We were at the Suchetgarh border post on the India-Pakistan border in Jammu. Driving fast through rice fields alongside village homes, the fact that we had arrived at one of the highest militarised zones in the world had taken me by surprise, the only indicator had been the high, elaborate fence we drove along for some distance. For all present, it seemed like a picnic with a dash of pride, everybody was taking pictures, posing and reposing.
Someone told me, “Give me your phone, I’ll take some pictures of you. Where would you like to stand?”. “I would just like to stand and watch,” I responded a bit hesitantly. He smiled. In the distance, an empty guard tower on the Pakistan side watched over us. Suchetgarh wasn’t always a heavily militarised zone. Established in the mid-18th century during the Dogra rule, it was the last place in Dogra territory, whereafter Punjab began. With Sialkot just 11 km away, it was an important trade hub and railway station between Jammu and Sialkot right up to 1947. It still serves as the crossing point for the UN Observers to Pakistan and vice versa. While I was watching elaborate photography sessions with a mix of amusement and boredom, one of our folks drew my attention to say, “See that tree there…it is a border post!”
It took me a second to realise what exactly he meant, there were concrete pillars painted with numbers. The tree, a beautiful peepal, clearly was in line with the border pillars. I looked at it carefully, and it too had a number, “918” painted on it. The concrete post before it had “917” and the post after, I strained my eyes, had “919” painted. It was quite a handsome tree, and pretty large at that, but, perhaps, younger than our Partition and the border. I wondered whether it was more Indian than Pakistani or vice versa. The peepal leaves caught the breeze that seemed to flow that afternoon from the Indian side into Pakistan, the scampering squirrels and the noisy mynahs couldn’t be bothered either. The border post had left me intrigued and I read up after that visit.
The tree did not always demarcate the dividing line, concrete border pillar 918 stood there. The tree’s trunk with the passage of time slowly engulfed the pillar. Nor did the Indian BSF or the Pakistan Rangers guarding their respective borders cut the tree and, at some point, “918” was painted on it, marking it as the official border, perhaps, the only place in the world where a tree demarcates the boundary of two countries.
I came across another similar story, but this time the tree didn’t seem so fortunate. An Economic Times article dated 2015 was titled, “Wagah of East: Tree holds up installation of Gandhi portrait at Indo-Bangladesh border”. According to the story, an old siris (Albizia lebbeck) tree on the Indian side of the Petrapole-Benapole Indo-Bangladesh border post was a hurdle that had held up the installation of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.
Right across the siris, on the Bangladesh side, was a huge wall depicting the picture of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh. The BSF was awaiting some no-objection certificates and clearances pending with the civil and forest department authorities to cut or alter this old tree for installation of the portrait. A BSF officer was quoted, “But most important is to get a portrait of Mahatma at this iconic place as it is symbolic of values and morals which India and its people stood for.” I searched online with foreboding to see if there had been any further development on the siris since 2015. I couldn’t find anything, my image search also did not throw up anything conclusive, though my fear is that the old tree would have lost to the Mahatma’s portrait, bureaucratic red-tape providing the only potential silver line.
In the interim, border post “918” continues to gently expand its territory of shade in Indian as well as over Pakistan. According to a 2021 piece in The Statesman, “During sunrise in the mornings the tree gives its shade in Pakistan and in the afternoon on the Indian side of the border.”