about it, the caste system is not a good thing.

We're soon shown how that actually plays out in India when Babita travels on to the Little Rann of Kutch. It's a hostile desert landscape punctuated by mountains of salt where one hundred thousand, low-caste, people work risking blindness, lesions, and tuberculosis in temperatures of forty five degrees for what amounts to an absolute pittance. There's money in this work but they won't see it. Someone's getting rich out of it but it's not them. Such is the fucked up capitalist world most of us now accept living in. Hope for future change isn't great either as we meet kids working there. They can't afford to go to school, they can't get an education, and they can't escape the trap.

In Pakistan's Thar desert Sarwar travels to the Zero Point border crossing. Remarkably it's one of only three crossings along the whole of this enormous border. If any world leader were insane enough to think putting a huge wall up increases safety they might be instructed to take a look at the regular outbreaks of trouble that occur on this border, often costing people their lives. Some fear an incident of large enough magnitude could trigger an all out war between two nations both in possession of nuclear weaponry.

As their car reaches the border the rangers transporting Sarwar order him and his team to stop filming. The camera comes back on for a meeting with a Hindu desert tribe who still live in Pakistan. They stayed on in Pakistan because they feared, as low-caste Hindus, they'd face worse discrimination in India than in Pakistan. It's speculation as to whether or not that would've happened but here they live, work, and even intermarry with the local Muslim population.

If that sounds like a good thing (which it does) prepare to be disappointed by their treatment of women. The women can't mix with men and even have to eat separately from their husbands but judging by the crude jokes they direct at Sarwar perhaps they're just winding him up. They certainly seemed very skilled in the art of the leg-pull.

Both Babita and Adnan have their roots in the lush, verdant Punjab region. 80% of the Punjab is on the Pakistani side (where, of course, Adnan is visiting) and 100,000,000 people (half of Pakistan's total population) live there. They're harvesting sunshine, in the form of solar energy, and, with trade with India not much of an option, the Chinese are backing it. Pakistan needs the money but for China this is of strategic importance. Despite the niceties thrown back and forth between the Pakistanis and the Chinese you can't help feeling that all concerned know that Pakistan is very much the junior partner in this deal.

Over in Indian Punjab Sharma cycles through the tree lined boulevards of Chandigarh. Nehru created it as capital of Indian Punjab when Lahore fell on the Pakistani side of the border and it was designed by Le Corbusier. It doesn't look that much like anything else in India and, despite its many critics, it's an architecturally fascinating place.

Lahore is too. For different reasons. Once seat of the Mughal empire it's now the home of the Pakistani film industry and the country's literary scene. Here, as with most places we're taken, we hear heart rending tales of partition. This show is as much as a history programme as a travelogue.

But who will write the future history? Adnan talks to Salman Ahmed, whose band Vital Signs, in 1987, had such a hit with their song Dil Dil Pakistan it has taken on the status of an unofficial national anthem. Ahmed speaks of accountability and posits that with 70% of Pakistan's population now under twenty years of age what route will these youngsters take? What route will they be allowed to take and with a 60% illiteracy rate what are the dangers they'll be exploited by fundamentalists and demagogues? Pakistan is, after all, a country that spends ten times more on defence than education.

At a Sufi ceremony we learn that Sufis have been rejected by the rampant swing towards conservatism in Pakistan and have also been attacked there. Islamic State and the Taliban take delight in killing them but then again IS and the Taliban take delight in killing just about everyone and everything.

The heroin that flows into the region from Afghanistan has had a huge affect on the Indian side of the border. There are 4,000,000 heroin addicts in Indian Punjab alone, many of them middle aged women. Babita meets some of them in a female rehab centre before a trip to the, very different, Amritsar temple complex, 'the pool of the nectar of immortality'!

During independence/partition the Sikhs never got the homeland of Kalistan some of them wanted and, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, in 1984, following her Operation Blue Star military operation to take control of the Golden Temple, three thousand Sikhs were murdered in reprisal attacks.

It's a gruesome, bloody, episode that only serves to prove that an eye for an eye soon leaves the whole word blind. Far better to follow the example of Adnan Sarwar. He's visiting Jassar where Babita's father was born and as Babita won't be able to visit herself he takes some sand from one of the buildings as a present for her. It's a touching moment and as close to the romance I'd wished for the show ever gets to. His home village, Kharian, is a garrison town and his mum's there to meet him. She tells him he needs to get married soon, that time's running out. It seems I'm not the only one looking for a little romance.

In a world where nationalism has taken hold from Trump to Brexit to Putin and beyond it's no surprise to find it's rampant in both India and Pakistan. It's still depressing though - and jarring if the militarized zone in Jammu and Kashmir, that looks like Switzerland, is anything to go by. The local sweet shop owner displays mortar shells and the charm of the people either side of the border, both sides upset at what their governments (and, historically, the British) have done to divide, and endanger them, sits uneasily along the horrific stories of young newlyweds bleeding to death from shrapnel wounds.

In the mountains of northern Pakistan the Taliban are the threat. As much as they like to kill Sufis the Taliban love to kill tourists too so Adnan is protected by AK-47 wielding guards as he takes a train to the lower Himalayas where they're building a railway bridge higher than the Eiffel Tower. At Gilgit he watches a polo match which seems to act as a metaphor for the whole situation. In a beautiful setting a dangerous game with no clear rules is played out. This time the police win and celebrate by dancing with their Kalashnikovs.

Babita's in Srinagar now where many Kashmiris want independence from both India and Pakistan. It's India's only majority Muslim state and it's violent and dangerous. Protests tend to follow Friday prayer sessions suggesting that religion isn't the solution to their problems but very much the cause of them. Kids still in their school uniforms are subjected to tear gas, bullets, and pellets but if it's what God wants who are we to say it's wrong, eh?

Even while we're there the Indian army slingshot stones into the mosque and there's a scrap. Eventually Babita, her crew, and the cameras are forced to retreat. As more and more lies are propagated, and education denied, the circle of violence is all but guaranteed for future generations. It seems pretty hopeless but flowers can, and do, grow even in the most parched of deserts.

Sixty miles from the border with China in Passu, Adnan meets with some Caucasian looking, Muslim schoolgirls. Amongst this beautiful mountainous scenery there is a 100% literacy rate and there lies hope that if religion can't be abandoned, it can at least be adapted, or directed towards the peace it often pertains to care so much about.

On the terrifying ice roads of the Himalayas at the Zoji La pass we meet with an Indian man who lives 10k from his brother but, because of the 'line of control', it takes him fifteen days to visit him. This is the kind of insanity that these unnatural borders have caused and, other than the religious fundamentalists and nationalistic governments that hold sway over so much of the region, it seems to me that people are sick of it. They don't want it any more. There doesn't seem to be any hope whatsoever of things changing in the foreseeable future but hopefully if more people stick to Gandhi's message and act with love, instead of hate, there'll at least be a chance that things could improve in the future when these huge, and youthful, populations grow to be adults. If they're denied education because of dogmatic or economic circumstances, however, we could end up continuing to travel in the opposite direction and the results of that really don't bear thinking about.

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