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Review Corner

Book Review : India-China Borderlands

The arduous and tough India-China border extending over 4,056 Km has its complexities and goes far beyond the two capitals of Delhi and Beijing. The book – India China Borderlands : Conversations beyond the Centre – authored by Nimmi Kurian of the Centre for Policy Research seeks to put in perspective Sino-Indian relations at the subregional level. 

She engages in a critical comparative analysis of the developmental thrust that India’s Northeast and China’s western border regions are witnessing under the rubric of Look East Policy and the Western Development strategy. 

The book revolves on border studies along with comparative regionalism in international relations. One of the handicaps is that border studies are rare in this country. The endeavour is to introduce a borderlands perspective. 

Since 1999 Kurian has been involved in a track II initiative to promote subregional cooperation between India’s Northeast, China’s Southwest, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The border regions are steeped in romanticism of the Silk Road lore. If anything it has been a rich slice of economic and cultural history, of sinuous, well beaten tracks that carried goods, peoples, ideas, customs, religions and languages; and of the way it has shaped the daily lives of the people who live across these borders binding them together as one unit. 

An interesting policy shift currently underway in both India and China could offer the potential for just such an alternative vision. The state is today stepping into its periphery armed with a profoundly new discourse of prosperity and an even more formidable arsenal of resources. 

Both Northeast India and Western China are seeing a huge infusion of funds from their respective central governments. The Northeast vision document 2020 prepared under the auspices of the Northeast Council in 2008 sets itself the objective of closing the gap between the region and the rest of the country along with restoring the Northeast to a position of ‘national economic 

eminence’. 

There are compelling reasons for examining the immediate subregion of India and China, a neighbourhood they both share and an area of the world little known or studied. The northeastern region of India has 4500 Km of international borders with only a 22 Km link to the Indian mainland through Siliguri, West Bengal. 

The eight states that constitute Northeastern India account for 7.9 per cent of the geographical area of the country, with a population of 44 million that is only 3.65 per cent of the country’s population. The region is home to immense ethnic diversity with an estimated 160 Scheduled tribes and over 400 tribal and subtribal groupings. 

China’s western region too has a high degree of ethnic diversity where many of the 55 officially recognised ethnic minority groups besides the dominant Han ethnic group live. Ethnic minorities are largely concentrated  in 12 western provinces particularly the five autonomous provinces of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Ningxia and Guangxi. 

It is essential to first locate the subregion in the national narrative, an exercise likely to be fraught with controversies. Order and stability concerns have always ranked high in the security calculus of the decision makers with separatist movements, protests and bouts of violence being endemic features. 

There are an estimated 79 active armed insurgent groups in the Northeast and transborder linkages among these groups have compounded security challenges facing the Indian state. 

The fear of external forces has been a source of constant worry for Beijing too, most evident in the aftermath of the violent protests in Lhasa in 2008 and in Urumqi in 2009. 

The external factor is particularly a salient point for India and China given their long territorial borders. There is tension at the heart of the borderlands that needs to be pushed and foregrounded into any moves to rethink borders as bridges. The problem is that any new discourse on rethinking borders is by and large foisted on an existing narrative of anxiety and insecurity. 

A remapping of the border region as a gateway will be incomplete without first critically engaging with the extant discourse. If these fractured territories are to be restored, creative ways of thinking out of the territorial trap will have to be a first. 

The manner in which India and China address this central tension will be critical to their capacity to start a conversation of change on the borders as well as with each other. Far from being the periphery, Borderlands are uniquely positioned at the intersection of national and cultural crossroads and bring several crossover disciplinary and policy insights. If these are dismissed as illegal or worse and irrelevant, such rich narratives would have no hope of finding entry points into the mainstream discourse. Border communities have to be at the centre of any new rethinking on borderlands. 

Without connecting with the lives of the people who inhabit these spaces, theoritical agendas will remain both unimaginative and reiterative. Asia is said to be ‘ripe for rivalry’ and conflict presumed to be endemic to the region on account of its legacy of unresolved disputes, weak institutional structures, militarisation and nascent state building. 

The borderlands are seen as yet another theatre of growing strategic rivalry between India and China with ethnic insurgencies potentially becoming a part of a new ‘Great Game’ between the two countries. The larger question is whether India’s democratic political alternative to the Chinese model has been a divisive one. 

But a far more fraught issue has been the concern over India as a strategic counterweight to China. 

India’s increasing engagement with the East and Southeast Asia and the implications of this strategic expansion for its national strategy are strong related concerns from China’s point of view. India’s growing role beyond South Asia is clearly perceived by many in China’s strategic community as aimed at curbing China’s role and influence in the region. By and large geo-economic feel good narrative of prosperity, the Indian China border region has tended to remain suspended in a sort of time warp.

The critical role that borders can play in communication, stemming naturally from their being points of contact between different systems, has not been apparent in either discourse or practice in the Indian-China context. 

The book has made a case for a conceptual leap from borders to borderlands and has argued that there is a strong spatial logic which must constitute the core of any conception of subregional cooperation in the region. India and China will have major stakes in how the region is imagined and the kind of order that is likely to emerge. 

Fragmented landscapes provide a wake up call for Indian and Chinese scholars. In creatively defining the signature slogan of borders as gateways will ultimately be a call for India and China to take not just as polities but also as societies. 

To realise such a vision Delhi and Beijing must first quit playing ventriloquist and recognise the ability of the borderlands to speak for itself

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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