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Making of a Borderland

Becoming a Borderland: The Politics of Space and Identity in Colonial Northeastern India by Sanghamitra Misra (Routledge India), 2011; Rs 695, pp 256.


Making of a Borderland

Gunnel Cederlöf

Mughal privileges conflicted with those of an upcoming middle class, and people drawing a livelihood from flexible and mobile pro duction systems faced colonial policies aiming to tie them to land and

he last decade of social science research has seen an efflorescence of in-depth studies of north-east India with a new sensibility of the region and its specificity as a borderland. From the perspective of the political and academic Indian mainland, the last century and a half has made this region known for its remoteness, its assumed absence of civility, and violent refusal to accept British colonial and Independent Indian state control. Today, by conceptualising the historical production of the geopolitical exception “the North-east” as a borderland, Sangamitra Misra draws attention in this book both to the region’s dependence on political cores to which it has been made marginal and to the specific character of societies that have been divided by state-produced boundaries beyond their control.1

What Zomia Is Not

Already at the outset, the concept “borderland” has shared space with another geopolitical idea: that of Zomia. Willem van Schendel had two interrelated reasons for introducing these two conceptualisations of space into the academic debates on south and south-east Asia in 2002. Firstly, he drew attention to the mutual marginalisation of certain regions for their distance from political heartlands and for simultaneously being at the margins of academic regional studies. Secondly, he defined Zomia as a separate space spanning the mountainous regions from the Himalayas in central Asia, across Tibet, south-west China, and north-east India to south-east Asia. From the point of regional studies, Zomia is thereby divided between south Asian, south-east Asian and east Asian studies, or is excluded by all.2

To a certain extent Zomia is defined by what it is not. Surely, qualities such as “shared ideas, related lifeways, and long-standing cultural ties”, together with religious, cultural, and language affinities, would suffice to make it a

Becoming a Borderland: The Politics of Space and Identity in Colonial Northeastern India

by Sanghamitra Misra (Routledge India), 2011; Rs 695, pp 256.

region of regional studies. But disparities stand out and negations seem to define Zomia best. Most prominently, when polity and political decision-making is emphasised, it becomes a “non-state space”, a space in which to take refuge away from exploitative state power. The relationship between polity and topography has been added to the definition, by James C Scott in a rather axiomatic way in a separation and conflict between valley states and anarchic hill societies. The insights provided by and the debates stirred by these scholars provide the backdrop for the study under review.3

Becoming a Borderland

Misra frames her study of the historical development of modern Goalpara in the Assam Valley and the larger region of north-east India as one of how it became a borderland. She argues that Goalpara, from having shared cultural and historical memories with Bhutan, Tibet, Cooch Behar and parts of Bengal and Assam, was made separate and marginal by 19th century colonial policies. From the perspective of the mainland or “heartland” India, east Bengal, Assam and beyond were also on the fringes of Mughal imperial interests, a marker region and a frontier to keep under control. British colonial policies followed a similar logic and the region was administrated by an agent of the north-eastern frontier.

Commercial and territorial interests generated socio-economic and demographic change in the 19th century. The British East India Company (EIC) was a dominant but not sole actor in the transformation. Bengali, Afghani, Armenian, Shan, English, French and other merchants entered to trade in the marketplaces with people from far beyond the river trading posts. Interests of old landed elites holding

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settled livelihoods.

Misra depicts these complex and often contradictory transitions in broad strokes and convincing empirical detail. In the long-term perspective, she describes how colonial rule manifested itself in Assam through market operations and revenue settlements that introduced notions of absolute property in land. The colonial rulers confronted what they understood to be a situation of scarce population and underutilised agrarian lands with incentives to increase cultivation. More land came under the plough in the form of settled production by cultivators who had faced hardships in the agrarian regions along the Ganges and Brahmaputra and had migrated in large numbers to Assam. After discussing 19th century agrarian and revenue history, Misra moves to focus on the cultural production of a regional identity in the early 20th century. She specifically targets the politicisation of vernacular languages in the political and literary spheres.

The broad historical narrative thereby forms into a rather linear crescendo, describing increasing colonial state control. Misra opens her concluding discussion by citing Henri Lefebvre. The citation is from his study of space and the way in which capitalism through the modern nation state in the late 20th century produces certain spatial forms and organises society. The State

... weighs down on society (on all societies) in full force ... imposing analogous, if not homologous, measures irrespective of political ideology ... The state crushes time... This modern state promotes and imposes itself as the stable centre ... it flattens the social and “cultural” spheres.4

Scott’s argument of the pre-eminent high-modern state, bringing “non-state spaces and people to heel”, formulated in close proximity to Lefebvre’s position, is central for Misra’s own argument of the making of a borderland. Such territories develop in relation to and as a consequence of “heartland” forces. The precolonial socio-economic webs and cultures

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are explained to have been erased, plurality and mobility replaced by “spatially delimited units of colonialism ... profoundly altering local social and spatial relationships” (196-97). Thereby her argument moves towards Lefebvre’s second proposition about the modern state, that it provokes opposition, wars, revolutions, confrontations and turbulence.

Complex Realities

The empirical details, however, stand out in contrast to these general historical explanations by revealing more complex realities. Neither capital nor the colonial state appear to have produced a single space in line with Lefebvre’s position. The 19th century colonial documents rather point to a state much less capable of commanding the totality of society. The formation of the Goalpara borderlands seems to have been shaped by a multiplicity of actors, interests and perceptions that produced competing and contested spaces.

The strength of Misra’s work is the solid empirical substance which contributes with nuances and shades of grey. They provide many examples of how colonial rule changed priorities and institutional forms over the first century of territorial control. Francis Hamilton Buchanan’s reports from the first decades of the 19th century show the EIC’s stumbling attempts to get to grips with the zamindars of the large estates and the privileges of the jotedar (cultivators). The reports of the magistrate of Rangpur district (later the agent to the northeastern frontier), David Scott, give further evidence to the EIC’s priorities to institute order in a situation where they lacked the means and interest to impose universal state control. Years of continuous raids had occurred in Rangpur in the early 19th century. Garos attacked zamindars who had encroached on Garo livelihoods in the foothills and plains. The EIC curbed the raids by getting the zamindars under control and blocking the Garos from marketplaces. However, the Garos were allowed to carry on “domestic affairs” according to their own custom (Chapter 2). Thus the company officers sought flexible solutions to settle regional conflicts.

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february 11, 2012

The rich documentation from the mid-1860s, brought forth by Misra, of the social economy of the Bijni and Sidli estates and their relationship to the kingdom of Bhutan gives an equally multifarious image of flexible production from settled and itinerant livelihoods. They also show the many customary ways of honouring rights and duties, dependence and superiority of neighbouring powers. However, the response of the colonial officials was now different. In the 1860s post-revolt period, three decades after the EIC had lost its last monopolies, officials did not acknowledge “native custom” in layered sovereignties or seasonally changing realms of political influence between neighbouring rulers. At a time when the British empire was reaching its peak and the bureaucracy was reorganised and strengthened, colonial priorities had changed. In contrast to the earlier situation of “Company rule”, colonial policies were now coloured by universal ideas of fixed territorial state-boundaries and what was seen as universal ideas about singular sovereignties in the synoptic view of the British empire in India.

A Valuable Work

When the empirical documentation is reorganised according to the time and context in which it was produced, it allows for such nuances. The “construction of Goalpara was [certainly] linked to the practices of the colonial spatial imagination”, as Misra writes (86). However the colonial visions apparently changed over time. The singularity of the colonial mind at any particular time may have been manifested in ideological rhetoric and policy documents. But the elaborations and doubts that British officials expressed in their reports open our possibilities to understand colonial local practice (in contrast to, perhaps even negation of policy) in terms of flexibility, compromise, and change – terms now reserved for indigenous polities and actors. Such adaptability to local and immediate contexts may better explain the forcefulness and strength of colonial rule. The structure of imperial power in local and regional settings was often mediated more by local circumstance than by ideas of the synoptic universal singularity of colonial power, perhaps more so in the early than late 19th century.

Considering the richness of empirical detail provided by Misra, her elaboration of the “many borderlands” is particularly important. Goalpara as a region was constrained by its position between Bengal and Assam (apparent not least in the conflicts over vernacular language in the 1920s and 1930s). It was “fraught by contesting narratives and counternarratives, ... local politics as well as in the trajectories of the neighbouring nationalisms...” (p 2). Such complexities are difficult to host within Lefebvre’s conceptualisation of space. No doubt he contributes to analyses of space as being socially produced, but the complexities of Goalpara past’s may gain insights also from social-theory geographers who have further developed the idea of scale in relation to space. In contrast to the 1990s theoretical studies, scale is now no longer treated as ontologically given (local, regional, national, global) but as

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contingent outcomes of tensions between structural forces and human practices, to paraphrase Sallie Marston. By under

understanding the processes that shape and constitute social practices at different levels of analysis (scales) we may better see how spaces are the embodiment of social relations, formed over time, and linked within and without a particular place as, for example, Goalpara.5

The more studies that are being produced of societies and regions away from the political centres, the more words like “exceptional” and “marginal” tend to be used, and this for good reasons. Misra’s study of the north-eastern frontier mirrors to some extent questions discussed by K Sivaramakrishnan in his study of the colonial south-western frontier of Chota Nagpur and neighbouring regions. From the perspective of the colonial government at Calcutta, both “frontiers” were seen as “wild” and uncivil. However, whereas Sivaramakrishnan studies the making of the colonial state and its institutions for governing the territories on

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the frontier, Misra seeks to understand the making of a borderland, a “space inbetween” the two emerging “core” provinces of Bengal and Assam. Both authors argue that the application of state control created exceptions from the colonial norms, but their conceptualisations of the exceptional space are each others’ opposites. In a state-focused analysis, the frontier becomes an exceptional case. A borderland-focused study opens for a reframing of that which constitutes “the exception”. Observing the many historical studies that find exceptions within their boundaries, we may need to critically review the norms against which historians find so many exceptions. The rich texture and nuance of narratives in colonial documents may call for some rethinking of the conceptual models we draw upon. It is these nuanced and sophisticated narratives that make this a valuable work.6

Gunnel Cederlöf ( is with the department of history, Uppasala University, Sweden.

Books Received

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1 See for example David Vumlallian Zou and M Satish Kumar, “Mapping a Colonial Borderland: Objectifying the Geo-Body of India’s Northeast”, Journal of Asian Studies, 70, No 1, February 2011; David Ludden, “Where Is Assam? Using Geographical History to Locate Current Social Realities”, Himal Southasian, November 2005; Sanjib Baruah, “Territoriality, Indigeneity and Rights in North-East India”, Economic & Political Weekly, 43, Nos 12-13, 2008; Philippe Ramirez, “Belonging to the Borders: Uncertain Identities in Northeast India” in Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and Gérard Toffin (ed.), The Politics of Belonging in the Himalayas: Local Attachments and Boundary Dynamics (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2010).

2 Willem van Schendel, “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia”, Environment and Planning

D: Society and Space, 20, No 6, 2002. 3 Ibid; ....., The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State

and Nation in South Asia, Anthem South Asian Studies (London: Anthem), 2005; James C Scott,

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2009.

4 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Blackwell), 1991, 23; Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

5 Sallie A Marston, “The Social Construction of Scale”, Progress in Human Geography, 24, No 2 (2000): 220-21.

6 K Sivaramakrishnan, Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in Colonial Eastern India (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 1999.

Implications for India (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp x + 256, Rs 795.

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