Do we in South Asia have more trouble with our borders, boundaries and frontiers than other parts of the world, and, if so, why?
I think not. Objectively speaking, even subregions where modern boundaries are entirely artificial colonial creations—parts of Africa, west Asia—seem to have less trouble with their frontiers. They seem to find enough other issues to fight their wars over; seldom is it territory, unlike the Indian experience. All independent India’s wars have involved territory in one way or another.
I can think of two broad reasons why this is so: our inheritance and our present situation in South Asia.
Theory vs practice
Theory draws a distinction between boundaries on the one hand, and frontiers or borders on the other. A boundary is a line demarcated on the ground and drawn on a map; the frontier is an indeterminate zone at the edge of a territory, a zone where life shifts back and forth, a transition between two or more regions, cultures and peoples. A frontier is thus fluid and shifts over time. Frontiers are then battle zones, subject to dispute.
The idea of fixed lines or boundaries is an early modern European creation and has been under attack ever since in practice. From the day the Westphalian system of state boundaries was agreed in Europe (in 1648 to end the Thirty Years War), it was undermined in practice.
The one practice that stood out throughout this instability was that of boundaries rather than frontiers, of the imposition of abstract cartographic lines on indeterminate frontier zones. International power politics substantially redistributed territories and even altered sovereignties, but boundaries were nonetheless nearly precise. Outside Europe, of course, no such precision was known or attempted by Europeans, with the advance of colonial settlement and imperial conquest, and the retreat of pastoral nomadism. The needs of empire were different.
Other civilisations had a more practical approach to borders and boundaries. Universalist empires like imperial China of course saw no boundaries in All-Under-Heaven or tianxia. Indian polities, starting from a different world view, also dealt with the reality of frontiers and zones rather than lines. You only have to think of the location of Ashoka’s rock edicts, well beyond areas he ruled directly but well within areas he influenced. Through Mughal times and in the 18th century, the frontier shifted between the worlds of Iran, Turan and Hind (Gommans, 2018, p. 17; Palat, 2015). Historically, the Indian sub-continent was a space with permeable frontiers, constantly shifting in response to political, economic and ecological changes.
The British Raj in India was ambivalent both in theory and practice on the sanctity of boundaries and was very aware of the fluid and shifting nature of the frontier.
Curzon is probably the best example of ambiguity and evolution in Raj attitudes to boundaries. He marked in his person the transition from an imperial to a geopolitical vision of the frontier. As governor-general in Calcutta, Curzon was full of mobile frontiers and plans to extend influence in Tibet, Central Asia, Iran, and the Indian Ocean, besides upholding paramountcy over the princely states in India. But from London as foreign secretary, he was busy drawing boundaries to make and unmake states in East Europe and demoting them to the status of protectorates (Palat, 2018, p. 10).
Nehru’s geopolitics of frontiers
Nehru was opposed to geopolitics and hard realism but was realistic in his understanding of boundaries and frontiers. He saw the impermanence of borders in practice, even though his entire 17 years as prime minister of India were spent on boundary disputes with Pakistan and China, in an inconclusive struggle to define them permanently. Yet he periodically reminded the public that boundaries were impermanent, fluid, and anachronisms to the age of air transport, wireless communication, and high population mobility in an integrating world.
South Asia today is composed of old nations in new states, with porous borders, where nationalism is still a work in progress. Every boundary has cross-border ethnicities. These factors combine to make our boundaries contested, and often meaningless or unenforceable in practice.
This situation is compounded by the economics of globalisation, by new technologies, expanding interests, which also make borders porous and boundaries meaningless.
Mid-20th century reality and state formation in South Asia
Many of South Asia’s issues with boundaries are a result of the ongoing attempt to create modern states in ancient nations whose geographical boundaries do not match those of the new states. We are transitioning to Westphalian states—hard sovereignty, precise boundaries — very different from traditional theory and the practice of statecraft in this part of the world. Some traditional polities (India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China) have made the transition; others (Tibet) did not. New states were formed—Pakistan, Bangladesh.
Two phenomena stand out in the modern political evolution of the subcontinent: The areas bordering it, such as Afghanistan and Tibet, (the buffers of an earlier era, that Raj coinage), have been occupied or contended over by one or another great power. The mountainous borderlands have now been pierced from the north, first by the Soviets and then by China.
Secondly, since 1947 new restraints on movement have been imposed inside and outside the subcontinent. Frontiers have congealed into boundaries in some places, but in all of them the reality of their porosity, territorial and border disputes, remain as sources of political friction and military conflict in the region (Ispahani, 1989, ch. 4).
We have a history of partitions, not just the slapdash partition of India and Pakistan and therefore of Punjab and Bengal which attracts most attention, but also of Assam and of the borderlands with Burma/Myanmar. For example, Berenice Guyot-Rechard points out rightly that there is nothing natural about the division between India and Burma, now Myanmar, and that colonial boundaries divided and marginalised indigenous peoples (2020). Doctrines of “buffer zones” reduced the inhabitants to cyphers and contributed to preventing Tibet and Afghanistan from evolving into modern states.
In essence, the problem today is that the colonial state and its successors were and are devoted to the idea of the border as a fixed, dividing line, and drew boundaries to make the state enterprise more efficient. In this process, the states were blind to other factors such as community, livelihood, and ethnic and other links among local peoples, and to links between them and the land.
The pursuit of a boundary as a fixed dividing line has been accompanied by violence, conflict and people’s suffering both within and between states. The violence on the Assam-Mizoram border, and continuing demands to partition Manipur can be seen as consequences of the partition of Assam. Indeed, Assam has been partitioned repeatedly—Sylhet’s “transfer” to East Pakistan, and then in the 1960s and 70s the creation of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh. As Guyot-Rechard points out, partition as an attempt to solve deep-rooted political, identity and socio-economic issues ends up creating the conditions of its own reproduction—or at the very least, separatist movements.
I am also convinced that our mental maps and concepts limit us and act as straitjackets. We need to change our partitioned mindsets.
Make boundaries irrelevant
So, what should we in South Asia do in these circumstances, when boundaries are zero-sum, exclusivist, but necessary markers of individual sovereignties and cherished symbols of nationalism, while borderlands are our inclusive commons?
My answer is to build clear, mutually agreed boundaries where both sides work to police, control immigration and suppress criminal activities. But at the same time, ensure that in aspects of the people’s livelihood, that same boundary is not an impediment, using various means like inland waterways, electric grids, road, rail and data connectivity, border haats, and so on.
In other words, make boundaries irrelevant without changing them. For south Asia, from Afghanistan to Myanmar and the Indian Ocean region, I am convinced that this is an idea whose time has come. And this could be done without touching the legal sanctity of existing boundaries where they exist but by changing their practical impact. Today’s technologies actually make seamless connectivity possible without compromising security, through GPS tracking, fixed scanners at border crossings and the use of barcodes for identification.
Some, particularly Indians, may ask what about boundaries in adversarial relationships like those that India has with China and Pakistan? In such cases, this approach would require, at a minimum, peace on the border, a positive equilibrium in the bilateral political relationship, and, ideally, a settled boundary. Is Beijing or Islamabad (or Delhi) willing to trust and empower their own communities in the borderlands? Not yet, I suspect, but this is one possible future. The present arrangements on these borders are clearly producing less than optimal outcomes in terms of both security and prosperity for the people and governments involved.
We must also recognise that the world seems to be going in the other direction, trying, I believe in vain, to draw clear boundaries and enforce them in the frontiers between states. At least seventy walls, it is estimated, now zigzag across the surface of the earth (Volner, 2019, p. 204). In south Asia we are building walls and fences in a region that has never known them in history. In no case, however, have walls and fences produced the outcomes they promise, as shown by the Indian experience with Pakistan, or the history of China’s Great Wall.
It is time that we thought of better and more productive alternatives.
Shivshankar Menon is a Distinguished Fellow at Centre for Social and Economic Progress (formerly Brookings India), New Delhi, and a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University. He served as the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from January 2010 to May 2014. He tweets @ShivshankaMenon. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)