XQs XXIX - A Conversation with Malini Sur

Posted by sepoy on January 21, 2022 · 36 mins read

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Aparajita Majumdar for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous twenty eight XQs.

MS Book Cover

Malini Sur is a socio-cultural anthropologist who has conducted research in India, Bangladesh and, more recently, in Australia. She is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Western Sydney University. Her monograph, *Jungle Passports:Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border appeared in 2021. Her photographs on South Asia’s borderlands have been exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Chiang Mai, Gottingen, Heidelberg, Kathmandu and Munich.

Q: In the introduction, you mention that the “India and Bangladesh border is not a warring one, like India-Pakistan or Israel-Palestine, and yet it continues to be site of land and identity conflicts and gross human rights violations.” The continuing conflicts of India-Bangladesh borders show that there are other kinds of wars, ones that remain undeclared, invisible to the world, apparent only when a body hanging from the barbed wires receives international coverage—as we see in the case of Felani Khatun (a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl, killed by India’s Border Security Forces in January 2007.) How do we then speak of these borders that have no “wars” but its violent effects? How do border infrastructures like the razor-sharp, barbed wires, metal pillars, extend violent events beyond a specific political form and time frame?

Willem van Schendel’s Bengal Borderland (2004) importantly reminds us that the India-Bangladesh border is a “killer border” and that borders between “friendly states” also generate extreme violence. Along with his book, a rich body of scholarship in anthropology on trauma, suffering, and the lingering impacts of political violence provided strong intellectual foundations to study violence in an ecologically shifting riverine landscape, and in rice fields, forests, hills and foothills. I attempted to understand violence beyond singular catastrophic events, like the partition of the Indian subcontinent and wars, border disputes and their lingering impacts. In addition, the human rights discourse does not capture the complexity of moving, settling, making a living, dying, and grieving that divided lives such as that of Felani’s.

Border lives are much more than an aggregate of violent historical events. Old images of heliotropes used for colonial surveys and earthquake fissures, sounds of nervous laughter, loud macho boastful conversations, the intentionally gentle footfalls of border troops, the loud thud of sharp sticks landing on the backs of cows, disoriented elephants bellowing at a distance–led me to diverse terrains of violence and mobility that I write about in Jungle Passports.

In Jungle Passports, I center ecologies, infrastructures, exchanges, and mobility in the study of borders. I show the shifting configurations and the way they shape life and loss. Border walls and fences emplace sovereignty and nationalism; nations continually build, uproot, and demolish and rebuild such infrastructures. As I started paying close ethnographic attention to the new border fence that was under construction between India and Bangladesh, I found scholarly insights that foreground border walls either as uniform artifacts that express sovereign gains and losses or as violent narrations of the postcolonial form to be limiting. I contend that nations intentionally create and maintain borders as perennially unfinished projects of national governance and rule. They do so in order to intensify the unsettling presence of borders in the lives of people and even animals. Even broken walls and rusted barbed wires establish the anxious domestication of lethal infrastructures through the armed troops that surveil borders.

I lived and travelled with many people caught up in this process, including village elders, exiles, deportees, priests, farmers, and traders. Their recollections of the past–along with a range of historical records, from frayed maps, hand-written church chronicles, deportation notices–which people urged me to see and read in these remote border villages allowed me to rethink the long histories of mobility and violence. My book joins the study of contemporary border infrastructures to understand violence, through a focus on fences, military outposts, boundary pillars and courtrooms in India where suspected unauthorized Bangladeshis face interrogation–with reference to the historical sensibilities that people expressed.

India’s new border fence with Bangladesh under construction in Meghalaya and Assam, Northeast India. Photograph: Malini Sur
India’s new border fence with Bangladesh under construction in Meghalaya and Assam, Northeast India. Photograph: Malini Sur.

People related their pasts to me in ways that I did not anticipate. My anthropological fieldwork forced me to research back in time for almost two hundred years, even though I had not planned on doing so. People’s historical sensibilities led me to the archives. Here, complex borderland histories of violence and mobility unfolded through records of conscription for building roads in northeastern frontiers of British India; the classification of “rude savages;” notes on land hungry peasants; rebels and militias and much more. Methodologically, the historical impetus which came from ethnographic fieldwork (rather than archival fieldwork as a starting point to understand borderland histories) also enabled me to study the changing configurations of violence in and across time.

Q: Despite the brutalities of the border security regimes, you argue that the Northeast India-Bangladesh border also has “life-giving properties,” which in turn has given rise to a “borderi” lexicon–a set of shared words and phrases–which allows traders, brokers and kins to signal when the border is running for business and when it is gorom (hot) during national security alerts. Your analysis of the borderi lexicon is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book because it articulates a resilient people’s history of cross-border travels in a voice that is their very own. Can you talk to us to about this lexicon?

The borderi lexicon was everywhere, and significant, both during the fieldwork and while I was writing. Let me begin with how these local expressions enabled me to understand how people experience borders—-and return to their significance in scholarly conversations that stand at the cross-roads of anthropology and history. My entry into the world of borderi or ways of life that depend upon the India-Bangladesh border for sustenance and profits, happened in a remote border char (riverine island). The mobile landscape of the chars–that changing waters of the river Brahmaputra erode, destroy and recreate-–have been the site of contestations for land and identity politics for more than a hundred and fifty years.

To me as an anthropologist who needed to survive a militarized zone and to the production of this ethnographic text, it was crucial to understand that the border was fundamental to the people who relied on the border to make a living. Let us take two expressions–fang fung spoken in the char borderlands and jongol (jungle) passports used in the Garo borderlands by which I am referring to the zone inhabited by the mostly Garo indigenous Christian border residents. These expressions are not just coded vernaculars that facilitate smuggling. They have serious analytic implications for scholarship on borderlands and beyond. So, how do borderi lexicon that are culturally specific and inflected with political meaning help us to comprehend the configurations of capital, mobility and difference?

In Jungle Passports, I suggest that they do so in at least two ways. First, in anchoring a range of trans-border economic activities and passages and the relationships that support them, these expressions reveal changing terms of trust, relationality and duplicity that shape mobile lives. Secondly, borderi foreground how the worlds of capital and the sacred are intertwined in ways that are life-defining and life-giving–and therefore my contention about borders as force of life. Finally, these expressions led me to think and write at the productive convergences of anthropology and history in ways that may enable us to better understand borders. So, in that sense the borderi lexicons as the subjects of immersive anthropological fieldwork led me to long standing questions of exchange, reciprocity and dangers, which encouraged me to think historically. Most importantly these reset the terms upon which historians have written about capital, commodities and borders in South Asia.

The Indian Border Security Force patrolling the Northeast India-Bangladesh border during floods. Photograph: Shib Shankar Chatterjee
The Indian Border Security Force patrolling the Northeast India-Bangladesh border during floods. Photograph: Shib Shankar Chatterjee

Q: In Chapter 2, while discussing the contentious history of postcolonial territory-making in the borderlands of Northeast India and East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh in 1971), you argue how rice, essential as food, became controversial as “claims to land”. As rice cultivators from religious and ethnic minorities were deported from agrarian lands on both sides of the border in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, how did these histories of loss and displacement inform the present-day identity politics of Northeast India and Bangladesh? And how do we read the life-histories of rice cultivators like Karim Nasir who continue to identify themselves as “Assamese”, and not “Indian” or “Pakistani”, even after having been deported decades before from Assam as a “Pakistani spy”?

Scholarship on land, identities, migration, and borders regard rice cultivators like Karim Nasir either as villains who intended to take over Assam’s land to incorporate it within Pakistan and later Bangladesh or as productive and helpless food producing victims who need resettlement and rehabilitation. Both these positions–the first that takes an exclusionary definition of who is Assamese and the second that seeks to rewrite the contentious issues surrounding the contemporary crisis in Indian citizenship in Assam through the recurring motif of victimhood–do not consider the compelling ecological and political circumstances that shape assertions of national territoriality and sub-national belongings that rice cultivators like Karim Nasir express.

In Jungle Passports I recast the dynamics that shaped rice cultivation and rice raids to show how rice became a controversial commodity despite supporting Assam’s plantation economy and being a staple food in post-independent Assam. Through a close re-reading of official documents–letters that India and East Pakistan’s district officials exchanged, intelligence and espionage reports, hand written chronicles of Christian priests, and petitions made by rice cultivators–I illustrate how the claims of Muslim rice cultivators of Bengali origin to land in Assam, which they cultivated revenue free in chars, in forests and grazing reserves, stood at the nexus of the intimate and the political. And I explain why an elderly man like Karim Nasir, a Bangladeshi Bengali Muslim, and a relatively prosperous landed farmer, still looks vacantly at the hills of Assam which remains his homeland. Today, lingering animosities and mobilities drive people into Assam’s Foreigners Tribunals as “suspected” unauthorized Bangladeshis.

TA border char (riverine island) in Assam, Northeast India. Photograph: Malini Sur
A border char (riverine island) in Assam, Northeast India. Photograph: Malini Sur

Q: In your chapter on Bangladeshi “suspects” and Indian “citizens”, you study how laws and foreigners’ tribunals failed to provide solutions to citizenship issues in Assam. You argue that by “leaving un-clarified the contentious issues of land loss and identities in Assam, judicial processes make suspicion rather than legal and procedural certainty, fundamental to the manufacturing of Indian citizenship in Assam.” Could you elaborate this argument in the context of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019?

When I arrived to conduct fieldwork in Assam’s Foreigners’ Tribunals I intended to explore how judicial process and police surveys aimed to resolve the ambiguities surrounding Indian citizenship. As I poured over police surveys, interrogation forms, court registers and case files, and observed the court trials and the judicial deliberations, I came to realize that these processes entrenched suspicion. Police interrogations and judicial trials spiraled suspicion and perpetuated doubt to settle personal and political scores and rupture familiar and familial bonds in Assam. This, then, became a key focus throughout the book.

Jungle Passports takes suspicion as a conceptual signpost to comprehend how policing and judicial trials make claims of legitimacy and citizenship fraught with uncertainty and contestations. The political and legal quest to decipher citizens from outsiders encourages vigilance; as a bureaucratic device suspicion weaves in and out of intimate spaces in ways that rupture notions of place and community. Suspicion becomes a device to decipher the boundaries of citizenship by harassing people, manipulating papers, and settling scores. Instead of resolving issues on unauthorized migration and land loss, the ethereal presence of Bangladeshi suspects in law and life accentuates Assam’s dual predicament as a perennially repositioned internal and external frontier of Indian democracy. Even judgements at the tribunals do not necessarily obliterate suspicion.

Q: In Chapter 4, you analyze how Garo women traders in Bangladesh perform their shared ethnic identities with India to bypass national borders and reach Meghalaya (Northeast India). While Garo women’s convivial relationships of trust with the socially isolated Indian troops allow them to playfully assert their cross-border ethnic connections, you also show us how these relations do not always protect them from confiscations of goods, fines, and even imprisonments. In the cross-border journeys of Garo women, how crucial then are the “jungle passports”–the passages through the forests and streams that remain outside the grid of state-surveillance?

Let us begin with questions of ethnicity and mobility. Bangladeshi Garo traders conveyed a sense of timelessness, claiming that border trade was eternal, a turn of phrase that reflects far more than the historical connections between the Garo Hills, the foothills, and the adjoining plains that are today divided between Bangladesh and India. So you see, these trans-border journeys are not just about how women mobilize kin networks and informal relationships for making a living, an area that is well investigated by border scholars who write about “ant trade” and “suitcase trading.” For me, such forms of mobility for trade and labor challenge the taken for granted scholarly assumptions on the role that ethnicity and religion plays at borders. Such mobilities force us to rethink about what Ranabir Samaddar calls “everyday transnationality” beyond narrow economic transactions. Shared Christian religiosity and relationships with border troops where, moving from one part of the borderland to another is actually/necessarily not seen as transgressive by either nation-states or the Christian communities, despite the construction of new barriers gave legitimacy to these journeys.

“Jungle passports” in other words, foreground the border’s productive capacity not only to materially benefit those who live along it, but attest to people’s claims of ethnicity beyond the classification of the Garos into distinct categories of indigenous and “tribal” in Northeast India and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh.

The Garo Borderland between Meghalaya, Northeast India and Mymensingh, Bangladesh. Photograph: Malini Sur
The Garo Borderland between Meghalaya, Northeast India and Mymensingh, Bangladesh. Photograph: Malini Sur

Garo women’s journeys also led to a broader question: how may we account for such mobility in histories of nation-making and community-building? The significant role of Garo women as economic actors amidst state repression and their contributions to building nations and communities has not figured in the rich feminist historiography and the gendering of nationalism in Bangladesh. Their location as ethnic minorities in Bangladesh, as well as their contribution as mobile traders fall outside the nationalist notions of both honor and shame that Bangladesh had ascribed to Bengali women. Garo kinship structures that make them ethnic minorities in Bangladesh and “tribes” in India mark them worthy subjects of anthropology and yet their mobility ensures that they are written out of histories that take seriously the relationship between gender and borders.

Ironically, even studies on the Partition of India in Northeast India are mostly limited to the predicaments of Hindu Bengali refugees or the conflicts between refugees and indigenous societies. The analytic potential of Jungle Passports lies in recasting the scholarly terms on which we think about kinship, mobility and exchange beyond bloodiness as well as the boundaries of the nation-state. And this is where Bangladeshi traders’ nervous banter with Indian border troops gains salience as political acts that enable access to land without claiming land as political territory.

Q: Generally, when I think of an “animal corridor”, what comes to my mind is a green habitat that allows wildlife to travel across regions separated by human developments. The “animal corridor” referred in your book, however, are official checkpoints in Bangladesh, where smuggled cattle from India systematically passes as legal consignments. Could you tell us about the implications of these arrangements and the networks that support them, and how these shape the lives of low-income, Muslim cattle workers in the char borderlands?

The common perception of these corridors as ones where animals move as agents and actors in their own right is well taken, and yet the book tracks a more nuanced and localized phenomenon. Before my fieldwork this was exactly my definition of animal corridors. My work in Bangladesh led me to hungry and exhausted Zebu cattle which transporters and cattle workers had brought from various states in northern and western India via Assam. So, despite and even because of India’s border construction, local and trans-border politics of territoriality were reshaping capital flows? As I started explored notions of the sacred (ascribed to cows) and how that intersected with capital in innovative ways in India–the asymmetrical risks of crossing the border with large animals was brought into play for me. The unstable alliances among border brokers that facilitate the transformation of cows and bulls from legally immobile commodities in India to highly mobile ones in Bangladesh make porous the borders of the sacred and the profane.

In addition, as infrastructures like border fences and floodlighting take shape on the Indian side, regulations, markets, brokerage and local electoral dynamics support a culture of all-powerful men to produce commodity values. Cattle seizures and penalties in Bangladesh’s “animal corridors” legitimize the profits from smuggling and animal transport for slaughter, accumulating prestige. Along the smooth operation of animal corridors that Bangladesh’s border troops facilitate, the resurgence of Hindu nationalism in India, bans on cow slaughter, and beef consumption, have made the journeys of small-scale Muslim cattle workers extremely risky, ultimately leading to scarcity and hunger. Torture and killings reinforce the imagined location of the border chars as violent and disordered regions that nation-states struggle to control and reform while actually profiting from high-value Zebu smuggling.

Q: Perhaps the most thrilling section of your book is Chapter 5, where you take that bicycle ride with Chandra, along Meghalaya’s borders with Mymensingh, Bangladesh, and introduce us to some formidable creatures in the forest–Ambi Acchu and Mama. Could you tell us a bit about them, and also about the entangled worlds of humans and animals in the Garo borderland, cohabited at once by Garo Christians, Bengali Muslims, border patrols, intelligence officers, and elephants?

Thank you for that! Bicycling long distances along the borderland were also frightening! Usually, I bought vegetables and poultry for the families we were visiting within the forests and beyond, and we tied these to our bicycles. What I had initially attempted to do is to explore the infrastructures of fear–border fences, pillars, military outposts–and the diverse ways in which fears unfolded for people. Soon, not only people’s responses to fear, but also that of the elephants who traversed this landscape, became conceptual and methodological signposts to understand border infrastructures and state-society relationships. Scholars have shown how infrastructures are not just material formations (metal pillars and barbed wires that make border walls, outposts, checkpoints etc). But neither are they only nodes that anchor material exchanges (capital flows, labour extractions, illicit economies). For me, the significance of fear and the centrality of convivial and kinship relationships that mitigate it, generated new insights on infrastructures (rather than only the other way round). And this is where the relationship of Garo borderlanders to elephants who function both as prototypes of nation-states as well as animals who have shared claims to the landscape foreground the importance of reverence and conviviality in social theory.

A border haat in Meghalaya, Northeast India, close to Netrokona, Bangladesh. Photograph: Malini Sur
A border haat in Meghalaya, Northeast India, close to Netrokona, Bangladesh. Photograph: Malini Sur
A border haat in Meghalaya, Northeast India, close to Netrokona, Bangladesh. Photograph: Malini Sur
A border haat in Meghalaya, Northeast India, close to Netrokona, Bangladesh. Photograph: Malini Sur
A Catholic Sabha (annual congregation) in a border village in Meghalaya, Northeast India. Photograph: Malini Sur
A Catholic Sabha (annual congregation) in a border village in Meghalaya, Northeast India. Photograph: Malini Sur

Q: By deploying archival and ethnographic insights from both sides of the Northeast India-Bangladesh borders, your book makes an inspiring contribution to borderland studies. Yet doing this kind of research in surveillance-heavy spaces has its own perils. There were moments in the book, when I was scared for you, and in a curious way, I was also scared for myself and many other scholars, who are out there hoping to find stories that may help us understand this beautiful, terrifying world. What suggestions would you have for scholars doing fieldwork on borderlands?

My first suggestion to all scholars who do fieldwork, whether ethnographic or archival, is to leave at once if you feel unsafe or in danger. Fear lingers in the bodies and the minds of people who live everyday with violence and militarization. Unlike them, we have the option of leaving. In order to feel safe during fieldwork, especially long-term immersive fieldwork, you should be able to know who you trust and mistrust and of who may pose danger and who may not. You see, in militarized zones where state agents support and benefit from smuggling, these distinctions blur. While in the first few months of my fieldwork guns, border outposts and stalkers seemed to belong to the landscape, in the later months they appeared more conspicuous than ever. Those I lived and travelled with asked, both humorously and with concern, if I was insane for coming to a such remote and a dangerous region. By the time I concluded my first year of fieldwork, I started disbelieving people’s intentions to protect me from harm. I also no longer believed myself.

In order to see that the people I was living and traveling with did not face harm, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. I also needed to tone down my fears and suspicions, these along with my location in a militarized landscape would ultimately produce a total loss of control over my own body. The tactility of violence–always emergent near a lethal border—had rendered my skin non-tactile. Yet, its pores continued to expose my nerves and organs to the border. Trauma dreams made me retrace my steps back to the borderland from 2013 to 2015. By 2015, the rains and floods had rusted the barbed wires of the new fence. By this time, India had fenced-off extensive stretches of the rice fields and forests with Bangladesh. But the border villages still resembled disaggregated construction sites. Both India and Bangladesh were building new military outposts to contain political dissidence in Northeast India and smuggling. These shifts had completely disrupted the border’s rhythms. Everyone–villagers and troops alike–seemed to be perennially on edge.

Given the heavy militarization and corruption, multi-sited fieldwork transformed from a methodological necessity into an existential pre-condition. What do I mean by this? So, I did fieldwork on both sides of the border. I needed to move from one village to another, from one zone of the borderland to another and from one country to another and back, to be able to follow people, goods and animals. This to me, is an essential prerequisite for the comparative study of borderlands. But then, I also needed to leave fieldwork sites when the border was unsafe or gorom which means hot and dangerous and return later when the border had cooled down. And when neither the people I was living with nor I could make sense of when the border was safe and unsafe, things became worse.

Along with a deep sense of responsibility to the people we study, we need to keep in mind that we are also responsible for our wellbeing. No matter what the academic stakes may be, just leave the field if you feel unsafe!

Q: Could you also tell us about the process of transitioning your dissertation into a book?

In one word: uphill! Jungle Passports is not a revised dissertation. I continued fieldwork aided by postdoctoral fellowships. By this time, the terrain and the relationships that anchored it had changed. Border infrastructures had radically altered the landscape and even people’s relationships with each other and with animals. I also decided to pursue lines of ethnographic enquiry that did not resonate with what I was reading in the archives. My search for the Rowmari Tura road–a route that I had travelled many times–and its obscurity in the archives challenged my taken for granted assumptions not only about borderlands but also social theory. By this time, my conceptual horizons had expanded. I anchored mobility as a conceptual entry point to think about borderlands beyond histories of place-making and global networks of trade and smuggling. I also wanted to think beyond studies that confined capital and labour in relationship to deep critiques of the colonial versus the postcolonial. Methodologically, I had by then moved away from the comparative historical sociological mode of writing my dissertation to what I think is best described as comparative ethno-history for the book.

I have a few suggestions for scholars who would like to rethink their dissertations and write a book. There are different styles of writing dissertations in the social sciences and the humanities, but one commonality is that doctoral scholars are expected to argue against as well as to follow other scholars. The structures and terms of debate are distinct for dissertations which are limited for disciplinary conversations within the academe and for books which have far wider geographic and intellectual audiences, both within and beyond the academy. I spent long hours focussing on how to communicate my ideas simply rather than clustering big words. In my writing, I wanted to invite my readers not only to the mobile landscape and lives but through them, to provide new conceptual and methodological tools with which we may be able to understand life and loss at borders.

Q: Finally, before we end this insightful conversation, could you share five books that have inspired your work, and with whom you are most in conversation with?

This is such a difficult question to answer because so many books inspire me and have shaped my writing. Let me list the books that provided strong conceptual foundations to understand the Northeast India-Bangladesh border, and the authors of which I was in close conversation. Willem Van Schendel’s The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (2004) inspired my research and writing. Encyclopaedic in depth, conversant in long-standing debates in history, anthropology and geography, and rich in its close attention to partition histories, this book unhinged the study of borders from the grip of nation-states and the study of national territories. Willem was also my Ph.D. supervisor and our debates have seeped into Jungle Passports, encouraging me to understand borderland histories beyond the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Jason Cons’ Sensitive Space: Fragmented Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border (2016) was also very important. I have not only relied on Jason’s keen insights on fragmented sovereignties, territories and communities but my writing has also developed in productive dialogue with him. Veena Das’ Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India (1996) is a book I continue to return to, along with her other writings. This book takes historical events as the starting point of anthropological theorizing on violence and generates keen insights on the trauma and suffering in everyday life. In my reading, Das also makes an important methodological contribution on multi-sited ethnography beyond the ‘local’ and the ‘global’–a conversation that was inspired by George Marcus and others during the mid-1990s.

I greatly benefitted from Sanjib Baruah’s India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality (1999) for understanding sub-nationalisms and militarization–this was my proverbial bible during my fieldwork and after. What does the Indian nation look like when seen from its margins? Sanjib Baruah lays bare the limits of nationalism, maps the rise and declines of sub-nationalisms, and shows how India’s military rule and governance in Northeast India recast theories on national sovereignty and federalism. Finally, for understanding Garo histories and ethnicities, subjects that did not receive much scholarly attention in Bangladesh, Ellen Bal’s They Ask if We Eat Frogs: Garo Ethnicity in Bangladesh (2000) was indispensable. This book offered an important threshold in the study of ethnic minorities in Bangladesh who were either investigated as dissident actors (for instance: the Chakmas) facing the brunt of state repression or clothed in old fashioned discourses of backwardness and development. Ellen inspired me to think about Bangladeshi Garos on their own terms and to map their contribution to the making of Bangladesh’s border with India.

Aparajita Majumdar is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Cornell University. Her dissertation tentatively titled, “A Tale of Two Bridges: Ecologies of Repair at the Borderlands of Northeast India, 1810 - present”, studies the histories of violent resource extraction and the endurance of plant-based recovery in the shaping of Northeast India’s borderlands.