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Borders, Migration and Sub-Regional Cooperation in Eastern South Asia

This paper questions the rhetoric of a "borderless world" and whether trans-border economic cooperation could overcome tensions arising out of the existing borders. Conflicts over borders and migration have characterised the relationships among the countries of eastern south Asia. The problems mainly stem from the introduction of the concept of a border by the British under the process of colonisation. The construction of borders was important not only in visualising an exclusive control of the ruler over particular geographical regions, but also in dividing people into "locals" and "migrants". In the 1990s, there were two discernible changes in the political and economic environment of eastern south Asia: India's policy shift to improve relationship with smaller neighbours, and the promotion of sub-regional cooperation. Nevertheless, migration and border disputes remain as thorny as before because sub-regional cooperation in eastern south Asia is characterised not by deconstruction of borders as political discourses, but by the absence of serious thinking about borders and borderlands, not to speak of the people who have to live with border realities.

Special articles

Borders, Migration and Sub-Regional Cooperation in Eastern South Asia

This paper questions the rhetoric of a “borderless world” and whether trans-border economic cooperation could overcome tensions arising out of the existing borders. Conflicts over borders and migration have characterised the relationships among the countries of eastern south Asia. The problems mainly stem from the introduction of the concept of a border by the British under the process of colonisation. The construction of borders was important not only in visualising an exclusive control of the ruler over particular geographical regions, but also in dividing people into “locals” and “migrants”. In the 1990s, there were two discernible changes in the political and economic environment of eastern south Asia: India’s policy shift to improve relationship with smaller neighbours, and the promotion of sub-regional cooperation. Nevertheless, migration and border disputes remain as thorny as before because sub-regional cooperation in eastern south Asia is characterised not by deconstruction of borders as political discourses, but by the absence of serious thinking about borders and borderlands, not to speak of the people who have to live with border realities.

MAYUMI MURAYAMA

“Aborderless world” is a phrase often associated with

economic integration under the banner of globalisation

[Ohmae 1990]. The proponents of economic cooperation argue that economic integration can be promoted even among states in conflict, and can eventually overcome political antagonism. The same formula is expected to work also in south Asia. Raja Mohan, a commentator on south Asian diplomacy states:

Borders in the subcontinent need not necessarily remain political barriers. They need to be transformed into zones of economic cooperation among regions that once were part of the same cultural and political space [Mohan 2003:269].

Borders in eastern south Asia,1 as elsewhere, are one of the fundamental sources of disputes between states. The border as a boundary marker is a political construct, entailing intrinsic tension against “natural” connectivity in terms of typology as well as the movement of people. In south Asia in particular, the artificiality of borders has been continuously challenged, not only by intellectual exercises but also by the movement of people across the borders. Nevertheless, the political significance of borders remains as strong or even stronger today as the “illegality” of people’s movement has become a relentless concern of governments.

Against such a backdrop, to what extent can economic cooperation or the creation of “a borderless world” mitigate the tensions arising out of the existence of borders? According to Saskia Sassen, at the global level, there are currently two contradictory forces transforming the meanings of nation states. One is economic globalisation, which denationalises national economies, and the other is migration, which renationalises politics [Sassen 1996:59]. In other words, many states outwardly argue that border controls should be minimised to allow capital, information and services to flow freely, whereas in reality, they often keep to themselves the right to exercise stricter border controls in the name of sovereign authority over the flow of migrants or refugees.2 How can a state adopt such apparently contradictory policy stances over borders? What are the effects of these self-contradictory approaches on political and economic relations between states and among people who share the borders?

This paper attempts to investigate these questions in the context of the eastern south Asia region, with particular reference to the relationship between India and Bangladesh. I focus on that specific bilateral relationship because firstly, the two countries share a land border which is the longest among the borders in eastern south Asia. The second and more important reason for choosing to examine the India-Bangladesh border is that Bangladesh, formerly called East Bengal or East Pakistan, has been the largest source of outmigration into the surrounding region. While the cross-border movement of people confirms the artificiality of man-made borders, at the same time it becomes a threat to national sovereignty as delimited by national borders. In eastern south Asia, the issue of “illegal migration” has been and will be the most formidable problem not only for bilateral relationships but also for sub-regional relationships, as will be discussed below.

Construction of Borders

Delimiting the Territories

The concept of a border as the marker of national sovereignty was born in Europe during the process of modernity and the making of nation states [Chaturvedi 2001; Banerjee 2002]. In contrast, prior to the advent of British rule, the rulers of south Asia did not particularly concern themselves with political borders [Banerjee 2002: 29]. In the precolonial period, there were certain customary boundaries in some areas such as between Ladakh and Tibet, where there was little in the way of no-man’s land [Chakravarty 1971: 3]. There were also ethnic boundaries surrounding settlements and ritual boundaries marked by religious rituals performed around temples [Ludden 2003a].

A distinct difference between these numerous boundaries and the type of boundary brought by the British was the restrictions that the latter imposed on the mobility of people. Beginning in 1757 when the East India Company defeated Nawab Sirajud-daulah of Bengal at the battle of Plassey, the British gradually extended their domination over the rest of India, from coastal bases inland and from east to west. This was a process of continuous political boundary-making. Initially the British preferred the concept of the frontier zone to the linear boundary. Their policy towards the communities of the peripheral zone along the boundary was to refrain from placing them under direct British control as long as they abstained from interfering with British Indian territories [Chakravarty 1971]. However, the shrinkage in the area of uninhabited land and the growth of the Company’s economic interests in border land regions led to conflicts between the local rulers and the British. Consequently, the drawing-up of borders, thereby consolidating sovereignty and an exclusive right to exercise supreme authority over the geographic region and its people, became an integral part of statecraft. A detailed analysis by David Ludden describes how the first boundary between Sylhet, Bangladesh and Meghalaya, India, a boundary that still exists today, came into being in the year 1791 [Ludden 2003a,b].

By the time that direct rule by the British was introduced in 1858, the East India Company had fought battles with other countries of eastern south Asia including Nepal (1814-1815), Burma (1824-1826) and Bhutan (1773). The Treaty of Segauli signed in 1816 delimited the India and Nepal borders and was later revised in 1860. The boundary between Burma and India was vaguely defined through the Treaty of Yandaboo (1826), which was followed by additional two wars and several alterations of the borders. By the Government of India Act of 1935, India and Burma were legally separated in 1937.3 Present-day Assam was ruled for nearly 600 years by the Ahoms, a branch of the Shan race. It was an internal conflict within the Ahom kingdom and Burmese invasion over its territory that invited the British to interfere and to subsequently annex territory. The expansion of British control over Assam became an important landmark also in British-Bhutan relations, as it brought the two parties into direct contact geographically.4 The relationship between Britain and Bhutan became strained over the borderland of Assam and Bhutan, a region called duars. Duars are mountain passes leading from the Indian plains to the Bhutanese interior and adjoining territory. There are 18 such duars, seven on the frontier of Assam and 11 on the frontier of Bengal. The duars are not only strategically important but also economically fertile land. After the Indian rebellion in 1857, tension over territory culminated in the Duar War of 1865 after which the British occupied all the duars, cutting off Bhutan from all communication with the plains of Assam and Bengal. The final settlement was reached by the Treaty of Sinchula in the same year. Under this treaty, the government of British India retained possession of all 18 duars and in return, agreed to make an annual payment to the government of Bhutan. The demarcation of the common boundary was completed by 1872-73 [Verma 1988:45]. In the same year when the India-Bhutan border was delineated, another line called the “Inner Line” was drawn up. Although it was not an international boundary, it became quite important, and remains so even today in the north-eastern region of India. Promulgated by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873, it was a line aimed at restricting contacts between the plainsmen and the tribesmen for the sake of minimising potential instances of friction and preventing leakages of official revenue [Chakravarty 1971: 39]. Beyond the inner line, no British subjects belonging to certain categories and no foreign residents could proceed without a licence from the relevant authorities. Furthermore, for outsiders, the landholding and trading were also restricted.5

The backdrop to British zeal for drawing well defined boundaries symbolising their exclusive control over regions and their people was mounting rivalry among Britain, China and Russia over supremacy in the Himalayas and central Asia. This impelled the British to propose two borders, namely, the Durand Line (1893) and the McMahon Line (1914). Of the two lines, both of which were named after the British officials who led the British missions in the negotiations, the first divided Afghanistan and British India (now Pakistan), while the second, demarcating India and Tibet, was drawn as the result of the Shimla Conference attended by British, Tibetan and Chinese representatives.6 The two lines were drawn with much difficulty by British surveyors. Nevertheless, the validity of the lines came under dispute after the British left the subcontinent because it was British selfrighteous zeal that most strongly led people to visualise the invisible lines and that accorded political significance to them.7

Partition and the Borders of Bangladesh

The most large-scale and final work of border construction by the British was the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The Partition of hitherto single territories is not unique to India and Pakistan, but has also occurred in Palestine, China and Korea as well as in Germany and Vietnam, the latter two divisions of which are no longer in place [Greenberg 2004]. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the consequences of the Partition of India and Pakistan was unprecedented in human history, particularly in terms of the scale of people’s movements.

The borders that carved out the present-day territory of Bangladesh consist mainly of three sections which came into being through different political processes. The sections are the east-west Bengal border, the Sylhet-Assam border, and the border separating the Chittagong Hill Tracts (hereafter referred to as the CHT) from India. It should be pointed out that on the eve of Partition, with the exception of Sylhet, the territory comprising Bangladesh today, including the CHT, formed part of Bengal province. Apart from the period from 1905 to 1911, Sylhet had been part of Assam since 1874 when Assam separated from Bengal to become a province, even though its population was predominantly Bengali rather than Assamese.8 By contrast, the CHT were inhabited chiefly by a non-Muslim tribal population. Although it formed part of Bengal province, the district of the CHT (formed in 1860) was administered differently from the rest of Bengal, and more in line with the north-eastern regions of India [Mohsin 1997].

Among the three border sections mentioned above, the inclusion of Sylhet in East Bengal was settled first. Although it was a district within a province (Assam) whose population was predominantly non-Muslim, Sylhet itself contained a population

62.2 per cent of whom, according to the census of 1941, were Muslims.

The inclusion of Sylhet in the newly created Assam province in 1874 was done solely for the administrative convenience of the British, who wished to make Assam economically viable and equipped with the relatively better-educated human resources of the Bengalis. The people of Sylhet protested loudly against the move because of their ethnic and cultural links with Bengal province [Rizvi 1970:79]. Their frustration was shared by the Assamese who saw that the Bengalis of Sylhet were quickly taking advantage of the new opportunities that were opening up in the new province [Baruah 1999:40]. Thus, there was perpetual discord between the two ethnic groups. Added to this, the demand for the establishment of an independent Pakistan by the Muslim League gradually gained ground in Assam in the late 1930s and 1940s.

The end to the controversy was brought by the Third of June statement made by the viceroy Mountbatten that laid out the overall framework of Partition in 1947. On the basis of the statement, a referendum was held on July 6 and 7 to decide whether the district of Sylhet should continue to form part of Assam province or should be amalgamated with the new province of East Bengal.9 The result was that the majority (56.6 per cent) were in favour of Sylhet’s amalgamation with East Bengal while the remainder (43.4 per cent) supported the perpetuation of an undivided Assam in India. The actual demarcation of the Assam-Sylhet border, carried out on the basis of the result of the referendum, was assigned to a Boundary Commission headed by Cyril Radcliffe. The commission was instructed to demarcate the Muslim majority areas of Sylhet district and the contiguous Muslim majority areas of the adjoining districts of Assam. As regards the extent of the adjoining districts of Assam, there was a difference of opinion between the Muslim and the Hindu commissioners. Whereas the former argued that they meant any district of Assam, the latter maintained that “adjoining districts” were limited to the contiguous Muslim majority areas of the Assam districts that adjoined Sylhet. Radcliffe took the latter’s narrow interpretation. Based on these terms of reference, Cachar district was taken into consideration as it had some Muslim dominated ‘thanas’, or subdistricts. The result, however, did not match the expectations of the Muslims [Khan 1998:5-6; Rizvi 1970:80]. Radcliffe made a judgment that some of the Muslim areas should be retained in Assam and some non-Muslim areas should go to Sylhet for the purpose of administrative and economic convenience.10

The basic contours of the East-West Bengal borders were determined by a Boundary Commission. The task of the Commission was “to demarcate the boundaries of the two parts [of the province] on the basis of ascertaining contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims while taking into account other factors”.11 Various political parties submitted memoranda and representations to the commission for review. The individual claims varied and were often based on a free interpretation of the imprecise phrase “other factors”. While Muslim representations were made only by the Muslim League, dissentions among the Hindu parties led to two separate presentations of cases, one by the Indian National Congress, and the other by the Hindu Mahasabha, the Indian Association, and the New Bengal Association. The details of each case and its political motives are succinctly discussed by Chatterji (1999). In a nutshell, compared with the stand of the Muslim League, which tried to extract a maximum extent of territory for East Bengal,12 the position of Congress was more tactical and took a minimalist stance. The claim made by Congress was not only smaller than that of Muslim League in terms of area (a little over 50 per cent of the province excluding the CHT), but it was even smaller than what other Hindu parties demanded.13

The outcome of the Boundary Commission, or so-called Radcliffe Award – after all it was Radcliffe’s individual decision after he had failed to find a point of compromise among those concerned

– was published on August 17, 1947.14 As anticipated, no party was pleased with the outcome. Nevertheless, the award largely conformed to the scheme presented by Congress. The points of its corroboration are delineated in Chatterji (1999). On the other hand, the major gain by the Muslim League as against the Congress claim was to have retained the CHT.

The CHT, which was administered by the government as an excluded area, was left out of the main currents of the nationalist movement in the Indian subcontinent. Neither the Muslim League nor the Congress had any hold in the region. When the end of the British raj was coming into view, the tribal elites held diverse opinions, except for not opting for inclusion in Pakistan. These included joining India, forming a confederation of “native states” with the other native states of Tripura, Cooch Behar and Khasia, and a union with Burma, the last option being suggested by the Marma (Mong) chief [Mohsin 1997: 35].15 However, the option put in the form of a formal request to the government was incorporation into India. Whereas the Muslim League made a strong case for the incorporation of the CHT in their report to the Bengal Boundary Commission on July 17, 1947, the chiefs of the CHT went to Delhi and requested Jawaharlal Nehru to press for the inclusion of the CHT in India.16 The issue was raised again by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in a letter addressed by him to the viceroy as late as August 13, 1947 [Bhasin 2003, Vol V, Document No 1104]. The grounds of the Congress claim were twofold, the first relating to the small size of the Muslim population in the CHT (2.94 per cent of the total) and the second referring to the CHT’s ethnic as well as geographical contiguity with Tripura state and the Lushai Hills in Assam (currently the state of Mizoram) [Bengal Congress Central Consultative Boundary Committee 1947]. For purposes of comparison, it is necessary to examine the rationale of the Muslim League’s claim for Calcutta, where the non-Muslim population formed 67.53 per cent of total. The Muslim League justified its demand drawing on its own interpretation of the phrase “other factors”. It maintained that the prosperity of Calcutta was built with the resources of East Bengal and that East Bengal was entitled to receive a provincial revenue proportionate to its share of the population, an arrangement that would be impossible if Calcutta went to India [Chakrabarty 2004:162]. Moreover, regarding the composition of the population, one opinion stated that the hinterland on which the life of Calcutta as a city and port depended was a Muslim majority area of East Bengal [Khan 1998:3]. The eloquence of the argument made about Calcutta was completely absent from the Muslim League’s claim regarding the CHT. The argument put by the League simply stated that “the Chittagong Hill Tracts which contained only 3 per cent Muslim population could only be assigned to a state which controlled the district of Chittagong” [Khan 1998:5]. Radcliffe listed the issue of the CHT as one of the basic questions on which the demarcation of the boundary line depended.17 The award decided that the CHT should be incorporated into East Bengal. Although Radcliffe himself did not elaborate on the reason, it was surmised that the economic connectivity of the CHT with East Bengal weighed more than issues of ethnic or religious affinity [Hodson 1969:350]. As regards this question, some have speculated that the CHT was given to Pakistan to compensate her for a territorial loss in some other part of the subcontinent, for example in Punjab. Radcliffe, however, denied that there was a principle of “balance” at work between the two awards [Hodson 1969: 354-55].18

The Making of Migrant Issues

Migration is one of the prominent factors that have moulded the relationships among the countries and regions of eastern south Asia. Movement of people for various grounds, across cultural, linguistic, and ethnic regions has been going on since times immemorial. It would be no exaggeration to say that there is no place in the world that has not seen a flow of migration, whether inward or outward, large or small-scale, incessant or temporary. Nevertheless, why is migration problematic in some places and times but not in others?

According to Myron Weiner, in the multi-ethnic societies of the developing world, migration tends to have destabilising effects and can arouse intense conflicts [Weiner 1978]. In his pioneering work on migration in India, Weiner identifies three important concepts for understanding ethnic demography: notions of territorial ethnicity,19 dual labour markets20 and ethnic divisions of labour. Based on these premises relating to multiethnic societies in the developing countries, he argues that conflicts stem not from inequality between ethnic groups but from competition for control over, or access to, economic, political and social resources, power and status. Weiner further outlines some of the conditions under which competition between migrants and non-migrants takes place. One such condition is when the ethnic division of labour between migrants and non-migrants parallels class relationships; another condition is when existing ethnic divisions of labour are questioned by non-migrants because of changes in their ability or aspirations; and yet another is when a change in power structures enables non-migrants to strengthen their political, economic and social positions.

Weiner’s framework is useful for analysing the economic, political and social contexts of ethnic conflicts, and is particularly relevant in the context of eastern south Asia. Nevertheless, Weiner’s view can be somewhat misleading, because his framework can be applied to explain conflicts among any group of people of different characteristics, and not necessarily migrants and non-migrants. Thus, in my view, what is critically important for understanding the issue of migration as a source of conflict is the first concept Weiner mentioned, namely, territorial ethnicity. The perception that certain ethnic groups are entitled to have a larger claim over a certain territory than others is widely shared across societies. And it seems that it is the duration of their residence in that particular territory as ethnic groups, not as individuals, that constitutes the ground for their claims. In that respect, migration that signifies not only movement but also a notion of time has different implications for different categories of people.

Until territorial priority on the basis of the duration of residence is established in the perception of people, inter-group conflicts may take place along lines of ethnicity or religion, but not in the form of “migrants” versus “non-migrants”. However, once conflicts begin, competitions among different groups of people are likely to take the shape of conflicts between non-migrants and migrants, or “locals” and “outsiders”. At that point in time, what makes the definition of “migrants” or “outsiders” could be ethnicity, language, or religion, depending on what the dominant group draws on for forming group identities.

According to that line of argument, the Partition of India and Pakistan can be understood as the result of a claim for separate territories for the Muslims and the non-Muslims. In other words, Partition was an act of territoriality, an attempt to establish dominance by delimiting and asserting control over specific geographical areas. Partition caused a movement of people across the subcontinent and gave rise to the massive political, economic as well as human sufferings. It was important not only in terms of the actual consequences of events but also in the perceptional transformation of people. An event such as Partition, through the construction of official borders and “outsider” identification, has caused the forcible eviction of certain groups of people, who were deprived their pre-emptive rights over the land where they had lived for a substantial length of time. In other words, it could be said that Partition was instrumental in transforming the issue of “migrants” into a national issue, not only in respect of the territorial coverage of the issue concerned, but also by adding the label of “foreigners” to “outsiders”.

Territory as a justification for an entitled claim by a specific group of people needs to be marked by boundaries and borders. Once created, borders divide groups of people into “migrants” and “locals”. Therefore, the presence of borders indicates the social categorisation of “migrants” or “outsiders” embodied by the borders, and unless the territory is exclusively inhabited by a single category of people, lays the basis for possibly bitter conflicts among residents at various scales. If we take a look at a map, we can see that compared with the other parts of subcontinent, eastern south Asia is divided into relatively smaller sizes of territory by many borders and boundaries, including both national and domestic (state borders). While the presence of so many borders reflects the complexity of state formation in the region,21 it can also be considered as an indicator of the seriousness of the “migrants” issue, whether in the past or in current times.

Migration became an issue of concern in eastern south Asia, especially in Assam province, way back in the pre-Partition period. As already described in the previous section, the colonisation policy of the British government in the frontier region was characterised by the repeated drawing of borders so as to mark the territory over which the British could wield exclusive control. Furthermore, the British added to the map of the region a particular line called the “inner line”. This was a line drawn purely for British administrative purposes. In one way, the line consolidated the exclusion and alienation of the tribes from the larger, main territory and cultivated a sense of differentiated identities among them. Simultaneously, however, the enclosure of the areas also defined the “excluded” people, and was an official acknowledgement of some pre-emptive rights over territory or territorial ethnicity in Weiner’s terms. Consequently, the expansion of the “inner lines” and the streamlining of administrative areas conducted in the frontier lands contributed to the construction and reconstruction of “migrants” and “outsiders” as social categories. And the creation of border lines became embedded in the perception of people, entailing an implicit social hierarchy, whether or not that hierarchy existed in reality.

The implication of the “inner line” as a catalyst for creating the distinction between “migrants” and “the locals” associated with territorial bases was inherited and well reflected in the “line system” implemented in Assam, province in 1920. Assam as the frontier of India during the pre-Partition period, attracted millions of settlers from other regions of the subcontinent. The policy of the British government towards the development of the region accelerated the movement of people from outside since the British needed essential human resources including administrators, businessmen and labourers. The migrant communities created ethnic divisions of labour in the settled lands [Weiner 1978: 88104; Baruah 1999: 52-64]. In this way the demographic composition of Assam became much diversified and the share of migrants in the total population increased continuously. Nevertheless, it should be noted that from the beginning, the presence of migrants was not always unwelcome. Amalendu Guha states with some emphasis that in the 19th century, the enlightened section of the Assamese middle class welcomed large-scale immigration because their productive labour and skills were indispensable for economic progress under the under-populated conditions prevailing in those days [Guha 1977: 68].

Among the various migrant communities, it was the Bengali Muslims who became conspicuous targets as ‘migrants’. The major influx of Bengali Muslims into the lands along the Brahmaputra valley began in the early 20th century. The phenomenon was clearly evident in the results of the 1911 Census, and the census commissioner mentioned the potential threat posed by the migrants to Assamese culture and civilisation [Weiner 1978: 96-97]. People migrated from densely populated East Bengal to land-abundant Assam in search of land of their own. Initially, the newcomers settled in Assam’s waterlogged, jungleinfested, riverine belt. However, once they began to move out into the rest of the province, open clashes of interest began between the immigrants and the locals. In order to protect the interests of the “locals”, the idea of the line system was mooted by the deputy commissioner of Nowgong, a district in which there was at the time a strong influx of migrants. The new system was a device to segregate areas, specified for exclusive settlement, by drawing imaginary lines. But the flow of migrants did not cease. Subsequently the line system became a matter of contention between Assamese Hindu and Assamese Muslim politicians. Whereas the former called for the imposition of a more rigid policy towards the migrants, the latter demanded the abolition of the line system arguing that it was preventing the assimilation of the immigrants into Assamese society [Guha 1977: 210-211]. Both the Hindu and the Muslim Assamese tried to restructure territorial ethnicity in Assam in line with their own particular political interests. Provincial politics over the issue of the migrants continued until Partition awarded the settlement of territorial ethnicity at the national level [Hazarika 1994: 49-81]. The identification of Bengali Muslims as “migrants” and “outsiders” was further consolidated at that moment.

The migration problem, however, continued even after Partition. Immigrant numbers surged as a result of two critical events, Partition, and the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. Even between and after those occasions, silent but persistent inward flows of population took place [Hazarika 2000]. In Assam, immigration again became a stormy issue between 1979 and 1985. During those six years, the mass upheavals called the “Assam movement”, were essentially a strong protest campaign against central government for allowing “foreigners” to settle and to illegally take advantage of political and economic opportunities [Baruah 1999; Hazarika 1994, 2000]. I will not go into the details of the movement. However, it must be pointed out that the Assam movement, despite its vigour and the extent of its influence over state politics as well as its relationship with central government, remained a domestic problem of India.22 It did not affect India’s bilateral relationship with Bangladesh, which was identified as the source of the immigrants, mainly because the central government as well as part of the state government were reluctant to implement the identification and deportation of “foreigners” [Baruah 1999: 162]. The migrant issue as a formidable political factor was upgraded into a national issue only after the 1990s when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched the campaign against migrants from Bangladesh [Gillan 2002; Ramachandran 2003].

Sub-Regional Framework and the Border issue

The decade of the 1990s saw certain important changes in relationships among the countries of eastern south Asia. One of the changes occurred in India’s diplomatic philosophy. Economic supremacy based on the modern capitalist system and pragmatic ideas are accorded a high value. Also in order to promote its own self-interest, India is ever conscious of the importance of becoming one of the leading players in the international arena. In this context, India began to take a reconciliatory approaches towards its small neighbours in eastern south Asia after the disastrous diplomatic failures of the Rajiv Gandhi government at the end of 1980s [Mohan 2003: xviii-xxii, 237-59].

Another important change in the relationships among the countries of eastern south Asia since the latter part of the 1990s has been the formation of a sub-regional framework. As a matter of fact, it is through this process that this particular region, which cuts across both south Asia and south-east Asia and stretches even to the south-western part of China, has come to be recognised as a block in the mental map of policy-makers, intellectuals and business people.

While India in her Look East Policy tends to overlook her immediate neighbours, a sub-regional framework connecting three south Asian countries (Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka) with a south-east Asian country has been initiated by Thailand. BIMSTEC (formerly Bangladesh – India – Myanmar – Sri Lanka

– Thailand Economic Cooperation) started as BISTEC in June 1997 at a meeting of the trade ministers of four member countries, and in December 1997, it expanded to include Myanmar. With the inclusion of Nepal and Bhutan in January 2004, the full name was changed to Bay of Bengal Initiatives for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. In July 2004, the first summit was held in Thailand. Beginning as an organisation for sectoral cooperation, it became a more comprehensive institution after the signing of the BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement in February 2004.23

Unlike these initiatives promoted by economically better-off countries, the initiatives that made eastern south Asia the centre of a cooperative organisation came from smaller partners such as Nepal. This kind of regional concept, however, gained more support from intellectuals and donor agencies rather than from governments. The intellectuals and the donor agencies perceive this sub-regional cooperation as a viable solution to the underdevelopment of these less developed countries and of the region concerned (the north-eastern region of India) which is underdeveloped even by south Asian standards. They emphasise that geographical contiguity and proximity, as well as similarity of cultural traditions, lifestyles and attitudes provide the rationale for promoting effective cooperation [Dubey et al 1999; Sobhan 1999, 2000]. Cooperation at the sub-regional level has also been seen as an alternative to SAARC, which has been ineffective in promoting gainful cooperation because of long-standing conflicts between India and Pakistan.

The South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) consists of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India’s north-eastern region (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim) and West Bengal. It was at a meeting of the SAARC council of ministers held in New Delhi in May 1996 that the governments, for the first time, endorsed the idea of forming the new sub-regional framework. It was officially launched at the meeting of foreign ministers in Delhi in April 1997. Initially it was decided that the entire initiative should operate outside the framework of SAARC, and six sectors were identified for the promotion of development projects. However at the ninth SAARC Summit, held at Male in May 1997, it was decided that specific projects relevant to the special individual needs of three or more member states should be encouraged within the framework of SAARC.24 This change temporarily froze the entire initiative of SAGQ. Nevertheless, enthusiasm was revived to a certain extent after the meeting of the foreign secretaries in Kathmandu in July 1998 [Dubey et al 1999: 7-8]. SAGQ does not aim at market integration per se but puts an emphasis on project-based cooperation. Moreover it is seen as a practical solution to the socio-economic development of the sub-region insofar as its work does not require major policy shifts by the member states [Dubey et al: 11]. Rehman Sobhan states that the way sub-regional cooperation was incorporated into the SAARC framework shifted the focus from a more holistic agenda of cooperation within the SAGQ to collaboration for setting up specific projects or programmes which are more appropriately addressed amongst geographically contiguous states [Sobhan 1999: 146].

More than any other institution, it was the Asian Development Bank that responded quickly to the formation of SAGQ. In line with their policy of promoting sub-regional cooperation as one of the core components of poverty reduction, the ADB launched a programme called South Asia Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC). ADB has stated that one of the objectives is to solve mutual misunderstandings, which cast a shadow over the otherwise cordial economic relationships.

It should be noted here that according to an ADB official, SAGQ has ceased to exist and its substance has been taken over by SASEC.25 It is a matter of conjecture whether the transfer of ownership of the initiative to SASEC was a reflection of lack of interest among the member governments. Even if this were not the case, the transfer of ownership might affect the extent to which significance and energy are being attached to this particular sub-regional framework.

In response to a call by Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, a non-governmental international conference on regional economic cooperation and development was organised in Kunming, China in August 1999 among China, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The conference was initially called the Kunming Initiative and subsequently became known as the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) conference. The notion of economic cooperation in this particular region was advanced by the Economic and Technological Research Centre under the Yunnan provincial government several years before the first conference in 1999. Academic research on Yunnan’s potentiality for becoming a base for trade with south and south-east Asia began as early as the late 1980s.26 At the Symposium on the Regional Development of China-India-Myanmar-Bangladesh held in 1998 in New Delhi, the Yunnan delegation formally made the proposal that led to the conference in August 1999 (Economic and Technological Research Centre 1999: 33). The proposed cooperation covers the whole of Yunnan Province, Bihar, West Bengal and the north-eastern states of India, the whole of Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

The motive behind the active initiatives taken by Yunnan province is thought to be primarily an economic one. Yunnan, a land-locked province, wants access to the Bay of Bengal. In the first conference, Yunnan proposed the revival of the Stilwell Road. The road, which was built in 1942-43 by engineers under the command of General Joe Stilwell of the US army, stretched from Ledo in Assam to Myanmar and then continued into Yunnan province. The road still exists but is in a state of extreme dilapidation. According to the delegation of the Yunnan Development Research Centre (YDRC), which visited Kolkata in November 2003, China has already embarked on the reconstruction of the road between Kunming and the Myanmar border under a programme funded by the French and ADB. This section of the road is likely to be completed by 2007.27

For Yunnan, another objective of importance is to strengthen economic relationships with the south Asian states, and mainly India. By way of establishing direct links with India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, Yunnan will have cost-effective access to the vast south Asian market and resources.

In contrast to the proactive stance taken by China, India’s reaction towards the initiative was initially far from enthusiastic.28 India’s wariness has been grounded in both economic and political concerns including the anti-Delhi movement in the north-eastern states and fear of Chinese economic intrusion into the Indian market. Nevertheless, India’s attitude changed subsequently. In June 2000, former president K R Narayanan visited Kunming towards the end of his official visit to China. As in the case of the visit by the Bangladesh prime minister in 2002, the visit to Kunming by India’s head of state might have occurred as a result of a strong request from the Yunnan provincial government. Be that as it may, the president’s visit did mark a larger involvement of the Indian government in the Kunming initiative.

There are supposedly several factors behind the softening attitude of India towards China. One of these is India’s interest in the stunningly successful performance of the Chinese economy. The issue of cooperation between the two countries was given substance when the then Chinese prime minister Zhu Ronji visited India in 2002. Prime minister Zhu stimulated the imagination of the Indian people when he mentioned the possibilities of combining Indian software with Chinese hardware. From the political perspective, too, India has begun to see China not as a threat but as a prospective partner who shares common concerns with respect to national as well as international issues. The official visit by prime minister Vajpayee to China in June 2003 underscored the tendency of both India and China to consider bilateral relations from a pragmatic viewpoint, with both recognising realities with respect to sovereignty over Tibet and Sikkim. Moreover as one of the outcomes of the visit, India and China agreed to reopen the historic trade route connecting Nathu La in Sikkim and Lhasa in Tibet, an initiative that carries significant implications for the future course of sub-regional relations.

The idea of a sub-regional framework, as the name implies, is based on the concept of economic territoriality, and involves notions such as growth zones [Sobhan 1999]. The proponents of sub-regional cooperation in eastern south Asia attribute the appropriateness of such a framework to geographical contiguity and to assumed similarities in the culture and lifestyles of the people. Regional cooperation would also provide a means of breaking out from resource constraints or from geographical isolation in the case of land-locked countries and regions. Nevertheless, in the current state of sub-regional initiatives, that aspect of territorial awareness is not given much importance and any attention that it is given is selectively focused. The primary expectation of individual governments is oriented toward promoting trade and inviting investment. Moreover, their attention is directed more to south-east Asia than towards their immediate neighbours. Despite the layout of funds on infrastructure development as well as on trade facilitation measures as the priority areas of cooperation, and despite the ready availability of financial and intellectual support from donor agencies and from academics, the governments seem to remain less than enthusiastic. They would probably cite “security concerns” and “protection of domestic interests” as the reasons for their prudence. On the other hand, the governments have their own agendas and strategies for assisting the development of infrastructure in certain locations within other countries.29 These tendencies limit the areas of “subregional cooperation” to the ones connecting only the centres of the individual countries and undermine the innate potentials of sub-regional cooperation.

Conclusion

The paper began with a statement that borders in eastern south Asia are one of the fundamental sources of disputes between states. Why are borders important? Borders evolved with the birth of the concept of modern nation states and are markers that define and guarantee state sovereignty. In eastern south Asia, construction of borders was meticulously pursued by the British, an approach that ended with the notorious act of Partition. Since then, unlike India and Pakistan, which continue to fight against each other over Kashmir, in eastern south Asia, conflict over territory ended with the Indo-China war in 1962. Paula Banerjee who analyses border issues in the context of the Indo-China war points out the change that occurred in the perceptions of borders in the 1950s. Initially the Indian government who inherited their giant country from the British took given borders for granted. However, regional hegemonic compulsions vis-a-vis China have reactivated the border issue. Banerjee adds that failing to tackle the problem of poverty and the rise of insurgency in the north-eastern region, the ruling elite attributed the cause of problems to porous borders. They used border disputes as an excuse for militarising the entire region [Banerjee 1998].

It is, therefore, not land or territory per se which are important in border issues so far as governments are concerned. Rather, borders are important in symbolic terms. Besides well known disputed territories such as Kashmir and the India-China borderlands, there are smaller but numerous territories under dispute in various parts of the subcontinent. Problematic enclaves, which are the fallout of Partition, are an example of such disputes. There are 123 Indian enclaves surrounded by Bangladesh and 74 Bangladesh enclaves located in India. During the 50 years or more since Partition, the governments have done little in respect of those territories. Without provision of legal access to their respective mainlands, the residents of enclaves risk constant insecurity every time they go out of the enclaves for the mere purpose of living [Van Schendel 2002].

What meanings do borders have for people, then? There is no denying the fact that people manage to find ways to live with artificially drawn borders [Van Schendel 2002]. Crossing borders can be considered as a viable livelihood strategy for them. Nevertheless, it is not correct to assume that for those who move across them, borders are meaningless. As discussed in Section II, borders are instrumental in constructing identities such as “migrants” and “outsiders” as well as in making the “migrant issue” problematic. In some cases, as discussed by Sanjeeb Kakoty (2004), official borders were drawn without obtaining the confidence of local people and local institutions. As a result, some of the land belonging to the local people fell beyond the border (fences were constructed in such cases). During his survey in Meghalaya, Sanjeeb Kakoty heard an opinion to the effect that the opening of borders would be welcome in order to promote free passage of goods but not the free passage of people. It is the selective nature of people’s perception about the borders that gives scope for the exploitation of “border issues” and “migrant issues” by vested interests.

The issue of migrants has become a serious concern even in an improving diplomatic environment. Furthermore, the subregional initiatives so far promoted have not fully taken advantage of geographical and cultural contiguity and connectivity. If they were to, they would be selective in the territories they would like to connect or to see connected. On the whole, subregional cooperation in eastern south Asia is characterised not by deconstruction of borders as political discourses but by the absence of serious thinking about borders and borderlands, not to speak of the people who have to live with the border realities.

EPW

Email: murayama@ide.go.jp

Notes

1 Eastern south Asia in this study covers the sub-region of Bangladesh,

Bhutan, Nepal, India, specifically north-eastern region and West Bengal,

Myanmar and adjoining areas of southern China (Yunnan Province).

2 Most of the states advocate economic openness for exporting their own

products and services while imposing selective restrictions on importing

foreign goods and services. This innate contradiction limits the extent

of economic borderless world rhetoric to influence political openness of

the states. However, the problem is not discussed in this article and I

focus on the states’ attitude towards the movement of people rather than

that of goods and services.

3 Even if legally separated, the borders between India and Burma were only loosely defined because of a difference in opinion between the Indian and Burmese governments on how to divide the territory where the Naga tribes lived [Fujii 2001: 200-01].

4 The first contact of the East India Company with Bhutan was made in 1772-73 on the occasion of the latter’s intervention over the affairs of Cooch Behar kingdom. Responding to the appeal for help from the Cooch Behar ruling family, the British sent troops and defeated the Bhutanese force.

5 The Inner Line was extended to all the hills except the Khasi and the Garo hills – today’s state of Meghalaya - and the Mikir hills – the Karbi Anglong district of present-day Assam. The plains areas of present-day Assam and Tripura were excluded from the rule.

6 Although the Simla Convention was originally designed to be a tripartite convention among the British, Chinese and Tibetans, it ended up by becoming an Anglo-Tibetan convention as China raised an objection regarding the provisions concerning the Sino-Tibetan frontier. However, the Chinese government acquiesced without a word of objection to the proposed Indo-Tibetan boundary, later knows as the McMahon Line [Chakravarty 1971: 56-65].

7 The Afghan government under Zahir Shar made a formal request in 1946 to the Indian government for the restoration of territory on the ground that the Durand Line Agreement would lapse with the withdrawal of the British [Sultan-i-Rome 2004]. In case of the McMahon Line, both the Kuomintang and Communist governments of China rejected the prescribed boundary arguing that it was secretly agreed between the British and the Tibetan representatives behind the backs of Chinese representatives. They maintained also that Tibet was an integral part of China and therefore did not have the right to conclude a treaty [Maxwell 2003; Ruisheng 2004].

8 During the period between 1905 and 1911 when Bengal province was divided, Sylhet was included in Chittagong Division [Rizvi 1970: 79]. 9 Chakrabarty (2004) gives a detailed account of the referendum in Sylhet. 10 Report of the Bengal Boundary Commission relating to Sylhet district

and the adjoining districts of Assam [Bhasin 2003, Vol V, Document No 1103].

11 Statement by His Majesty’s government, June 3, 1947 (Mansergh, et al 1982, Vol XI, No 45).

12 The Muslim League claimed four-fifths of the total area of Bengal province.

13 Congress presented two cases side by side. The larger plan, which was for claiming 55 per cent of the territory for West Bengal, however, was used to highlight the defects and merits of the other plan [Bengal Congress Central Consultative Boundary Committee 1947]. On the other hand, the memorandum presented by the Hindu Mahasabha and other smaller parties demanded roughly 57 per cent of the total area of Bengal excluding the CHT [Chatterji 1999:202].

14 The award was ready by August 13, but the announcement was delayed by Mountbatten who anticipated substantial disagreements over the award, enough to disrupt the planned schedule of power transfer [Hodson 1969:351-52]. The Indian Independence Act of 1947, thus defined the territories of India and Pakistan broadly, stating that the boundaries of the new provinces would be determined by awards based on decision of the chairmen of the boundary commissions. In other words, the two sovereign states were created without knowing their precise territories.

15 The CHT was divided by the Bengal government in 1881 into three circles

– Chakma, Bohmang and Mong, each headed by a chief.

16 Letter of Jawaharlal Nehru to viceroy Mountbatten, asserting that Chittagong Hill Tracts must form part of the Indian Union, dated July 19, 1947 [Bhasin 2003, Vol V, Document No 1100].

17 Report of the Bengal Boundary Commission, August 12, 1947 [Bhasin 2003, Vol V, Document No 1102].

18 Since Radcliffe refused to supplement or discuss his awards, it is impossible to know his true intention. However, what is important in the present political context of the CHT is that the compensation theory is deeply grounded in the local mindset [The CHT Commission 1991:12]. Even an eminent historian such as Bidyut Chakrabarty mentions without solid

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evidence that “the loss thus made was compensated for by assigning the sparsely populated district of Chittagong Hill Tracts, with a Buddhist majority, to east Pakistan” [Chakrabarty 2004:168].

19 Territorial ethnicity is defined as the notion that certain ethnic groups are “rooted” in space.

20 Duality in the labour market can be jobs of any two types of contrasting character, for example, traditional versus modern, formal versus informal or skilled versus unskilled jobs.

21 See Inoue (2005) for the process of state formation in the north-eastern region of India.

22 Assam movement has instigated the rise of other homelands movements including Gorkhaland movement led by the ethnic Nepalis of India.

23 The framework agreement stipulates preferential treatment including suitable timeframes for tariff reduction for the LDCs. The accord also states that India, Sri Lanka and Thailand would be awarded a five-year period while Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar would get a 10-year period for tariff reduction. Tariff reductions would begin in mid-2006, with products designated for “fast-track” treatment to be traded on a zero-tariff basis by mid-2009 for the three developed members (India, Sri Lanka and Thailand) and by mid-2011 for the poorer members (Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar).

24 Male Declaration issued on May 14, 1997.

25 Interview by author with Purnima Rajapakse, Head of Economic Unit in Bangladesh Resident Mission of ADB in August 2003.

26 Nikhil Lakshman, ‘Sino-Indian Ties Have Reached ‘Criticality’’, www.rediff.com/news/2000/jun/02china.htm.

27 ‘Chinese Team Seeks Relaunch of Air Link to Boost Tourism’, Business Line, November 29, 2003.

28 According to the Bangladesh delegation who attended the second conference held in New Delhi in 2000, the involvement of the Indian central government was very low-key compared with the role of other three governments when the conferences were held in their countries. Interview by author with Rahmatullah, programme director, Centre for Policy Dialogue, August 2003.

29 Under the BJP, the government provided a grant to Myanmar for the construction of a road connecting Moreh in Manipur with central Myanmar. This road is designated as part of the Asian highway. In addition, the road is important for both of the governments who agreed to take a common approach towards terrorism and anti-government insurgency, which is carried out in the cross-border region.

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