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The train to Pakistan

Print edition : Mar 09, 2007

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T+T-

"THE way to their promised land was lined with graves," wrote the great photographer and chronicler of the Partition of India, Margaret Bourke-White.

To divided families in India and Pakistan, the firebombing of the Samjhauta Express would have vested Bourke-White's words, from her 1949 book Halfway to Freedom: A Report on the New India, with renewed resonance.

When the Samjhauta Express resumed operations two years ago, it was hailed as a sign of hope and healing. Service had been suspended in the midst of the India-Pakistan near-war of 2001-02, and its resumption raised hopes that peace was around the corner. Now, however, the firebombing of the train by suspected Islamist terrorists has provided evidence of just how fraught India-Pakistan relations remain - and a grim reminder that the ride to peace will neither be smooth nor safe.

From the outset, the fortunes of the Samjhauta Express have been entwined with the fraught relationship between India and Pakistan. Born out of the accords signed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at Simla in 1972, the Samjhauta Express ran uninterrupted from June 22, 1976 to 1984.

For many Partition survivors, the restitution of train links had a special significance. Bourke-White wrote that "travel by train was still more dangerous than by road because of the ease with which a crowded refugee train could be switched off the main tracks and, while being shunted back and forth, attacked and looted".

Amritsar railway station, she recorded, was in particular "a place of dread for Muslims". "I remember visiting the frightfully littered railroad station after an attack which had cost the lives of a thousand Muslim refugees, and seeing a row of dignified-looking Sikhs, venerable in their long beards and wearing the bright blue turbans of the militant Akali sect, sitting cross-legged all along the platform. Each patriarchal figure held a long curved sabre across his knees - quietly waiting for the next train."

However, Bourke-White was careful to note: "Muslims were not always the victims. Trainloads of Sikhs and Hindus emigrating to India had hours of equal dread when passing through Lahore, the last great rail junction before they escaped from Pakistan."

Over 1,000,000 passengers are thought to have used the India-Pakistan rail service since it began: mainly poor and lower-middle class Muslims from families divided by the India-Pakistan border, but also Pakistani and Indian Hindus, groups of Sikh pilgrims, and a colourful array of part-time traffickers and traders who profit from the two countries' often-absurd trade regulations.

Ever since Pakistan's covert services escalated operations targeting India after 1979-1980, though, the Samjhauta Express service has been under stress. India-Pakistan train services were suspended for a fortnight in the wake of Operation Bluestar. Services were again briefly terminated after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, when a mob in Lahore threw stones at the train.

Following the Jaish-e-Mohammad terror strike on Parliament House on December 13, 2001, the Government of India suspended operation of the train service citing as a reason "the absence of any effective steps by Pakistan to end cross-border infiltration and terrorism". No operations took place from January 1, 2002 until January 15, 2004, when India and Pakistan resumed services and renewed the treaty agreements that govern them.

Since 1995, however, the Samjhauta Express has covered a distance of just three kilometres, between Attari on the Indian side of the border to Wagah in Pakistan - making it perhaps the shortest train route in the world. The decision was taken after India's security establishment grew concerned at the use of the service to ship explosives, narcotics and fake currency, in the wake of the fencing of the India-Pakistan border. Although media accounts have, for the sake of convenience, referred to the train bombed on February 18 as the Samjhauta Express, it was technically a special train from which the passengers would have been transferred to the India-Pakistan service. Full frisking of all passengers and baggage takes place at Attari. The special train halts en route to Attari, but passengers are not allowed to board or leave the train.

In recent years, several alternative India-Pakistan land links have opened, notably the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus route and the Thar Express, which runs from Khokrapar in Sindh to Munabao in Rajasthan. India has been calling, so far without success, for larger numbers of visas to be issued to facilitate people-to-people contact, and for the initiation of new land routes, for instance between Kargil and Skardu, and Jammu and Sialkot.

Praveen Swami in Panipat

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