With the Rise of Borders at Home and Abroad, the Writing Is on the Wall

It's not just Donald Trump's wall – borders, from physical fences to invisible yet constantly dividing historical burdens, are increasingly coming up around the world.

Borders today are increasingly contentious, violent, and securitised spaces. Since 2015, the world has witnessed a rapid increase in the number of new border fences being constructed in a short span. Over the last three years alone, a staggering 63 new border fences have been constructed or are in the process of being constructed.

The once borderless Schengen zone now has border fences erected between member states and stringent border controls within the European Union. The divisive Brexit vote, based largely on the fear of immigrants, has altogether altered the very shape of Fortress Europe, giving rise to new questions about Britain’s borders and immigration policies as well as the very idea of Europe.

Across the Atlantic, the cacophonous chants to ‘build that wall’ between the United States and Mexico have materialised into the Muslim ban and atrocious border wall prototyping, and most recently, the brutal policy of separating immigrant children and families.

Closer home, in South Asia, the pernicious Rohingya genocide has led to the creation of the largest refugee camp in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh. Adding to this, border violence between India and Pakistan reached an all-time high in 2017 with the highest number of incidences of border violence.

These illustrations underline the fact that the once popular notion at the turn of the 21st century of a globalised and borderless world has come into question.

Rohingya refugees react as aid is distributed in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Reinstated, redrawn, and rebuilt

Today, borders are being reinstated, redrawn, and rebuilt. In remote villages that have shared culture, languages and relations, the monstrosity of concertina wire, tall fences or border walls are dividing two sides. The recently completed border between Turkey and Syria boasts of “an electronic layer [which] consists of close-up surveillance systems, thermal cameras, land surveillance radar, remote-controlled weapons systems, command-and-control centres, line-length imaging systems and seismic and acoustic sensors. Furthermore, the advanced technology layer of the project includes wide area surveillance, laser destructive fiber-optic detection, surveillance radar for drone detection, jammers and sensor-triggered short distance lighting systems”.

Border technology, the development of newer forms of surveillance whether that includes drones and thermal imaging devices, or even the growing number of ‘volunteers’ patrolling the borders between the US and Mexico for instance, are indicative of this growing industry of division.

However, if we are to critically examine what shapes the current border politics and thinking, it is vital to ask a few questions. What makes borders desirable? In a world that is arguably so digitally and economically connected, where goods, services and finance travel so freely, why is it so hard for humans to move?

To address these issues, one cannot ignore the impact of 9/11 and terrorism on global security practices. That said, the shift from traditional forms of violence to more dispersed forms of attacks like 26/11 attack in Mumbai and more recently, the Paris attacks in 2015 have displaced fears from the distant border to the nation’s heartland. It has infused security practices into our daily lives. Things like airport-like security at cinema halls, malls, and hotels. X-ray baggage screening and body checks have become mundane rituals of urban life in India.

These changes have also influenced the ways in which border studies too has interpreted the border as a concept. The traditional notion of the border, understood as a line in the sand located at the territorial limits of the nation-state, has been increasingly challenged.

For instance, scholars like Étienne Balibar and Nick Vaughan-Williams argue that borders have not only vacillated, but are also no longer where they used to be. Thinking of borders as verbs and not nouns, the emphasis from borders to bordering has brought to light new locations, practices, and actors. Borders are also practiced and enlivened at airports, train-stations, detention centres, visa forms, border-towns and complex algorithms that profile individuals.

More so, borders are increasingly practiced and performed daily, this pervasiveness of the notion of the border is both intriguing and perverse. For instance, individuals in towns and cities within 100 miles of the border can be subjected to random border checks and forced to produce their legal documents 100 miles inside the United States’ territory. Thereby, this dislodges the border from the border line to the border-town.

The recent Windrush scandal in the UK questions the legitimacy of its Caribbean immigrant descendants and their legitimacy in British society. This issue has successfully pulled the border from the periphery to the centre, but also raised questions about identity and citizenship in Brexit Britain. Furthermore, the everyday bordering of international students at British universities is also demonstrative of the new role of academics performing duties of border guards. In a sense, the question of where the border is located is also being transformed into who is performing these roles.

Lines of control

In terms of understandings India’s relationship with its borders, it is first important to locate India’s border thinking within its historical and political contexts. Historically speaking, the conflation of borders as a problem for postcolonial India can be linked with Partition and the ongoing territorial dispute over Kashmir.

A 1909 map of the British Indian Empire. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

While the inevitable association of borders in South Asia with the Partition, wars, and mortality cannot be done away with, it is equally necessary to move beyond these congenital associations. Since the teleological link between the creation of the postcolonial nation states is seen in relation to bloody partitions, be it in 1947 when India was divided to create East and West Pakistan, or in 1971, when West Pakistan lost East Pakistan to the creation of Bangladesh.

The notion of territorial loss is deeply engrained in the breaking and forming of nations, identity and political states in South Asia.In a way, the historical burden of this has also led to an overly nationalist understanding of the nation whereby territory is sacralised into blood and soil. More notably, the notion of Bharat Mata or the anthropomorphic distortion of India as Mother India renders the borders of the state as highly emotional and evocative issues.

Border scholar Jason Cons defines India’s borders as ‘sensitive spaces’, where he explains sensitivity in terms of both political sensitivity as well as places that are associated with unexplainable fear and anxiety.

This sensitivity, or what Sankaran Krishna defines as cartographic anxiety typical of a postcolonial nation, state runs deep in psyches of the state, polity and people. Whether one considers the hypersensitivity to maps and the depiction of India’s borders in foreign publications like the Economist, the capturing of alleged Pakistani spy-pigeons, or the fact that India’s borders with Pakistan are not only electrocuted and flood-lit but are also visible even from space, elucidate the extent of border fixation and anxiety.

In many ways, the physical unfixity of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan is what has rendered this border-line fixed in the minds of politicians and citizens alike whereby the borders of Bollywood and cricket remain firmly outlined for Pakistanis.

Borders of postcolonial India too are not limited to their territorial location and material articulation but today are subtly articulated through the increasingly exclusionary narratives of the nation sifting through those who belong and those who do not. The unofficial housing apartheid that occurs in urban spaces against minority religious communities, the notion of chhota-Pakistans in cities, or the bogey of ‘Love Jihad’, and attacks on ‘anti-nationals’ consistently outline stereotypes, prejudice and everyday forms of bordering.

Although they lack the infrastructure of fences and guards, they still perpetuate invisible fences of difference and division.

Prithvi Hirani was recently awarded a PhD in International Politics from Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Her thesis is titled ‘The Border, City, Diaspora: The Physical and Imagined Borders of South Asia’.