In border claims, reimagining South Asia’s boundaries

Even during this period of social distancing and public lockdown, claims and counterclaims over territories in and around the Kalapani region (located at the tri-junction between northern India, western Nepal and southern China/Tibet) have resurfaced to become an issue that has embroiled India and Nepal in a political debate; it is now gravitating towards a confrontational trend of popular politics. Therefore, it is pertinent to look at our South Asian mentalities as to how such disputes are “handled” rather than “addressed” within the given dispensation of South Asian statecraft.

State as sole arbiter

One of the major problems of South Asian politics is that it has to flow from within a state-centric paradigm. State-centrism, within the assumption of a South Asia, has given the state structure the propriety to be the sole arbiter of disputes, if any, among communities and regions falling within the territorial limits of nation states. It is the state that articulates, defines, and represents “national” interests in negotiations with other states. Experience suggests that states in South Asia consecrate political boundaries as the “natural” shield even in the arbitration of South Asian affairs. Interestingly, this “realist” fashion of statecraft happens to be the dominant South Asian pattern within which territorial boundaries are valued more than lives, livelihoods and the well-being of the people located at the edges of nation states. “Patriotism” looms large as and when inter-state relationships are viewed through the statist lens, although “jingoism” might be missing. Myopic hostility, real or imagined, is used as the governing principle in the arbitration of territorial disputes across South Asia.

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Contested idea

Basically, the term “region” seems to be a contested idea in a South Asian context as none of the South Asian states has ever recognised and respected the idea of regional identity or regional politics, while becoming suspicious of such natural cleavages in politics. Given that this is a reality, how could one even think of South Asia as a region to reckon with? One must understand that South Asia is perhaps the most natural regional grouping of states around the world. And, at the same time, it is also the most difficult and contested grouping. South Asia needs to be rethought, not as a region of states, but as a region of regions. As such it demonstrates itself more as a borderland that needs to be cultivated out of contact zones which exist beyond the limits of territorial boundaries shared by the member-states.

Life here is fluid

Such a perspective is necessary in order to address the contemporary crisis that has emerged from the Kalapani dispute. There is a need to go beyond the popular debates (couched in the language of “myopic hostility”) revolving around such “troubling” questions such as: how much area has been “encroached” upon by which state and on what basis. Such questions appear to be “normal” in the way a “statist paradigm” deals with the issue; but they seem to be “troubling”, if not “haunting”, questions to those who are to maintain their lifeworld at those zones which are inexplicable to a “realist” or a “neo-realist” statist paradigm.

South Asian life, essentially at the edges of the nation state, is bound to be fluid because the boundary, which confirms the territorial limits of a nation state, is at the same time the affirmed threshold of another nation state. In a certain sense, the people living at the edges of nation states within South Asia do not actually belong to any of the two nation states. Or in other words, they belong to both the states at the same time. Non-sedentary practices define their life courses, while switching positionalities animate their aspiration of belonging. Plurality, differences and inclusivity bring coherence to borderland ontology; they defy the logic of singular, unifying, exclusive identities that the nation states privilege.

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Impact on cooperation

Howsoever real the “realist” positions may be, borderlands act as natural vessels to de-essentialise the statist paradigm. As places of habitation, such spaces are more real than what the “realist” positions of statecraft might make out of them — for those who live in them. Administrative treaties and tribunals represent them as spatial categories; but as lived spaces, they hardly fit into the protocols of a statist paradigm. This is crucial especially when we know that as countries, both India and Nepal not only share cultural and civilisational backgrounds but also an “officially” recognised porous border.

Unless both India and Nepal agree to see the reality beyond the gaze of the statist paradigm, they are going to endanger the future of other regional experiments such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) or the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional initiative. South Asian states need to realise the difference between “regional cooperation” merely as advocacy and as an issue that demands self-approval and self-promotion.

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There is every likelihood that South Asian countries would remain busy in making tall claims of regional cooperation while closing all doors of recognising difference and mutual tolerance. In the commotion that ensues, powerful countries operating within and beyond the orbit of South Asia might become successful in establishing their control by using the same token of “regional cooperation” as an issue of realpolitik.

Both India and Nepal, and for that matter, other South Asian countries need to rethink South Asia as a region of regions before they submit to the enticements of a new language of “regional cooperation” — one that is ontologically empty but materially more rewarding. Region and regional identity are not just issues of “realpolitik” in South Asia; rather, the need is to “officially” accommodate this rather naturally drafted way of doing politics, if we are genuinely concerned about South Asian geopolitics.

Swatahsiddha Sarkar is the Director of the Centre for Himalayan Studies, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling, West Bengal

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 2:11:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-border-claims-reimagining-south-asias-boundaries/article31940545.ece

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