Borders in Perpetuity: Malini Sur’s ‘Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border’


By Priyanshi Kothari


Intra-country mobility is predictable and natural as people search for better opportunities and settled livelihoods. However, if this exchange is inter-country, it brings forth concerns associated with ultranationalism and territorial sovereignty. Such a concern has been affecting nations from all parts of the world since time immemorial. In her latest book- Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border, socio-cultural anthropologist Malini Sur brings to the fore the ethnography of the India-Bangladesh border. The book primarily deals with mobility, exchanges, infrastructure, and ecology across one of the longest borders in the world (p. 6). The key aim of this book is to demonstrate that borders are driven by the desires of the political minds which impact social lives of the people living near these borders. The metamorphic borders change from people’s inbuilt senses to rice wars, cow smuggling, bamboo flag posts, to large multi-layered fences. This, as inferred by the writer, makes borders the ‘projects in perpetuity’ because of the different shape and size that these borders take over time which makes it a never-ending process.

For this book, Sur aptly picked participant observation as the ethnographical method. She arrived in Assam in 2007 and closely followed the border’s shapeshifting till 2015. This is also because her period of study coincided with India’s initiative to build its new fenced border. Unlike the other well-demarcated borders, the presence of chars (riverine islands) made the boundaries unstable (p. 43). This led to some undefined territories and severed sovereignty claims. As a result, the building of the new ‘electrified’ border was decided which sparked the fear of anxiety and death. However, people continued to cross the border with the perpetual fear of being caught by the police officials. There were chances for them to never return. Still, the crossing was essential to maintain their lives and earn their livelihood through either selling excess clothing produced in Bangladesh or through cow smuggling. This shows the quintessential value that borders played by being the core to their survival. Various faiths, practices, religions, and cultures and cross-country connections continue to be maintained even with the changes that borders undergo. Mobility for them symbolizes life even when it may come at the cost of losing their lives, if caught by the troops. It seems that the title of the book is also inspired from this illegal movement which makes the escape through the jungle as their passport. 

Sur’s narrative

To set the context, Sur starts by explaining the evolution of the India-Bangladesh border in the prolegomenon. The tumultuous rice wars were used as an excuse to redraw national boundaries. As a result, the illegal deportation of men to the other country was necessitated to the continued feelings of self-identity and patriotism within individuals.

At the end of the colonial period, the British were considered responsible for the underdevelopment of North-Eastern India. This is because they used the Inner Line permit as an excuse to not ‘civilize’ the ‘savage’ population (p. 34). Moreover, this period saw a continuous demand for sub-nationalism which shaped the movement for the demand of a separate country. This prevented the normal functioning of the state in these areas which led to underdeveloped areas when compared to the rest of the country.

Sur does not try to paint a rosy world by appeasing the political actors at work. Faithful to the audience, she is unconcerned about the calamitous political consequences that her work might entail. She elaborately explains how a major chunk of people’s earnings comes from cow smuggling which is illegal in India. Cow smuggling perpetuates in Bangladesh from its Muslim-dominated populace due to its high demand for beef which is satisfied by Indian supply. These earnings are pocketed by the male-dominated political sphere. This was reflected in the model of the Fang-Fung economy which allows for disproportionate extent of power being maintained by ‘biologically superior males.’ Another Gordian knot faced by people is poverty which can be discerned as Garo women agree to construct the border for petty wages. This shows the social dilemma that they encounter in their lives. While on one hand, permanent border construction would be against them, but at the same time they are forced to construct it themselves because of their economic conditions.

Religion’s Omnipresence

Apart from ever-changing borders, the relationship between the people living near the borders is decided by the Citizenship Amendment Act (hereinafter “CAA”) which designate all Muslims as illegal migrants. This has led to the usurpation of power, land, and livelihood from illiterate poor Muslims by the upper-caste, rich Hindu political leaders. The CAA debate created instability in India by triggering the Shaheen Bagh protests. Even in Bangladesh, it became apparent that one’s religion, caste, education, paperwork, and strong connections determined their right to stay in the country. This explains how the political leaders have the notorious ability to centre every dispute around the lines of religion. This brings into action the extreme groups that creates disorder in both the countries. Additionally, CAA or the National Register of Citizens can be explained as one of the ways in which the state imposes its surveillance mechanism on the people. This would be further elaborated in the next section.

Borders and State

Placing it in the larger context, the book deals with land, development, globalisation, power geometries, and citizenship. It becomes important to understand the kind of authoritative relationship that the state wishes to have with its people. An analogy from Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta’s Anthropology of the State can help to decipher this situation better. The book explains that the state actions can result in either an instrumental or a consequential effect (p. 272). While instrumental effects are the main reasons for which the project would have been undertaken, consequential effects are mere side effects. The state makes it appear that the instrumental effects for border construction is to prevent migration. However, the real success for the state lies in the consequential side effects which are the real instrumental effects from the state’s perspective. These side effects as inferred would include minting money by cow smuggling, playing dirty religious politics, and acting on people’s fear.

Further, this fear could also be understood through Michael Foucault’s idea of a Panopticon. The potential state’s control creates fear of being invisibly surveyed and disciplined by the state when even the state does not actually check every time. However, the crucial element is the fear that is injected in people’s mind that makes them act in a certain manner creating a chilling effect.

Missing contemporary links 

While the overall impact of Sur’s book is substantial, she fails to discuss the status quo in India-Bangladesh relations with respect to other contemporary migration issues dealing with the Rohingya refugees. This refugee crisis has gained international notoriety because of the way these refugees are continued to be treated. When discussing the Indian-Bangladesh border, it becomes imperative to understand how the relationship between the two has worsened on the question of where these refugees should be ‘dumped’.

Additionally, she misses an opportunity to bring in the local organizations and non-state groups that play an influential role in the North-East region. Their capacity to influence people has a strong bearing on the understanding of the regional power dynamics. This is because most Indians continue to consider them as the ‘other’. This makes them a close-knit community where most discussions happen in the local organisations.

Despite these limitations, Sur brilliantly contributes to the existing literature on mobility and border exchanges. The book succinctly explains the anthropology of borders and border societies by elaborating on human existence that oscillates between the plasticity of life and death. Sur’s deep hanging out anthropology by living in Bangladesh presents a balanced mix of anecdotes and personal experiences that effectively engage with the audience. The lucid text makes it a comprehensible and an interactive read. Moreover, the use of vernacular language in some places brings an authentic taste to her ethnography. As the world continues to witness the Ukraine-Russia war which challenges a nation’s sovereignty, this book forces us to rethink the importance of borders, and control of state over human lives.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Penguin Books Ltd 2020.

Sharma, Aradhana and Akhil Gupta, The Anthropology of State: A Reader. Wiley-Blackwell 2006.

Priyanshi Kothari is a second-year student at National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, pursuing B.A., LL. B (Hons.) degree.


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