Review Essay: Lives at Borderlands

By Éva Rozália Hölzle, Bielefeld University

Reviewed in this Essay:

On the Edge: Life Along the Russia-China Border, Billé, Franck and Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Press, 2021.

From Family to Police Force: Security and Belonging on a South Asian Border, Ibrahim, Farhana, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2021.

Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border, Sur, Malini, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.

What does it mean to live life in a borderland? How do people in borderlands organize their everyday life, earn a living, marry, connect with others across the border, traverse the boundary between two countries, and maintain mobility and connectivity despite the political divide? I consider these two questions to be the crux of the three recent ethnographies focusing on three different borderlands: the Russia-China border along the Amur River (Billé and Humphrey 2021); the India-Bangladesh border along the Brahmaputra River and Rowmari-Tura Road that serves as a juncture between Bangladesh and the two Northeast-Indian federal states – Assam, and Meghalaya (Sur 2021); and the Pakistan-India border along the Thar desert (Ibrahim 2021).

In their book – On the Edge: Life Along the Russia-China Border – Frank Billé and Caroline Humphrey lead the reader to the banks of the Amur River. Spanning approximately 2,800 kilometers, the Amur serves as a natural partition between China and Russia. Focusing on both sides of the riverbank, Billé and Humphrey uncover two different and compelling stories from the Russia-China borderland. The Russian Far East tells a story of great remoteness. It is a sparsely populated region characterized by harsh climate and partial infrastructure which makes the life of the borderlanders an everyday challenge. Although located at a great distance from Moscow, the Russian Far East frequently surfaces in the imagination of some Russian state actors as a region of possibilities; a last bastion in need of state-led development intervention. On such occasions, big plans are formulated to turn this faraway place into a glorious center buzzing with life. However, as Billé and Humphrey describe, such plans are rarely realized because the integration of the Russian Far East into the center would defy the Russian state’s border management policy of strategic neglect, which has been in practice since the Soviet era. Consequently, infrastructural neglect in the borderland of the Russian Far East is less about the inaptitude of the Russian state and more about making certain regions unattractive to intruders who, in this part of the border, appear in the form of the Chinese migrant.

The Chinese Northeast tells a different story. During the first half of the 20th century, this region was sparsely populated and lagged behind in terms of urban development in comparison to Russian cities on the other side, such as Khabarovsk or Blagoveshchensk. The Chinese cities of Heihe and Fuyuan have not only caught up with their Russian counterparts, but also left them behind. These two cities showcase China’s rapid economic advancement that succeeds even in faraway regions. China has outgrown Russia in terms of power and Russian officials are aware of this. To date, Russian authorities are reluctant to build bridges across the Amur River that would allow closer communication with Chinese partners. As Billé and Humphrey argue, the Russian reluctance regarding such infrastructural development as a bridge connecting Russia with China is not accidental, but an expression of fears over becoming a vassal state of China.

Infrastructure – along with ecologies, exchanges, and mobility – is also a central theme in Malini Sur’s ethnography, titled Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border. However, in contrast to the Russia-China border where a bridge over the Amur River is about overcoming historically cemented separations, the barbed wire fence erected by the Indian government at the Bangladesh-Assam-Meghalaya border is about obstructing close cross border communication. At this border, kin groups, human settlements, and established roads were set apart when Hindu India was separated from the majoritarian Muslim regions – Pakistan and East Bengal (today Bangladesh) – in 1947. Despite religious differences and ethnic diversity, these regions were not “two entirely different worlds” (Billé and Humphrey 2021, 19) as in the Russia-China case, but territories connected since ancient times. Malini Sur’s historically informed ethnography leads the reader through the shifting fields of the river islands(chars) of the Brahmaputra, through the Rowmari-Tura Road – which connected the Bengali lowland to the hills of Meghalaya during colonial times – and through numerous border checkpoints which delineate a zig zag divide between India and Bangladesh.  Despite the multi-layered barbed wire fence that the Indian authorities started building in 2007, cross border communication remains strong. Closely observing the vibrant life of the borderland, Sur concludes that borders gather life forces that intensify mobility and exchange, regardless of the growing dangers and risks emanating from the increased militarization, and thereby control, of the border (Sur 2021, 5-8).

Control, surveillance, and policing emerge as central issues in the book From Family to Police Force: Security and Belonging on a South Asian Border by Farhana Ibrahim. She introduces the Kutch region in the Indian state of Gujarat. Focusing on the city of Bhuj and the neighboring villages that lie along the border shared with Pakistan, Farhana Ibrahim eschews conventional borderland stories in which state formation and the nation state figure prominently, and instead centers her analysis on the everyday practices of policing that occur within the intimate settings of families. She argues that policing in the family cannot be seen as an extension of state practices. Surveillance is the prerogative not only of state actors but a wider social practice involving actors such as neighbors or close family members. Nothing illustrates this claim better than the fact that practices of policing emerging within the family may serve as inspiration for state officials. In tracing everyday practices of policing, Ibrahim zooms in on the issue of marriage. She focuses on Muslim families of Kutch who traditionally prefer cousin marriages. Ibrahim shows that this marriage practice has slowly started to lose its prominence in Kutch. Many families are opting to bring brides from Bangladesh or West Bengal, not because eligible women are scarce, but because cousin marriage amplifies proximity within the kin group and, as such, the inherent dangers too. Marriages with Bengali brides reinvigorate Muslim families in Kutch biologically and culturally, but such matrimonies also pose risks when suspicions within the community arise about the legal immigration status of the new bride, especially if it is speculated that her original country is Bangladesh. Finding a marriage partner is the main motivator of Hindu men from Sindh (in Pakistan) migrating to India. Prohibited from marrying within their own group, Hindu men from Sindh traditionally brought back women from Rajasthan (in India) to marry. However, the heavily militarized Pakistan-India border renders such cross regional marriage alliances difficult and unattractive today. Having no other option, Sindhi men are leaving their patrilineal households in Pakistan and seeking support and matrimonial intermediation among their maternal relatives on the Indian side. The long and difficult struggle for integration for these Sindhi men in Gujarat shows that, although they are regarded as belonging to India due to their religion, such “political citizenship” does not automatically “translate into social capital” (Ibrahim 2021, 144).

In their conceptualization of borderlands, all three ethnographies point out that these regions are not simply physical places out there ready to be discovered, but they emerge as a result of intense political negotiations involving diverse actors at national, regional, and local levels. Such complexities do not simply invite an ethnographic approach, they necessitate it. All four authors insist that borderlands dictate their own political, historical, and economic dynamics, which often deviate from and challenge dominant narratives constructed at national centers. This is why national margins cannot be regarded merely as geographical sites. Borderlands are rather fruitful analytical vantage points that help to dismantle the binary logics of legitimacy and illegitimacy, or legality and illegality, thereby exposing the ambiguities and ambivalences of political life on the ground.

Moreover, as the three ethnographies show, everyday lives at the margins of the state are frequently structured not just via social and economic inequalities and uncertainties, but also through creative practices that undermine and contest the state’s authority. This last quality of borderlands is especially interesting because it readjusts the analytical view and exposes states as not just being the loci of power, but as vulnerable constructs as well. Creativity in the margins is as much about making (cultural) differences visible as it is about defending and laying claim to heterogenous ways of living. Whether transporting more Chinese goods than what is officially allowed to Russia; tempting Russian customers to come to the Chinese side of the Amur river for shopping by lighting up the river bank that is mainly visible for Russians on the other side; driving Indian cattle over the Brahmaputra to Bangladesh; clandestinely carrying scrapped Bangladeshi garments to Meghalaya for sale; bringing Bengali wives to Kutch; or migrating to India in search of an eligible marriage partner, all these actions bear witness to not only the blurred boundaries between the legal and illegal, but also the art of surviving and making a living. From the perspective of national centers, such modes of living often evoke a sense of “remoteness” or “primitivity” that needs to be undone by integrating it to the national core (Billé and Humphrey 2021, 16). This impulse of integration along with the creativity of making a living reveal that it would be a mistake to see borderlands only as peripheries and zones of exclusion. Borders speak as much about limits as they do about connections pregnant with possibilities, by allowing certain things to move while blocking others. I find this last point to be the most intriguing aspect that all three books discuss, albeit in different ways, and hopefully it will be what PoLAR subscribers appreciate most when reading these detailed and captivating ethnographies.

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