| Contested Coastlines:
Fisherfolk, nations and borders in South Asia
by Charu Gupta & Mukul Sharma
Routledge India, 2008
Many have explored the dual function of seas as both bridges and barriers. Some notable examples include the Australian National University historian Paul D’Arcy, who has explored this issue in the waters of Oceania, and the Harvard historian Sugata Bose, who has looked at how the spiritual journeys of the Hajj exist beyond state boundaries and have connected pilgrims. Contested Coastlines is likewise an original contribution to the study of maritime politics and the connections among the communities of this region, going one step further by discussing these relationships in terms of local struggles, regional challenges and global tensions. Authors Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma – Delhi-based historian and journalist, respectively – demonstrate a strain between national interests and a state-centric conceptualisation of the seas, peoples’ interest and more mainstream understandings of communities. ‘Securitisation’ of the region’s maritime borders and boundaries regularly crops up as a key issue, and powerful elites often neglect people who belong to these areas in the name of national interest.
Contested Coastlines shows how the longstanding invisibility of fishing communities in the literature of the Indian Ocean has not only been a result of their existence at the fringes of society, but also the cause of this marginalised existence. Some of them live and work along the Balochistan coast, on the coast of Gujarat, and in the Palk Bay area, among many other places. Indeed, the narratives of the fisherfolk that have been kept out of academic literature, combined with the top-down state projects controlling their livelihoods in the name of national interest, is certainly a reminder that silence is a language of pain that is ubiquitous in this region for a broad spectrum of communities – religious and ethnic minorities, women, children and the poor.
Gupta and Sharma’s poignant reportage is about communities whose lives are intertwined with water, whose lived experiences force us to imagine different kinds of borders, those that are as fluid and changing as the currents of the ocean. For example, some of the fishermen in Kakdwip, in West Bengal, tell how the Bangladeshi authorities mistreat them; at the same time, though, we come across stories of fishermen who have married their daughters to Bangladeshi fishermen. The authors suggest that beyond the dominant India-Bangladesh and Hindu-Muslim identities, these communities are bonded through their livelihood, through their connection to the sea.
Contested Coastlines offers significant reflection on the colonial and postcolonial struggles to control the ocean, and discuss the frequently imposed capitalist modes of power and production to reap the benefits of the seas. It explores the distorted nationalism and the abstract imagination of the nation state – those that, through various regulatory measures and administrative mechanisms, inevitably permeate the lives of the fisherfolk. One example of this capitalist power is demonstrated by the movements of fishermen who risk their lives by moving from Rameswaram to Sri Lankan waters to continue fishing. As one sympathetic Indian official puts it, “If fishermen do not cross the border today, tomorrow there will be no fishing in the region.”
Tracing relations between India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, coupled with people’s perceptions and experiences of state practices, the authors demonstrate that state discourses about borders and boundaries in the name of national interest often ignore those people who rely on the ocean for their livelihood. The region’s internecine strife is in many ways a paradox – of history, connections and shared national myths. Similarly, fishing as a hereditary profession has been perceived as ‘polluting’. It has also been understood as an outright ‘crime’, with fisherfolk often being treated as criminals, who must be punished, in order to teach them and their country’s government a lesson for the violation of international boundaries. We hear the stories of Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails and Pakistanis in Indian jails.
Paradoxically, the dichotomies of shame and pride, impurity and purity, crime and rights are each reproduced by the fisherfolk themselves, both when they appropriate the languages of the state and when they join across borders as one livelihood community in multifarious ways. The fishermen of India feel irritated when Bangladeshi fishermen cross to their side, and vehemently support state action against those ‘unruly’ fishermen. On the other hand, Sisira, a Sri Lankan fisherman, when asked by an Indian magistrate about his citizenship, states “I live in Sri Lanka. My forefathers lived in India … I work and live in the sea. India or Sri Lanka does not come to me.”
The case studies in the book are diverse. As alluded to above, the India-Pakistan chapter outlines fisherfolk as a type of prisoner of war. In addition to the violence of creation, there have also been wars between these two nation states that have re-landscaped the lives of border communities. It could have been useful if the authors had been able to delve a bit more into the identity struggles of the fishermen who articulated their predicaments as prisoners of war. From the interviews and reports, however, it becomes apparent that there exists a ‘subaltern’ construction of prisoners of war that is unlike either a legal or mainstream understanding. Majeed Golani, from the Karachi coast, who was arrested by the Indian authorities, sadly reflects, “We were mentally and physically tortured. They treated us like prisoners of war. We go for livelihood and they arrest us: it is injustice.” On the other side, the victimisation of fisherfolk as a result of their nationality also demonstrates how people on a country’s ‘fringes’ pay the price of continued political battles.
The accounts in a chapter titled ‘Killing Waters’, which includes both Indian and Sri Lankan voices, are particularly depressing. Exploitation, torture and violence seem to transform the experiences of ordinary lives into ‘everyday’ violence. Particularly notable in this is how the authors interweave gender as a key aspect throughout the book. In “Killing Waters”, we get a brief but extraordinary glimpse of women’s roles in these communities. The authors introduce the idea of the ‘politics of difference’, and argue that there is another side to identity politics that is marked by “national rights, sovereignty and exclusivity”, where fisherfolk as citizens of one state are penalised and victimised in other states. All the while, however, in their own state they are also forced to remain on the margins, and are not protected even by their own government. In what is their seminal proposition in this book, the authors write that the pursuit of “coastal communities can only be addressed and claimed by working on an alternative livelihood system and the rights to coastal spaces beyond national borders.” This is a vastly important point, but unfortunately, it does not get adequately fleshed out. Whose responsibility would this be? Does accountability lie with the state – the source of many of the problems in the first place – or with civil-society organisations?
The Bangladesh story involves what the authors dub “ironies of identities”. Colonial politics and nationalist interests ensured the division of Bengal along religious lines in 1947, after which the people of East Pakistan turned their backs on this constructed identity and, in 1971, upheld their ethnic Bengali identity. Thirty-seven years later, the ‘Bangladeshi’ identity, a product of both Islamic and Bengali characteristics, controls national politics and foreign policy through its ideological practices, and ethnic and religious minorities are suppressed by hegemonic state policies. As Gupta and Sharma tell us, communal tensions have dominated choices of livelihood and relationships in this context. Both Bangladeshi and Indian fishermen tell stories of how their religious identities have encouraged discrimination by state authorities. But the authors also explore the transnational, crossborder spatial aspects of this issue, which brings up the inherent multiplicity of identities for communities in these liminal zones.
Although Contested Coastlines suggests that it is important to think of coastal integration rather than cooperation, the authors seem to be compressing two different understandings of the coastal world. One is controlled and monopolised by states, perceived as a lucrative but contested zone by a top-down regulatory system. The other is that on which coastal communities depend for their livelihood, within which people have a spiritual, cultural and social relationship. Coastal communities value their ancestral profession, continue to worship the spirits that protect them on the water, and feel connected to one another through various common cultural and social practices. The key difference to their understanding of the coastal world with the one created by state governance has to do with power. The state’s perception of power and the expression of it constrict livelihood choices, and violate the human rights of coastal communities. How is it possible to imagine an integrated Indian Ocean without addressing this power disparity, and examining the dissimilar ways of conceptualising coastal realms?
Let us return to state-centric cooperation. Southeast Asia has its own share of maritime issues, many of which create security threats and cause increased military presence in the South China Sea. J N Mak, of the Maritime Institute of Malaysia, argues that despite sustained efforts, maritime cooperation in that region has thus far failed because countries believe that the wealth of the sea is vital for their economy. Mak suggests that it was easier to have functional cooperation in the Gulf of Thailand, because it did not involve sovereignty. Unlike ASEAN’s ability to function in Southeast Asia, however, SAARC operates more as an interactive cultural and social platform than a mechanism for meaningful regional cooperation.
There is likewise a wide gap between India’s economic growth, regional and global role, and those of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. What will be the attitudes of these states towards an integrated coastal-management system, especially in a world in which states listen more to their powerful allies and make decisions based on geostrategic interests? How realistic is it to expect that the Indian Ocean states, as Gupta and Sharma suggest, will reach a consensus for a viable and humane maritime management system that will pay attention to community rights and human security? It is unclear whether the authors are proposing a regional coastal community network governed by civil-society groups. If so, however, this would be difficult without a powerful regional lobby that would advocate for the creation of such a network or institution – and, most importantly, without political will. What is the feasibility of this new kind of maritime governance in this region?
In Decolonizing Methodologies, educationist Linda Tuhiwai Smith beautifully describes the motivation to include indigenous communities’ approaches in “rewriting and rerighting our position in history”. Likewise, in Contested Coastlines Gupta and Sharma argue convincingly for not only the inclusion of coastal communities, but of rewriting and rerighting maritime politics.
~ Bina D´Costa is a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Justice at the Australian National University.