Borders, Histories, Existences: Gender and Beyond


Paula Banerjee

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    Dedicated to …

    Ranabir Samaddar and Willem van Schendel—Chroniclers of other borders

    List of Maps

    • 2.1 The Traditional Customary Boundary Line between India and China, as claimed by Peking 40
    • 2.2 India's Northern Border and the Nature of India-China Border Disput 43
    • 2.3 Pak Occupied Kashmir and the Aksai-Chin Region 45
    • 3.1 Jammu and Kashmir 64
    • 4.1 India-Bangladesh Border 116
    • 4.2 India-Myanmar Border 118
    • 5.1 North-east India 140
    • 6.1 Indicative Routes for the Flow of Drugs and Precursors in the North-east of India 162
    • 6.2 Map of Manipur 187
    • 7.1 India's Chicken's Neck 210
    • 7.2 Map of Nagaland 214


    This book would not have seen the light of day, but for accidental encounters and incidental occurrences. A few years ago, I was invited to a seminar where I presented a paper arguing that historians in South Asia find it problematic to write on borders. My commentator, a historian, was livid that I had dared to critique his tribe. I was faced with the persistence of what Roland Barthes termed as the ‘doxa’ of historical opinion, in this case, about borders. The problem, of course, is that such an approach tends to leave the ‘normative’ discourse about borders uninterrogated. I completely failed to make my commentator realise that I too belong to the same tribe and my comment was in no way a personal attack on the people involved in the profession. Instead, I decided to write this book and hence, extend my gratitude to him for provoking this response. This is a historical work on borders and bordered existences, with a special emphasis on the gender dimensions of these existences. The work is replete with experiences of women, because I argue that the women that are geographically located in the borders define those very borders as well as themselves. Therefore, this work falls within the genre of critical feminist history. This is also a work on the security/insecurity of vulnerable communities living around the borders. Post-colonial societies everywhere are caught up in the politics of borders leading to extreme sensitivity about issues of security/insecurity around the question of population settled/unsettled in and across these borders. Added to this problem is the understanding that the ideological construction of the state is almost always weighted against ethnic, religious and other minorities who then are usually relegated to the borders of democracy. Democracy is affected by the socio-spatial consciousness of those who construct it. Nationalistic democracies aim at being a hegemonic form of territorial consciousness. National identity links territory to culture, language, history and memory. The process of nationformation legitimates national identity by tracing it back to fictional common pasts of specific groups. It also simultaneously privileges/marginalises certain territories. It is therefore crucial to reflect on how discourses of national identities are created by privileging certain spatial units, such as the borders. This forces us to reflect on the connection between territory, political community and democracy. It has been argued that the moral significance of a place becomes evident when places are conceived not as locations in space, but rather as related to individual subjects. Privileged/marginalised individuals and groups are associated with certain kinds of spatial units, which are often contested. The idea of national identity, therefore, enforces constructions of territorial inclusion and exclusion on various spatial scales. Borders, often, are such sites of exclusion/inclusion in the context of South Asia. This is because borders symbolise control and the urge to challenge and transcend that control. So if borders are markers of control these are also markers of resistance to control. Any resistance calls forth greater efforts of control. The medium of control changes over time, but what remains constant is the fact that control necessitates control of bodies. This is but one analysis of a border as a category of politics and there are others that are available.

    The historical zeitgeist about border studies has at best suffered from processes of simplification (that have modified the official discourse in minor ways while leaving it essentially unchallenged), and at worst have colluded with forces that pre-meditatedly privilege some while constructing and delegitimising ‘others’. In this book I hope to portray how states construct borders and try to make them static and rigid and how bordered existences, such as in this case the women, migrant workers and people afflicted with AIDS, destabilise these apparently rigid constructs. My argument here is that borders are constructs that become problematic at different historical junctures; the rationale behind this problem needs to be studied in the wider political context. I also question why borders always contain seeds of violence, as human history provides eloquent testimony to how hitherto trouble-free borders suddenly become troublesome, such as the Tacna-Africa in the Attacama in the nineteenth century, or the border between the two Koreas, or even the Malvinas Islands in the South Atlantic in 1983. South Asia is no exception to this general axiom. Perhaps the crucial questions for us are: what have political conditions made borders problematic in postcolonial South Asia? How do these borders become regions of extreme control/violence? How does such control/violence, in turn, affect the lives of the people, many if not most of whom are women? How do the bodies of the controlled change over time while they in turn change the border itself?

    A century ago, in 1907, Lord Curzon, the governor general of India, had commented that borders (he called them frontiers) are the razor's edge on which hang modern issues of war and peace. Since then, in the context of India, the politics of borders periodically raises itself like the mythological many-headed serpent. Many years after Curzon, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—the great patron of Pakistan's nuclear programme, argued that geography continues to remain the most important single factor in the formulation of a country's foreign policy. Therefore, territorial disputes are the most important of all disputes. Thus, the borders of India seem to be intractable grounds of contests. There has been an effort to portray the borders as rigid and discursively stable even when they are actually being daily contested not just by the states, but also by the people living in and around them. This is because histories of borders were written by those who had a stake in keeping the borders immobile and rigid, such as Lord Curzon. Many, including Alistair Lamb's work on the China-India border, fall within this genre. Lamb, while talking of disputes, finds India's position untenable because he feels that China had never accepted the McMahon Line in the first place; however, the presence of a rigid border or the McMahon Line itself is never questioned. It is not portrayed as something that is constantly being negotiated and evolving. From the other side there are other apologists such as the memoirs by Indian generals and bureaucrats such as B. M. Kaul. Kaul tries to legitimise his own decisions, just as K. N. Menon legitimises the position of his country vis-à-vis the border. None of these works questions the border itself, which is presented as rigid, static and immutable once it is constructed in their discourse.

    Borders, perceived as a fluid and problematic category of politics and history, are a fairly recent phenomenon. Some of the widely discussed analyses of borders emerging during the end of cold war present borders as not merely a line but as a zone or as borderlands. Such a zone results in hybridity of people inhabiting this zone as Gloria Anzaldua, an exponent on the US-Mexico border experience, would have us believe. The Mestizas, as they say, are a creation of these borders. People living in these borders inhabit multiple worlds. What such theories often overlook is that borders are products of control and those inhabiting them are daily negotiating with that control. A sanitised thesis of many borders considers negotiating spaces of survival as ‘hybridity’. But such fluidities are often different from what is discursively known as ‘hybridity’ as these multiple identities are often marked by blood. They are more representative of Agamben's bare bodies rather than hybrids as they are often beyond the pale of law.

    There are others who consider borders as an ephemeral category that lacks an essence, which can be valid in ‘all places and all times’. To explicate the issue further, European authors and analysts have said that there is very little in common between the Schengen borders and the borders of eighteenth-century Europe. It is therefore recognised as a dialectical notion that defines a territory, delimits it and confers an identity upon it. Conversely, exponents of such views argue that to define a territory or identify it one does little else but to trace a border around the said territory. Therefore, a theorist who attempts to define a border is in perpetual fear of going around in circles. The border also has a reductive role that inscribes or privileges one type of identity rather than problematising it by recognising multiple identities.

    It is said that since antiquity one finds the presence of borders. These are strips of lands that separate and/or unite, creating occasions for contact and/or confrontation. They are, therefore, an area of both blockage and passage. But the function of borders shift and it is never identical across time and space. In present day Europe these borders can be recognised as anti-citizenship as it is that site which juxtaposes police force and legal mechanisms of asylum. This is also the site that marks the state's ownership of individuals that inhabit it. Borders are markers or adjuncts to the principle of exclusion of foreigners. This reveals that even though the borders are different across time and space, there are some integral attributes of societal understanding and deployment of borders. Etienne Balibar lists these attributes as over-determination, polysemic nature and ubiquity. He says that even though each border has its own history, most of these are products and sites of over-determination. By sanctioning and relativising as well as duplicating it, states over-determine the border. The polysemic nature of a border makes it a repository of different meanings for different individuals. Not only do they draw different meanings from it, but also it becomes a marker for different treatment of different social classes. Therefore, borders are markers of difference. This leads to the heterogeneity and ubiquity of borders. According to Balibar, in the geographical politico-administrative sense, borders are often not in the borders at all. Balibar speaks of the creation of ethnic borders in the urban centres. Balibar correctly points out that borders are socially discriminatory. He calls them as the absolutely non-democratic condition of democratic institutions. His solution to the problem is democratising borders, which means democratising some of the nondemocratic conditions of democracy itself. He is of the opinion that by submitting borders to collective control, one can democratise it and put it to the service of women/men. However, whether Balibar's proposal is a possibility in the context of South Asia needs to be explored rigorously.

    In the context of South Asia the moment of departure came with Ranabir Samaddar's The Marginal Nation (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003). Samaddar went beyond the security and immutable border argument and problematised the border by speaking of the flows across the border. He argued that such flows are prompted by historical and social affinities, geographical contiguity and economic imperative. People moved when their survival was threatened and rigid borders meant little. They questioned the nation form that challenged their existence. If need be they found illegal ways to tackle any obstacle that stood in their path of moving when that made the difference between life and death. Thereby Samaddar questioned ideas of nation state and national security in present day South Asia. This work was followed by Willem van Schendel's work on borderlands where he argued that borderlands are not merely margins of states, societies or nations, but a social and cultural system straddling international borders. He spoke of how border studies rediscovered the historicity of social space—that borders are not mere political markers and geographical expressions. They are in fact, borderlands. He asked the pertinent question about the contribution of borderland actors to the present round of global restructuring.

    The most robust claim of looking at borders from the perspective of borderlands probably came from Africa. I too look at borderlands from a similar perspective and argue that these are not disembodied spaces, but spaces with bodies, particularly women's bodies often resisting state control. This book deals with the histories of borders and the histories of people across these borders who constantly subvert the existence of the borders. It also deals with the superstructure of security that tries to control and harness these bordered existences leading to circles of insecurities across the border. A close ethnographic research reveals that at the epicentre of these circles of insecurity are women who are constantly negotiating with the borders for their survival.

    The book is divided into three sections. The first section speaks about how historically borders are formed, how borders divide, and who becomes the definitive us and who are the aliens? The second section of my book deals with what I term as bordered existences and falls within the genre of history defined by Samaddar's The Marginal Nation (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1999) and Van Schendel's The Bengal Borderland (London: Anthem Press, 2005). In this section I go into detailed delineation of the experiences of the border people, of whom many, if not most, are women. Women's experiences, I argue are definitive of those of the vulnerable communities who are forced to pit their bodies against the border and the superstructure of state security. Their history is a history of negotiations with structures of control leading to insecurity, subversion, endurance and existence. The third section deals with the border and the laws that guide the borders and people who live around them.

    The introduction of the book portrays how states and those who have written on state formation view the borders as static lines, non negotiable, and unchangeable. It also contends that historians have failed to understand the significance of borders and left it to students of politics, thereby failing to grasp how borders are both products of history and also create histories of their own. In the first chapter, I discuss what borders represented in the colonial period and how the alien has been constructed historically based on such borders. It was the alien who was marked out, before a citizen was constructed in the colonial times. The chapter deals with categories of exclusion and how such categories change over time. For example, all through the colonial period ‘nationalists’ marked plantation workers as citizens, but on liberation the same plantation workers became aliens. In the second chapter, I discuss how borders create histories especially in the context of the Sino-Indian borders. I argue that Sino-Indian relations did not create border problems. Contrary to popular historical expostulations, I assert that the existence of the Aksai Chin and the McMahon lines constructed Sino-Indian relations. Whether India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama or not, the compulsions of the borders drew India and China inexorably into the vortex of a crisis. Nehru tried to wish away the border problem, but he could not do so. I contend that because the borders are constantly evolving they create their own histories. By making the borders immutable one can only securitise the border, which in turn creates its own problem. In the third chapter I take up the India-Pakistan line of control and analyse how states have historically tried to make borders rigid for the purpose of security. I postulate that at certain historical junctures certain types of control of borders and bodies inhabiting the borders become crucial, giving rise to certain forms of violence. National security has necessitated that borders become markers of control. Such markers have inevitably led to the increase in the extent of control and since control is denoted by control of bodies, more and more groups are marked as recalcitrant and hence necessitating greater control. Thereby, violence remains constant in the Indo-Pakistan border. The logic of violence is to designate alien status on certain groups of people. These three chapters argue that borders are a fluid category and constantly being constructed, yet state discourses mark borders as rigid. In trying to make borders rigid the state tries to control the borders which means controlling the bodies that inhabit borders, which in turn threatens and destabilises that control and creates uniquely bordered existences. This goes against the traditional and received histories of borders that sanitise and stabilise the borders. It reveals how the history of borders bears witness to the fact that the category of the alien is as much of a definitive moment in state formation as designation of the citizen.

    In the second section of the book I deal with bordered existences exemplified by women who are living across the border. Ethnographically these chapters are located in the Bengal, northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar borders. These are three substantive chapters dealing with the aforementioned borders. In the fourth chapter I speak of borders as circles of insecurity. The site of such insecurity is the migrant body, particularly the bodies of migrant women, hapless labourers and the trafficked. The irony is that while to the vulnerable, the condition and the consequence of migration is insecurity, the dominant literature on migration in the region insists that population movement is the cause for such insecurity of borders. My study of the relation between population flows and security aims to produce a critique not only of state-centric perceptions, but also a critique of the development of a language of care that arises from within the language of violence. In the fifth chapter I discuss how women located in the borders become the emblem of bordered existences. Their location adds to their vulnerability which to an extent is mitigated by their tremendous efforts to resist invisibility. Thus, at times the migrants and at other times the women become sites of violence/control and the resistance to that control.

    The last chapter of this section deals with border diseases such as HIV and AIDS. It reflects that vulnerability leads to debilitating communities that then become sites for killer diseases. Location in border areas makes these groups more vulnerable and easy prey to diseases. In the garb of protection and security the state controls these bordered existences increasing their vulnerability. Thus, borders become sites of inordinate amount of violence. South Asian borders are often called post-colonial. But this is a post-coloniality that has come without substantive decolonisation. When one visits these borders one cannot wish away colonialism. The bodies that inhabit these borders are caught between the forces of decolonisation and post-coloniality and hence they are relegated to the space of not belonging. The refugees who are forced in and out, the ‘infiltrator’ caught at zero point and the trafficked woman are all markers of that sense of not belonging. Borders therefore, are epicentres of insecurity because borders primarily are zones of control. The sheer bodily act of control through protracted and perpetual violence and the act of resistance to such control increases the quantum of violence. Both borders and bordered existences are players in this violent game of control and resistance leading to increasing vulnerability of the already vulnerable communities in the border, be they women, migrant labour or people afflicted with AIDS.

    In the third section I deal with border laws. Beginning with the Defence of India Act, working around the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and leading to the National Security Act, I discuss its effects on border communities. This chapter critiques the politics of territoriality, asserting that it has deep roots in most of the South Asian region. By constructing the Northeast as an especially violent region, the Indian state has participated in this politics of territoriality. In such politics, peaceful solutions to questions of territory are difficult to come by. The border laws inevitably increased the geographical horizons of control of the border region and spread the violence further. Borders as markers of control, inevitably lead to the increase in the extent of control and since control is denoted by control of bodies, more and more groups are marked as recalcitrant and hence necessiating greater control. Thereby violence remains constant. Sometimes at the receiving end of this violence are sub-nationalists/rebels and at other times it is the migrant labour or the commercial sex-worker or any one inhabiting the sacred space that is meant to be controlled.

    The borders that I discuss are markers of past bitter history, current separate, distinct, and independent existence and the sign of the territorial integrity of the states that share them. The bitterness of the past, the lack of mutual confidence at present, the security concerns of all these states, at the same time the existence of a thousand and one linkages make the South Asian borders unique. They are the lines of hatred, disunity, informal connections and voluminous informal trade, securitised and militarised lines, heavy para-military presence, communal discord, humanitarian crisis, human rights abuses and enormous suspicion, yet informal cooperation. No wonder those living on the borders are perpetually threatened, controlled, cajoled and coerced. This is the saga of the threats that these bordered existences face and how they negotiate with them each day of their lives. But why should such a saga of the borders interest someone who is not from the borders? Borders do not stop at the borders. They percolate further into the interior, affecting lives of millions of people on either side, often even of those miles away from these lines on the map. In situations of heightened hostilities, tit for tat policies followed by hostile neighbours, especially so in times of a full-fledged conflict, the importance of borders multiplies. With the borders of South Asia we are perpetually living in such times and hence the necessity of such works on the borders.


    It has taken me a long time to complete this book. Parts of the arguments in this book have been published in some of my previous writings but almost all of it has since been revised. Now I come to the pleasant task of thanking friends and colleagues who have made this work possible. I must begin with Ranabir Samaddar without whom I could not have written this book. His constant critique and challenges at times exasperated, but most often rejuvenated my thoughts. He will see in this work much of his own ideas albeit in a different format. I have to thank Meenakshi Gopinath for retaining faith in me when I almost lost it. Robert Cohen is another such person who never wavered in his support for me. A warm thank you to Asha Hans for being there for me through both the comedies and tragedies of life. My dear friend Kalpana Kannabiran is a source of tremendous inspiration and many new ideas. I thank her and Rada Ivecovic for happily reading and commenting on some of my chapters. The two women who have influenced me tremendously in this and many other works are Ritu Menon and Urvashi Bhutalia and I thank them both for being not just such superb social scientists but also for being my friends and reading my chapters. I am enormously grateful to Sanjay Chaturvedi for teaching me so much about the geopolitics of borders. My thank goes to Meghna Guhathakurta and Ameena Mohsin for patiently debating with me and giving me new ideas on my topic of research. My gratefulness to Meghna for taking me on a fantastic visit to the basti of snake charmers in Bangladesh. I also thank Itty Abraham, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Madhavan Palat for commenting on my papers in different forums. And of course my heartfelt thanks to Benedict Anderson for reading and commenting on my work.

    A number of institutions have helped me in my work. I have to thank Calcutta University and our Vice Chancellor, Professor Suranjan Das, for being such a source of support. My thanks go to Lipi Ghosh, Swapna Bhattacharya, Rajagopal Dhar Chakraborty and Parimal Ghosh for being such wonderful colleagues. Without their inspiration I could not have completed this work while working as the head of the department. I thank all my students, especially Nandini Basistha for having inspired me into thinking that this is a valid field for further research. Without their active support this book would not have been possible. I have to convey my indebtedness to all members of the Calcutta Research Group for being such a supportive group. Samir, Sabyasachi, Subhasda and of course Pradipda I thank you all for taking nothing at face value and always challenging me to do better. A travel grant from the Calcutta Research Group also facilitated some of my research. I have had some lovely research assistants such as Chitra Ahanthem, Sutirtha Bedajna, Debasmita Chaki and Sumona Bagchi who have helped me tremendously and I remain much indebted to them. Thanks are also due to Ishita Dey and Samaresh Guchait for all their help and support.

    I take great pleasure in thanking Jean Luc Racine and the Advanced Studies Program of the Maison Des Sciences De L' Homme, Paris for giving me three blissful months of doing research and nothing but research. I thank Mohammed Wasim and Christophe Jaffrelot for being such a wonderful team. I am grateful to Sonia Dayan Hezbrun and the University of Paris VII for facilitating much of my research. Paule Gentot and Michel Gentot are my home away from home in Paris and I thank them both. I thank Juhani Kaponen and the members of the Institute of Development Studies, Helsinki University for making it possible for me to give a final shape to my research.

    I am very fortunate in having a family that gives me unstinted support, total cooperation and unquestioned love. My obsession with borders has often baffled my father but he has always been there for me and retained his faith in my madness. My sister Purna is, as in most other cases, my first reader and to her I owe big time for this work. Many thanks to Elina and Manali for taking so much time out for editing this book. My thank you list should have been much longer as so many people have read the drafts and given me their comments. Without mentioning names I thank them all. Whatever flaws remain are, of course, mine alone.

    Introduction: Histories and Historians of Borders

    The occupation of territory is fundamental to state sovereignty. But exclusive command over a territory also implies the unwillingness to share it with ‘others’. The state creates its own markers within which its ‘self’ disengages from the ‘alien’. Terms indicating the proclivity of social groups to engage with ‘others’ or to disengage ‘them’ (us) from the ‘others’ and hence the markers of that engagement/disengagement are as old as human history. At certain historical junctures these markers are called ‘frontiers’, ‘boundaries’ and ‘borders’. But all the three words have different meanings and historical significance. To compound the problem, etymologically-related words such as the French frontiere and English frontier have widely different implications. To confuse us further, the Anglophone world is prone to using terms such as ‘boundaries’ and ‘borderlands’. In the United States, frontier is the widely used term. The task of defining frontiers and borders is indeed not without pitfalls.

    The history of frontiers and borders are varied. Malcolm Anderson traces it to the Roman Empire. The density of population in the ancient Roman Empire meant a lack of uninhabited spaces and hence the necessity of markers. When the Romans extended their empire into Gaul, they took this practice of demarcating boundaries with them.1 Hadrien became famous for his markers or the wall. During the medieval times new trade routes necessitated demarcation and political control over them. Routes were divided into zones of control. But political control did not necessarily mean economic control. The trade in/of a zone could have been controlled by the city or a league, and politically the area may have been under a feudal lord. But borders were not distinctly marked. Charlemagne was aware of the problem of controlling the ‘rim lands’ or the marches in the periphery. Although he employed missi dominici's, the periphery remained under the jurisdiction of the local counts. It was in the twelfth century that the dynasty of Hugh Capet consolidated their power under centralised monarchies which necessitated political boundaries. During the Renaissance cartography became popular and maps came into vogue which further aided centralisation. But it was the days of colonialism that elevated map making into a separate discipline. Without setting a foot on the mountains and rivers of the present Afro-Asian states, the imperial powers began using these as bargaining tools. Liberals and Marxists alike agree that boundaries are made to manipulate a certain distribution of power and that there are clear linkages between imperialism and the demarcation of state borders.

    This is the story of the ideas on the borders in west Europe. In eastern Europe there were different ways in which borders were formed, but that is not important for the purpose of this chapter. This chapter is meant to portray how west European ideas of borders were imposed on and subsequently internalised in South Asia with very definite implications for state-formation in this region.

    The Chinese wall epitomises boundaries in the Asian history. The Wall was the essential precaution against the ‘barbarians’, but the frontier lay beyond, which contained the trade routes. In South Asia the conception of borders differed in many respects from the European ideas. Large parts of the Indian subcontinent were bordered by seas and oceans. But there were no centralised regimes which ruled over the entire land area. One does not hear of a South Asian marker of frontiers. There was a singular lack of such markers. Pillar inscriptions were usually meant to spread the message of the Emperor throughout his empire. They were not constructed to mark frontiers. Further, unlike the Russian monarchs, the rulers of South Asia never had the ambition of controlling the oceans. It was the land routes which decisively influenced the history of India before the advent of the Europeans. Probably one of the reasons why traditionally the Indian mentalité never concerned itself particularly about political boundaries was because the unit of administration was not the empire but often the village. The kings largely confined their jurisdiction within the capital and the outlying provinces. The village which was formed of kinsmen was governed, according to Sukracharya's Nitisara, by the panchayat, who were treated with greatest respect by the king's officers. The panchayat collected taxes and paid the government's share. It was very difficult to say where one village ended and another began unless one knew about the kinship ties of these villages. Recent researches show how difficult it was to locate the boundaries of each village. Such a state of affairs continued until the British took charge of rationalising the Indian administration.2 Further, it was also the British who brought the whole of India under a centralised authority. Indians did concern themselves with frontiers which were largely areas impossible to govern. But they did not concern themselves with borders and boundaries in the West European way.

    Why Differentiate between Frontiers and Borders?

    Internationally, one of the first efforts to differentiate among frontiers, boundaries and borders came from political geographers. A. E. Moodie, in 1947, wrote that ‘Frontiers are areal, boundaries are linear…. The former may be correctly described as natural…. The latter are artificial.’3 A border, he argued, is a boundary line and frontiers are boundary regions. In common usage they are synonymous because until very recently the limits of state were ill-defined because of the lack of detailed knowledge of terrain and the absence of its exact cartographical representation. Even to a present day scholar of geopolitics, frontiers and borders, they are differentiated in similar terms. Frontiers are, to such a scholar, regions' …. of varying widths which were common features of the political landscape centuries ago. By the beginning of the twentieth century most remaining frontiers had disappeared replaced by boundaries which are lines', and the state made these boundary lines its borders.4 Frontiers, then, are zones at the periphery of a political division, which in the last two centuries have been slowly replaced by boundaries or lines of political control, which became the border. A differentiation of frontiers and borders is crucial for the argument that borders have a political connotation which it acquired as a result of historical specificities that necessitated its formations. In western Europe, borders had resulted from political developments of the last three centuries when demarcation of states became a necessity. But if borders were simply lines to demarcate the limits of states why then do they appear as constructs that problematise the given history of states? Are borders problematic? To arrive at any conclusion one needs to sift through the existing histories of borders.

    The ‘Classics’ in the History of Frontiers and Borders

    Michael Berube once said about canons, that they are ‘at once the location, the index, and the record of the struggle for (cultural) representation; like any other hegemonic formation, they must be continually reproduced anew and are continually con-tested’.5 Classics become canons in the history of ideas. They are contested only to be re-ascribed with the status of classic and that is how they become canons.

    The classics in this case understandably begin with frontiers—the psychology of an expansive push. By now it is apparent that frontiers and borders are two different phenomena with their own, though not very distinct, histories. Traditionally frontiers refer to territorial expansion of states into ‘empty’ areas. Such an expansionist view of frontiers found its most well known expression in the, by now well known, views of Frederick Jackson Turner. It was the time when the Populists were hard at work, filling the air with the cry for free silver. The revolt of the Western farmers which was to culminate in the Bryan campaign was growing. Also growing was the revolt of the West against the cultural dominance of the East. At such a conjuncture Turner delivered his essay on ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, in the annual conference of the American Historical Association in 1893.6 Although the paper failed to create an immediate stir, according to Richard Hofstadter it has been ‘the most famous and influential paper in the history of American historical writing’.7 Turner argued that it was the frontier that produced American democracy and individualism. The frontier stripped the European man of most of his ‘cultural baggage’ and subordinated him to the ‘disciplines of wilderness’. He ascribed much of the impact of the frontier to the fact that it was a process of perpetual rebirth. American social development, to him, had begun time and again on the frontier. The Turner thesis was not confined to the United States alone. Historians, in most cases quite unsuccessfully, tried to test the applicability of Turner's thesis in other parts of the world, forgetting that Turner was inspired by certain specific historical developments. D. W. Treadgold's portrayal of the great drift of Russian immigrants into Siberia, as a similar movement is a case in point.8 Others found the relevance of Turner's views in Latin America. It was said that in Brazil the frontier concept had found most resonance and relevance. Indeed, Brazilian history is replete with a number of sequential frontier pushes. It has been argued that:

    The epitome of mobility were the bandeirantes. Brazilian historians have regarded them as their frontiersmen par excellence, exploring the interior, discovering gold and staking out political claims for the Portuguese crown…. Other historians have…stressed their essentially democratic qualities which, transmitted to their descendants, became an integral component of the Brazilian national character.9

    The question which emerges from this kind of a comparison may be put like this: Is frontier expansion all that different under authoritarian military rule as opposed to democratic government? Present day social scientists and historians are still debating over this.10 More recently David A. Chappell has produced a variant of the Turner thesis. He has argued that frontiers are zones of transformative interaction between systems.11 But the last word has definitely not been said on the frontier push theory although, at present, social scientists in the United States are becoming more interested on borders and borderlands rather than frontiers.12 This is largely due to the utilitarian interest evoked as a result of the problems regarding the US-Canada and the US-Mexico border.

    The psychology of expansive push, ironically enough is but a step away from the delimiting line—the boundary. The German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, the father of geopolitics, made the first determined efforts to produce a set of laws that might enable boundaries to be predicted. Ratzel believed that each state had an idea of the possible limits of its territorial dominion and he termed it space conception. This concept was similar to the theories of natural boundaries which Pounds later on explored in respect of France in 1951. Ratzel's view followed logically from his belief that a country was like a living organism. The boundary and its adjacent territory, what he termed the border, was a dynamic feature and if it was fixed in position, that position was only temporary. It only meant a temporary halt in political expansion. Ratzel's views reflected the evolution of Germany from an amalgamation of small marches, kingdoms and principalities into the greater German empire. It is also significant that Ratzel produced his laws of expansion during the reigns of Wilhelm II.13 Ratzel made some strong assertions about the nature of the borders. He argued that political balance between countries is dependent on the characteristic of the borders they share.

    Students of Geopolitik, about 30 years later, again popularised the view that a border was the area within which the growth and decline of the state was organised. Geopolitik, as we know, was the name of a school of political geography established by Major Haushofer who held that if Germany wanted to be strong again it should pay attention to its geography in policy making. What is significant is the kind of boundary he proposed. He said that a homogeneous population should have a cultural periphery beyond which should be the military boundary. Keeping in mind the next 10-year history of Germany, it becomes clear why geopolitics was discredited after the Second World War. Moreover, the German geopoliticians lost much of their prominence when it became clear that occupation was not the only mode of dominance. Between 1945 and 1989 most changes in the balance of power between adjoining states were not accompanied by changes in the international boundaries, though it has to be kept in mind that the post war boundaries were to change again within 50 years in central and eastern Europe and among Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In the new state formation in central and eastern Europe border-determination became crucial once again in the nineties. However that is a different history.

    The French social scientists took up the mantle of boundary and border studies from the German geopoliticians in the late nineteen thirties and forties. It was around the time the French were discovering the connections between geography and history and the most creative works on boundaries and borders began to be undertaken. A French lawyer Lapradelle identified a series of stages in the evolution of a boundary. He earmarked the stages as preparation, decision and execution. The process of preparation preceded delimitation. The boundary was first debated at the political and then at the technical levels. The process of execution consisted of demarcation of the boundary on the ground. Lapradelle propounded the view that laws were required to facilitate boundary changes.14 Apart from Lapradelle the two other social scientists who dealt with boundaries and borders were Ancel and Pounds. Ancel came just before the Second World War (1938) and Pounds after 1949. Ancel held that boundaries are temporary lines where opposed power of neighbouring states are neutralised. The French political geographer referred to international boundaries as isobars.15 Pounds acquired prominence at the time when the French were trying to reassert their virility and identity after their psychological castration due to the fall of the Maginot Line. He explored the concept of les limites naturelles in respect of France. He established that for much of history after the sixteenth century, successive French rulers had regarded France's desirable boundaries as coinciding with the sea, Alpine watershed, the Pyrenees and the Rhine. He not only put the question of boundaries in a historical context, he also made the concept of natural boundaries fashionable.16 The assumption was that France may not have natural boundaries which are desirable but at least the French influence should spread until those regions.

    From a review of classics on frontiers and boundaries it is clear that American writers have concentrated largely on the development of frontiers and west Europeans on boundaries and borders. This is not surprising since the political realities of the two were different, which encouraged this difference in ideas regarding markers. It was during the Cold War and the ever-increasing influence of the ‘realists’ in the realm of ideas that borders acquired a whole new political significance.

    Space and State

    The Second World War revolutionised the understanding of the state as a territorial phenomenon and necessitated the examination of political space such as boundaries and borderlands in relation to less tangible but readily identifiable ethnic and cultural elements. It developed into an increasing interest in what came to be known as the third world. In this period borders all over the world became crucial in new systems of states. Borders became markers of political control and revealed the consolidation of territorial gains. In most of the countries of the third world, their national borders were in large measure determined by economic, military and diplomatic policies of the imperial powers during the era of colonialism. European imperial domains were carved out with little regard for tribal boundaries and even less regard for the requirements of a viable nation-state. Great tribes such as Bakongo were split by the division of their land into the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola. The Somalis were divided five ways. On the other hand, Western imperialism enclosed people of different religions, languages and levels of development into colonies, which later became independent. The theories of border-making that were developed in western Europe were completely disregarded and new boundaries created in the third world. The state elites then tried to legitimise their hegemony by imposing control over these borders. According to Michiel Baud and Willem Van Schendel by ‘taking possession of disputed or unclaimed areas, state elites tried to resolve the problem of loosely defined border regions to which two or even more states might lay claim. In this way, they drew sharper lines between citizens, invested with certain rights and duties, and “aliens” or “foreigners”’.17 For such differentiations mapping became essential. It was an attempt made by the state elites to establish clear cut territorial and hence political jurisdiction. Thus, it was the joining of hands of former colonialists and the state elites that decided the borders of the third world at a time when control over space began to be deemed critical for political hegemony by the cold warriors. Hence land borders, at least in the realm of ideas was fast losing its significance. As so often happens, when borders were increasingly considered redundant in the West, it was becoming crucial for the third world.

    According to S. B. Jones' well-known study, the mapping of borders went through three stages: establishment, demarcation and control of the borders.18 Mapping necessarily meant that conflicting claims of control could no longer be ignored.19 Precision in cartography led to the emergence of fully demarcated territorial states.20 Such ideas acquired significance during the span of decolonisation. It was in the former colonies that the relevance of such ideas was measured. Mapping facilitated modern political geographers to construct morphological models for states. These models impart cultural attributes to certain spatial structures such as core regions and frontiers. Such models have been the basis for theorisation both on the morphology of states and the spatial processes connected with it. These theorisations have led to redefinition of territoriality as a means to some end such as material survival and political control. Some argue that territoriality is an attempt by an individual or a group to affect, influence or control people, phenomena and relationships by delimiting and asserting control over geographical areas. Territory then becomes a justification for claims as opposed to occupation, though the latter may be a prerequisite for the former.21 Other theorists of territoriality describe it as a phenomenon happening when a bounded geographical space is ruled by an elite who wants to dominate not only within but also beyond.22 Boundaries and borders become markers of the power that states wield over the people. This has been particularly true of the post-colonial states which had to negotiate their borders and more importantly, also intercommunity and intra-community demarcating lines.23

    The classical works on the frontiers and borderlands show us how borders become markers of sovereignty—an essential characteristic for modern state formation. Recent discourses on frontiers and borders, based on largely African and Latin American experiences, deal with this marker of territoriality and power from a different perspective. These portray how borders have constantly to be negotiated between communities. Through these processes of negotiations new identities are evolved. Astride Suhrke and Leila Garner Noble emphasise the relation between the domestic and external in border making.24 This is the kind of history that borders create. Within the question of identity there is a collapse of categories breaking disciplinary walls and making borders and borderlands the homesteading ground for ‘cultural determinism’.25 There is a growing emphasis on how socially constructed ‘fine lines’ determine, to a great extent, who we are, what kind of identities we evolve. The focus in border studies, as a result, has shifted from territory to its influence on the identities of the people, be it political, cultural or any other.26 The border thus becomes a cultural zone shared by co-ethnics who may or may not be co-citizens. A study by W. F. S. Miles and D. A. Rocheforte portrays how this has given rise to irredentism and cross-border conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.27 Asiwaju, a famous African social scientist, focuses on the human factor in the formation of borders in Africa. It is this human factor which transforms the received colonial baggage to evolve a border where there was none. This is how many of the third world borders acquire a unique non-Western characteristic. Recent exploration of this non-Western characteristic of borders portray that they are products of partition from above, often accepted by the state elites, but constantly challenged by ethnic resistance from below.28

    Borderlands of South Asia

    Frontiers are indeed the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death for nations…

    Curzon, Marquis of Kedleston

    The history books on South Asia suggest that South Asian borders had remained undemarcated for years evoking little interest from the British colonialists and almost none from the Indians themselves. Merchants, traders and religious men crossed the frontiers at will because there was no rigid sense of the border. The ‘frontier idea was introduced when the East India Company's expansion up to, and then beyond the Himalayas precipitated rivalries between Britain, China and Russia’.29 The Durand Line and the McMahon Line were conceived within 10 years of one another. Frontiers were quickly reduced to lines with little knowledge of what it actually entailed. Thus, South Asia probably had one of the first borderlands in the world. Commentaries on the border followed soon. Initial border studies were conducted by British administrators such as Sir Mortimer Durand and Sir Thomas Holdich, who was, at the end of the nineteenth century the surveyor-general of India. Holdich made a study of the Himalayas and remarked that this was the finest ‘combination of boundary and barrier that exists in the world…’. At the time when Turner was grandiosely speaking of frontiers, the British were shrewdly demarcating the borders with essentially political intentions.30 The great age of South Asian border studies had commenced with Curzon. As a geographer he had explored the Pamirs and Karakoram. He encouraged Younghusband's mission to Lhasa in 1904 knowing well that Tibet had become a field of play for the Great Game. Curzon had very definite views about the ‘frontiers’ that he wanted for the British colonial empire. He advocated a scientific frontier which ‘unites natural and strategic strength’, and he was fully aware that as far as Asia was concerned the idea of a demarcated frontier did not exist. Thus demarcation had to take place under ‘European pressure and by the intervention of European agent’.31 Curzon coupled innate strategic and geographic senses and set the stage for the appropriation of a border monopoly by government agents, military personnel and secret service agents. Curzon's influence can be well gauged when we realise that we are still unable to get out of the mindset that we inherited from him, so much so that even today many South Asian states continue to deny their own citizens access to maps of border regions, even outdated ones. South Asian borders began to be written about by those who were constructing them.

    The next stage of border commentaries reaching us was during the forties. The Second World War generated interest in borders not just in Europe but also in Asia. This interest accelerated with the imperial decision to partition the subcontinent. When South-east Asian states fell to Japan one after another, the Assam frontier assumed enormous importance as the last British outpost. The British government was not just interested about the natural frontiers but also about those who peopled these areas. Studies were undertaken by government officials. One such classic study was by Sir Robert Reid who in 1941 wrote a note on the ‘Future of the Present Excluded, Partially Excluded and Tribal areas of Assam’. In that he declared that the British had at best only ‘the most shadowy control’ over this whole area and the importance of this region from the point of view of strategy and politics cannot be overlooked.32 Thus, history of borders was being written by those who were creating them and they were tying it neatly with the concept of power precisely at the time when the Germans were doing the same in Europe. This kind of writing continued during the partition of South Asia. Following the colonial tradition, borders were legitimised on maps with great enthusiasm. People legitimising these borders themselves realised their unworkability. Thus, Sir Cyril Radcliffe confessed his inability and the impossibility of trying to construct contiguous boundary between the eastern part of India and east Pakistan.33 Maps which were both too static and too simple were drawn. Based on these maps and with an admixture of territorialism, cartographic absoluteness and frontierism the South Asian nation-states came into being, or to use a more fashionable phraseology, were ‘constructed’.

    Frontiers hardened into borders and those at the ‘core’ vehemently denied that there were two sides to a border. Historians have also managed to retain this myopic view of borders. There are, of course, some efforts by historians, both Indian and European, to understand the formation of borders at the time of the Great Game. But clearly such efforts are inadequate. In the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series of the History and Culture of the Indian People we find detailed treatments of north-eastern and north-western frontiers of India with an effort to show that state formation followed the European imperialist hunger to be the ‘mistress of the east’.34 Few other Indian historians have also made similar efforts to analyse the frontiers and then the borders and borderlands of South Asia.35 About British historians, one scholar observes that they have assessed the frontiers ‘from practical point of view, that is, India's defence’.36 The standard histories of India by British historians we know depend a great deal on the accounts of the government personnel for their source material and therefore could not be aware of the ‘other side’ of the emergence of border.

    The Great Game converted frontiers into borderlands but it was the partition which changed them into borders. Although a continuation of the Great Game, the partition had greater role to play in the post-colonial state formation of South Asia. Still one must admit that the post-colonial borders of South Asia have not evoked so much interest among scholars. One reason for this lacuna is that the new boundaries were justified by state elites. What was lost in the process was the understanding that borders are not some innate traits of sovereignty but merely human constructs built on an amalgamation of geography, cartography, theories of sovereignty and the prevalent system of power. By refusing to contextualise the history of border formation in South Asia we have lost sight of the fact that borders are not static but alive and they take different forms in different political and historical circumstances. To evolve such an understanding we need historians who can unearth the specific historical context of border formation. Fifty years of partition has evoked, if not enough, then at least some interest in the process.37

    Whither South Asian Discourses on Borders?

    It may be surprising to the readers why this emphasis on classical, imperial and largely Atlanticist discourses on frontiers and borderlands and then a probe into the historiography of South Asian borders. The two may seem completely disjointed but they are not. There is, I believe, a thematic coherence to this analysis. We have inherited our discourses on the borders from the imperial powers. There is an overlapping of the Atlanticist version of border history and historiography and our own writings that we cannot ignore. Do we as South Asians lack a sense of the borders? South Asians historically had more of a sense of the local than the national. Under strong emperors like the Great Moguls, Indians got a centralised form of government. But such empires were not marked by a precise demarcation of borders. When there were no strong emperors the country would revert back to a basic level of social organisation. Village economy would become localised, ‘communities tended to develop into self sufficient centres. This was to become the prototype of Britain's picture of India…’.38 Indians did not have a sharply demarcated political border before the advent of the British. In the pre-partition days the leaders of the nationalist movement had no precise understanding of political borders. In Discovery of India Nehru envisaged India to be within a regional network of states from Iran to Thailand. Nehru himself was against ‘geopolitics’ as a discipline influencing policies of governance since geopolitics aided most of the ‘realist’ school.39 Among Indian leaders of the period there was a growing sense of the region but not particularly of a politically demarcated South Asia. The British not only gave us our borders but also the tools by which to study them. Instead of understanding our own historical specificity we have tried to emulate the imperial style of border studies. There remains much to be traced beyond such a history. Also histories of borders in South Asia have completely failed to understand the gender dimension of these borders. They failed to realise that women living in these borders in many ways defined them. Therefore, new histories of borders have become timely.

    Our historiography is replete with interesting works on state formation which deals implicitly but never explicitly with borders. Rajni Kothari, in his Politics in India, described how the Congress system married dominance by the Centre and resistance from the peripheries into a consensus politics. Marxist accounts have done a better job of portraying how dominant classes have used the state as a site for dominance with the understanding that centralisation is the way for acquiring political hegemony.40 However, this does not explain the core/periphery dichotomy in South Asia. Rao and Frankel in their two volume collection discuss how Indian politics can be viewed as the rising power of the formerly low status groups and their clash with the elites. By extension this does deal with the resistance to centrist politics from the borders but the linkage is at best tenuous.41 There are a number of monographs on political dominance and resistance but none that deal exclusively with resistance from the borders as a phenomena resulting from partition and ongoing state formations in South Asia. Neither are there works that deal with the history that the borders have created.

    By ignoring them we have begun to misunderstand the historical forces which shaped our borderlands. We have missed the complex realities of the states system in South Asia. This will be borne by the studies done on the wars that India fought with its neighbours. The 1962 Sino-Indian border war is especially notable for generating interest on the borders. Sadly most of these studies are meant either to blame a country for the war or to justify its position. The border appears only incidentally. Alistair Lamb's work on the China-India border falls within this genre. Lamb finds India's position untenable because he feels that China had never accepted the McMahon Line in the first place.42 From the other side there are memoirs by Indian generals such as B. M. Kaul's where he tries to legitimise his own decisions, or Menon's which efforts to legitimise the position of India.43 That the South Asian borders have prompted a specific kind of state formation and a pattern of diplomacy is not apparent from these studies.

    Dorothy Woodman's accounts of the Himalayan frontiers also fall within the same genre. Woodman argues that it is the overwhelming geographical presence of the Himalayas that have shaped relations between Britain, Russia, China and India. Although with a thrust towards the international rather than a single country, thus much acclaimed, the author tries to justify the British action in the Himalayas by stating that all the other powers had similar intentions on the region and they actively supported British imperial policy when it suited them. Thus, Britain could not be blamed for the situation that India and China faced in the fifties and sixties. Such studies duplicate the tools used by the Atlanticist powers in understanding their borders and impose the same parameters for understanding South Asia which denies that the region shares a long history of movements which started long before any East India Company were born.

    The last two decades have witnessed attempts at policies to make South Asian borders more rigid.44 Yet if we trace our own history of ideas we will see that the concept of demarcated borders, both inter- and intra-state was not considered viable. It still remains to be seen whether it is not true that South Asian frontiers can be at best organised as borderlands and cannot be dissected into rigid boundaries. Concepts of strategic frontiers were largely imperial and Western. When the British divided South Asia they did it often on paper. The ruling class have made those borders rigid due to power considerations. Only by making the borders static and rigid can the state hope to control them. This goes against the social, cultural and economic traditions of the region. We are still grappling with studies of the border and producing western imitations only because we have not been able to formulate a South Asian concept of borders. To us the borders remain ‘rim lands’ difficult to govern and western hegemony even in the realm of ideas has made it imperative that for the purposes of ‘sovereignty’ we convert the borders into watertight lines. A close study of Indian efforts for total demarcation of borders will show that even our best efforts cannot be considered as a success story. Such rigid demarcation will work against topography, economy, kinship networks and any other linkages. In an effort to serve the political demands of the received theory of sovereignty we are breaking ‘utilitarian complementariness’ and denying the history of the region. It has to be recognised that borders of India are neither static and nor rigid and even discursively they cannot be considered as such.

    The repeated changes in the borders in central and eastern Europe, in the Eurasian region, in the heartland of Africa have their own histories and these have also contributed to the politics of the region. If anything, then a historiographical review of borders in South Asia suggests that we need a fresh outlook to understand the complex histories of space and politics, realities and ideologies of the region. Mahnaz Z. Ispahani's account of the politics of access in the borderlands of Asia is an example of such a study which is an analysis of the amalgamation of these forces. Ispahani focus geographically on South, Central and West Asia and on the major land routes through these regions. She observes that in an effort to master these routes countries converted ‘zones of transitions’ or peripheries into borderlands and then demarcated them. Technological innovations notwithstanding, the primary role of land routes in this region have historically shaped relationships and alignments between Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China. Immediately after the Sino-Indian war, the Sino-Pakistani friendship treaty which resulted in the opening of the ancient silk routes is a case in point.45 Here is not geographical determinism but a fresh perspective into border studies of the region.

    As I have stated before, there are other efforts on Latin American and African borders, where scholars with interest in sociological dimensions are entering the field and enriching it. In a ‘sub-regional dialogue’ held in Dhaka in February 1997 similar efforts were made to understand the India-Bangladesh borderland. Such efforts will go a long a way in giving us fresh insights into the core-periphery problems. It may also help us to understand the cross border linkages. Then we need to compare our experiences with that of the other regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and central and eastern Europe and see how other borders have faced post-coloniality, partition, and experiences of ‘state making’ and ‘state breaking’. For such studies comparative historical perspectives are essential. In the last decade a few studies have tried to address these issues. Ranabir Samaddar's The Marginal Nation is a case in point.46 This book is also meant to be part of that genre where borders are analysed not from the perspective of the state or security but from the perspective of the people who inhabit, who cross them, make them insignificant and try to appropriate the borders themselves. But whether they are able to transcend from being bordered existences is a later story. For now, in the next few chapters, we will see how borders are formed—be they geographical, ethnic at legal.


    1. Malcolm Anderson, Frontiers: Territory and State Formation in the Modern World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996).

    2. Ranabir Samaddar, Memory, Identity, Power: Politics in the Jungle Mahals 1890–1950 (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1997).

    3. A. E. Moodie, Geography Behind Politics (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1947), 73–74.

    4. J. R. V. Prescott, Boundaries and Frontiers (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978), 1. Peter Sahlins also stresses that boundary and border evoke a precise linear division and frontiers are more zonal, in Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

    5. Michael Berube, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centres: Tolson, Pinchon, and the Politics of Canon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 4–5.

    6. Frederick Jackson Turner, ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History,’ in Selected Essays of Frederick Jackson Turner, ed. R. A. Billington (New Jersey: Prentice Hall Press, 1961).

    7. Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, ed. Turner and the Sociology of Frontiers (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 3.

    8. Donald W. Treadgold, The Great Siberian Migration: Government and Peasants in Resettlement from Emancipation to the First World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). See also his ‘Russian Expansion in the Light of Turner's Study of the American Frontier,’ Agricultural History (October, 1962): 147–55.

    9. C. Alistair Hennesey, The Frontier in Latin American History (London: Edward Arnold, 1978), 12. Professor Tapan Roychowdhury has tried to apply the Turner thesis in his reportage of the southern frontier of Bengal, specifically the district of Barisal.

    10. The debate probably began in 1942 with G. V. Portus, ‘Americans and Australians,’ The Australian Quarterly (June, 1942): 30–41. Some other contributions were P. F. Sharp, ‘Three Frontiers: Some Comparative Studies of Canadian, American and Australian Settlement,’ PacificHistorical Review (1955): 369–77; W. V. Wyman and C. B. Kroeber, The Frontier in Perspective (Madison: The University of Wisconsin, 1957). See also the collection of essays in the forum ‘The Formation of Ethnic Identities in Frontier Societies,’ Journal of World History 4, no. 2 (1993): 147–55.

    11. David A. Chappell, ‘Ethnogenesis and Frontiers,’ Journal of World History 4, no.2 (1993).

    12. Ford Foundation has announced a five-year project grant under the rubric of ‘Crossing the Border’ in 1998.

    13. Friedrich Ratzel, Politische Geographie (Political Geography) (Munich: Zeller; Neudr. d. 3. Aufl. Von, 1897).

    14. P. de Lapradelle, La frontiere: Etude de droit international (Paris: Les Editiones Internationales, 1928). The desire of states to have clear and uncontested borders formed the basis of most classic border literature even in English. See S. Whittemore Boggs, International Boundaries: A Study of Boundary Functions and Problems (New York: Ams Pr Inc., 1940).

    15. J. Ancel, Geopolitics (Paris: Les Frontieres, 1938).

    16. Norman J. G. Pounds, An Historical and Political Geography of Europe (London: G.C. Harrap, 1949).

    17. Michiel Baud and William Van Schendel, ‘Toward a Comparative History of Borderlands,’ Journal of World History 8, no. 2 (1997): 214.

    18. Stephen B. Jones, Boundary Making: A Handbook for Statesmen, Treaty Editors and Boundary Commission (Washington DC: Publisher Unknown, 1945); with Marion Fisher Murphy, Geography and World Affair (New York: Rand McNally & Co., 1962).

    19. The state elites could use maps to support their claims by creating discrepancies. According to Karunakar Gupta many such maps were interchanged between India and China during the Sino-Indian crisis of 1959–62. Karunakar Gupta, The Spotlight on Sino-Indian Frontier (Calcutta: New Book Centre, 1982), 18. On this see also Kuldip Nayar, Between the Lines (Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1969), 133–227. Some countries such as Ecuador double their land possessions in maps. Others in Latin America forbid anyone other than the military to make maps.

    20. James R. Akerman, ‘Cartography and the Emergence of Territorial States in Western Europe,’ Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History (Lawrence: Western Society of French History, 1984), 84–93.

    21. D. R. Sack, Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Sack, Conceptions of Space in Social Thought (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1980).

    22. Such ideas were articulated by Lord Acton who said ‘Power tends to expand indefinitely and in so doing (to) transcend all barriers.’ For contemporary arguments of territoriality, borders and expansion see Geoffrey Parker, The Geopolitics of Domination (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988). Also Giuseppe Saco, ‘A Place in the Shade,’ The European Journal of International Affairs 12 no. 2 (1991): 5–23.

    23. A. I. Asiwaju and Paul Nugent, ed., African Boundaries: Barriers, Conduits and Opportunities (London: Pinter Publishers, 1996); Also Peter Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

    24. Astrid Suhrke and Leila G. Noble, Ethnic Conflict in International Relations (New York: Praeger, 1977).

    25. Typical examples of such studies are John C. Welchman, ed., Rethinking Borders (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1996); Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Fontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987).

    26. There are a number of creative studies done on questions of identities and borders especially on the US-Mexico border such as Daniel D. Arreola and James R. Curtis, The Mexican Border Cities: Landscape Anatomy and Place Personality (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1993); Jorge A. Bustamante, ‘Demystifying the United States-Mexico Border,’ The Journal of American History 79, no. 2 (September 1992), 485–90; William Langewiesche, ‘The Border,’ The Atlantic Monthly (May 1992): 53–92.

    27. Miles and Rochefort, ‘Nationalism versus Ethnic Identity in Sub-Saharan Africa,’ American Political Science Review 85, no. 2 (1991), 393–403.

    28. Asiwaju, Partitioned Africa: Ethnic Relations across Africa's International Boundaries, 1884–1984 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1985).

    29. Dorothy Woodman, Himalayan Frontiers: A Political Review of British, Chinese, Indian and Russian Rivalries (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1969), ix.

    30. Sir Thomas Holdich, Political Frontiers and Boundary Making (London: Macmillan, 1956), 280–81. The odd coincidence is that the year when Turner published his thesis was also the year when Durand negotiated the line named after him with the Emir of Afghanistan which had serious implications for states in South and West Asia.

    31. George Nathaniel Curzon, The Romanes Lecture, 1907 (London: Clarendon Press, 1907), 7; also see Alistaire Lamb, The McMahon Line: A Study in Relation Between India, China and Tibet, 1904 to 1914 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

    32. Sir Robert Reid, History of Frontier Areas Bordering Assam from 18831941 (Shillong: Eastern Publisher House, 1942), 295.

    33. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, Bengal Boundary Commission Report, 1947, D50/7/47R, NLC.

    34. R. C. Majumdar, British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, Part I (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1963).

    35. As a contemporary effort a group of historians came together for a colloquium on the Himalayan frontiers but their efforts were less than satisfactory. N. L. Roy, ed., Himalayan Frontier in Historical Perspective (Calcutta: Institute of Historical Studies, 1986).

    36. K. G. Vasanthamadhana, ‘The British Historians on the Himalayan Frontier,’ in Himalayan Frontier in Historical Perspective, ed. N. R. Roy (Calcutta: Institute of Historical Studies, 1986).

    37. Symptomatic of this interest is a collection of essays in Ranabir Samaddar, ed., Reflections of Partition in the East (New Delhi: Vikas, 1997).

    38. Romila Thapar, ‘Seminar on Ideas in the 18th and 19th Centuries—A Report,’ Enquiry 1 no. 3 (Winter, 1964): 114–30.

    39. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Calcutta: John Day Company, 1946), 538–39.

    40. Sudipto Kaviraj, ‘A Critique of the Passive Revolution,’ in State and Politics in India, ed. Partha Chatterjee (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 45–88.

    41. Francine Frankel and M. S. A. Rao, Dominance and State Power in India: Decline of a Social Order (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990).

    42. Alistair Lamb, The China-Indian Border (London: Oxford University Press, 1964); Crisis in Kashmir (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

    43. Within this genre falls P. C. Chakravarti, Evolution of India's Northern Borders (London: Asia Publishing House, 1971); K. Ghosh, The Chinese Invasion of India (Calcutta: Mrs B. Ghosh, 1963); K. N. Menon, India and the Chinese Invasion (New Delhi: Contemporary Publishers, 1963).

    44. A. K. Ray, ‘The Case for a Strategic Frontier,’ Indian Defence Review 12, no. 1 (January-March 1997): 9–14.

    45. Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, Roads and Rivals: The Political Uses of Access in the Borderlands of Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

    46. Ranabir Samaddar, The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration From Bangladesh to West Bengal (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1999).

  • Epilogue

    And the Saga Continues

    This book deals with histories of borders and histories of people situated on the borders and borderlands. Women are at the centre of this narrative. The book contends that to understand borders one has to understand the lives of women living in these borders; however, it does not just stop there. It further argues that by creating and controlling borders, states create ‘bordered existences’, a new kind of marginality that entails women and; frequently; other marginal groups, such as, migrant workers, ethnic others, trafficked bodies and people with HIV and AIDS. In their struggle for existence lie the other histories of borders. Sometimes we get fleeting glimpses of those histories, but then they are made to disappear, often scorned and cauterised by the high priests of border studies who deem these marginal histories as superfluous to the hallowed doctrine of security. In the ephemeral stories of the insecurity infused bordered existences, lies the truth about security studies itself. It is sad but true, the pundits of security studies have often ignored people vis-à-vis territory, movements' vis-à-vis fence, fluidity vis-à-vis rigidity, and coexistence vis-à-vis control. This book, therefore, is both a necessary corrective and another chapter in critical feminist history. It is a saga of violence and negotiations, as continues even today.

    The narrative begins with how those who purport to ‘man’ borders construct them. We see how they constantly treat borders as given even while they are evolving. While constructing the borders they make choices that determine who belongs and who becomes the alien. This is a conscious choice. Border security is translated into militarisation of borders and control of bodies. Border laws are passed to make such control possible. At certain historical junctures those who belong or belonged, can enter the perilous territory of not belonging. Such was the case of the colonial plantation workers who had travelled from India to Fiji, South Africa, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. All through the nationalist period they were considered as one of us, but with independence they became the alien. Then there are others who are of ambiguous identities, like women citizens of India who could not transfer their rights of citizenship to their children until 1967. They are often the permanent exceptions, banished to the borders of democracy. There are also those who symbolically form the borders and geographically inhabit the borderlands. This book is replete with the tales of these aliens and others. In order to situate these tales I have had to begin with histories of borders.

    The two most contentious borders in this narrative remain the India-Pakistan and the India-China borders. To begin with, both these borders are colonial constructs that have been appropriated by the present state system. State discourses have marked these borders as rigid while history portrays that it is constantly being formed. The more fluid the borders, the greater are the efforts to control it. The book clearly portrays that it is in this process that a new narrative is formed and a new history is created. This history is one of fluidity, which the two sides often deny. Their effort is to make the borders rigid, but such rigidity is non-viable. The rigidity imposed by one country is inevitably challenged by the other. Thus, there is a constant tussle between the state-sponsored control or rigidity and the reality of flows (of which women and other marginal groups such as the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh or the Chins in Mizoram are often the embodiments). The aforementioned collision between the rigidity of the state and the mobility of the people results in endemic violence in/around the borders. For the women and other marginalised groups that are situated on the borders this violence forms a continuum. Women living in the borders symbolise such marginal existences. In a survey undertaken in three border villages in the Nadia district in West Bengal, namely Shikarpur, Charmeghna and Nasirerpara, it was found out that most women in this area are illiterate. In Shikarpur out of 515 women only 190 had some forms of literacy, in Charmeghna out of 590 only 100 women are literate and in Nasirerpara out of 470 women only 85 are literate.1 These women have very few options to improve their situations. Their problems are compounded by increased militarisation and criminalisation of the area. Here every other day women and children are molested or killed. It is they who, as widows, half widows, rape victims, victims of religious dictates, and displaced bodies are called upon to ensure that the pattern of life continues.

    This book, however, refuses to view the histories of the women inhabiting borderlands as simply victims. Yes, women living in these borders live a life of extreme hardship and yet they survive. Women are the quickest targets for both the security personnel and the criminals. ‘The robbers demand women during their raids and when they get none they leave threatening dire consequences: “you can hide your livestock in the camp. You can hide your money in the bank. But where will you hide your women?”’2 As this book reveals, no study on traditional security pays attention to such insecurities, which has become part of the every day lives of the people living in the borders. The book also portrays how women successfully negotiate such threats. The story of Naga Mothers and the Meira Paibies portray that, even as bordered existences, women work to break the circles of insecurity. This book, at another level, is also about the histories of survivors and agents of histories.

    It has been argued by many political thinkers that violence and victimhood at the borders do not stop there. It infiltrates deep inside and then percolates, giving birth to histories of hatred. This is the reality of the two partitioned borders on the east and west of India. These are lines of disunity and hatred. In situations of heightened hostilities, tit-for-tat policies among hostile neighbours are followed. This is especially true in times of a full-fledged war, when people living on the borders are caught up in this unpleasant saga. People around the Line of Control are often treated as pawns in this tussle over control by India and Pakistan. The tragedy of the people living in these borders is far greater because of the continuum of violence that permeates their existence. The partition of 1947 created a violent uprooting, stemming from communalisation, forcing millions to move from their homes into new surroundings and over the next 60 years that violence has not abated. In fact there has been an escalation in the violence due to the state's efforts to control the borders and the people's lives around these borders. Such efforts at control have resulted in the multiplication of borders and bordered existences. If one looks at Assam, it presents a classic case of multiplication of borders. On one side of Assam there is Bangladesh and on another side there is Nagaland. Both the borders are equally real and contentious, as the tale of Karbi Anglong clearly suggests. The border between the Karbis and the Dimasas are no less real than that between India and Pakistan or the Sunnis and the Pundits. The book also reveals how there is a propensity of borders and bordered existences to multiply.

    While the Indo-Pakistan border, the Line of Control and the Indo-China border are in the eye of world's attention, and therefore closely monitored; the border in the East, the IndoBangladesh, Indo-Nepal and Indo-Myanmar borders remain neglected in terms of attention. Security concerns overwhelm all other equally legitimate concerns and values. Just as in other borders, in these borders too military security dominates over human security. As a result of this, states often forget that borders are not only lines to be guarded, they are also lines of humanitarian management, because borders are not lines but borderlands—that is to say these are areas where people live, pursue economic activities and lead civilian lives attuned to the realities of the borders. Human security in the borderlands would mean first security for those who lead bordered existences; but such a security is never practiced. The borders are perilous zones where marginal groups and individuals are pushed.

    If one is to inquire why these regions are so vulnerable to overarching presence of violence, first one must realise that these are regions of abject poverty, social imbalance and politically directed violence, particularly against vulnerable groups of whom women form a large part. Each part of these regions is undergoing certain social and political turmoil, where more and more women are getting marginalised. In Bangladesh, for example, effects of globalisation, growth of fundamentalism, modernisation policies, such as building of dams and so on, have all contributed to violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and particularly against women. Of course, minority women are always in a double bind. They are attacked both as minorities and as women. The fundamentalists who have increased their control in the political arena strive to maintain a predominantly male-dominant status quo. This strategy puts both minorities and women, in general, on the receiving end. Religion has come to be used by fundamentalist groups as one of the primary means by which male-dominant values and existing gender-oppressive ideology are imposed and perpetuated. This is true of not just Bangladesh but of some parts of India too. In India, border regions are also regions of increasing violence against women as this book has clearly shown. In Nepal, there have been unabated political disturbances for years. The coming of Maoists to power has not solved the problem. In Myanmar too there are long standing ethnic disturbances. It is no surprise that the people living in these borders battle with daily violence. They become bordered existences fighting illiteracy, ill health, political violence and erosion of rights.

    In the continuing saga of the borders and bordered existences, there is always the threat of security, migration, and terrorism and if it is not these that have come to define existence, then there is the always the spectre of AIDS. It is perceived as the seemingly insurmountable threat to collective health. In the narrative construct of histories the site of the threat posed by AIDS always remains the border, whether it is India's borders with Bangladesh, Nepal or Myanmar. One newspaper report from eastern India encapsulates this threat well. In it is stated:

    AIDS, the most feared of modern day diseases, is stealthily spreading from villages along the Indo-Bangladesh border to other parts of the country. Its progress has so far been unhindered, thanks to the large migrant population…. West Bengal has the longest border-sharing zone with Bangladesh, and there is a constant flow of infiltrators from Bangladesh to West Bengal.3

    Often enough the sexuality of migrant women is looked upon as transmitters of hazardous diseases like sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV or AIDS. Those that become most suspect are women in the flesh trade. Thus, it is not too far a step from such a narrative to move to see how the battle for control over borders finds new lexical and political locale in the body of people with HIV and AIDS (again, the bodies of women and female sex-workers are especially inscribed).

    In recent years there is a new threat perception arising out of the flesh trade. This relates to the security forces and their vulnerability to AIDS. Hitherto these security forces were considered invincible, as they were the instrument for controlling malaise of the borders. However research shows that now they are themselves falling prey to AIDS. From different parts of north-east there is a recurring concern that AIDS is the most important threat to security as it is affecting security forces themselves. From Tripura there was news that cases of AIDS is on the rise among the forces. It was stated that out of the 79 AIDS patients 43 are security force jawans. In a more recent report it was the CRPF that was the cause for concern. The report stated that: ‘Forty CRPF personnel posted in Manipur and Nagaland have tested HIV positive, according to findings of a voluntary testing drive that the paramilitary force conducted among 11,000 of its men recently.’4 Worse still there are reports that: ‘The Assam Rifles has received threats from militant organizations of this region that they would let loose HIV infected women to spread the disease among jawans posted in Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura.’5 So it seems that AIDS is winning the battle against security forces. Hence, the fear is centring more on unreported AIDS cases. What this translates into as a ground reality is that there is a veritable witch-hunt for the AIDS patient. At the receiving end of this witch-hunt are gay men, women sex-workers, and migrant workers.6 Even though knowledgeable people are aware of the fact that irregardless of the women sex-workers at the borders, women with single partners too are getting infected in large numbers. Furthermore, it is often seen that HIV is spreading from urban areas to rural areas (thus, questioning the whole premise of AIDS as only a border threat). Yet for much publicised interventions, easy targets are sought out, and what better place of vulnerability and otherness can one find than at the borderlands of existence. Thus, what remains constant is the perception of AIDS as a phenomenon of the borders.

    The more the urge to control the greater is the number of bodies that needs to be controlled. This book tries to chronicle the process whereby the attempts to control the ethnic others steadily transform into control of women, migrant bodies, the trafficked, people with AIDS, and others. But do they submit to such control? The negotiations for freedom continue and so too the tussle for ownership of the borders. Thus this is a book without a conclusion. The saga continues…


    1. Survey undertaken by Subharati Banerjee under my supervision for her unpublished M. Phil thesis ‘Bharat Bangladesh Simanta Samasya: Charmeghna, Shikarpur o Nasirerparar Porjalochona’ (Problems in Bengal Bangladesh Border: A Discussion of The Three Villages of Charmeghna, Shikarpur and Nasirerparar) Department of South and South-East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta, 2000–01, p. 73.

    2. Ibid.

    3. ‘AIDS: The Enemy at the Frontier,’ The Statesman, 15 October 2006.

    4. ‘CRPF Men in AIDS Grip,’ The Times of India, 18 November 2006.

    5. ‘AIDS Threat to Army in NE,’ Nagaland Post, 25 September 2005.

    6. A report in a newspaper well portrays this fear by stating that, ‘As the world hunts for preventive measures against the deadly HIV/AIDS Guwahati continues to contribute to the number of HIV positive patients with the detection of 11 more cases among the homosexuals in the city.’ The Sentinel, 10 August 2006.


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    About the Author

    Paula Banerjee studied in University of Cincinnati, Ohio, after which she joined the Department of South and South East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta. She is currently the Head of the same department. She has authored numerous papers on women in conflict situations in north-east India. She is the recipient of a number of international fellowships including the Advanced Taft Fellowship (1991–93) and the Indo-French Cultural Exchange Fellowships. She has been the recipient of the WISCOMP Fellow of Peace Award (2001) and the SITRA Award (2008). She is an editorial board member of a number of international journals including Forced Migration Review and Refugee Watch. She is currently the vice president of the International Association for Study of Forced Migration, which is the international apex body on forced migration. She is a member of the Calcutta Research Group.

    Her publications include Women and Peace Politics (2008), Internal Displacement in South Asia (2005), When Ambitions Clash: Indo-US Relations 1947–1974 (2003), Women in Politics and Society in France, 1945–1995 (1997).

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