The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia

The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia

by Willem van Schendel

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The Bengal Borderland constitutes the epicentre of the partition of British India. Yet while the forging of international borders between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma (the 'Bengal Borderland') has been a core theme in Partition studies, these crucial borderlands have, remarkably, been largely ignored by historians. While South Asia is poorly represented in borderland studies, the study of South Asian borderlands appears indispensable because here a major and intensely contested experiment in twentieth-century border making took place. Without direct reference to the borderlands as a historical reality it is not possible to understand how post-colonial societies in South Asia developed, the extent to which South Asian economies actually became bounded by borders, or the ways in which national identities became internalized. In examining this crucial region, Willem van Schendel challenges existing assumptions about the nature of relationships between people, place, identity and culture, and raises particularly urgent questions in the context of globalization, with its predictions of the 'end of geography' and a borderless homogenous world. This book will interest historians, geographers, political scientists and economists, as well as South Asianists and migration experts, and will appeal to academics, students and practitioners.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843311454
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 04/01/2004
Series: Anthem South Asian Studies
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 440
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Willem van Schendel is Professor of Modern Asian History at the University of Amsterdam and heads the Asia department of the International Institute of Social History at Amsterdam. Formerly, he held the chair of Comparative History at Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

Read an Excerpt

The Bengal Borderland

Beyond State and Nation in South Asia

By Willem van Schendel

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Willem van Schendel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-145-4



On a border road in India, a truckload of border guards encounter a rickshaw. They quarrel over who has the right of way. The guards give the rickshaw-puller a beating and then open fire, killing five bystanders and wounding two. In protest, local political parties declare a general strike. Later, in Delhi, borderland Members of Parliament accuse the guards of habitually humiliating and assaulting the border population, but the Deputy Speaker concludes a fierce parliamentary debate with the words:

We are proud of our [Border Guards] and other Forces. The Members cannot irresponsibly utter anything and everything on the Forces ... I will not allow you to say anything more ... Nothing will go on record.

This is an everyday story from one of the world's many borderlands. It points to the complicated relationship between borderlanders and their rulers. This book explores that relationship. It looks at what happens when a border is imposed on an unsuspecting population, how a new borderland takes shape, and what relationships develop between borderlanders and their states.

Borders come about in many ways. Some are like earthquakes. When the earth's tectonic plates move, the ground heaves and roars. Houses crumble, trees snap and people run around in panic. A deep fissure suddenly separates one half of the landscape from the other. And then it is all over. An eerie silence hangs over a land that is forever scarred, broken, double. A little later, aid teams rush to the site; they comfort the victims and help them pick up their lives. In the media, seismologists explain that earthquakes are both inevitable and unpredictable. And then the world moves on. When the world's political tectonic plates move, they create fissures known as international borders. Many of these come about in ways that, for those who experience them, are just as overpowering, devastating and unpredictable as earthquakes. But there are no political seismologists and no border aid teams, and what happens during and after such upheavals is little known. The study of borders is a curiously neglected no man's land.

The Bengal borderland

This book deals with the territorial and human consequences of a border whose birth, had it been an earthquake, would have registered way up on the Richter scale. We look at the fissure itself — a huge territorial gash of over 4,000 kilometres — and at how it became part of the everyday lives of millions of people living near it. This border separating India, East Pakistan (Bangladesh from 1971) and Burma became the backbone of a new borderland to which I refer as the 'Bengal borderland' because it bisects and encircles a region historically known as Bengal (see Appendix, Figure 2). The story of the Bengal borderland is important for those who wish to understand social change in South Asia, but this book also aims at linking it to broader concerns in social theory, particularly to the study of borders and border communities, and to how we conceptualize social space.

In August 1947, the tectonic plates of South Asian politics shifted abruptly. British colonial rule in India came to an end, the colony was split and the Bengal borderland was born with such suddenness that nobody actually knew its exact location till several days later. Nothing had foreshadowed its geographical position, and its creation took the people who now found themselves to be living in a borderland by surprise. As one of them recalled, it was a time of great confusion:

"You should realize that the separation happened all of a sudden and people were not well informed. Many people thought that it was only temporary and that the two countries would one day be one again." Only gradually did it dawn on most of them what it meant to be living near an international border. "They turned our world upside down ... Nobody asked us, we did not know what was happening till much later ... Our lives were amputated."

This book explains how these borderlanders and their states coped with a new, previously unimagined reality. We will see that the border remained a highly emotive issue: even today, its very location is contested in many places and there are groups who refuse to accept its legitimacy. The new border created a volatile region, linking India, Bangladesh and Burma, that has experienced wars, border conflicts, regional revolts and many forms of everyday resistance.

The story of this region does not support the idea that the world is becoming borderless as it globalizes. On the contrary, the Bengal borderland is increasingly being policed, patrolled, fenced and land-mined. And yet, throughout its existence, it has been the scene of large transnational flows of labour migrants and refugees, of trade in many goods, and of exchanges of ideas and information.

Most of these flows were unauthorized by the states concerned, indicating continual struggles between the powers of territorial control and those of cross-border networking.

The changing social geographies of the borderland were bound up not only with these struggles, but also with a multiplicity of identities, old and new, that borderlanders juggled in their efforts to make sense of their new situation and shape a future for themselves. These in turn deeply influenced borderland culture, the policies of the new states, and the transnational networks facilitating cross-border flows. All these reasons make the Bengal borderland an important example of a modern borderland: thoroughly modern in the sense that it was created less than 60 years ago, it reverberates with the tensions noticeable in contemporary borderlands all over the globe.

Why study borderlands?

For a long time social scientists showed no more than a limited interest in the study of borderlands. In recent years, however, a concern with the processes of global restructuring has led to a perceptible increase in research on borderlands all over the world. Today, the study of borderlands is providing new insights into the relationship between modern states and transnational linkages.

Borderland studies can tell us much about states because borders form a clear link between geography and politics. The state's pursuit of territoriality — its strategy to exert complete authority and control over social life in its territory — produces borders and makes them into crucial markers of the success and limitations of that strategy. The ubiquity of international borders in today's world is a testimony to the importance of state territoriality: a recent survey calculated that there are 226,000 kilometres of land border worldwide, more than five times the earth's circumference. Territoriality is inherently conflictual and tends to generate rival territorialities. Hence, borders need to be constantly maintained and socially reproduced through particular practices and discourses that emphasize the 'other.' Territoriality actively encourages the 'zero-sum games' that characterize geopolitical, national and border conflicts.

But borders are also reproduced by transnational reconfiguration. They play a central role in regulating transnational flows and are in turn deeply influenced by them. As social scientists turn their attention from the 'virtual' world of global investment and speculation to the 'real' world of cross-border linkages and inter-territorial economies, borderlands emerge as core objects of transnational research.

Increasingly, this new interest in borders merges with work on identity, ethnicity, citizenship and culture. The study of border cultures (or cultural landscapes that transcend political borders) is necessary in order to shift the focus from state strategies and global economic change to the people living in the borderland. Borderlanders' perceptions, practices, identities and discourses are central to the social reproduction, maintenance or subversion of borders. How do people in borderlands negotiate cultural elements to symbolize their membership in local, regional, national and international communities? How do they juggle multiple identities in the midst of great change? How do these identities impinge on the formation of states, nations and transnational networks? Cross-border cultural landscapes cannot be 'inferred or deduced from a knowledge of the political and economic structures of the states at their borders', but are a matter of empirical research.

Finally, studying the transformation of international borderlands in a period of global reterritorialization requires a historical approach. The historicity of borderland space is obvious. Whether borderlands are created with earthquake-like suddenness or not, their formal beginnings are usually well documented, and so is their formal demise. As spatialized social relations, borderlands may be long-lived; indeed, they may have an afterlife well beyond the states that created them. During their existence, they are changing geographies, shaped and reconfigured by social struggles and negotiations whose outcome is not predetermined. Mapping and comparing these transformations requires historical research.

At another level, the historicity of borderlands lies in their symbolic uses. They are often portrayed as the material embodiment of a state's (or nation's) history as encapsulating its struggle for sovereignty and self-determination. As such, dominant historical narratives may sacralize borderlands and make them pawns in the 'performance' of sovereignty. Borderlanders may develop counter-narratives (e.g. irredentist ones) in which the historical significance of the border that separates them is minimized. In other words, borderlands are often battlefields of historiography, of the politics of selective remembering and forgetting.

Shaking off the 'iron grip' of the nation-state

The study of borderlands can play an important role in rethinking wider social theory, especially with regard to how we conceptualize social space. In the social sciences, it has long been customary to imagine the world as divided into distinct 'societies', 'cultures' and 'economies', and to think of these as fixed to specific territories. This is not surprising given the fact that the social sciences developed during the period in which the modern interstate system came into being. This is a system based on the territorialization of state power 'through which each state strives to exercise exclusive sovereignty over a delineated, self-enclosed geographical space.' Consequently, the modern state employs a strategy of territoriality, a spatial strategy to 'affect, influence, or control resources and people, by controlling area.' It is a form of enforcement that involves the active use of geographic space to classify social phenomena.

This strategy of territorializing state power and sovereignty has proved to be very successful: during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a web of contiguous state territories spread to cover the entire globe. Social scientists were so deeply influenced by this development that their work came to reflect a territorialist epistemohgy that entailed a

transposition of the historically unique territorial structure of the modern interstate system into a generalized model of sociospatial organization, whether with reference to political, societal, economic, or cultural processes.

Adopting this model had far-reaching consequences for how social scientists studied the world. Most of them took state territories as a 'preconstituted, naturalized, or unchanging scale of analysis', and their work tended towards a methodological territorialism that analysed all spatial forms and scales as being self-enclosed geographical units. In this way, their social imagination was stifled by the 'iron grip of the nation state'; they fell into a 'territorial trap.'

In recent years, a rebellion has been gathering against this state -centred epistemology and its commitment to 'received' units. It opposes the idea that the modern state's territorial form can be a general model for societies, cultures and economies. Certainly, each state claims to produce a 'space wherein something is accomplished, a space, even, where something is brought to perfection: namely, a unified and hence homogeneous society.' But this claim should not be confused with its realization. This is what social scientists do when they treat states as the conceptual starting point for their investigations, when they accept states as the rules of the game. The inherited model of state-defined societies, cultures and economies has become highly problematic and social theorists are devising new models. Studying borderlands — zones within which international borders lie — can be one way of challenging the inherited model, because the only way to study borderlands adequately is to understand them as much more than merely the margins of state territories. Borderland practices challenge the inherited model because they are based on ways of imagining power and space that differ from the 'heartland' practices that underlie much social science theorizing. Social scientists have tended to marginalize borderland practices, making them appear far more peripheral than they really are. As we shall see, borderland dynamics have a direct and fundamental impact on the shape of states, heartland practices and transnational linkages.

A borderless world?

In recent years it has become popular to herald the demise of the state and the emergence of a borderless, globalized world. The idea is that the geography of territorial states is being 'deterritorialized'. The forces of globalization — transnational flows of capital, people, goods and information — are progressively undermining the strategy of territoriality, the attempt to classify and control by means of geographical fixity, borders and enclosure. As a result, it is argued, new post-territorial geographies of networks and flows are supplanting the inherited geography of state territories.

This deterritorialization thesis does not take sufficient account of the historical complexities of territoriality, nor of the fact that global flows cannot occur unless they are 'premised upon various forms of spatial fixity, localization and (re)territorialization.' In other words, it is not a matter of pitching territorialization against deterritorialization or globalization, but rather one of understanding changing patterns of historical territorialization.

In world history, the bundling together of territoriality and state sovereignty is a relatively new phenomenon. It received arguably its strongest impetus from the emergence of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and has been described as the geographical solution to a dilemma facing the emerging capitalist class: how to balance competition and mutual cooperation. Nation-states provided arenas in which this balance could be struck: they protected the interests of a national capitalist class and maintained control over the working class. Nation-states emerged as the 'basic building blocks of the advanced capitalist system,' and, in Neil Smith's powerful image, dramatically reconstructed the world as a giant 'jigsaw puzzle of national pieces.' But this dispensation was not permanent. After the Second World War, the internationalization of markets and production processes rendered the national scale of economic organization 'increasingly obsolete'. The state found it more and more difficult to function as a gatekeeper state that provided both extraterritorial opportunities for national capital and security against the perceived social costs of internationalization, especially immigration. It was only by means of a 'Ramboesque reaffirmation of national boundaries' (trade and immigration restrictions, currency controls, militaristic display, the United Nations) that states were able to extend the association of territoriality to state sovereignty up to the early 1970s. Then the pieces of Smith's jigsaw puzzle were thrown into the air, and new relations between economies, territorial polities and cultures came into being.

The point being stressed by a number of theorists is that this did not imply a deterritorialisation of the world, but rather a new phase of territorialisation in which the link between territory and sovereignty became partially 'unbundled.' Increasingly this process is being referred to as re-scaling, after the core concept of a new approach, geographical scale.


Excerpted from The Bengal Borderland by Willem van Schendel. Copyright © 2005 Willem van Schendel. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Figures, Plates, Tables; Abbreviations; Acknowledgements; 1. Studying Borderlands, 2. Partition Studies; 3. Radcliffe's Fateful Line; 4. A Patchwork Border; 5. Security the Territory; 6. Defiance and Accommodation; 7. The Flow of Goods; 8. Narratives of Border Crossing; 9. Migrants, Fences and Deportation; 10. Rebels and Bandits; 11. 'Rifle Raj' and the Killer Border; 12. Nation and Borderland; 13. Conclusion: Beyond State and Nation; Appendix, References, Index

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From the Publisher

'Drawing extensively on the borderlanders' own vocies and experiences, and with many photographs, it paints a wonderfully rich and evocative portrait of more than half a century of Bengal borderlife…. The author has added a border study of enormous significance, and one of which border scholars everywhere should sit up and take note.' —Hastings Donnan, School of History and Anthropology, Queen's University Belfast

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