By Kalpana Jha
The border between India and Nepal is an epitome of the increasing complexity of borders in contemporary political life. The Nepal-India open border is neither an integrated border like the EU model nor is it a post-modern borderless arrangement. In spite of its openness, the border contains a characteristic sense, ironically, of its persistence. It is a unique case where, although it is barely represented by physical boundaries—or what Vaughan-Williams terms “line in the sand” is almost invisible (Parker and Vaughan-Williams 2012)—it entails the amalgamation of the manifest sensing of a non-manifest border (Parker & Adler-Nissen 2012; Bhabha 1994).
The interplay of power at a site such as the India-Nepal border reveals the ways in which power penetrates subjects’ bodies, revealing the fundamental political existence of biological life. What I offer in this short article is an examination of the manifestation of the India-Nepal border during the Covid-19 outbreak, an instance where the border’s “openness” was clearly overruled by the sovereign demand of its persistence. I look specifically at bordering, which is understood as an effect of sovereign power, to describe how the India-Nepal border is infused through bodies and diffused throughout everyday life, rather than confined to territorial borders located at the outer edge of the territorial state.
The Nepal-India border is the part of the everyday, and people are at the center of the everydayness of the border. Cross-border movement comprises a profound part of this everydayness. People cross the border for multiple purposes such as buying consumer goods, vising relatives, or even for morning or evening walks. Among these, one important reason is for educational purposes. Just like many other students who move between different cities on both sides of the border for their education, I experience the border firsthand. In these cities, borders manifest in small but significant ways, such as not being able to obtain a SIM card for phones, being denied a bank account from certain institutions, or being prevented from being able to open certain accounts from designated banks until the Nepalese Embassy approves it. The significance of the open border is grim in these circumstances, though not profound enough to discourage mobilities or to relegate the border itself into a less intimate space.
Covid and the Exercise of Exception
As Covid broke out, the border was experienced very differently and directly. The border was vividly implicated in the social life of the public health emergency. In the university residences, notices appeared in the span of a night, which, citing the urgency of the pandemic and the reasons of student’s safety, ordered students to vacate immediately and return home. It was a directive which was based in the sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good (Davitti 2019), but fell short of “the state of exception” as defined by Carl Schmitt, wherein martial law would be invoked. Left with no choice but to take a precarious journey back home, for students, the safety justification not only rang hollow, but was manifestly at odds with their reality. No fortified walls sprang up overnight, for example, within universities or elsewhere, yet borders were undoubtedly resurrected in a more palpable form.
New forms of borders erected in response to the pandemic reflect the waning of state sovereignty within the transnational global order. A particular lived reality of bordering processes thus intimately reflect these larger power relations. Militarized border check-posts not only fulfilled the role of verifying citizens and non-citizens, they also segregated those bodies that were infected from those that were not. These physical borders and bordering processes reflect and reproduce historically variable geographies of inclusion and exclusion, and, at this exceptional instance, these effects were magnified.
The pandemic immediately made apparent the ways in which the spatiality of these borders is also imagined and reproduced in time (Konopinski 2014). The sudden relegation of the social and political life of students to “bare life” was lived and experienced in the sudden arrival of the condition of “strandedness.” After stepping out of the gates of the university residence, there was no option of returning back. There was no certainty that the bus would leave amidst widespread closures—this was the moment where being stripped of all individual legal and political status and protection was experienced.
In all this, what appears especially significant is that the laws, policies, and governing practices are never self-enacting; rather, they involve higher-level politicians and bureaucrats, street-level bureaucrats, technological/material assemblages, the active participation of citizen-clients, and so on (Heyman 2014). It was striking, too, that though the emergency response was not the work of some invisible hand, places to appeal for the reversal of policies and decisions flowing from government were nowhere to be found; no authority could intervene into the imperatives placed upon each subject.
As the bus full of people trying to flee departed, the possibility of never making it to one’s intended destination became more than apparent. The possibility of being retained in the isolation centres if infection was detected was a factor, and another was the possibility of falling victim to a road closure, leaving one stranded without recourse. Crossing the border never felt so dreadful. As armed and equipped personnel ran a thorough check not just of bodies but identities, foreign or alien subjects would no longer claim the right to pass through the “open” border. The political existence of the individual was appraised at the border and relegated accordingly.
Lived Realities of Bordering Processes
Circumstances like Covid produce bordering uncertainties, where anxieties over states’ physical and ethnonational security intertwine to produce particular geographies and ideologies of self and other, belonging and exclusion. Firstly, attempts to manage this uncertainty show that borders palpably emerge and are maintained through the state of exception, which spectates at the limits of sovereignty. After all, an emergency is something that can only be addressed through the state’s adoption of exceptional measures. Secondly, responses to bordering uncertainty create the feeling that life at the border, like the border itself, had become rigid to the point of coming to a stop (Konopinski 2014). The open Nepal-India border, which by description was characterized by continuous flow of people, was now a site of chaos: its territoriality profound, and the bodies trying to cross over this entity were treated as potential and latent threats to life itself.
The theorization of biopolitics and state of exception offers a channel through which to consider the way in which borders are defined and used, or externalized. In this case, the juridico-institutional model of the border became central to political lives and the sovereign power as power over life (Agamben 1998; Peters 2014). The threat of a pandemic upon the biopoliticized subjectivity of the population heightened the sovereign expression of state-ness, illustrated in the short-circuiting of the “openness” of the border. The openness, as demonstrated in the free flow of people, is in this instance overpowered by the discourses of persistence expressed through narratives of security and protection by the state. In the ability to control the movements of people, the spatial properties of the state is manifest. The human body, then, has no resort but to obey and follow.
Kalpana Jha is the author of The Madhesi Upsurge and the Contested Idea of Nepal. She is currently the board member of Nepal Policy Institute (NPI). She has extensively worked on identity issues in Madhesh, inclusion, citizenship, minorities and their status in Nepal. Jha is an alumni as well as former research fellow from Tata Institute of Social sciences, Mumbai. Also holds a MA in Socio-Legal Studies from York University, Canada and is starting her PhD at the University of Victoria from September 2022.
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