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Border Crossings: Forging Closer Ties

Border States can act as facilitators of closer economic and cultural ties between nations, and should be made important stakeholders in foreign policy, argues Tridivesh Singh Maini, while analysing the contrasting approaches of Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat towards relations with Pakistan.

Two border crossings between India and Pakistan – the Line of Control (LoC) and the Wagah-Attari border which - hit the headlines recently for strikingly different reasons. If the former was in the news for all the wrong reasons; tidings from the Wagah-Attari border bring some optimism that South Asia’s two long-time adversaries may move forward, even if it may be restricted to better bilateral trade.

Trade in the LoC was disrupted after the January 17 arrest of a truck driver from Pakistan for allegedly transporting narcotics worth Rs. 100 crores hidden in his vehicle, which was also impounded. This evoked strong responses from Pakistan, and a large number of Indian trucks carrying good from India were detained by Pakistan. New Delhi summoned Islamabad’s acting envoy to India and expressed its displeasure.

In sharp contrast, the Wagah-Attari border was in the news for a more positive reason: during the meeting between the Commerce Ministers of both countries on January 18, it was decided to keep the border open round-the-clock. The fact that Pakistan may grant Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India soon if the latter reduces tariffs on certain commodities is likely to give a strong fillip to trade across the Wagah-Attari border, currently estimated at $2.6 billion, according to the Directorate General for Commercial Intelligence and Statistics, Kolkata.

These two border points are often presented as strong connectors with Pakistan. While the bus service and trade across the LoC was an important confidence building measure (CBM), aimed at softening the divide between Srinagar and Muzzafarabad, the Wagah-Attari border crossing is the economic connector between the two Punjabs and India and Pakistan. The ceremonial hoisting and lowering of flags simultaneously by the border troops of both countries is now a major tourist attraction and has also pushed the profile of the border crossing quite high.

For a section of analysts and the media, borders are nothing more than dividers between two countries. Most commentators overlook the fact that these borders may be dividing lines, but their character varies from region to region, and people perceive these borders differently in different States. In addition to this, over the past decade, governments of these States have become important players in their own right for different reasons.

If one were to look at the case of the three border States — Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat — that are less sensitive than Kashmir in the past few years it is interesting to see the contrasting approaches of different State governments towards relations with Pakistan. First of all, even though both the Punjabs suffered immensely during the Partition and the subsequent wars between India and Pakistan, the Indian side of the State has been at the frontline of pushing for better ties with Pakistan over the past decade. The two major political parties of the State, the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, have firmly batted for closer trade ties between the Punjabs as well as closer people-to-people contact. In the context of Rajasthan, the push for linkages with Sindh has come from the central government. The resumption of the Munabao-Khokhrapar train service in 2005, which was disrupted after the war of 1965, was proposed during the National Democratic Alliance regime by then Finance Minister, Jaswant Singh, who himself hails from Rajasthan. There are a large number of separated families in Rajasthan and Sindh. Cross-border marriages between Rajput castes of both the sides are still very common. The Ministry of Commerce proposed opening up the said land route and the commencement of another train for trade. It should be pointed out that while businessmen, chambers of commerce and certain politicians from Sindh have been lobbying for greater trade and cultural ties between both the border regions, none of the ruling governments in Rajasthan over the past decade has firmly sought closer links between the State and Sindh. Even logistical problems pertaining to the Munabao-Khokhrapar train service and visa issues, which passengers face, have not been addressed. This lack of enthusiasm is ascribed to a number of factors. First, the issue only affects citizens in the border districts of Rajasthan. Second, a large number of soldiers and personnel of the Border Security Force (BSF) hail from Rajasthan and this reduces the appetite for links between the countries within the State. Finally, the business lobby of the State has not pro-actively lobbied with the State government for trade through the Munabao-Khokhrapar land route.

Then there is Gujarat, which is geographically close to Pakistan. Narendra Modi, Gujarat Chief Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Ministerial candidate, is pro-business and trade, and has promoted Gujarat in different parts of the world through a sharply drawn up economic diplomacy policy. He has also been advocating a greater role for the States in Indian foreign policy. However, he has not made much effort to boost ties with Pakistan. While he has met a few delegations from Pakistan and did speak about energy trade with Sindh, this has not translated into any concrete action on the ground. In fact, Mr. Modi has not made much of an effort to include Pakistani delegations in the much talked about Vibrant Gujarat Summit. A delegation that had come to attend the Summit was sent back in 2013 because they did not have visas for Gandhinagar where the summit was to be held. The lack of interest and enthusiasm for closer ties between Gujarat and Sindh defies clear explanation, particularly because the Kutch region in Gujarat has had close cultural and economic linkages in the past with Sindh in Pakistan. In addition to this, there is a large Sindhi Community in Gujarat, which too can be used for building bridges with Sindh.

Different explanations are given for Gujarat’s lack of initiative, with some believing that the lack of a land border, unlike the case of Rajasthan and Punjab, is the most important issue. Others argue that businessmen on both sides have yet not put forth a clear vision for bilateral trade, so it is unfair to blame the government.

The third reason put forth for the Gujarat government not being too enthusiastic is the fact that foreign policy is a central subject. While this is true, Gujarat has actively pursued economic diplomacy with other countries, and nothing stops it from doing the same with Pakistan. It would be pertinent to mention here that Mr. Modi, in fact, visited China in 2011, and was given a warm welcome by the Chinese leadership. Mr. Modi has not gone out of his way to reach out to the business community of Karachi which is keen to build trade ties with Gujarat. Finally, the lack of Gujarat’s interest, in promoting trade relations with Pakistan is also attributed to there being no land crossing.

The time has come for the government of India to make State governments, especially in border States, stakeholders in foreign policy. It is also important that leaders of these border States act in a responsible manner. Rather than exacerbating tensions between both countries, they should make earnest efforts to act as facilitators of closer economic and cultural ties. Scholars and analysts also need to look at border regions from a holistic perspective and need to research why some border regions are more enthusiastic about softening of borders with neighbouring countries, while others are not.

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