The eddies in the boundary
By Sahana Ghosh
22 June 2016
Goutam Ghose’s ‘Sankhachil’ over-simplifies West Bengal-Bangladesh border politics.
Aborted and violent crossings of the Bangladesh-India border open Goutam Ghose’s Sankhachil (Unbounded). A Bangladeshi journalist being given a tour of the border near the river Ichhamati by the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) meets an Indian boat, full of people, heading to a relative’s home on the Bangladeshi side. The BGB commander firmly turns down their plaintive pleas to attend a family function, even as he has to tell the naive journalist, demanding to know why they were not arrested, that encounters such as these are far too common to be acted upon. In contrast, the next attempted crossing is at a fenced part of the border, in stealthy darkness. A group of teenage girls and a boy are being led to the metal fence clandestinely by a middleman and are shown climbing over on a ladder. When it is the boy’s turn to jump across the fence, he is spotted by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and, in what is depicted as an exchange of fire, torchlights and gunshots end the attempt. The barbed wire of the fence hangs heavy under the weight of his dead body, shedding metallic dewdrops, as a senior BSF officer fields questions from an irate press. He tells them impatiently that the BSF are not robots; those concerned will be tried in their internal martial court, and that this complex, porous border is a “forced LOC”, controlling which is an absurd task.
We are at once reminded of the death of Felani Khatun in January 2011, a Bangladeshi girl working in Delhi, shot as she tried to cross the fence on the way back to her home in Kurigram district. The killing evoked widespread condemnation in Bangladesh, largely in nationalist terms, and brought censure from human-rights defenders in India and across the world. It also brought about a discussion of the nature of violence along this ostensibly “friendly” border. In 2013, a BSF martial court acquitted the young constable who shot her; a retrial in 2015, hidden from public view, ordered due to official disapproval of this verdict at the highest bilateral levels upheld the acquittal.
The powerful opening scenes suggest that the film is about to engage with the complex realities of a 4096-km long border that snakes along rivers and through densely populated agrarian lands whose local residents have numerous cross-border connections, old and new. The India-Pakistan border has been the subject of numerous films, including mainstream Bollywood productions (such as Border and Bajrangi Bhaijaan); not so the India-Bangladesh border. In particular, its present form of being increasingly militarised by the Indian state through the last couple of decades has occurred without much mainstream attention in India, and eluded treatment in cinematic form in either country. A joint Indo-Bangladeshi venture, starring male and female leads from both countries, Sankhachil promised to revisit the pathos of this border in its present metal fence and barbed wire form. As such, this film marks an important collaborative effort (Ghose’s third India-Bangladesh film) to take a humanistic view of the cruelty of closed borders and plight of borderland residents in the region to a wider audience. Most of all, it attempts to look at the relationship between security forces and borderland residents beyond the starkness of victims and villains.
Enter Muntasir Chowdhury Badal (Prasenjit Chatterjee), a music-loving, literary-minded schoolteacher in a border village by the river Ichhamati in Bangladesh. Between delivering impassioned history lessons on the East Bengalis’ fight to uphold their mother tongue under Pakistani imposition of Urdu, he plans to write about Partition’s communal poison by digging through his own family’s experience of forced migrations and violent losses. He is shown to be a loving husband to Laila (Kusum Sikder) and indulgent father to Rupsha (Shanjbati). The bucolic idyll of their life amid migratory birds, blooming trees, and glorious sunsets by the river is interrupted when Rupsha’s health deteriorates. The local doctor advises them to take her to a hospital immediately for medical tests and treatment. While Khulna is a long, bumpy ride away, the hospital in West Bengal’s Taki is just across the river, the town’s flickering lights visible at dusk. Badal hastily decides to clandestinely cross the river to enter India for his daughter’s treatment. He is advised to do so by the Hindu headmaster of the village school who puts him in touch with Sudipto babu (Dipankar Dey), a wealthy and well-connected Taki resident.
As the camera lingers over the crumbling grandeur of Sudipto babu’s mansion, the Chowdhury couple reluctantly heeds his advice to adopt Hindu identities, pretending to be his relatives; Sudipto arranges fake voter-identity cards for them. Rupsha is diagnosed with a heart condition that requires an urgent surgery for which they rush her from the Taki government hospital to a private one in Kolkata. Nevertheless, despite their risky efforts, Rupsha’s health takes a turn for the worse. By the second half, the film has become entirely about one girl’s illness and her father’s decisions to care for her against all odds. The issues raised by the failed crossings at the beginning of the film have been largely abandoned in multiple ways. To heed Nigerian novelist Adichie Chimamanda’s caution against the danger of a ‘single story’, let us return to the frames – and their pitfalls – against which Ghose places his single story.
Sankhachil captures the oppression of fear and acute distress with which Badal and Laila masquerade as Hindu Indians, first at the district hospital and then in Kolkata. Ghose is masterful with these moments of minor and major indignities: an anxious Badal ducks into a sweet shop at the sound of a police car passing by, Laila is afraid to appear in front of Rupsha during visiting hours in sindoor and shakha-pola, while Rupsha is requested by her tearful father to cooperate with their lie. One of the most poignant scenes is when the gold dealer calls them out on the distinctly Bangladeshi design and quality of the jewellery that Laila brought to sell in order to pay for Rupsha’s surgery. Gold is one of the items that has been smuggled from Bangladesh into India over the years and, as with the other moments of fear, the film deploys these common identifiers of fraud to unsettle the stereotype of an illegal border-crosser as a criminal. Though countless border-crossers might identify with these fears and the strategies, the film seems to be directed at Indian audiences who encounter such border-crossers merely in newspapers and political speeches. While this intention to dig deeper than the superficial and dehumanising stereotypes is appreciable, we will return later to the problematic politics of sympathy it seems to encourage.
Ghose uses the Bangladeshi journalist at the very beginning of the film, being introduced to the absurdities of the Radcliffe line, to orient viewers to the material conditions of borderland villages. It is the riverine part of the border that is impossible to fence; roughly one-third of the entire stretch of the India-Bangladesh border is made up of such parts. Here Indians and Bangladeshis live cheek by jowl, ostensibly in peaceful harmony. It is impossible to tell who is who without the aid of their identity cards, confesses the guiding BGB commander. Many a scenes from the film illustrate that: a sugar palm tree with its trunk in Bangladesh with the fruit likely to drop in India; a home in India with its kitchen in Bangladesh; two men sitting outside a house tending to their fishing nets are neighbours in two countries. This is not exceptional – neither to Taki (in the context of the Bengal border) nor to the West Bengal-Bangladesh border (in the context of populated borderlands in Southasia). The apparent absurdity of these examples makes for cinematic flourish and no doubt this will tickle the minds of metropolitan audiences with little knowledge of such places.
However, having established this context, the film takes no interest in exploring in depth in which ordinary residents, socio-economically variegated, and security forces rub up against each other every day in the borderlands, and manage these encounters through both cooperation and conflict. It is a pity that Ghose remains largely within this frame of exceptionalism and passing curiosity, rather than developing any idea of the various degrees of violence – physical, emotional, economic – that mark lives in the shadow of such an absurd border. Residents are shown frozen in time, their activities eternal, as if nothing has happened between Radcliffe’s potentially drunken scrawling and today’s realities. Perhaps, the most disingenuous aspect of this casual passing through is how the film glosses over the two sides to the border.
Unlike the Bangladeshi side depicted in this film, to live, work, and move in villages along the Indian side of the border is to encounter disruptive checks by the BSF at every step. Starting with the checking of identity documents, such surveillance extends to frisking (of women too by recently deployed female constables), search of bags, regulation of household and agrarian commodities and interrogations upon suspicion. Unlike the romanticised free birds and fishes above and in the Ichhamati, even cows and goats have identity documents in the areas that fall between the actual border and the BSF checkpoints (and these may be as far as three-five kilometre from the actual border). These, and many more, are all practical strategies employed by the BSF, given the task to completely seal this border and prevent all movement, even when they know how ridiculous and unjust such measures are. This side of the story is poorly known in Bangladesh as Bangladeshi media reports only on violence inflicted on Bangladeshis by the BSF. Neither is it known to the Indian or West Bengali public as these issues are virtually absent in the Indian media, except in cases of shootings that attract attention (like that of Felani).
Sankhachil, on the other hand, makes a commendable effort to humanise the BSF who have come to acquire the reputation of being “trigger happy” along the Bengal border, without making them into perfect national heroes. Through the tender relationship between a Rajasthani border guard, and Rupsha, we are encouraged to see a ‘human’ side to them. In one scene, as they exchange homemade sweets and balloons across the barbed wire, their joy is delicately rendered in slow motion as if to hold on to time in an all-too short and uncertain encounter. Perhaps the single-story focus could have been balanced with some more attention to this angle – the contradictions between one’s conscience and the demands of duty that the border security forces of both countries negotiate daily and the multi-faceted relationships that develop between borderland residents and the mobile BSF (of which this relationship is but one kind). Instead of denying altogether the trigger-happy image of security forces by offering this perspective, the film was well poised to link the two. For instance, by highlighting the practical challenges to implement poorly conceived and insensitive national policies of border control as well as the stressful conditions of limited resources under which the security forces of both countries live and work.
It is noteworthy that while the presence of the Indian state is strongly felt through the BSF, the government hospital at Taki and the police, the Bangladeshi state is virtually absent except the BGB personnel. Health facilities are depicted as inadequate and road connectivity poor. No doubt the NGO-isation of welfare services in Bangladesh affects state-society relationships in different ways and calibrates expectations citizens have of state interventions. In comparison, the visible presence of the Indian state is a realistic representation of the perception of many Bangladeshis whose lives are lived with a continuously comparative orientation.
The theme that the plotline most solidly critiques is the pre-eminence of religious and national differences in post-Partition identities, in a region that once was undivided Bengal. Against this, Sankhachil stresses the deep attachment to desh, homeland, beyond narrow conceptions of religious belonging, through the recollections of Partition’s violent displacements then and the Chowdhurys’ predicament today. Specifically, it locates these conundrums in the figure of the Bengali Muslim, in the churning of cultural, religious, and national identities. The inheritance of memories of violent loss and displacement is rendered through Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Amay gahite bolo na’ (Do not ask me to sing), a song he wrote on the occasion of Bengal’s partition in 1905. This engagement with Partition, however beautifully rendered, is not only predictable, but also confounding: one cannot speak of homeland, identity, and nationalism in this part of the subcontinent today without considering the tumultuous decades after Partition.
The countless formal and informal exchanges through which people steadily moved in both directions between West Bengal (and other bordering Indian states) and East Pakistan through the 1950s, the bilateral hostilities of 1965, and all the events in Pakistan leading up to the bloody war of 1971 in which millions were temporarily displaced and suffered tremendous losses are blinked away. Having cast the film in the perspective of a Muslim Bangladeshi family in contemporary times, these erasures combined with a predictable mourning for Partition is profoundly problematic. The dominant paradigm of Hindu refugee nostalgia revolving exclusively around 1947 is projected onto the Other, the East Bengali Muslim, whose negotiations with questions of religion, identity, and national aspiration through subsequent historical conjunctures find no place in this conversation. Perhaps we must recognise that nostalgia too has been partitioned (and those borders are even harder to cross)?
In one of the turning points of the film, when the Chowdhurys’ masquerade unravels, Badal rejects the Hindu/Muslim, Indian/Bangladeshi binaries and how they presumptively fit. He declares to the shocked hospital authorities that he has no identity other than that of a Bengali. No doubt the pernicious grip of Partition lives on through increasingly polarised religious identities and the politics of belonging, where there had been more layered, syncretic coexistences. However, an alternative imaginary to that cannot simply be a Bengali identity, empty of religion, caste, and class, since no such pre/colonial form ever existed except in the West Bengali bhadralok imagination. Badal’s declaration rings most hollow, exposes the film’s underlying nostalgic sentimentality and lack of engagement with questions of power.
Like in director Ritwik Ghatak’s films, Sankhachil moves between the pastoral idyll of rural Bengal and the jarring onslaught of urban West Bengal. The river Ichhamati runs through the film, severing and suturing at once; attentive visual frames are reminiscent of Ghatak’s attachment to and use of the symbolism of riverine Bengal. Bhrigu and Anasuya looking across the Padma towards a homeland that lies yonder, with a river, a border, and great violence in between in Komal Gandhar (1961) come to mind. But Ghatak’s partitioned Bengal of the early 1960s, staggering to its feet after famine, mass displacements, traumatic riots through urban squalor, rural poverty, and radically altered demographics, cannot be the partitioned “Bengal” of today. Ghose does not deliver a film of our times in a way that Ghatak’s Partition trilogy did.
In its quest to explore the legacy of Partition, Sankhachil blames it all on history – the BSF officer declares to the questioning press that the 14-year-old boy was shot by our bloody history. This is an extremely evasive position to take, and seems to absolve the postcolonial states of any part in this mess. In doing so, Ghose misses a tremendous opportunity to confront, even edgily, the knotty realities of the post-Partition geopolitics of Southasia. The border and divided Bengal may be the product of a particular history but why is this border controlled in this manner today? What about the alternative regimes of border control in practice along India’s other borders with Nepal and Bhutan?
Furthermore, let us be clear, it is India building the fence around Bangladesh, and the BSF doing most of the shootings at the border. This specific balance of power seeps into everyday relations between ordinary residents of the two countries who try to maintain a variety of cross-border relations for familial, religious and economic reasons, as much as public perception of bilateral relations.
For these reasons, the film’s appreciable attempt to take on the figure of the anuprabeshkari, translated as trespasser, remains timid. A distraught Badal Chowdhury declares himself a trespasser to the hospital authorities as his family’s disguise as Hindu Indians comes undone. He owns up to their illegal border crossing in a moral challenge to those very legal categories and statist labels. This label is more commonly referred to in the jingoist Indian media and parliamentary discussions as ‘infiltrator’ or ‘illegal immigrant’, and touted as threats to national security. The Assam Assemble elections in May 2016 hinged on this very issue of illegal immigration and saw the Bharatiya Janata Party benefit from communal polarisation by casting Bengali Muslims as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants as bonafide refugees. The film challenges that stereotypically threatening image (working class Muslim male) with the figures of Rabindrasangeet-singing Badal and Laila and an endearing girl who never wanted to leave her homeland. Rupsha and her family make for ideal victims – honest, cultured, and quintessentially Bengali – that we can all rally behind, but what about the 14-year old boy whose death the film began with? What of countless Bangladeshis similarly trying to visit families on the Indian side? What about the boatful of Indian Muslims trying to make it to a family function?
The film is deeply disappointing in its inability to tackle the subjects it gestured to in its opening frames. To counter the divisive nationalist chauvinisms that already exist in the region, conversations that reexamine 1947 and open up space to a plurality of experiences and legacies are sorely needed. We need to grapple with the place of 1971 in the political-cultural memory of West Bengal and India at large. Perhaps it is also time to look with critical eyes at the kinds of memories of 1947 that are enshrined and valourised in India and Bangladesh today and what becomes of those narratives that run counter to the foundation of our nationalist hegemonies.
At the same time, the humdrum of our classed borders and their regulation continue. For the vast majority of the agrarian poor who live in the borderlands of these two countries, procuring passports and visas are difficult and expensive procedures. Unlike the Chowdhurys who cross under exceptional circumstances, there are thousands who cross frequently – in both directions – to visit family, work, buy and sell goods. Some go further afield in search of work or medical help. If they had recourse to some form of travel arrangements that were designed keeping such entirely legitimate cross-border ties and activities in mind, no doubt hundreds and thousands would gladly follow such regulated means. Are these arrangements not less expensive than prisons to house those arrested of trespass? Given the historic resolution of the enclaves’ situation in 2015 and agreements for transport and trade connectivity, it is time we re-imagine the movement of ordinary people. Like the haunting promise of Jibanananda Das’s poem that rings through Shankhachil, this film, even though its own engagements are simplistic and thin, should be the occasion for these questions to echo, an invitation to imagine new, and more just possibilities.
I will return again to the Dhansiri’s banks, to this Bengal
Not as a man, perhaps, but as a shalik bird, or a white hawk
~ Sahana Ghosh is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Yale University. Her research is on the gendered politics of borders, migration, and civil-military relations in Southasia.