In this third edition of Southasian Conversation, a series of online crossborder discussions, we discuss how borders impact everyday lives in the margins, how they inflect conversations in the capitals and in national public spheres, and how people/ideas/economies manage to transcend physical borders despite their strict policing. So how have recent border skirmishes, cartographic tensions, and currents of orthodoxies of nationalism impacted the region and its people? And how might we reimagine territorial boundaries given, among other things, the unsettling changes posed by the climate crisis?
The question in the title – ‘Who needs borders?’ – is, therefore, both playful and serious. Southasians have, of course, learned to live with national borders. But exactly what kind of borders are we to have? Are the securitised and sometimes militarised regime of checkpoints the best we can have, or in the best interest of the region’s people? Meanwhile, will movement and travel between the countries in the region continue to remain a costly, convoluted and, sometimes, dangerous affair? We might not all arrive at the same answers, but we at Himal feel the need to continually raise these questions.
Suchitra Vijayan – Founder and executive director of The Polis Project, and the author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India.
Amish Raj Mulmi – Writer and editor, and author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China.
Kanak Mani Dixit – Writer and activist, and founding editor of Himal Southasian.
Madiha Tahir – Writer, filmmaker and scholar of drone warfare and surveillance, Columbia University.
Malini Sur – Anthropologist, Western Sydney University, and author of Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility & Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border.
Tamara Fernando – Environmental historian of the Indian Ocean, University of Cambridge.
This is a selection of excerpts from the panel discussion transcript. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Suchitra Vijayan: What does it mean to write about border communities in a time when these communities are not only vilified and victimised, but there are also processes in place that might strip many of them of citizenship?
Malini Sur: I worked in a region that was partly fluid and open, and partly deeply territorial. Now, how did things become territorial and contested? Things became very territorial and contested when people started not just moving across the borders, but making claims to land as political territory. And this is how the movement of peasantry since the 1840-1850s, from what was then the marshy provinces of Bengal that were getting flooded and inundated into the grazing reserves and wetlands, started properly. Now linguistically, although these farmers could not be called Bengali in the strict sense, they were still Bengali in the Assamese imagination. And this taking over land as political territory became one of the most contentious troubles between the British provinces of Assam and Bengal in British India followed, by Assam and India on the one hand, in the postcolonial Indian subcontinent.
Again, after 1971 it contributed to anxiety between Bangladesh and India where people were stuck, until very recently, in no man’s land without food, water and shelter. The CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act] and its disastrous effects have impacted Bengali people of Muslim origin who reside in Assam. And we have seen the repercussions in Foreigners’ Tribunals. I have sat in two of these Foreigners’ Tribunals in Assam, observing how people were being labelled and given deportation certificates as legal ‘Bangladeshis’ or they were being re-baptised as Indian citizens. This is one part of the story.
The other part of the story happens along a borderland that was historically extremely contested between the Bengalis and the Garos. But today, it has morphed into a more fluid space where Bangladeshi Garo Christian women are actually moving to and fro, across the border. And they’re doing it, one, because they’re not of consequence to Bangladesh as a nation, and two, because in India, they fall into the category of the ‘tribal’, who’s coming from Bangladesh, and because they’re women, they will not make claims to land that is political territory. The politics of language has shaped questions of citizenship and belonging in this region.
Suchitra Vijayan: What do maps and cartographic representations mean to the people of Southasia today?
Amish Raj Mulmi: Maps in Southasia represent a sort of disruption to the traditional movement that used to occur. Southasia is inevitably a cauldron, a melting pot that is made up of several migrations over the past many years. So maps in a way represent a disruption to what was traditionally free space, like Malini mentioned. People travel despite borders being created.
You can also see an imperial hand in some way or the other in the way borders are drawn in Southasia. With respect to Nepal, of course the southern, eastern, and western borders were drawn by the British. But even the northern border, the Himalayan border, used to be a very ambiguous space – a frontier more than a border until China, the PRC [People’s Republic of China], came into Tibet and decided that, alright, we need to have a fixed space, a fixed line that needs to be drawn across. What that did was it collapsed the entire Himalayan economy that used to sustain itself on trade from Tibet going down to the lowlands, food grains used to go from the lowlands to Tibet, and across the Himalayan belt. Alongside that, trade used to happen and Kathmandu’s traders used to go to Lhasa.
So this sort of disruption that maps have represented in Southasia, comes from an imperial centre wanting to establish its footprint, to reduce territory to lines on a map.
Madiha Tahir: There’s a tribal area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and alongside that is a strip called the frontier region, which is essentially a buffer zone between the tribal areas and the rest of Pakistan. So we have internal boundaries, and then of course we have the border on the other side with Afghanistan. What that has meant is that this area was not only under a different legal regime, it was also a different kind of infrastructural regime. In this region, we obviously have a long history of colonial mapping, but more recently, post-9/11, what happened is that this area was maintained actively as an undeveloped space. That’s not something that just happens. It’s something that a state decides to do.
There are no very good maps of these tribal areas that are publicly available. And in fact, there were times when segments of the Pakistani government actually had to get maps from the Americans or from the UN [United Nations], to do their own work. And so, when I would travel to these areas, I would try to turn on my GPS, and it would stop functioning as I got closer to the zones. That area is electronically geofenced, so it makes it very difficult to map. And so it becomes a kind of blank space in the imagination of people who are not from there or who don’t travel to that region. For instance, initially what I had wanted to do was to mark the checkpoints. There are innumerable checkpoints along the way and blockades, some of them built out of the old British checkposts. But that became impossible because GPS didn’t work, and so what I had to do for my own mapping was to literally have hand-drawn maps, which marked it by time because there was really no other way to do it.
Now the UN is involved in a massive project in the tribal areas to map what is actually collectively held land. There are different kinds of ownership – not private property ownership in the sort of capitalist sense, but part of the merger and part of the idea of progress in this region by the state and by the UN, is to map these lands in order to map the boundary lines and to turn this into property. So they’re trying to figure out, in a sense, who owns which tract of land, so that people can essentially get loans from the bank and use the land as collateral. So in order to draw them into capital, they’re mapping this region or attempting to map [it].
The claim is that this mapping will help resolve property disputes and various kinds of territorial disputes that exist among tribes and clans. But actually, it’s very likely to throw up new disputes, because the fact that it is not written down, that it is oral, and that it is negotiated, actually helps keep a certain kind of peace in many ways. So once you begin this mapping and once it begins being drawn into capital, it’s going to throw up new kinds of disputes.
In recent years, the geofencing coupled with the fact that the Pakistani state has made it illegal for public mapping to happen – legal mapping is really only supposed to be done by the Pakistani military – so that also has undercut the potential for subversive kinds of maps or maps that could show the kind of militarisation of the region.
Suchitra Vijayan: There is a change in the subcontinent; there’s increasing authoritarianism, disinformation and curtailing of free press. As someone who has done this for so long, how does one begin to tell stories in these dystopian times? Also, have you seen a change in which you believe the form of journalism or the form of storytelling itself has to change?
Kanak Mani Dixit: I would have hoped that the age of the internet would have broken the barriers that these borders created for us and that by now, we would be having a vibrant discourse in many layers, across borders, reviving the truncated linkages since 1947-48 for so much of Southasia, and pushing back the nation-statist exclusivist control of our minds. But it hasn’t happened. It really hasn’t happened, even though the possibilities are there. This programme is one such which tries to break against this kind of nation-statism that has taken control of our minds. So I would just say that it’s never too late.
How can we use new technology, IT, online possibilities, to reach out? Because for me, to get people interested in stories, I would want people to be interested in stories across the border. If you don’t count Nepal, for a while not having been what I call formally colonised, and think of the rest of Southasia before 1947, a big fire in Karachi would have been news in Bombay, a bombing in Dhaka would have been news in Bangalore. But now borders have become not only sharp in the fencing, beyond that, the fencing is actually in our minds. And this is not any kind of romanticism – it has taken only 70 years, as I see it from my perch here in Kathmandu and looking out across Southasia, only 70 years to divide people who are essentially of the same culture, civilisation, whatever you may call it.
Suchitra Vijayan: How do you relate labour histories as a way of rethinking or reformulating the histories that are passed on to us as state narratives?
Tamara Fernando: I was very struck when Madiha talked about attempts to map or to fix settlements following capital, because this is very similar in the colonial period and we can also think about what it does today. I always think of my first trip out to Mannar island which was meant to be an ecology trip to photograph some wildlife, birds that had arrived and we were being taken by navy boat. The whole trip was waylaid, because they saw an Indian fishing vessel dynamiting in Sri Lankan waters, so then there was a big chase that ensued to chase the Indian vessel out of Sri Lankan waters.
And this is really not the story for the 19th century, where I study, and in fact, the demands of capital are often a reason to open the borders. So if we want to date citizenship to 1948, the decades after World War II, even before that around 1906, the state had a system of passes and clearances. So if you are an Indian diver from Kilakarai or Thoothukudi and you want to go to Ceylon to work in the pearl fishery, you have to get a paper pass, you have to pass a medical exam, to be sure that you’re not bringing epidemic disease over to the island.
In times when the colonial state doesn’t have enough fishermen to work the fisheries, they remove all the regulations. So it’s an open border for labour to travel. Or the most prominent example, at least in the Sri Lankan case, is the plantations, hundreds and thousands of people migrating, walking 150 miles to work the coffee and tea plantations in Sri Lanka. And then in 1948, the state suddenly decides to disenfranchise, or to have a whole set of acts that essentially makes 12 percent of the Indian Tamil population, stateless. So Nehru says we don’t want these people in India. The Ceylon state essentially makes it impossible for them to get local citizenship and then you have 12 years where this is an entirely stateless group.
So from a labour history perspective, or looking at where capital wants labour to be invested, and of course, the more precarious labour is, the less reliance that they have on legal frameworks and political agitation. It also helps to keep wages low, to keep prices down, to make Ceylon tea marketable. I think if we were to look at a long duree, 200-year history of borders, at least the south India-Sri Lanka borders, we can see that when there is this pressure from capital, then all of a sudden the borders can be open. But it might equally serve as a pressure to keep migrants vulnerable and precarious.
Suchitra Vijayan: You had the tough task of writing about a region in which India dominates, where everything is about the Indian empire and what every other nation state becomes in relation to India. So when you were writing this book, you were writing a book about Nepal and its relationship to China, but it’s also grounded in the historical, and in some ways you also talk about a pivot. Talk to us about writing this book, but also the ways in which you have had to very carefully write this story, because some of the stories that you tell in the book, again, militate against so much of what we regularly hear in the name of national security.
Amish Raj Mulmi: One of the things that I wanted to ensure was that, the way you see Southasia or the way you see the world, it doesn’t necessarily have to be fixated on a particular pivot. The territory of India is an inescapable part or an inescapable reality, but when you’re writing these stories, especially on people of the periphery, people who are largely ignored by the centre, there is this conscious voice, this device that’s going on in your mind saying, can I tell this story by not locating it in relation with the centre? Can I tell this story from the ground up? What I found was that these lived realities were sometimes much more fascinating than the usual pow-wow between the capitals. And you can see the implications of this: the centre deciding life for people on the borderlands.
One great example is in Mustang: the pass called Kora La is one of the lowest passes in the Himalaya, and because of security reasons (that’s the pass where Karmapa escaped in 1999) China has created a border fence at 4600 metres that’s like 22 kilometres long, and to my knowledge, at least on the Nepal-China Himalayan border, that’s the only piece of land that’s fenced off. You can see there’s a massive CCTV looking into Nepal, and there’s a sense of shock and awe when you see it at that height. It’s also a sort of imagination of how the power centre looks at how the borders or how the peripheries need to be determined and controlled. That is in many ways what we’ve been talking about. That they can impose some level of control on these borderlands in one way or the other, and with technology and surveillance it’s becoming more and more easier.
Borders, once they are created, will remain. Until something drastic happens, they are here to stay. So the key question is, when you’re thinking about these things, can you shift your vision or lens away from where it’s been traditionally looked at or the traditional narrative created? Anything to do with Southasia and China, inevitably the India-China war comes into play. Everyone talks about that and everyone is looking at China from that lens. That was my argument, that there is a historical relation that goes beyond just the centre-to-centre relationship.
Suchitra Vijayan: Has the pandemic forced you to rethink ideas about borders, or has it remained in a certain perspective you already had?
Malini Sur: As far as India was concerned, as soon as the images of the migrant workers walking and dying in the process kind of proceeded, for me, the fault lines of religion, of Hindu as opposed to Muslim, became extremely apparent. So in a sense, last year was a partition, a border moment for me. It was the same kind of hopes that were being used nationally, that were being mobilised at the community level, to demarcate two communities in absolutely irreconcilable and oppositional terms. So the religious fault line was very evident. But I’ve also been compelled to think about internal borders, sitting where I am in Australia, where three cases means that the internal borders shut down, and there are the imaginary fences that go up, and you can’t move from one state to another state within Australia. It’s extremely interesting to see the diverse ways in which neighbourhoods and governmental areas which are being monitored as high security are being policed.
Amish Raj Mulmi: One thing that was apparent during the pandemic was that, capital still has the ability to overcome any sort of border control. If you had the money to spare, you could have travelled anyway or the other, despite the border controls that were happening during the pandemic, even inside the country, or intercountries. The other thing that was evident during the pandemic is that states can impose stricter border controls than we had thought.
Suchitra Vijayan: There has been a sense of narrative amnesia, myopia, sometimes willful misrepresentations and sometimes just a refusal to actually understand what the stories on the ground are. Can you talk to us about what it means for you to not only write about these communities, but also write in a position where it becomes incredibly difficult to?
Madiha Tahir: For us in Pakistan, but not only in Pakistan, in other regions as well, we’re fighting on more than one front. And so there is the question of what the Pakistani military is doing, and then there is the question of what the US is doing. And I think what that has sometimes done in the Pakistani context is that there ends up being a division. So some people are talking about the US empire, other people are talking about the Pakistani military, and then the fighting starts happening, disagreements start happening about who is ultimately to blame.
That’s one conversation, the other conversation that’s happening is in the US, around drones, and even among leftists, there is an inability to kind of understand the networks that are involved in drone bombardment that extend beyond the US, that extend into the Pakistani military and into the state. So I think part of what I was trying to do is bring those two conversations together and to try and start talking about the fact that these are not two separate entities. We’re talking about borders and we tend to think of these as two separate states and then we say, which one do we blame? But it’s better thought of as these complicated and racialised, but nevertheless collaborative, networks that are actually working together to produce a kind of organised abandonment in the tribal areas and allow the drone attacks to happen.
Tamara Fernando: Maybe there’s something specific about the sea, where it’s harder to draw a line. But I’m thinking of new claims that both India and Sri Lanka are making around, say, oil deposits or minerals at sea. Thinking again, back to this question of terrorism and militarisation of the way that the sea border between Sri Lanka and India became militarised in the process of the civil war, so the concern was that fishers, say those who were hunting for sea cucumbers, would also be smuggling arms or ammunition or the military. And years and years after the civil war, this is still a deeply militarised zone. So the argument that it’s about arms smuggling doesn’t really hold anymore. This is mostly about government budgets and votes and needing to maintain the military state. But maybe thinking that claim-making is ongoing and borders continue to be made and states continue to lay claim can also then show us that borders are fallible. We know what it is like to live in a world where these are spaces that haven’t always been militarised or had these regimes around them.
Amish Raj Mulmi: Borders are here to stay and will become stricter. We will see more exclusivist control over passage of movement, but at the same time I think it is also imperative that we give more of a voice to those who are living in the borderlands, to bring out their stories, to tell their narratives – bring it out to the centre, to show that the border is not land as political territory, it is not just this political space that you are fighting for, it’s shared heritage, shared cultures, it’s also people who have been living there for generations, who may have moved there newly. But at the same time, it’s about thinking about border spaces beyond the centre’s perspective that this territory exists as a part of our country and that’s where the thinking pretty much stops. I think we have to go beyond that and look at what are the historical processes that made this place into a borderland in the first place, because every place has a story and we have to figure out how to emphasise and elevate those stories so that the centre’s narrative does not always dominate.
Kanak Mani Dixit: I have no problem with the call of Southasianists – I would call myself one, too – for open borders and free visas, because that is indeed what the history and the culture of Southasia demands. But since it’s difficult to get there right away, unless there is some kind of incredible crisis in Southasia and the breakaways fall where they will, and nobody wants that type of revolution, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. And so I would say, let us work not towards open borders for now, but let us keep the goal at porous borders, borders where visa regimes are easier to achieve and the borders are not manned with guns, guard dogs, halogen lamps and concertina wires. So that is the goal to set for ourselves. How to get there? As I have myself said more than once over this conversation, it’s getting harder, but the worst of times is when you plan for the best of times.
Southasia, ideally, is a place of penumbras. From the Arakan coast to Balochistan, and from Tibet to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, it is penumbras of different cultures and societies, mixing and melding. That is the kind of borders, if at all the term is to be used, we need for Southasia. And for that we need to get the scholars to start thinking about Southasia, only then will we tackle these borders that we have with us.