Borders Cast Long Shadows on Nations: Talking with Malini Sur

“Borders continue to gather life’s promises, even when walls and checkpoints brutally divide nations and societies.”

Dr. Malini Sur is a sociocultural anthropologist who has conducted research in India, Bangladesh, and, more recently, Australia. She is a senior lecturer in anthropology at Western Sydney University. Her research interests center on mobility—of people, goods, territory, and transport—driven by history, globalization, and, increasingly, environmental change. Sur’s published work critically interrogates the history and sociopolitics of borders, infrastructures, transnational flows, and identities. Her more recent work investigates mobility via natural disasters, shifting ecologies, urban air pollution, and climate change. Sur’s essays have appeared in journals such as Cultural Anthropology, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Modern Asian Studies, and Economic and Political Weekly. Her photographs on South Asia’s borderlands have been exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Chiang Mai, Gottingen, Heidelberg, Kathmandu, and Munich.

In this engaging interview, Sneha Annavarapu talks with Sur about her first monograph, Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). Sur sheds light on the fraught configurations of citizenship and mobility along violent borderlands, and how life and violence are mutually coconstitutive.

Sneha Annavarapu (SA): Your book is such a vivid, empathetic, and careful analysis of the India-Bangladesh border. It’s a border that, as you point out, is not necessarily a “warring one,” yet one that nevertheless continues to be a site of land and identity conflicts.

To begin our conversation, could you tell us a little about why this particular border should be of interest to scholars studying borderlands? And how does this border manifest in contemporary discussions around “the nation” in India?


Malini Sur (MS): Thanks, Sneha, for your close reading and your kind words! One of the key reasons for the increased attention toward the India-Bangladesh border—sometimes edging on paranoia—is the constant emphasis on undocumented Bangladeshi migration. Indian politicians have stoked and played up fears of job losses, terrorism, crime, cultural declines, and worse. This is happening in Europe, the United States, Australia, and several countries in Asia.

Borders are also exploited by nation-states for their own ends, often in the interests of sovereignty and security. Nationalist histories ignore how border lives—including indigenous lives and livelihoods—stand at the intersections of language, religion, ethnicity, kinship, and nation-making. Such histories either criminalize border societies as traitors and unpatriotic subjects or valorize dispossession by imposing morally compelling discourses of refuge, recovery, and resistance. And nationalism affects people’s mobility and migration in general; indeed, the atmosphere of fear and hostility has resulted in the hardening of borders globally over the last decade or so. But despite these noticeable shifts, borders and boundaries are inherent to the human condition, philosophically and in everyday life.

My book, Jungle Passports, contributes to contemporary debates in anthropology by countering dominant understandings of nation-making, identities, mobility, and citizenship. Such a counternarrative is especially important today, when communities across the world are refashioning nations and international relations by calling attention to their histories and identities.

There is one final reason that all borderlands—but especially that of India and Bangladesh—are worth studying. Despite the violence, resource extraction, climatic extremes, and everyday uncertainties, borderlands are places of relationality, sustenance, and profits. And so, in Jungle Passports, I show how these relationships cast long shadows on the nation’s soul. This is true not only of India and Bangladesh, but also of most countries across the globe.


SA: Before a dive deep into the book, could you tell us about the title itself? In the book, you note that the term jungle passport holds within it the several layers of kinship, trust, and reciprocity that characterize life on the borderlands. Could you tell us a little bit about the salience and circulation of this term?


MS: Jungle passport, of course, contains a multitude of meanings. Garo indigenous women use the expression to refer to their claims to, and ability to pursue, unfettered travel across the boundaries of India and Bangladesh. This phrase resides in moral assertions over transborder land and resources, but not over land as political territory. Generally, it refers to modes of travel to maintain cross-border kinship ties, subsistence trade, and daily-wage labor, and even to get access to health services. I was especially interested in how these mobilities joined the intimate domain of Garo transborder matrilineal clans and Christian religiosity with that of state rule and a nonindigenous world. Indian and Bangladeshi border forces, primarily Hindu and Muslim, respectively, mediate these spheres.

I study a specific zone along the India-Bangladesh border, which cuts across the geographically insular Northeast India. India’s security forces seek to contain armed struggles for self-determination in and among indigenous societies like the Garos in Northeast India. At the Northeast India–Bangladesh border, groups demanding independent nations and homelands take refuge, negotiate passage to Bangladesh, and procure arms. Indian and Bangladeshi border troops suspect people who live along the border to be dissidents and spies.

Even in times of ever-escalating border patrolling and infrastructure building, how was it that Garo Christian Bangladeshi women crossed the border with jungle passports? And how was it not only possible for them to do so but even necessary?

In answering these questions, I needed to move away from scholarship that has largely focused on the long history of the plantation economies and resource extractions in Northeast India to study capital. Garo women’s journeys led me to the postcolonial histories of religious aid in the foothills of Eastern Pakistan, and to Bangladesh’s later rise as a global exporter of manufactured garments and its implications for gender and mobility.

Jungle passport journeys are a testament to how women’s labor and mobility reorder capital and kinship. I was interested in the relationships of exchange, trust, dependency, and protection that supported these. I show how Garo borderland kinship, as an all-encompassing moral sphere, stretches and adapts to make life livable and collective beyond the perpetuation of indigenous lineage. Such reciprocities and exchanges offer new ways to situate political possibilities, without overdetermining the nation’s violent ability to impose difference and rule.


SA: One of the approaches in this book that struck me as innovative and interesting was your insistence that we view the border as a “life force.” Your book asks how it is that life continues to revolve around “a heavily fortified fence amid violence, scarcity, fear and uncertainty.” In asking this question, we begin to account for not just the exclusions created by the border—on which dominant scholarship in this domain has a strong grip—but also its capacity to shape vital life.

How did you start thinking about the border along these lines of it being a life force? What can this approach teach us about borderlands in general?


MS: Borders continue to gather life’s promises even when walls and checkpoints brutally divide nations and societies. By closely attending to lives and mobilities along the construction of one of the world’s longest and most highly militarized border walls—India’s high-security border with Bangladesh—I show how borders propel life-worlds of sustenance and identities that are perennially in the making.

It was my ethnographic fieldwork that led me to expressions like “jungle passports” and others that provided the conceptual foundations to rethink what often guides the study of borders and borderlands: biopolitical dominance. In the book, I situate four elements—ecologies, infrastructures, exchanges, and mobility—arguing that they work in tandem, through permeable boundaries, to shape the force of life and loss.

Today, more than ever, an analytic shift—which takes vitality as a productive starting point—may help us think about the life forces that connect divided landscapes. From borders and borderlands, we learn how life’s unevenness and its propulsive energies drive people to live and move amid constriction, danger, and violence. Here, the more insidious workings of violent nationalism and arbitrary state power reveal life’s relationship with a range of forces: forces that destroy life and forces that sustain life.

Borders generate decisive moments that establish the margins of precarity and prosperity, as well as forge the boundaries of death and life. I think along with João Biehl and Bhrigupati Singh, who remind us about dynamic plurality, motion, and ambiguity that inform people’s struggles and the potency and the ephemerality that shape these. Vitality and political salience of borders transfix some people in fear and nostalgia, while simultaneously pushing others to move.

Such mobility cannot be attributed exclusively to the failed projects of nationalism and border militarization. Instead, it attests to how border societies recalibrate the nation’s power of territorial regulation in their lives and, in turn, influence the ways in which we imagine the nation and its contested ideas.

Jungle passport journeys are a testament to how women’s labor and mobility reorder capital and kinship.

SA: Can you explain how borders make people move? What are the kinds of mobilities the India-Bangladesh border engenders?


MS: I came to understand borders and mobility in unanticipated ways. Infrastructures dominate our understanding of borders. Given the visibility of high-security walls, fences, and checkpoints (and a rich scholarship in anthropology on infrastructures), it is understandable why physical barriers and fixity are a productive starting point to think about mobility.

But you see, even before robust physical barriers like India’s border wall with Bangladesh came to be constructed, rice, cows, garments, and identity papers functioned as fences and boundaries. We tend to think about infrastructures as material assemblages that gather social relationships. In Jungle Passports, I turn this dominant understanding on its head. I explore mobility and movement beyond infrastructures like fences and roads. Instead, my book shows how grains, animals, and even circulating garments and papers function as infrastructures of mobility and control. Even while delimiting colonial and postcolonial territories and imprinting race, religion, kinship, and citizenship, each of these in turn enables and compels people to cross borders and forge alliances beyond nation-states.

And here also lies the analytic potential of mobility beyond studies of cultural specificities and histories of globalization. In that sense, my book is not just a contribution to the study of one significant border infrastructure and, by extension, one particular kind of mobility. Rather, I have tried to show how ethnographic and historical attention to mobile ecologies and people and nonhuman life-worlds recast the long history of capital and community.


SA: In the book, you argue that the border—and its making and unmaking—shaped identity and the legibility of people dwelling by the border. You show how the building of the Rowmari-Tura road and its eventual visibility and invisibility in the colonial archives were inextricably linked to the making of a “Garo identity.” Can you tell us a bit about how the building of roads in this region shaped territorial politics that continue to date?


MS: Today, the Rowmari-Tura road is divided between India and Bangladesh. But beyond this physical attribute, the road vacillates between being mythologized and being rendered obscure.

Historians have shown how roads and routes enabled the British conquest and governance of unexplored frontier terrains, and how people, especially indigenous societies, resisted and used roads to their own ends. As an anthropologist, I am interested in other conversations and framings. I was especially intrigued by the disjuncture between the contemporary ubiquity of an old trade route in Bangladesh and its historical incomprehensibility in colonial archives. Instead of asking how roads were modes of racial governance, I probed how remnants of old roads gather impetus as an ethnographic force. Rather than take the social structure of indigeneity—in this instance, that of the hill Garos—as a historical template on which one could write about colonial conquest and extraction, I asked how road building was intrinsically tied to the making of tribes in 19th-century British India.

Today, on either side of the India-Bangladesh border, roads operate through distinct registers of hope and despair. In Northeast India, border roads are signs of modernity and development; they are also disruptive segregators in their territorial forms, as well as in their human and more than human implications. In Bangladesh, roads that edge near Indian territory—often the remnants of old routes—are also sites of anticipation for renewed transborder connections.


SA: Blending the historical with the contemporary, you also think through how “rice wars” showcased political and historical contingencies, which impinge on a shifting landscape and everyday rural lives.

Why does rice matter so much to this particular borderland? How do conflicts over rice shape the border?


MS: Rice and its connection with land gained salience in the decades when provinces in British India were morphing into the emergent territories of independent India and Pakistan. In the regions that I write about, the unstable nature of the land and peasant mobility clashed with land’s new status as an immovable, economic commodity, both as agrarian property and as provincial and postcolonial territories. The relationship among the British provinces, the emergent nation-states, and the creation and militarization of the region’s borderland was deeply tied to rice.

Rice brought together territories and raids, espionage and food, rural displacements and state violence. In fact, as I show, peasants came to acquire land and raid one another’s rice harvests to survive and to gain control over and mark new borders. It was these reclaimed land parcels on which cultivators grew, raided, and consumed rice and its implications for nation-building that made it a precious resource. Rice, then, was not only food; it also functioned as a fence that unevenly gathered the intimate and the political.

I elaborate this in at least two ways. First, I show how rice—its cultivation, consumption, and smuggling—challenges the taken-for-granted distinctions between sedentary peasants and mobile indigenous cultivators. In fact, their imprecisions are productively addressed from borders where territorial intrusions and the forging of national subjects coalesced around food production and smuggling. Furthermore, I pay close attention to the political lives of rice cultivators and the rice wars they fought. Their changing predicaments as land reclaimers, food producers, and political actors disrupt the neat historical ordering that splinters the history of the peasantry along ethnic, religious, and national lines. Agrarian distress, historical contingencies, and political forces impinged on shifting landscapes and everyday rural lives in ways that realigned temporal and political conjunctures, transcending neat beginnings and ends.


SA: In Jungle Passports, you think through the salience of cattle and cattle-herders at the border fences. Doing so, you also carefully consider the human and nonhuman entanglements that emerge at the borderland and analyze the activity of cattle smuggling through the lens of a local term, fang-fung, which denotes duplicity and dependency. What is fang-fung? How does it both maintain and upend the centrality of nation-states and the border, in particular?


MS: Borders and fences create sophisticated capitalist relationships and influence local and transborder politics of territoriality. In looking at state boundaries as distinct commodity enclaves, I showed how forms of value conversion prompted by Zebu cattle reshape the relationship between notions of the “sacred” and ideas of economic exchange in the region and beyond. This was something that was very interesting to explore.

Though fang and fung have no meaning as separate words, their semantic union in the borderi lexicon is ascribed to muscle-flexing men and their seemingly devious actions and dispositions at the border. The expression fang-fung is rooted in masculine and moral debates about profits, sustenance, and patronage, in riverine regions where land and male employment cannot be taken for granted. The masculinity and machoism that drives fang-fung practices mines value out of legally prohibited, extremely risky, large animals, which are rapidly incorporated into the formal economy.

Politicians, traders, brokers, and, most important, nation-states alternate between being dangerous raiders and benevolent social reformers. The shifting alliances make the border a violent location, and cattle rustling becomes an ambiguous expression to justify the militarization of a “crime-infested” landscape.

All this is why I argue that anthropology needs to attend closely to an expanded understanding of the sacred’s interplay with capital to complement the well-investigated religious, symbolic, and sacred connotations of animals as markers of distinctions. This, of course, has taken on a greater salience in the current political climate in India.


SA: In a very different consideration of humans and nonhuman entanglements, you also speak to how encounters between villagers and the troops—spectacular embodiments of state violence—result in the creation of dense relationships of fear and trust between animals and humans. This was a very difficult chapter to read, as the words emitted the affective atmospheres of terror almost too effectively. I was particularly struck by your astute observation that “fear protects people from the ultimate risk—the risk of death.” Could you perhaps give us one or two examples of how fear and reverence shape relations between villagers and troops?


MS: I was interested in the porosity of an incomplete border, which is cloaked in unspoken fears as well as fears of torture and death at the hands of border troops. Barbed wires, metal pillars, and concrete outposts are perennial objects in the making and fear-distributing infrastructures. State arrangements and apparatus are shifting and jagged, in ways that delimit violent events to a singular political form and temporal frame, or even to its visible manifestations.

And yet, yes, fear protects people from the ultimate risk—the risk of death. At the Northeast India–Bangladesh border, fear and reverence, along with the inclusion of troops as an integral part of border societies, had historically ensured that the risk of death was allayed. Increasingly, relationships have changed, and people are unsure about the border. I write about the absolute terror in which villagers run across once familiar borders—and how these crossings realign territorial and bodily boundaries and human-animal relationships.

I also explore how border building and enforcement, along with indiscriminate development, disrupt elephant corridors, and how traders and transporters cross the border with increasing risks to their lives and bodies and to those of the animals they cohabit with. The fear of torture and death rapidly alters prior relationships of trust, deference, and civility among border villagers, troops, and elephants, ushering in spatial and temporal disorientation. I closely attended to the various registers of these ruptures that gradually transformed the all-knowing and all-powerful elephant from a revered cohabiter of a shared landscape into a metaphor for a fearful nation.

The very vitality and tugs and pulls that hold people together across national territories and beyond the lines of blood, and in relationship to the animals they live with, simultaneously result in an enduring sense of danger and loss. As terror diffuses throughout the landscape, it transforms familiar forests and rice fields into sites of disorientation without displacing the motif of mobility that makes borders productive and unstable locations.


SA: Before we close, I want to circle back to the big question of how this book came about. I ask this from the perspective of an ethnographer. You have some of the sharpest and most tender reflections in the book about what the violence of the border did to your body as an ethnographer. If you don’t mind bringing back some of those memories, I would be honored if you could share what it was like to do fieldwork in a site of intense national and patriarchal violence.


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MS: Thank you for your generous reading. No amount of methodological insights and training can ever prepare anthropologists for the intense state scrutiny, militarization, and violence that ordinary people continue to endure in borderlands. I had arrived for fieldwork seemingly well prepared for its dangers after judiciously attending to the methodological stakes involved in conducting fieldwork in militarized zones like Northeast India. I lived with but never got accustomed to the partly visible and partly camouflaged presence of guns and uniforms, the screeching of sirens, constant frisking and interrogation, and the sense of being perennially watched. The danger and protection that emanate from border walls and guns continue to heighten my consciousness even today.

Trauma also occurs during our efforts to be safe and to feel safe. Writing anthropology demands reliving fieldwork and its hauntings. Writing anthropology also requires the repeated reliving of immersive near-death experiences, the traumas of those we lived and traveled with and those who posed dangers to our lives. Writing this book entailed a deep sense of loss for those who endure the border’s violence and a deep appreciation of the relationships that borderland societies continue to foster.


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadavaicon

Featured Image: Provided by Dr. Malini Sur.