Border Management in South Asia: Volatile, Violent and Porous

22 Aug, 2013    ·   4096

D Suba Chandran on the insular approach to managing borders in South Asia

Ongoing military interactions all along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan from Mendhar to Kargil sectors, once again have brought the attention of the region and the rest of international community. While the current focus is on the flare up along the LoC after a long period of lull, two larger issues need to be focussed: Is the real problem at the border level, or what is happening in the border is an expression of a larger problem? Should the focus be narrow and limited to political and military issues, or should be broad on the larger failure at the regional level to “manage” our borders in South Asia?

First, a short note on the situation along our borders from the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the border between India and Myanmar. But for the exception of Indo-Nepal border, rest of the borders, including the maritime border between India and Sri Lanka remains volatile. Many in India consider that even the Indo-Nepal border may remain without violence, there is so much of smuggling human and goods across this border.

What is wrong with our borders? Perhaps, the right question would be: what is wrong in our approach towards the border?

True, the borders in South Asia are artificial. They were created artificially during and after the British rule, to serve the colonial purpose of an imperial power. Undoubtedly, the creation of border across the nations, across the communities and at times even across the families by an outside power has played a substantial role in the subsequent problems. But to blame everything on history and on the British is a part of an escapist mentality; it only externalize our failure to pursue a coherent strategy, and more importantly, our failure to understand what is a border.

Blaming everything on the British undermines how communities lived in this region before the arrival of East India Company to the Mughal courts. It is not that the entire region lived under one roof, peacefully and politically. We were divided under multiple kingdoms, monarchies, tribes and clans. Any casual reading of the Silk Route linking China with Russia and the Grand Trunk Road (before the advent of British) linking Bengal with Kabul will reveal the movement of people and goods passing through different political systems, monarchies and fiefdoms. Besides the above, there was a large swathe of lawless lands all over the region, where chaos prevailed, thanks to the bandit gangs and certain tribes.

Clearly, there were divisions and the political boundaries kept shifting between monarchies and at times between two rulers of the same family. As the story of “chits” would reveal in the case between India and Bangladesh, even a game of cards or a drunken gambling between two local rulers would result in the change of territories and boundaries!

So, what is the moral of the story? It is simple. True, the British drew the boundaries arbitrarily, but the problems we witness today are not only because of that reason. Over the last six decades, we as a Nation and we as a State have failed to understand what the border is, and how to manage it.

First and foremost, we see the borders in South Asia, purely as a “territorial” line and a military issue. We have failed to see them as a region inhabited by people, and not just mountains, rivers and land. This is the case not only in India, but all through the region, starting from Afghanistan to Myanmar.

Second, we have become “protective”, “insular” and “negative” about our borders. The general perception is, they need to be “protected” and “guarded”; as a result, we have started stationing troops, erecting barbed wires, building border posts, and more importantly drawing them in maps. Undoubtedly, all the above guarding the border through troops and fence, defending them diplomatically at the international level through regular publication of our own maps, or rejecting what was drawn by the others are an essential function of any State. No State or government can think otherwise. Agreed.

However, what cannot be understood is perceiving the borders only through the above spectrum. Our approach towards our borders is ahistorical. In a sense, though there were boundaries all through the histories, howsoever nebulous they were, they were not as “hard” as they have become now. Rather the “borders” acted as “bridges” between the two regions. While politically and militarily the borders were protected, at the social and economic levels, there were continuous engagements. In fact, the people in the borders acted as the biggest bridge between two institutions whether monarchies or kingdoms.

True, some kingdoms tried to build a huge wall even at that time like the Great Wall of China, or those huge walls built by the Rajput Kings in Rajasthan. But these were built to prevent marauding armies and plundering tribes and not to prevent the movement of people and goods. Besides, in the history of human construction, no wall or fence from the Great Wall of China to the technologically sophisticated US-Mexican border have completed stopped the movement of people from one side to the other.

Along with people, there was also movement of goods and ideas. From poetry to religion, there was a continuous movement of men, myths and legends across the boundaries. How did Buddhism enter into Tibet and spread all the way upto Japan? How did Biriyani and Kabab came into the Indian sub-continent from Persia and Central Asian regions, and spread even to South India, that today we have a “Hyderabadi” biriyani? How did a Mongolian demon come to Diskit in Ladakh? 
This is where our primary problem lies in our approach to the borders. We define it purely in “political” terms and what to protect the same through “military” efforts. We do not see our borders as “bridges” inhabited by people.

Does this mean, the “borders” have to go, and we should envision a “borderless” society? Hardly. Borders can never disappear between the nations, especially between nation-states, as we see them in the post-Westphalian prism.

Borders will stay. But, we can see them as bridges. We can pursue strategies that would make borders as a link between one system to another. Again, such an approach is not illogical and ahistorical. It has happened, and has happened in the recent past. After being the centre of two “World” Wars in a span of three decades, Europe today is the best example of how borders could be managed. After being hostile to each other for centuries and generations, today the Schengen visa means, a non-European can enter through France and exit via Germany, after visiting Swizerland, Belgium and the Netherlands! None of the above countries have abandoned their border politically, but made them as bridges.

The borders in South Asia can be protected, only by making them as social bridges. Any other attempt to “manage” them by making it insular and using only military means will only increase its political volatility and the subsequent violence.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir