Imposing identity

I’ve spent the last week or so in Assam and Tripura. I intended to make another attempt at the fenced-in village of Bhogdanga in Assam. I had a contact at a television news channel that was willing to ‘lend’ me some credentials, but the attacks in Mumbai meant that all of India’s more sensitive border areas were made even tighter and I was not granted permission to visit. Instead I spent a few days in the company of anthropologists, photographers and general smart people. We had impassioned discussions about bombings and borders inspired by some fine Nepalese rum.

One observation, among many, that related to my walls project was this: The construction of physical barriers along borders inspires feelings of nationalism that were not already there. I find this very interesting. It is the opposite phenomenon I witnessed in Melilla, for example, where the fencing is built because of a sense of national and cultural pride, not the other way around.

On some parts of the Indo-Bangladesh frontier, the actual borderline separates people of different ethnic groups that have little in common culturally. This was often the case in Meghalaya, where ‘tribal’ groups such as the Khasis lived on the Indian side of the border, while Muslim Bengalis lived on the other side. However, in many other areas, people on both sides of the border share the same culture, language and religion. Before the fencing, people crossed over freely to visit with family, go to the market, or fetch water never considering, or at least not caring, that they were crossing an international border. The invisible boundary, drawn by some official in some office in some city far away, was meaningless. And so, too, was the idea of nationality. If I share my entire culture with the people in the next village, does it really matter that I am Indian and they are Bangladeshi?

But the fencing changes things. Yesterday I visited two villages along the border fencing on the outskirts of Agaratala, the capital city of the tiny Indian state of Tripura. With a Border Security Forces officer as my guide, was able to cross through the fence into the so-called ‘No Man’s Land’ that separates the two nations. Women led cows by tether ropes to nibble on dry rice stalks. Men tended to vines of bitter melon. Girls in bright saris poured water onto budding cauliflower from shiny bulbous pots they carried on their head. Clearly this was some man’s land.

A young man told me how, before the fencing, he used to cross the frontier to play cricket with his cousins. Or watch the Bangladeshi trains go by. Now he only sees them after he passes through the soldier-guarded gate and goes to work in the fields. He has to be back before six in the evening; that is when the gate is locked each night. And I met an old man with a fabulous white beard and striped-rotten teeth whose family house is on the Bangladeshi side of the fence. A worn footpath from his compound led straight past the border pillars into Bangladesh. His family has had that plot of land for 100 years, long before the ‘nation’ of Bangladesh even existed. In the past, the invisible line meant little to him, perhaps it still does, but the Indian government now insists his family move to the Indian side of the fence. “It seems it would be better to not have relations with Bangladeshi people anymore,” he said.

Since the fencing went up three years ago, people cannot freely visit family across the line. The impromptu cricket games between cousins no longer happen. Those who live in the shadow of fence posts and barbed wire are starting to develop a sense of national, political identity that never existed before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, but it is not organic. It is imposed. The fence demands allegiance.