Barbwire borders

As boundary walls go up around the world, the open Nepal-India border should be a model

People freely pass across the border at Madar in Siraha district. Photo: SURENDRA KAMATI

Across the world, borders are being increasingly fenced. The US-Mexico border wall is being elongated to 1,200km to keep migrants out. Israel has walled itself from Palestine. The floodlit India-Pakistan iron curtain can be seen from space at night. Bangladesh is almost completely fenced off from India. 

Now, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah has announced that a barbed wire fence is going up along India’s 1,643km border with Burma. The announcement has raised fears that it will disrupt age-old cultural and family ties that predate British rule.

Ethnic violence in Manipur, as well as anti-government insurgencies on both sides have made the border a flashpoint. Even so, the barbed wire proposal has spread despair among residents of the Indian states of Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram that border Burma. 

Most of the India-Burma border is dense mountain forest, and the scene of epic battles between the Japanese and British forces in which many Nepali soldiers died. A barbed wire fence is not just difficult to build in this terrain, it will be hard and expensive to maintain. 

New Delhi has security concerns, but here in the Burmese borderlands there is worry that families and communities will be torn apart. This boundary is similar to the Nepal-India border, where there are marriage ties, families own property on both sides. 

There is some debate about the need for a border fence in India, but in Burma’s controlled society there is not even a murmur. A fence will likely block supply lines for rebels fighting the repression of the Burmese military junta. 

Hard borders separate the territories of nation states, and in doing so they also divide people that were once one. Over time, borders tend to slowly erase these historical bonds and a collective cultural lived experience.

A national boundary is already an artificial construct, barbed wire makes it even more artificial. Politicians fanning populist nationalism are obsessed with border security, and want to build walls to barricade historical people-to-people ties.

Nations and their rulers, even if they are world powers, are ultra possessive about territory and take umbrage at maps that do not accurately represent their claim. There is something almost primordial about this mindset, like wild animals marking and defending the perimeters of their domain. 

Ever since I started writing this column from Birganj in Nepali Times last year, I have been trying to find a Nepali word that describes the cultural, social, economic, ecological ties that bind the peoples of the borderlands. 

The best word I have come up with is सीमांचल (Simanchal) which by coincidence is almost an exact translation of this column series: Borderlines. The word has the connotation of a political demarcation, it denotes citizenship, but it does not allude to any barbed wire fence, it means being able to crisscross a national boundary without any fear or hindrance. 

Such a borderless world now exists between Schengen member countries, but then Fortress Europe is now building a dozen new ‘berlin Walls’ to keep outsiders out, while giving its own citizens complete, but one-sided, freedom of movement in and out. 

There may be an international border running between them, but Nepalis and Indians of  the सीमांचल speak the same language, observe the same festivals, and marry each other. Border people have an identity different from the centre. A border may have been defined by a treaty (usually after war) to separate people, but people of the borderlands keep transboundary ties strong.

Read also: Nepal-India trans-boundary bonds, Chandra Kishore

A barbed wire fence arouses fear and suspicion, but the people of Simanchal spread hope and trust. The capital sees the border as the line where its jurisdiction ends, borderland people see it as the place where sovereignty begins. The Simanchal melds political and cultural identity into one.

When the nation state is weak, and the centre cannot hold, it is the periphery that defends the border. They are the true writers of history.

In 2018, India and Burma agreed on free movement for people living up to 16km on either side. This made it convenient for Burmese border dwellers to come to India for trade, education, medical service. But there was also inflated security concern about refugees, human traffickers, weapons, and drugs coming across. 

Former Nepal-based Indian diplomat and expert on the Northeast, John S Shilshi who is himself from Manipur, told me recently: “As long as local sentiments are not addressed, this barb wire border fence will not work. It could also go against India’s own ‘Look East’ policy.” 

Although the Nepal-India border is seen as a model for openness, there are new challenges. The Vajpayee government stationed SSB border police along the Nepal border, and now with elections approaching, another BJP government has further tightened security. Meanwhile, extremism and religious intolerance is seeping across.  

Bilateral nation-to-nation ties between India and Nepal are always tangled, there is a move to build local initiatives. While we wait for Kathmandu and New Delhi to sort things out border cities on both sides are getting together on their own: Biratnagar-Jogbani, Birganj-Raxaul, Nepaganj-Rupedia, Bhairawa-Sonauli.

Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based commentator who writes this monthly column Borderlines for Nepali Times.

Chandra Kishore


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