At the well on the border, a few drops of water may dilute 35 years of vitriol

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This is not a purely Indian drought: a huge swathe of South Asia, from southern Afghanistan through Balochistan and Sindh in Pakistan, to Gujarat and Rajasthan in North-west India and right across to Orissa in the east is in desperate straits.

This is not a purely Indian drought: a huge swathe of South Asia, from southern Afghanistan through Balochistan and Sindh in Pakistan, to Gujarat and Rajasthan in North-west India and right across to Orissa in the east is in desperate straits.

But if the villagers of a little place called Barnala get their way, the boiling heat may have one improbable good result: a small rise in the near freezing temperature of present Indo-Pakistani relations, and a small local triumph for common sense and pragmatism.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer who was responsible for deciding where precisely the Indo-Pakistani border was going to run after the 1947 Partition, made a number of decisions which historians regard as curious, but this must have been one of the weirdest. At a point some 250km south-west of the Rajasthani city of Jodhpur, the border not only runs straight through the village of Barnala, but actually bifurcates the village's only well.

With a refreshing display of pragmatism, the villagers of Barnala on both sides of the line carried on as if nothing had changed and the village remained a single unit. This of course included sharing the waters of the well.

But in 1965, tension between India and Pakistan exploded into war, and Barnala was one of the victims. The security forces on both sides of the line barred the villagers from using the well or having any other contact with one another. On the Pakistani side the villagers were relocated deep inside the province of Sindh.

Those moved out by the Pakistani authorities included Hindus, members of ancient pastoral communities including the Bishnoi, the Rajasthan tribe celebrated for their traditionally respectful approach to this arid region's ecology. Their Indian-national cousins have not seen them since.

But now that Barnala is in the grip of Rajasthan's drought, the villagers who remain on the Indian side hope to persuade the Indian and Pakistani authorities to allow them to use the well again. The alternative is a walk of several kilometres to the nearest alternative water source. They even dare to hope that the Pakistanis may allow their Pakistani-national fellow-villagers to return to Barnala, so that their friendly relations may resume.

The villagers hope to prevail on the Indian Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, to broker an agreement with the Pakistani government to let them use the well again. Mr Singh is a Rajasthani himself and a member of the state's traditional ruling class; his son Manvendra unsuccessfully contested the last general election from Barmer, the nearest town to the village.

Indo-Pakistani relations are today about as bad as they have ever been, short of outright war, but in recent weeks, since the visit of US President Bill Clinton, Pakistan has put out several diplomatic feelers towards India - which has, at least so far, shown no interest in reciprocating.

Perhaps Barnala's only well will provide a suitable occasion for India to break the ice. And a little bit of well diplomacy wouldn't do Manvendra Singh's chances in the next election any harm, either.

Comments