Sunday, May 19, 2024

Looking South: Our Neighbour and Friend


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By H H Mohrmen

Former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee said: “You can change friends but not your neighbours.” On a similar note, martial artist Jackie Chan also said: “You can choose your friends but not your neighbours,” but what one learns from visits and interactions with the people who live at the border is that, “you can’t change your neighbour, so you technically cannot avoid them, but you can choose how to engage with them.”
Unpleasant situation at the border
In the recent past, two precious lives were lost at the border, both related to alleged smuggling businesses. There were reports of skirmishes between the Border Security Force (BSF) and local people in certain sections of the border. Media reported a bridge collapse with overloaded trucks heading towards the border, carrying sugar. The Shillong Times also carried a detailed report on sugar smuggling to Bangladesh. Cattle, and now buffaloes, are smuggled from the border to Bangladesh. At one point, there was a press report that the BSF was compelled to become cow herders at the border because there was no one to take care of the cows seized while being smuggled across.
Smuggling is rampant not only in this sector of the border but everywhere, with everything smuggled to and from neighboring countries. In Meghalaya, the border is like a proverbial “Thlen, it eats anything,” as locals once told this writer.
Historical Connection
The plain areas, closer to the hills, have a very interesting history. They were ruled by petty kings, then during the British era, they were under the crown and after Independence, they became East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh. The highlanders who live in the hills belong to a different race from those on the plains, but their paths crossed at some point. The two regions, the hills, and the plains, once became one kingdom known as the Jaintia/Jayantia Kingdom. Jaintia is perhaps the only hill kingdom whose dominion extends to the plains.
The Jaintia kingdom is the merger of two kingdoms: Jayanti, believed to be an ancient kingdom, and Sutnga, which originated in the hills. According to Jayantia Buranji, the last ruler of the Jayanti kingdom was a female queen who banished her husband. With the help of her favorite deity, a woman was turned into a fish from her shadow, swimming upstream to where her expelled husband lived. Her husband, Landabor, caught a fish from the nearby river, which later turned into a woman, and the two married.
Interestingly, both the hill kingdom of Sutnga and the plain kingdom known as Jayanti kingdom share the same origin story. The Jayantia kingdom story is well-documented in the Jayantia Buranji, a story about the ancient female kingdom mentioned in ancient scriptures. The Pnar of the hills people also share a similar story with the Jayanti story, albeit with a tribal twist, connected to many natural phenomena still existing today. The river Waikhyrwi, where Loh Ryndi caught the fish, still exists, as does the river Thlumuwi, where she disappeared.
According to Hamlet Bareh Ngapkynta, the two kingdoms became one when the Sutnga kings invaded the Jayanti kingdom in the plains and extended his territory. The glorious reign of the Jaintia came to an end in 1885 when the kingdom was annexed by the British. Whatever it was the reason for the two kingdoms to merge, the fact remains, that the two regions, the plains and the hills, were once part of one political entity.
The Royal Path
The structure standing to testify to the glorious reign of the Jayantia kingdom, which ruled over both the hills and the plains, is the footpath. It is a remnant of the long-cherished history of the Jaintia Kingdom, which connected the hills to the plains. The stone path, dotted with monoliths and stone bridges, later became a trade route linking the hills and the plains of the Jayantia kingdom. The remnants of this path, including monoliths and a few megalithic bridges, still exist today, documented by the History Department of Thomas Jones College, Jowai. Markets in the Plain
Since trade flourished in the area, the hills and plains people were not strangers to each other. The markets located in the plains and frequented by the hills people in the past, were Jaintiapur, Thubang, Iaplem, Borkhat, and Malakur. A case testifying to the existence of trade is the use of brass utensils. In the traditional Niamtre religion, the use of brass utensils, especially for rituals and sacrifices, indicates that trade between the two regions has existed since time immemorial.
Currently, there are border Haats, but it is not known how these markets help in improving the economy of people on both sides of the border. The government needs to do more to help strengthen trade links between the two countries.
Illegal Trade at the International Border
Like any international border all over the world, the border here is also a hub of smuggling activity. In the past, at the height of Japan’s electronic production, all our electronic goods came from Bangladesh. Even second hand or used clothes first came to Meghalaya from Bangladesh (Sula Bangla). Now the activities continue, but the products are different, puffed rice, biscuits, chips and even gram is illegally smuggled from Bangladesh to India.
Cattle Smuggling
Of late, the most sought-after goods from the hills to the plains are cattle and buffaloes, becoming a thriving business for people on both sides of the border. Smugglers pay two thousand rupees just to herd a cow across the border to Bangladesh. Additionally, they also have to pay the landowner from whose land the cattle have to be herded. Cattle smuggling on the India-Bangladesh border is a recent occurrence, but the pertinent question is what drives this sudden surge in demand for cattle from across the border. There could be just two answers: after 2014, when meat industries were banned in certain states in India, Bangladesh became a major exporter of halal meat to the Gulf countries. The second reason could be that the country’s economy has grown, and people can afford to buy a cow despite it being very expensive.
What’s in it for Meghalaya? Since rearing cattle is a tradition in the state, Meghalaya can benefit if the government can convince the central government to make cattle trade to Bangladesh legal.
Making the border more open
There was a Facebook post which said we should thank the MDA government for allowing smuggling to flourish on the India-Bangladesh border. But the question is, isn’t it the duty of the government to stop illegal activities? If the government is far-sighted enough, it should lobby with the central government to legalize the export of such commodities. The need of the hour is how this trade, which was once a flourishing illegal business, can be done legally. Hundreds and thousands of people earn their livelihoods from the activity. The question is why the government is not taking steps to make this trade legal. Making the border more open would also open wide vistas of trade between the two countries, including tourism.
It was FR Kharkongor who, as the DC of Jaintia hills, pioneered tourism in the district and said that the Jaintia hills is the nearest hill station for the people in the north of Bangladesh. Shillong is perhaps the closest hill station to Sylhet or even to Dhaka. Both countries can benefit from tourism if the border is made friendlier. Jaintiapur is one important link that can connect the two countries, and the two governments have neglected the connection that the place can make between the two countries.
The land port at Dawki
Dawki land port is now in operation, but if we are only going to export minerals to Bangladesh, what is the point of having a land port? There is a huge potential for export between the two countries and tourism will also grow on both sides of the divide if only the border is much friendlier.


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