Life along Indo-Pak Border in Rajasthan: A Cultural Insight
The Radcliffe line recognised in August 1947, partitioned India and Pakistan. India shares 2900km International Border (IB) with Pakistan on the western front. Geographically, Rajasthan is the largest state on the western border, with an exquisite terrain. Rajasthan- ‘the land of kings’, with its unique desert terrain, is identified with a nomadic, semi-nomadic and royal culture preserved by the communities living specifically in the remote areas along the International Border. The social structure along the international border in Rajasthan is diverse, exhibiting unique traditions, folklore and customs.
Wars, Military Standoffs and settlement patterns
Before the partition, Sindh province was home to the Sindhi Rajputs (Bhuttos, Bhattis, Rathores, etc), Sodha Rajputs, Garasia & Daneta Jatts, Meghwals, Nayaks, Bhils, Kolis, Faqirs, etc. Similarly, Rajputs, Jats, Khatris, Gujjars, Maliks, Sikhs, Baori, Bhat, etc. were prime communities of Punjab province[i]. At the time of partition, most of the Hindu groups of these communities fled to India, and those of Muslim groups moved to Pakistan.
However, there was not much displacement amongst the pastoral communities of the Thar at that time. Their deep rooted Sindhi culture through its socio-cultural linkages, religion, language, dressing, and food habits kept the communities integrated to a large extent, continuing their marriage relations across the border, trade until the 1965/1971 Indo-Pak war[ii].
After these wars, there were further migration of Hindus and Muslim communities from Pakistan to India and India to Pakistan, respectively (among Meghwals, Sodhas, Rajads, Faqirs, etc.). Then, during the military stand-off period (1999-2002), i.e. post Kargil war and Parliament attack, large-scale displacements happened along the border areas in Rajasthan[iii]. Meanwhile, India fenced and flood-lit the Rajasthan-Pakistan border by 1999, and closed doors for frequent movement along the border.
Therefore, most communities living along the international border in Rajasthan have settled post partition. The other pull agent for settlement in this region has been land allotment and canal extension. Settlements in the agricultural belt of Rajasthan, particularly in Northern Bikaner and Ganganagar boomed during chakbandi (land allotments along the canal and the canal extension between 1980s and late 1990s).
It is important here to mention that there are migrations from Pakistan still reported, particularly of Hindus citing atrocities in Pakistan. The Hindu pastoral communities of Thar like Bhils, Meghwals who stayed along the IB in Pakistan, particularly in Sindh are migrating to India.
Terrain, Availability of water and local culture
The specific terrain along the IB in the state has deeply influenced the culture of people living here. The communities living across the Thar Desert exhibit more of a livestock based folk, Sindhi culture, while those across the fertile plains of Sutlej (called Rohi) exhibit more of an agrarian based Punjabi and Bagri culture.
The settlements along the IB in Rajasthan are primarily dependent on availability of water, and so is the local culture. Thereby, the region across Thar is scarcely populated, i.e. Barmer, Jaisalmer, and that across the fertile plains is quite densely populated, i.e. Bikaner, Ganganagar.
Across the Thar Desert, the rural economy is largely pastoral and much of the arable land is mono-cropped. The diet of the communities, including the Rajputs, Meghwals, Nayaks, Faqirs, Bhils living in Barmer, Jaisalmer depends on local desert food-plants, like Kejri, Ker, Phog, Sangri, and Pearl Millet (bajra), Sorghum (jowar), Maize. They also depend upon milk and milk products from their cattle (bovine, sheep, goats) and camels.
On the contrary, the diet of communities, including Jats, Aroras, Raisikh, Majbisikhs, Meghwals, Baori living in Bikaner, Ganganagar have a richer basket of food available. Their food consumption includes Chickpea (Gram), Wheat, Rice, lentils and vegetables, besides milk and milk products from their bovine cattle.
In Barmer, the village settlement is based on ground water availability, and therefore, most village names have ‘tala’ suffixed (eg. Nawatala, Hejam ka Tala). The villages are either Hindu majority villages, or Muslim majority villages. Accruing to the acute scarcity of water and sandy terrain, in Jaisalmer temporary settlements based on the availability of water, called dhanis are inhabited by the local communities.
Most people across the four districts along the international border in Rajasthan live in mud houses. Major settlements in Jaisalmer and some parts in Barmer feature traditional artistic mud houses. However, towards Ganganagar and northern Bikaner there are more concrete houses seen, accruing to the agricultural prosperity in the belt.
A particular type of traditional hut made from mud and woods, serves as cool havens beating the heat during summers. These mud houses are beautifully painted and decorated with geometrical designs by women and has become a part of their culture. The design of permanent houses in the border villages has rainwater harvesting as its essential component. Pipes from the rooftop lead rainwater into the catchment tanks called diggi.
Considering the clothing pattern, the communities in Barmer and Jaisalmer wear traditional Sindhi attire, while most of those in Bikaner and Ganganagar wear traditional Punjabi attire. In Barmer and Jaisalmer it was observed, women wear colourful lenhegha or ghagra or angia or sulhanki with kurti, odhni and sometimes choli. Traditional jewelry like rakhdi, machi-suliya, tevata, pattia, aad, nath and chuda holds importance in women’s attire.
In this region, while the Hindu women wear silver jewelry, Muslim women wear jewelry in gold. Men in these areas wear tevata style single colour (mostly, white or blue) dhotis or pyjama, with kurta and colourful pagris. People in Bikaner and Ganganagar wear kurta-pyjamas with optional turbans for men and salwar-kameez with dupattas for women.
Faiths and Beliefs
Most people in the border areas are Hindus. Other religion, includes Islam (in Barmer, Jaisalmer, few in Bikaner) and Sikhism (Ganganagar and few in Bikaner). The ‘border line’ communities in Rajasthan have segments belonging to different faiths. The Community culture strongly exists across different religious faiths (Singh, 1998).
The Sindhi (or even Multani) communities, including Meghwals, Nayaks, Bhils, Rajads, Kallars, and Faqirs, living pastoral lives in Barmer and Jaisalmer exhibit more of Nizari Ismailism or Nizar Panth[iv] and Pir culture. Most of such Muslims follow Pirs (Example: Pir Pagara, Makhdoom of Haala), who have their shrines located in Pakistan, while most of such Hindu communities were keeping faith in Ramdevra Pir (a Tanwar Rajput who worked for the upliftment of Harijans in the 15th century), whose shrine is located in Pokharan[v]. The Muslim communities have also been seen to worship village deities like Gogaji, etc.
However, the Islamic seminaries, under the influence of Jamaats[vi] functioning in the region, are influencing the local culture. In recent years, there has been a shift in the traditional pattern of clothing, where the change in clothing pattern is seen to gradually carve a distinct Muslim identity[vii]. It was observed that Muslim women are discarding wearing of an armful of bright bangles, chudas, and ghagra-choli-odhnis for salwar-kameez, hijabs, and burqas. Muslim men are too seen to opt for salwars and skullcaps over traditional safas, turbans, and lungis. Nevertheless, the influence is more amongst the men than women in the remote areas.
On the other hand, there are communities like Rajputs, Sodhas, and Meo Muslims (who converted from the Rajput, Gurjar and Meena Hindus), with ancient traditional beliefs in the pal, gotra, and varna system[viii]. Most of such Hindu communities were seen to be into idol worship of Shakti/Shiva and follow Shaktism, Shaivism or Vaishnavism, while most of such Muslim communities were seen to be followers of traditional Sunni Islam (includes Hadiths, Sharia, Fiqh). Moreover, there are followers of Sikhism and several sects of Sikhism (Example: Dera Sachha Sauda, Radha Soami). These are Jat Sikhs, Raisikhs, Majbi, Baori, Ramdasiyas, etc. in the Ganganagar area. The lower castes in this region have become vulnerable to religious conversions at the hands of evangelical groups[ix].
The region faces certain cultural challenges with respect to the status of women and drug addiction. The status of women in the region is low, though improving gradually. There is a popular trend of child marriage. Women get married at the young age of 10-14, and even younger, and their literacy level is low as well. The sex ratio amongst the Rajputs and Sodhas in in Barmer and Jaisalmer is low, while that amongst the Meghwals and Faqirs is relatively better. The purdah system is practised extensively amongst the former communities. Furthermore, dowry harassments, female infanticide is also prevalent amongst these communities.
A similar poor trend in the status of women was observed amongst the Jat Hindus in Bikaner and Ganganagar, while amongst the Sikhs and Punjabis it is relatively better. The Rajput, Sodha women have limited role in the decision making process of the family. On the contrary, women from communities like Meghwals, Faqirs, Baori, and Raisikh were seen to have more participation in family decisions. Moreover, most women across the districts and across communities are anaemic and have poor awareness of menstruation hygiene and pregnancy (including pre/post) ailments.
Following the Rajasthani traditions, the communities are accustomed to collective child marriages on the auspicious occasions of ‘Aakha Teej’ and ‘Akshay Tritya’. Then, there is a practice of arranging child marriages on the death funerals. In addition, dowry is a prominent practise here, which has led to rising trends of female infanticide. This has further led to the rising trend of buying brides from other communities due to poor sex-ratio.
Consuming opium (afeem) and poppy seeds (doda-posht) on festivals, celebrations and funerals is a cultural practice amongst the communities here.[x] Unfortunately, they have also developed consuming alcohol (desi) in this region. However, culturally the Muslim communities restrain from such practices, except those in Ganganagar where drug menace from Punjab has percolated and inflicted all communities.
Production of illegal desi liquor in the belt is a rising trend. Recently, a tragic incident occurred when several villagers and BSF personnel died or were hospitalized in a critical state after consuming spurious liquor illegally locally produced in Gadra-Munnabao area in Barmer. Rajasthan has become a second largest transit point of drug trafficking in India, after Punjab. The Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan has become a smuggling point for opium and other drugs to other parts of the country and the world[xi].
Culturally, consumption of opium and doda-posht is widespread amongst the ‘borderline’ communities in Rajasthan. The state government has shut all retail opium husk shops w.e.f. April 01, 2016. These licensed shops have been breaching the limited supply norm for selling opium poppy, corresponding to the high demand. Most of the license holders of these shops come from the border districts – Barmer and Jaisalmer. Then, Ganganagar has become a hub of medicinal drugs, heroine, smack, etc. The youth have been widely affected, similar to Punjab.
The region along the international border in Rajasthan enjoys a unique culture and is of strategic importance. Moreover, there is a huge potential for development in the region. The ethnic framework and cultural diversity in the region, which have evolved from the skills of survival in the desert extremities, have imparted resilience to the local social fabric. The culture is deeply dependant on water.
However, the ‘borderline’ communities have become vulnerable to separatist politics, fundamentalist religious ideologies, and invisible religious conversions. This has become a matter of concern for the security forces in the region and the politics of the region revolves around this. There is a strong need for security policy makers to understand the ethnography and cultural vulnerabilities of the communities in this strategic region. The development policies also need to be more responsive to such vulnerabilities, to resolve the cultural challenges and to mitigate local resistances w.r.t. development and security framework.
[i] F. Ibrahim, ‘Settlers, Saints and Sovereigns: An Ethnography of State Formation in Western India’, 2009.
[ii] Major Gen Sukhwant Singh (AVSM), ‘India’s War since Independence’, April 2011.
[iii] V. Grover & R. Arora, ’50 years of Indo-Pak relations: Chronology of events & important documents’. 1999.
[iv] Nizari Ismailism or Nizar Panth was an organized movement during the Sufism and Bhakti Movement period between 14th and 15th century, in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. The movement drew parallels between Ismaili concepts/beliefs and Hindu traditions/folklore, and is recorded to lead to mass conversions into Islam across the western Indo-Pakistan subcontinent under various Imams and Pirs. (D.S. Khan, 2003).
[v] D.S. Khan, ‘Conversions and Shifting Identities: Ramdevra and Ismailis in Rajasthan’. 2003.
[vi] Most Seminaries operate under Madarsa-Islamia-Darul-Uloom-Pokhran, which follows Darul-uloom-Deoband (World’s 2nd largest Islamic Seminary). It is known, that gradually Deobandi in India has been strongly influenced by Wahhabi Movement (Gohari, 2000). The school is conservative and beliefs in fundamentalist theologies, due to which it has gradually shattered the mystical Sufi Islam (T.Abbas, 2011).
[vii] There are reported stories covered at http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/new-religious-divide-muslims-forsake-traditional-attire-in-rajasthan/1/220133.html (Accessed 05 May, 2016)
[viii] A. Chawla, ‘How Meos shape their identity’, EPW. March 2016.
[ix] Reports available at Brethen Times, which is a magazine started by International Brethen Mission & Media Ministries (Michigan, US). Refer http://brethrentimes.com/2013/09/sriganganagar/ (Accessed on 11-05-2016).
[x] K.K Ganguli, ‘An Ethnographic account of traditional opium use in India’, 1995.
[xi] News report http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/For-mafia-Rajasthan-a-safe-route-to-smuggle-drugs-to-Punjab/articleshow/51476818.cms (Accessed on 05-05-2016)
This article is based on the research conducted by PPRC on the border areas of Rajasthan between March-May 2016.