Borders: Walking Across, as opposed to Flying Above

This text was written in July 2003, at the height of the tension on the border between India and Pakistan. Following elections in Pakistan, and in the Indian administered part of Kashmir, the two countries have agreed to de-escalate and troops on both sides are now on their way back to "peace time" positions. Relations between the two governments however, continue to be tense.

A few weeks ago, I found myself looking down from the window of an airplane on a string of lights on the face of the earth. From the sky, this line of light looked incredibly pretty, as it stretched interminably into the distance. As if marking a landing strip in the middle of nowhere. A place where alien spacecraft from outer space could land, like a set in a film made to resemble "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". As the aircraft hovered momentarily above these lights, the pilot's measured voice, instructed the passengers not to use any photographic equipment or video cameras to record any images. The plane was entering the airspace of the republic which claims me as its citizen. Making unauthorized images of the border was forbidden by law. The border was visible, but it could not be rendered visible. Was it a ghost, an apparition, a spectral aura emanating from the clinical death of the nation state? Although the night made everything other than the lights invisible, I knew that not far from that string of fairy lights, which is in reality, a well lit system of razor wire and electric fences, with periodic watchtowers, ranged across vast distances, spanning deserts, fertile agricultural land, and very high mountains, were ranged - tanks, ballistic missiles, landmines, radar, surveillance equipment, armoured trucks, long range artillery weapons, perhaps a few small tactical ,or "battlefield", (subkiloton range) nuclear weapons and more than a million men - the largest military mobilization since the end of the second world war.

Behind them, at a tangent, on the seas, in the hinterland. and on either side, were paramilitary formations, squadrons of fighter and bomber aircraft, battleships, reserve troops and long range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. Waiting, to ignite, within hours, if need be. These million men, the forward divisions of two armies, had been at the borders of the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, for almost half a year, as the leadership of both countries, exemplary allies in the global war against terrorism, played war games with each other. (And what a leadership ! A coalition dominated by a far right Hindu party in India, with its hands recently bloodied in the recent Gujarat carnage, disparate for distractions which would take the focus away from Gujarat, and yet another military dictatorship in Pakistan that promised to deliver its people from the oppression of its erstwhile rulers by holding staged and televised referendums to prove its cosmetic legitimacy). Both were buffeted by mounting discontent at home, the Indian rulers were plagued by election defeats, news of corruption in arms deals, repression and abysmal governance, and the Pakistani junta, well proven masters of sectarian strife and abysmal governance had to prove that they could actually "do" something with the power that they had usurped yet again. The rulers constantly learnt from each other, especially the art of abysmal governance. In pursuing their dangerous tournament of brinkmanship, the rulers in both countries were mounting the pitch of a spiral of provocation in turns, to see who would attack first, who would lose control on the "line of control", sending the entire south asian region, and possibly the world, into the most dangerous crisis that it had ever encountered. It was reassuring to come back to a part of the world that had not really changed since I left home. War had not broken out, it had just continued to threaten to break out, as it had done, and as we had gotten used to it's doing, for months now. The situation, (as they said in the news, all through the years that I was growing up) was tense, but under control: Envoys had come and gone, hotlines had buzzed, George and Tony and Vlad and Li had spoken, and the "world community" had heaved a sigh of relief as Pervez and Atal continued to sulk but not to fight. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Poland and the United States clinched, or reassured that they indeed intended to honour - the contracts totaling billions of dollars that they had agreed upon, to sell weapons systems and military equipment and spares to one or the other or both of the would be warring parties, in order to enhance security and improve confidence building mechanisms in the region. Contracts and commissions made the Indian republic's ever busy defense minister busier than ever. It was more or less the same for the same for the defense secretary of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Pakistan test fired missiles, India test fired rhetoric. The killers in Gujarat stayed where they were, in power. The killings in Kashmir, by the military and the militants, continued. Karachi continued to witness sectarian violence. And the border tightened. The million men stayed where they were. Life carried on, as usual.

Mark on the ground

For me, coming home in July after a months absence, this is what the border means - "Welcome back to your punishments. Welcome home to the permanent absence of peace that is the long wait for war. Fill in your disembarkation cards and declare yourself and your possessions. Let the X Rays rule your bags and your body, and the foul breath of the immigration officer be your first inhalation as you make your way home." The border is the mark on the ground which tells you that wherever you are on earth, hell begins close to home. And you are never far from a border. It doesn't matter in which city, continent or country you are in, the border seeks you out in the end. Not even in a landlocked city like the one in which I live, hundreds of kilometers away from the frontier, is the border a distant reality. Barricades, sandbags and policemen with machine guns successfully transpose the battlefield into my neighbourhood. The routine "checks" of people, the flushing and combing operations to "cleanse" the city of illegal aliens (indigent Bangladeshi rag pickers) are the measures taken to make citizens feel safe and protected, as they cope with power cuts, dry drinking water taps, a crippled transport system, recession, the rising cost of living, and the news of pogroms in other cities. "Our borders are secure, We are secure", this is what you are meant to think when the mornings newspaper informs you in small print, at the back of the inside, "city' pages, on lightening raids in the night in slum settlements to "weed out", "illegal aliens". Sometimes, these "weeds" turn out to be indigent Bangladeshi rag pickers. Sometimes they are Afghan refugees. Sometimes they are carried in trucks, or covered trains to the Pakistani-Indian border, or the Indian-Bangladeshi border, "released" , told to run, and left to negotiate the bullets of the border guards on either side, Most end up as shabby trophies to be won in a friendly sharp shooting contest. (The only friendly thing the rival forces know to do ?) Few make it across to anywhere at all. Meanwhile the signs on the walls of my city admonish the populace that "In the fight against terrorism, all citizens are soldiers", or "If you want to live, you must learn how to die", or simply "Be Vigilant, Who is the stranger next to you".

State at war

But what is true of my city, is true (give or take a few degrees of insanity) in every city. Because everywhere, the state is at war with those it rules. It just does not want to admit to this fact. I have watched the CRS (Special Armed Police) strut its stuff in the Paris metro with german shepherds and Uzis, and I know that I am at the border again. I have looked into the steely eyes of the NYPD officer as he asks me very politely if I could hand him any ID that I might be carrying on me, as I make to enter a public building - and I know that I am at the border again. The border courses through me when I spot a familiar car and a special branch policeman in plain clothes having tea in a neighbourhood tea shop. The border sneaks into my computer and reads my e-mail, and whispers to me in the hum in my phone. The Border is a war movie turned into a nightmare in a burning cinema.

None of us, anywhere in the world, belongs in the right place, because nowhere does the world belong to us. We are all bereft of the dignity that is proper to human beings because we are all prisoners of war. While it may make strategic sense for us to say, "No one is illegal" for the purpose of a specific campaign to protect the rights of people who would otherwise be deported, from one country back to another where they might be imprisoned or shot or be homeless again, we must understand that in the end, they stand to be punished for being who they are in either place - where they are fleeing from, as well as where they are fleeing to. We cannot lose sight of the fact that often, in reality , "No one is legal" . But isn't it all because of terrorism, because we all need to be protected from the sleeping suicide bomber in our midst, who might just wake and decide to act according to the manual? If the terrorist didn't exist, he would have to be invented. Terrorists-in-training are invariably, statesmen- in-waiting, and if they win their big or little state or sanctuary they become moderate leaders who queue up to fight the good fight against terrorism, maintaining the order necessary for the gears of industry and trade (and relief and rehabilitation) to run smoothly in their own backyard. Remember the recent history of that peaceful country called Afghanistan?

Sometimes things do turn out the other way. Responsible, moderate leaders and allies of the free world against Islamic fundamentalism, or left wing subversion (like Saddam Hussain, or Manuel Noriega) become, due to the accidental turns in history, international shipping and petroleum pipelines, the dictators of rogue or terrorist states, or drug barons. Yesterday's eager arms traders call for today's sanctions to make them fall. The way things are progressing, what is Iraq today, may well be India tomorrow, and Pakistan could be Panama.

If "enemies", and "foreign hands", and "the foreigners who pollute our culture and take away our jobs" were not around, the state, and capitalism would be in serious trouble. The real nature of beast, the crisis that capitalism is in, would sink deep into all our conscious, acting minds, and we might even start doing something to get rid of it, across the world. The figure of the enemy, of "the other", the intruder, that makes borders necessary, is an entity given shape, reality and substance by those who rule in a bid to ensure that the people who are ruled always blame "others" for the mess of the world.

The border is the border

And there are enough trigger happy prophets waiting to trade in on victimhood and suffering to fly yet another flag for holy war or national liberation. And so, just to cite an instance, the Kashmiri militant, the Pakistani patriot and the Indian nationalist continue to be each other's raison d'etre, unable to live or die in peace, dancing the bizarre troika that promises freedom and dignity to each Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri person, but delivering nothing but bombs, bullets and (more) borders instead. For Kashmiri, Indian, Pakistani, read Kurd, Turk, Iraqi, or Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian. The results remain, more or less, the same, regardless of identity or geography. The border is the border, no matter where it stands. This is true even in a city called Ahmedabad, in a province called Gujarat, in a country called India, where a street between neighbourhoods of communities called Hindu and Muslim has been called the "border" for a long time. This was true in Beirut, Belfast and in Sarajevo. Borders are layers as well as lines. Every border checkpoint, each passport control in every airport, harbour and border crossing in the world is a reminder that we are all prisoners in this vast labyrinth of hell, which is what the totality of nation states is and always has been on the face of the earth. The rituals of the border - the identification of people by the papers and numbers they carry, the screening of the more guilty from the less guilty, (no one is innocent, those of us who pass the border controls with stamps on our papers are only being told that there is as yet insufficient proof to detain and punish us, and this need not be the case the next time that we pass these gates) the scrutiny of our belongings and persons, the entries made into the record books of our lives, and the impressions our passage makes on expanding databases and surveillance cameras, - each one of these little details are the incremental trials and tribulations of our expanding hell. The border is the line that encompasses it all, the border is the system of concentric circles that generates its infinite layers, spanning the distance from the frontier to your epidermis.

A line in the sand was drawn in blood in 1947, in the part of the world where I live, marking the birth of two nation states, and later, the birth of a third one, and now it may or may not see the birth of yet another one. I am claimed as the citizen of one of the original pair. No matter how many or how few the states that are born, that line in the sand refuses to stop bleeding. Even though the clinical death of the nation state as a form of human social organization occurred a while ago, and even though rigour-mortis has already set well in. The state is un-dead, like vampires are. This line in the sand has seen three full blown wars, and a fourth half blown war, may yet be waiting for a fifth one, and continues to witnesses a constant skirmish, and the deaths and displacements of many hundreds of thousands of people. I want this line in the sand they call the border, and all lines in the sand that they call borders, anywhere, to be wiped away by the trespasses of the multitudes for whom the lines are only so much wasted electricity, and scrap metal, and piled up energy doing nothing but making the world a place that belongs to no one at all. The only way to walk across the border is to cross over into to a world in which borders are meaningless and redundant. And many have begun walking, and others are learning how to walk, this good walk.

23 September 2003