‘What is unique about the modern state’s understanding of borders is their presumed impermeability’

Published: January 14, 2016 - 14:26 Updated: January 18, 2016 - 13:06

Farhana Ibrahim is Assistant Professor in the Dept of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Delhi. Her research areas include political anthropology, nationalism and the nation-state, anthropology of religion, Islam, oral histories and so on. Her book, Settlers, Saints and Sovereigns: An Ethnography of State Formation in Western India, was published in 2009. In an interview with Hardnews, Ibrahim spoke about the relevance of borders in contemporary India. Excerpts:


Your work has been on Kutch, a border district between India and Pakistan. Many Indians now know Kutch because of the Gujarat Tourism campaign. Do you think it ironical for Kutch to be advertised as the face of Gujarat’s ‘grand development’? 

It is indeed ironic that the Gujarat Tourism campaign chooses Kutch as one of its advertising hooks. This is because Kutch has had a very ambivalent relationship with Gujarat. The marriage between the two dates only to 1960 when the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines took place. Before this, Kutch always had a distinct identity, culturally contiguous with the neighbouring state of Sindh. During the period of British colonialism in the subcontinent, it was an independent princely state with its own flag, currency and customs duties. It merged into the Indian Union in 1948 and remained, first a ‘Part C’ state, somewhat like a Union Territory of today, and then it was merged into the bilingual Bombay state, prior to linguistic reorganisation. This history makes it surprising that Kutch is one of the centrepieces of the Gujarat Tourism campaign. But I would argue that, more than Kutch as a whole, it is the Rann of Kutch that has been chosen for its symbolic importance as a border area, what the campaign calls the ‘gateway to India’. The Rann Utsav, and other spectacular events, such as the just-concluded conference on national security attended by all the police heads from all over India, and headed by the Prime Minister, also showcases this particular region for its strategic and symbolic importance for Gujarat and the nation-state.


After the 2002 riots, the idea of Gujarati asmita, of a reinforced pride in Gujarati identity, became central in creating an image of Gujarat as a development hub. Does the resurgence of this asmita have any relation to the physical fact of sharing a border with Pakistan? 

I don’t think the reiteration of Gujarati asmita was directly related to the border. Had it been so, one would have found echoes of it in border districts. I have argued that, in fact, the notion of Gujarati asmita was an idiom of regional patriotism that did not particularly include Kutch or Saurashtra. It was the reinscription of Gujarati pride in a specifically Hindu idiom that drew its rationale from those areas that had been the most central to the genocide of 2002. It is important to recall that the idea of Gujarati asmita is not new and it goes back to debates as far back as at least the 19th century over who qualified to be called a Gujarati. The 19th century poet Narmad’s response was that Gujarati regional identity was anchored in those who could speak the Gujarati language and it was inclusive: Hindus, Muslims and Parsis were all included in this definition. During 2002, we saw it being used in a more and more exclusive manner; it became synonymous with Hindutva politics.


One of the ways in which activists and artists have tried to counter the manufactured hatred against Pakistan is by reiterating how similar India and Pakistan are and how they share a common culture, regardless of the border. But are we being a little too hopeful? Has the border caused irreversible changes in subcontinent cultures? 

Borders have always existed to demarcate territories – states, regions, kingdoms or empires. However, there have always been flows across these borders. Merchants, pilgrims, marriage and kinship networks, and shared cultural and linguistic universes ensured that people regularly crossed borders across distinct political dispensations. For example, Kutch and Sindh were never united politically at any time. The two kingdoms fought battles off and on, but at no point were cultural exchange, trade, or kinship ties disrupted. What is unique about the modern state’s understanding of borders in the subcontinent, especially the India-Pakistan border, is its presumed impermeability. As long as the myth of impermeability is propagated, bolstered by mutually hostile nationalist ideologies, we are likely to alter subcontinental culture into discrete and watertight compartments.


How do you see regions carved by artificial borders like those in the Middle East? ‎Can a nation-state be imposed on these geographical constructs which are not founded on ethnicity or linguistic divisions? 

Every border is the product of unique historical circumstances and we must be careful not to extrapolate knowledge from one border to borders in general. As a form of collective representation, the nation suggests shared bases of self-definition such as language or ethnicity. When the state, which is a bureaucratic concept, attempts to impose this homogeneity on an artificially demarcated territorial entity that by definition contains different types of people, there is bound to be conflict. Who speaks in the name of the nation? Who is excluded? The same is true for any nation – indeed, for any form of collective identification. 


Did you find a difference in how borders are imagined in nationalistic idiom on the one hand, and how locals experience borders in their everyday lives? We think of borders as closed frontiers. Does the border in Kutch still have physical or virtual contact points where the border seems to come alive? Is there any cultural transfer still in process? 

The nationalist idiom is always invested in the form of the nation as an eternally good and useful thing. Borders, in this vision, are seen to enclose the nation, to guard and protect its citizens from the ‘outside’, much like a gated residents’ welfare association. From the point of view of those who live in border areas, however, how they experience the border can never be homogenous. It depends on who is experiencing the border, and on the border in question. I can speak only for the Kutch-Sindh border, where some groups, such as Muslim pastoralists, stress trans-border cultural connections with Sindh – through language, poetry and cloth, for instance – while other groups such as Meghwal Hindus who crossed over from Sindh in 1971, are deeply invested in the nationalist idiom of the border. People cannot and do not experience the border in uniform ways.


You have written about how development of borders becomes an excuse for surveillance. Would you like to say something more on the relationship? 

I have not said that borders are an excuse for surveillance. Surveillance exists in the modern state regardless of one’s proximity to physical borders.  Having said that, borders have always needed to be policed, regardless of the kind of state we are dealing with. Medieval empires were as busy collecting information about suspicious border crossers as we might expect the modern state to be.


Do you see similar patterns in what is happening at borders in different parts of India – at our borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar? 

Every border has its own history and set of local factors influencing it. I would not like to comment on other borders, as we should not generalise from one border to another. As I have argued, even along a single border, people’s experiences cannot be homogenised.  


This story is from print issue of HardNews