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Politics of Border: Implications of the Indo-Myanmar Border demarcation on the Nagas

Border is a dominant theme both in the nation–state discourse as well as in other cultural studies. In the last two decades, borders and borderlands have become increasingly popular in the works of a wide range of academicians and intellectuals. Scholars on borderland studies use the term ‘border’ to refer to a number of things, ranging from a geographical demarcating borderline to its use as a metaphor for cultural, social and psychological border. Here the main focus is on the geo-political nature of border, particularly the Indo-Myanmar international border and its impact on the borderland communities, especially the Nagas.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines border as ‘A line or a region separating countries’. However, the geo-political border is understood as linear dividing lines, fixed in a particular space, meant to mark the division between political or administrative units. A border marks and delimits state sovereignty and rights of individual citizenship; it is often used an instrument of state policy as well as marker of identity.’  
International borders are the creations and products of modern nation-states. Border demarcation among nation-states started in the eighteenth century and continues every time a new geographical area is curved out with a new entity based either on nation-state basis or any social or cultural segregation. For the modern nation-state system, territorial border is a sacrosanct element which every nation-state holds zealously and without which its sovereignty is non-existential. In other words, borders are sites of power and symbol of sovereignty of a particular state in its relation with the neighbouring states and also in the larger world system.  In order to secure its border, nation-states have used multiple techniques or tools of territorial control. These include the boundary pillars, posts, fences, barbwires, watch towers, border security guards, bureaucrats and customs officials. If these tactics of control fail, the nation-states often resort to skirmishes, conflict or even to war. It is found that there are more than 313 land borders between nation-states in the world today.
International borders can be also seen as markers or lines of change and continuity.  This means to say that international borders are the creations and products of modern nation-states that altered or changed the aged-old geography of a community or communities by a new and modern system of cartography. At the same time, it is an undeniable fact that most international borders today still act as lines or points of continuity, especially of cross-border movements of people, cross-border ties and relationships, cross-border culture, trade in goods and services which have continued for centuries.
The northeast India border areas have drawn the attention of both policy makers and researchers due to the creation and contestation of nation-state borderlines resulting in border conflicts, ethnic strife, and struggles for autonomy or independent homelands compounded by the problems of refugees and illegal migration.

India and her Borders
India shares international boundary with eight neighbouring countries covering 14,818 km of land borders and a coastline of 7516.6 km. These are Bangladesh in the east; Bhutan, China and Nepal in the north; Myanmar in the east; Pakistan in the west; Afghanistan in north-west; and Sri Lanka in the south. India’s relationship with these countries varies from very friendly to friendly and not so friendly to open hostility. In the same way, some of India’s border received greater attention from the government of India, media as well as from academicians in different time frames due to variety of reasons and explanations. For instance, the Indo-Pakistan border, Indo-China border and Indo-Sri Lanka border have received greater attention as compared to Indo-Bhutan, Indo-Nepal, and Indo-Myanmar borders. Some important factors are the boundary disputes with Pakistan, the question of Arunachal Pradesh with China after the Indo-China war in 1962 and the concerns over cross-border Tamil nationalism in the south. In the recent years, the Indo-Bangladesh border also got wider attention due to the spilling effects of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India, mostly in states like West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. However, the attention on these borders is solely based on ‘state-centric paradigm’ and ‘territorial epistemology’ which see border only from the angle of nation-state security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thus, the important issues of democracy, human security and human development have been pushed to the back seat.

The Indo-Myanmar Border
In the northeast, India shares 1643 km border with Myanmar covering 520 km in Arunachal Pradesh, 398 km in Manipur, 510 km in Mizoram and 215 km in the state of Nagaland. The Indo-Myanmar borderland or region has remained as a forgotten frontier for a long time in Indian and global imagination and cartography. No doubt, there are several colonial accounts of the frontier region and North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), but the Indo-Myanmar border and borderlanders were found only as mere references. This is largely due to the inaccessible hilly terrain, absence of road connectivity, presence of “ferocious tribals” and lack of political will.
Even in the post-colonial era, this region remained as a marginal space or a periphery of both India and Myanmar in terms of integration, assimilation, development, academic research and media.  This marginalisation is more intense in academic research, for very little or no work has been done on the borderlanders of this border. It was only in the recent years, especially in the post 1990s, the Indo-Myanmar borderland and the communities inhabiting this mountainous tract have emerged as a site of debates and discussions. The reasons are numerous, which include the menace of insurgency, violence, ethnic clashes, drug and illegal arms trafficking and, more importantly, for its strategic location in proximity with China and other South East Asian nations. The seemingly engagement of India with Myanmar in the recent years is seen as a ploy to contain the growth of Chinese influence in the neighbourhood; a plan to promote economic ties with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) through the Look East Policy (LEP) and also to cow down the insurgent groups of northeast India based in Myanmar. From the above discussion, we may surmise that like other borders of India, the Indo-Myanmar borderland is also largely dictated by state security paradigm and territorial epistemology.
The hitherto forgotten and ‘blank space’ borderland has thus resurfaced as  a meeting point not only for India and Myanmar,  but also for two regions i.e., the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, it is often overlooked that along this static border, there are communities and ethnic groups who for centuries maintain relationships overriding the recent demarcated Indo-Myanmar border.  Ethnic communities such as the Naga tribes and sub-tribes, Kukis, Chins, Mizos, etc., have been living along this border for ages.
The annals of the Indo-Myanmar boundary can be traced back to the Treaty of Yandaboo, signed on February 24, 1826 between the king of Ava (Burma) and the East India Company. By this treaty, the king of Ava renounced the claim over Assam, Cachar, Jyntia (Jaintia), Mannipoor (Manipur) and the provinces of Arracan, Yeh, Tavoy, Mergini and Tannasserim to the British government. But it is important to note that this Treaty did not include the large mountainous range and peoples inhabiting these mountains and hence, they remained outside the purview of the Treaty. In 1837, the Patkai Range was delimited and accepted as the boundary between Assam and Burma without a treaty. Following this, there was a series of surveys and expeditions conducted by the British government amidst the constant raids on the plains of Assam by the Naga tribes. In order to exert effective control on the Naga raiders and to secure its territory in Assam, the British government established the Naga Hills District in 1866 with its headquarters at Samaguting (the present Chumukedima). However, many Naga tribes remained outside the territory of the Naga Hills District in the ‘unadministered areas’. These Naga tribes are found in the present districts of Mon, Tuensang, Longleng and Kiphire of Nagaland. They were referred to as the ‘Free Nagas’ by the British because they did not come under the British administration.
The Government of India Act 1935 separated Burma from British India by defining the former as ‘all territories which were immediately before the commencement of Part II of this Act comprised in India, being territories lying to the east of Bengal, the state of Manipur, Assam, and tribal areas connected with Assam’(International Boundary Study 1968:7-8). However, the question of tribal areas connected with Assam became problematic due to its vague definition.
Even at the time of independence of India and Burma, the Indo-Burma boundary was not specified in the Independence Acts of both the countries. This was left to be decided by the newly independent states. But it was left undemarcated for many years especially due to the cordial relationship between India and Burma. Moreover, by then India was too much occupied with Pakistan over population exchange and migration during the initial years of independence. In the late 1950s, skirmishes with China started over its border which culminated in the form of Indo-China war in 1962. This must have prompted India to start negotiating with Burma over her border sensing the influence of China in the neighbourhood. Another prominent factor could be the growth of insurgency in the northeast India and their linkages across the border with their ethnic cousins.
After a gap of more than 20 years of independence, the first bilateral agreement on boundary was signed between India and Burma in 1967 at Rangoon, which delimits the entire India-Burma boundary. From 6th to 10th April 1968, the joint India-Burma Boundary Commission held its first meeting in India and formulated tentative plans for actual demarcation from November 1968 to April 1969. However, the actual physical demarcation of the boundary could commence only on the 1st December 1968 (Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs, Report 1968-69). Subsequently, several boundary pillars were planted along the boundary. However, unlike the highly fenced and policed Indo-Pak or Indo-Bangladesh boundary, the Indo-Myanmar boundary remains largely porous without any fence though the Assam Rifles are stationed along this border.  The Government of India intends to replace the Assam Rifles with the Border Security Force (BSF) to man this international boundary. This porous border has been very active due to close ethnic ties and tribal affiliations of peoples across the border. Moreover, there is free movement of local populace without visa or passport up to 40 km or 25 miles in the jurisdiction of Myanmar and vice-versa. This is based on the Myanmar Passport Rules, 1948 and the Government of India Notification dated 26th September, 1950 which exempted the borderlanders from visa and passport requirements.
This is how the Indo-Myanmar border came into being, initially as a means to satisfy the colonial interests of the British, which was inherited and followed by India and Myanmar till today. The demarcation of this boundary, based on state-centric security paradigm had negated the essence of those people living in this region prior to the advent of the British.  These include several Naga tribes and sub-tribes, Mizos and Zos. The local populace, or in other words, the real land owners were neither consulted nor informed about the border demarcation which runs through their backyards and houses. Families, villages and tribes were divided and placed under two nation-states. They were separated and given the citizenship tag as Indian and Burmese or Myanmarese. The will and prior consent of the people in the seemingly largest democracy in the world has been violated as in many of the border demarcation worldwide.
It is true that the Nagas living on the other side of the border (India) are permitted to move about 40 km or 25 miles without any restriction and cultivate their jhum fields in the jurisdiction of Myanmar or vice versa. This deserves to be applauded when compared with the heavily securitised and policed border in other parts of the world.  However, the question remains: Would India and Myanmar hold on with this arrangement and maintain the status quo indefinitely? This cannot be taken for granted: Legally speaking, the traditional lands of the borderlanders do not belong to them anymore. The ancestral land of the people that belongs neither to India nor Myanmar has been sliced and snatched from the indigenous people. Today, both the governments of India and Myanmar are happy with this arrangement, seemingly oblivious to the community ties of the borderlanders.
In the fast changing and fluid international politics and with India’s Look East Policy, the present arrangement may no longer hold good for both India and Myanmar. When Myanmar plans to develop and modernise its underdeveloped region bordering India, would the indigenous people still have the liberty to maintain cross-border ties. What would happen to their jhum fields across the border? More importantly, who would their allegiance be to? If Myanmar - with her mighty ally in China - plans to set up township, industries, mines or for that matter dams in this neglected region of Myanmar, what would happen to the indigenous borderlanders with regards to socio-cultural ties, ownership of land, citizenship? If pre-emptive steps are not put in place with clear-cut border and citizenship rights, the present arrangement has all the making of massive displacement, insecurity, conflicts, refugees and untold human miseries and ecological imbalance.  There will be homelessness of the borderlanders in their own land. Geo-strategic and human tragedy is waiting to happen.
The recent article in local dailies by a member of Nagaland legislative assembly, Mr. Chingwang Konyak, brings into public domain the issue of demarcation of the Indo-Myanmar border.  Certain questions are left to be answered: What were our representatives in Nagaland Legislative Assembly doing when the Indo-Myanmar boundary was demarcated and officially recognised as international border? (Mention may also be made that the international border runs through the residence of the Longwa Ahng.) If the Indo-Myanmar boundary demarcation was based on traditional line between British India and Burma, what about the traditional line and boundaries maintained by the Naga villages before the arrival of the Ahoms, the British and the Indians in the region? History testifies that the Nagas were already there in the Patkai Range before the arrival of the Ahoms. This proves that their traditional lines and boundaries precede the territorial jurisdiction of the Ahoms, the British, and the Indo-Burma boundary. The issue deserves to be holistically studied by both the policy-makers and researchers taking into account the interests of all the stakeholders, especially those at the borderlands.
For any comments/queries, contact
Research Scholar,
 Department of Political Science
Gauhati University, Assam
Lecturer, Patkai Christian College (Autonomous),
Chumukedima-Seithekiema, Dimapur, Nagaland

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