“The Shadow Lines” and its Relation to Modern Subcontinental Politics

shadow lines
The Shadow Lines (Credit: La Collection/Laurent Goldstein)

In 1964, in the heart of the city of Dhaka, Tridib is brutally murdered. He is a main character in Amitav Ghosh’s renowned novel The Shadow Lines.  His death, along with many others, comes with what is known today as the East Pakistan riots. Recently, India and Pakistan have seen a tremendous escalation in riots resulting from their national conflict over the Indian administered territory of Kashmir, a state in North India. The Shadow Lines is a beautiful conception of events of post-Partition India that underscores the gross tension between the two nation states and the riots that took place in the wake of the Partition of India.

The novel explores the notion of borders — the effects of its physical, psychological and geographical manifestation. Ghosh’s novel deals with the effects of World War II in London and post-Partition India. It also concerns itself with the riots that spread across cities of India into Dhaka, the capital of then-East Pakistan and nowadays Bangladesh. The riots created an inevitable sense of disillusionment amongst the inhabitants within these borders. A dangerous sense of jingoism arose. The riots got worse, and so did the pseudo-nationalism.

Before I move forward, some brief historical explanation must be provided: Indo-Pak relations have been strained since the two countries were first severed from one another in 1947 under the British Raj, and they have since been involved in a cold war. Although the nations have maintained superficial civility, there have been occurrences where this relationship crumbled and resulted in smaller but enormously devastating wars. The heart of the Indo-Pak conflict lies in both India and Pakistan’s stronghold over the Indian administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir. India claims the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan administers a portion of Kashmir and so contests India’s claim to it. This conflict has resulted in three major wars between the two countries and countless small battles. The conflict escalated so much that the United Nations made two trips (in 1948 and 1949) to the territory in order to find an agreeable solution between both countries.

The infamous Kashmir conflict boils down to the fact that Kashmir is an important territory to both nations. Because of its prime location on the border, Kashmir could choose to join either India or Pakistan. Pakistan lobbies for Kashmir because of Kashmir’s increasing Muslim population. India lobbies for it on the grounds of security and original territory: Kashmir, being located in largely mountainous terrain, acts as a natural barrier. This conflict has not served well for the people of Kashmir.

Today, India and Pakistan face a turbulent future together. Two months ago, there were massive “anti-India” demonstrations in Kashmir that resulted in around 80 casualties. India has since been condemned by human rights activist groups for its excessive use of force. This event served only to heighten the tension that was brought on the September Uri Attack, quoted by BBC to have been “the deadliest attack on security forces in Kashmir in two decades”. Four heavily armed terrorists attacked an Indian military base, killing 18 Indian security personnel and reportedly injuring 30. While the details of the attack and the previous anti-India demonstration  can be found all over the internet, I write this to speak of the wave of nationalism that has come with it.

People are up in arms. Many are calling this the “last straw” and are urging India to declare war on Pakistan. People are dying. But this sentiment is not new, and it is most certainly not fresh. This is rotting nationalism that has been decaying for over 70 years and has suddenly been given life by an attack on the heart of the country: the military. Ghosh’s novel describes the effects that the Partition had on India and Pakistan (West and East) not just a year after, not just two years after, but twenty years. Of the most striking of these effects is the East Pakistan (current day Bangladesh) riots of 1964 wherein non-Muslims, specifically Hindus, were targeted and killed. Ghosh describes this event to a gruesome extent. In the end, one of the characters killed is a Muslim himself.

This example is important; it gives me goosebumps every time I read about it because, three months ago, it happened again. On August 1st 2016, Dhaka was shaken by one of the most horrific terrorist attacks it has had in years. A cafe was brutalized and its visitors slaughtered by extremist terrorists. Emma Louisa Jacoby, one of your very own from BCB, lost her best friend along with two other close friends in this attack. Of them, Tarishi Jain was an Indian belonging to the Jain religion, and Abinta Kabir and Faraaz Hossain were Muslims about to break their fast on the holiest night of Ramadan. Tarishi’s death was an especially horrific one. This was real in 1964, and it’s real now. This incident reminds me greatly of the East Pakistan (Dhaka) Riots that Ghosh speaks of in 1964 because, in the end, it wasn’t only Hindus killed. Muslims also suffered from these attacks.

My paternal grandmother’s family was displaced by the Partition. Her original home was in Lahore, which is now a part of Pakistan, but she has since laid down her roots and family in India. It’s important to remember what happens when love for your country drives an agenda greater than love for humanity. The Partition of India lead to the death of over 2 million people and the injury and displacement of  countless more. This is an event that changed the course of history as we know it today and, in light of the recent border conflicts, is still relevant today.

It is this that Amitav Ghosh hopes to settle in his novel: borders — be they geographical, physical or psychological — do far more than just separate countries. India and Pakistan are nearly ready to go to war over a border dispute; people are dying in order to cross middle eastern borders every day; nations are having to rethink their immigration policies and their stances on borders and boundaries, and, even if you don’t feel like you are experiencing or seeing this, borders are affecting you.

It’s high time we began paying attention to the politics that lie outside of our own borders. Border disputes are a real issue, and we have got to gear up for it. It’s time to understand the ways in which borders truly affect us. So while you’re up in arms about Donald Trump’s most recent comments, be sure to remember that two of the biggest countries in the world are teetering at the edge of a war, that 18 year olds were brutally slaughtered with machetes while at a cafe, and that your opinions about events are centred largely around your own socio-political borders.

At the end of the day, borders are both a national issue and a personal one; they give rise to sentiments like patriotism and national pride. How do we deal with these manifestations of borders and this surge of nationalism? I leave you with this open question. I also hope that you might read up about the Indo-Pak conflict and the Dhaka attack because this is exactly what a repetition of history looks like, and it’s crucial to comprehend that.


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