India—China Borderlands: Conversations Beyond the Centre


Nimmi Kurian

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    To Jayashree and Benny a beyul of my own in a mundane world

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    List of Images

    • 1: India-China Subregion 3
    • 2: Subregional Economic Zones in Asia 62
    • 3: China's Recent Border Infrastructure Projects 69
    • 4: India's Recent Border Infrastructure Projects 75
    • 5: Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project 78

    List of Abbreviations

    AFSPAArmed Forces Special Powers Act
    ACDAsia Cooperation Dialogue
    ARFASEAN Regional Forum
    ASEANAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations
    ASEMAsia-Europe Meeting
    BCIMBangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Forum
    BIMSTECBay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation
    BSFBorder Security Force
    BRGFBackward Regions Grant Fund
    DONERMinistry of Development of North Eastern Region
    GMSGreater Mekong Subregion
    GMS CBTAGreater Mekong Subregion Cross-border Transport Agreement
    GCCGulf Cooperation Council
    ICARIndian Council of Agricultural Research
    ICLEIInternational Council for Local Environmental Initiatives
    ILPInner Line Permit
    ITBPIndo-Tibetan Border Police
    KSLKailash Sacred Landscape Conservation Initiative
    LCSLand Customs Stations
    MGCMekong Ganga Economic Cooperation
    MRCMekong River Commission
    MOMSManagement-oriented Monitoring Systems
    NDFBNational Democratic Front of Bodoland
    NDCNational Development Council
    NECNorth East Council
    NLCPRNon-lapsable Central Pool of Resources
    NSCN (IM)Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah)
    NSFNaga Students Federation
    NTPCNational Thermal Power Corporation
    PMCASEAN Post-ministerial Conference
    PLAPeople's Liberation Army
    PAPProtected Areas Permit
    SCOShanghai Cooperation Organisation
    SAARCSouth Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
    UNESCAPUnited Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
    ULFAUnited Liberation Front of Assam
    UNWTOUnited Nations World Tourism Organization
    WDSWestern Development Strategy
    WWFWorld Wide Fund for Nature


    In many ways this book seeks to reopen a debate that perhaps had never really drawn to a close. Why is it that the 4,056 km long border that India and China share exists in a sort of freeze frame, as it were, suspended between lived memory and state erasure? Not unlike the elephant in the room, more than visible yet never acknowledged. Why is it that ‘Chindia’, its evocative wordplay notwithstanding, appear to be more delusional than real? Even as their interactions have scaled impressive heights, why has it curiously not taken much for India-China conversations to break down? This seems not unlike a Matryoshka challenge, nesting one intellectual puzzle within another. The book is a small step towards unpacking this interesting conundrum.

    Why bother? Because, if creatively re-imagined, the borderlands can be at the centre of a promising regional conversation of change that India and China have the potential to initiate. There are of course no silver bullet solutions possible to tackle a complex subject such as this. But perhaps this is what makes it such an interesting intellectual challenge too. Subregional initiatives are currently underway, connecting India's Northeast and China's Western region with their immediate neighbourhood. The critical challenge for public action in both countries will be to sustain rapid growth and to make it inclusive across all regions, sectors and sections of society. What got me interested in the topic in the first place is the potential for their respective subregional visions to coincide in creating joint stakes in prosperity. I have also been curious about the capacity of alternative democratic models at the community level particularly on transnational issues and to look at the role social networks play in advancing awareness on governance challenges. The agency it can provide to the local level for transforming its fortunes is vital if they are to emerge as stakeholders in the growth experience of both the countries.

    India and China have been natural comparators, be it the size of their economies, their demographic heft or their geopolitical ambitions. What remains largely understudied though has been how the much larger debate on accountability in India and China gets framed and its capacity to define the civic space for citizen engagement. This will mean questioning the rather simplistic democratic versus authoritarian binary into which India-China comparisons tend to get pigeonholed into. To frame the debate on accountability in such a limiting manner is simplistic on two counts. First, while the representative safe zone of popular elections provides an all-too-easy claim to legitimacy for democratic systems, it tends to hide significant accountability deficits. Second, the performance-oriented basis of accountability in non-democratic systems makes them far more vulnerable to governance deficits than is commonly understood to be the case. Negotiating transparency with Chinese characteristics, for instance, is turning out to be a deeply contested space and the Chinese state is increasingly coming under pressure to respond to the voices, needs and concerns of its citizens. Obsessing only over the differences in their political systems thus could run the risk of missing the wood for the trees. The more interesting question would be to interrogate how India and China cope as polities with the loss of public trust that represents the biggest legitimacy challenge facing the state today.

    This could also be a cue for scholars in both the countries to critically debate ways in which states, communities and citizens negotiate the allocation of resources: economic, social, spatial and environmental. My exchanges with Chinese academics over the years have convinced me that we have reached the basic comfort levels to now go into specifics since the devil lies in the details. The sense one gets from sustained interactions with policymakers in India is that a more nuanced understanding of challenges is evolving and there is a greater willingness to take incremental steps to trade ideas with a can-do spirit to problem solving. If handled well, asking some of these questions will offer policy communities in India and China a richer and wider repertoire of learning processes to experiment with. These will be particularly valuable in situations marked by high levels of public alienation such as the India—China borderlands. Although this should still be treated as work-in-progress, we may be reaching an interesting juncture where we can now start connecting the dots for the big picture to emerge.


    One is delighted to acknowledge many debts, big and small, that one has incurred along the way in writing this book. At the outset, I am happy to acknowledge a deep intellectual debt to the Centre for Policy Research's enabling environment and ethos. I cannot think of many places that have either the self-assuredness or the audacity to bear the intellectual risk that invariably comes with an eclectic orientation. To Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President, CPR for breaking the mould in more ways than one by consciously choosing not to draw red lines and facilitating, in the process, some interesting intellectual meanderings and deep conversations. To my senior colleagues, K. C. Sivaramakrishnan, Ramaswamy Iyer and B. G. Verghese for their valuable support, generosity and warmth towards me over the long years of my association with them; their indefatigable commitment to CPR; and above all, for standing notions of retirement and age squarely on its head with their outstanding contributions.

    It would be remiss of me not to mention the valuable inputs and feedback received on papers on related themes that I presented at conferences that have helped me revise the manuscript. In particular, I appreciate the feedback received from discussants and participants at the International Conference on Northeast India and its Transnational Neighbourhood, organised by IIT Guwahati and the International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden, Netherlands, Guwahati in January 2008; International Conference on Prosperity and Inequality: India—China in Global Perspective, organised by the India China Institute, The New School, New York in March 2010; the International Conference on Globalisation and Cultural Practices in Mountain Areas: Dynamics, Dimensions and Implications, organised by Sikkim University, Gangtok, on 13–14 December 2011 and the Workshop on Borders and Boundaries in International Relations: Barriers, Buffers, Bridges, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, in October 2012. In particular, I am grateful to the detailed comments and feedback I received from Sanjib Baruah, Sanjoy Hazarika, Rob Jenkins, Prem Shankar Jha, Mahendra Lama, Lo Sze Ping, Varun Sahni and Peter van der Veer. I also wish to sincerely thank the anonymous referees whose detailed comments and suggestions brought out many additional nuances and perspectives.

    I have also benefitted immensely from some interesting research networks that I have had the good fortune to be a part of. I would like to acknowledge the Fellowship Programme of the India China Institute, The New School, New York, and its Senior Director, Ashok Gurung. Thank you Ashok, for your friendship and for the skill with which you have steered this growing community of scholars and thinkers. I have greatly benefitted from a programme that facilitated open-ended conversations between Indian and Chinese scholars, writers and activists. These have more than helped me keep my ear to the ground on how the debate was shaping up in China on critical issues. One recalls, in particular, the valuable perspectives gained from Lu Zhi, Beijing University; Xu Jianchu, Kunming Institute of Botany, Kunming; Ma Jun, Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, Beijing; Alex L. Wang, former senior attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Beijing; Li Bo, Director, Friends of Nature, Beijing; Xu Zhiyong, founder, Open Constitution Initiative, Beijing and Jianying Zha, writer and China Representative of the ICI in Beijing. These insights were vital in helping me escape many of the set caricatures that tend to characterise much of Indian scholarship on China. Also, perspectives gained during travels to Yunnan, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia helped in demystifying the ‘periphery’ as well as bust many myths spun by armchair observers.

    Work done as part of a joint research project with Chinese researchers, Systems of Innovation for Inclusive Development headed by Dr Rajeswari Raina and supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, helped me critically interrogate issues of space, scale and situated development with reference to the Northeast. Many of these perspectives have found their way into the book particularly those relating to probing the interface among diverse actors engaged in resource governance in Northeast India and exploring creative ways of power sharing within a multilevel governance framework. Thanks to Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman for the able fieldwork he conducted in Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya in connection with this project. For sharing their valuable insights during interactions in 2012, I wish to thank Alemtemshi Jamir, Additional Chief Secretary and Development Commissioner, Government of Nagaland; U. K. Sangma, Secretary, North East Council (NEC), Shillong, Meghalaya; P. P. Shrivastava, Member, NEC; Patricia Mary Mukhim, Editor, Shillong Times, Shillong; Adrian Marbaniang, Director, Monitoring and Evaluation, the North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMP), Shillong; Sanjib Kakoty, Indian Institute of Management, Shillong; Frankie Lyngdoh, Martin Luther University, Shillong; Charles Chasie, Kohima, Nagaland; Monalisa Changkija, Editor, Nagaland Post, Dimapur, Nagaland; Udayon Misra, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati, Assam; Nandita Hazarika, Ecosystems India, Guwahati; Alakesh Barua, Swati Chaliha and Sanjay Sharma from the Foundation for Ecological Security, Guwahati.

    My interactions with scholars, activists and community leaders in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Assam also helped me get a better understanding of local perspectives on challenges facing the Look East policy, drivers of state-community conflicts and the functioning of asymmetrical federalism. Grateful thanks to the 14th Thegste Rinpoche, Khinmey Nyingma Monastery, in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh; Geshe Ngawang Thupten, Joint Secretary, Buddhist Culture Preservation Society, Bomdila, West Kameng and Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu, Director, Central Institute of Himalayan Culture Studies in Dahung, West Kameng; to Monirul Hussain, Dulal Goswami, Nani Gopal Mahanta and Jayanta Krishna Sarmah at Gauhati University's Department of Political Science; to Ram Wangkheirakpam of the North East People's Alliance in Imphal, Manipur; to Amar Yumnam, Rajen Singh Laishram, Konsam Ibo Singh, Vijaylakshmi Brara, Priyoranjan Singh and Nongthombam Jiten Singh at Manipur University.

    A network with a difference has been the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Forum for being the only forum of its kind with an evolving focus on the borderlands of India and China. This is an idea whose time has clearly come with a rich potential to articulate the view from the ‘margins’ as it were and its self-image. A group with which I have worked closely since its establishment in 1999, it has brought together an eclectic network of research institutes, civil society organisations, scholars, media and businesspersons from the four countries. I wish to sincerely thank Eric Gonsalves, Patricia Uberoi and Ravi Bhoothalingam for helping to sharpen many of my formative arguments on subregional resource governance issues that I presented at Forum meetings in Yangon, Naypyidaw, Kunming, Dhaka, Delhi and Kolkata. I am sure they will see many of these reflected in the book.

    I am also grateful to the workshops organised by the Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India brilliantly steered by K. J. Joy of the Society for Promoting Participatory Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), Pune. These have greatly helped me refine sections in the book on transboundary resource conflicts. For their insights on the dynamics of water conflicts in the Northeast, sincere thanks to Neeraj Vagholikar, Kalpavriksh, Pune; Partha Das, Aaranyak, Guwahati; and Chandan Mahanta, IIT Guwahati.

    Several people have worked behind the scenes in providing support and help that can never be adequately repaid. My thanks to a small band of research assistants and interns for their doggedness and penchant to reach into the proverbial hat and pull out hard-to-find facts and references. To Manka Bajaj, Chang-Chen Shen, Rakshit Chopra, Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, Roshini Diwakar, Swetha Murali and Elmie Konwar Rengma, a big thanks for their assistance during critical stages of writing and revision. Thanks also to the library staff at The New School, New York, especially John Allen, Marisol Rivera and Mary Grueser for their prompt assistance in fixing glitches on more than one occasion. A special thanks to Grace Hou, Officer Manager, ICI, for her extraordinary warmth and generous help during my research visits to New York. To Gopal Chauhan, Assistant Librarian at CPR, for his prompt and cheerful assistance in securing research materials; to Sunil Sejwal for his cartographic skills and his ingenuity in ably incorporating quirky wish lists so aesthetically. A hat tip to the editorial team at SAGE for shepherding the book through the publication process; Rekha Natarajan, my first editor and Rudra Narayan, Associate Commissioning Editor, Isha Sachdeva, Production Editor and the team at SAGE for their valuable support.

    Saving the best for the last, it is a joy to thank my husband and my sister; as good a crack team as any for bouncing ideas and helping me connect the dots. An in-house editor and an academic can be a demanding and hard-to-please duo. I was always amazed by their natural and seemingly insatiable flair for brilliant critique even as I chafed at having to do yet another revision. For this and so much more, this book is dedicated to both of them. To my in-laws, especially Sheila and George, a cheery thanks for being my stress-busters and for all the fun times, love and laughter. But, most of all, to Amma and Acchan for unabashedly cheering each milestone crossed and for treating every bout of the writer's block with indulgence and humour. For their infectious optimism, faith and for identifying so closely with it, this book owes more to them than words can convey. To Mani for the woofs, wags and fuzz therapy that never failed to lift spirits during the long writing spells.

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    About the Author

    Nimmi Kurian is Associate Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India. She is also India Representative of the India China Institute (ICI), The New School, New York. Her research interests include border studies, comparative regionalism and transboundary water governance. As an ICI Fellow (2008–2010), her study critically compared the accountability debates in India and China. She has been part of the BCIM Forum (Kunming Initiative) since 1999, an international Track-II initiative to create a bottom-up, inclusive approach to subregional development.

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