The Meaning of India-Bangladesh Border-fence

Guest post by Nazmul Sultan

    Indian prime minister Manomohan Singh’s recent visit to Bangladesh has triggered myriad speculations concerning the meaning of intensified geopolitical alliance between India and Bangladesh in South Asian region. Given the temporality of parliamentary politics that is hegemonic in national-political space of this region, the visit is also destined to influence the electoral zigzags of coming days. What is more, the sudden move of West Bengal’s populist chief minister Mamata Banerjee, which halted the much-awaited agreement on the water-sharing of the Teesta river, added essential twist in the diplomatic drama that continued for few days. In the process – thanks to the withering away of terms such as `imperialism’ from the hegemonic space of politics—the embedded conditions of these mutual `negotiations’ have become obliterated. This brief intervention, on the contrary, will seek to arrest the generality of internal relations between two hegemonically uneven states . In so doing, we will concentrate on the political meanings of the border-fence that India built throughout the last decade encircling entire Bangladesh. [For a detailed study of Bengal Border, see, Willhem Van Schendel, The Bengal Border Land: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London, 2005).] Being coalesced with the logic of contemporary global order, this border fence, more than any other element, registers the changing horizon of imperialist exigencies in the level of inter-nation relations. 


    Although the generality of capitalism has fundamentally reshaped our very conception of territoriality and sovereignty, the practice of setting up fence around particular politico-economic sites predates the advent of global capitalism. Aristotle, in his ‘politics’, argued against the conviction that walls around cities are a sign of military weakness and advocated for strongest walls around the city: “To have no walls would be as foolish as to choose a site for a town in an exposed country and to level the heights; or, as if an individual were to leave his house unwalled, lest the inmates should become cowards.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293] The backdrop of Aristotle’s argument contains the genealogical dimension of the fence. That is, the political significance of fence had been formed in and through the dynamic of pre-capitalist world whereby territorial expansions was an instance of surplus extraction through force. However, this general logic of territoriality intertwined inextricably with the relational self-positing of a city-state. Thus, the presence of fence appeared to Plato as a contradictory feature with the military pride of a city. Aristotle, despite his opposition to Plato’s proposal, had not only understood border-fence as a military-strategic object, but also as a distinguishing symbol of the community from others . Hence, he proposed for decorating the border walls, apart from making them effective: “..not only should cities have walls, but care should be taken to make them ornamental, as well as useful for warlike purposes and adapted to resist modern inventions….for when men are well prepared no enemy even thinks of attacking them.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293]

    This apparent universality of fence as a signifier of particular political community, however, refounded itself corresponding with the primacy of global capitalism, which is particularly contextual for our investigation into the meaning of Indo-Bangla border fence. The generalizing logic of capital which continually projects to overcome the spatial disjunctions (or as Marx put it, Capital seeks to annihilate space by time), simultaneously requires the particularization of its spaces of movement (as Deleuze put it: “capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization”). The movement of capital, which disregards the singularities of spatial units, in another turn, re-enacts the mechanism that heterogenizes its objects, since the continual reproduction of heterogeneity conditions for the onslaught of ‘real’ homogenizing operation. Border fence, to that extent, is a symptomatic manifestation of the internality of global capitalism. The location of border-fence in contemporary system, nevertheless, is the political sphere whereby it reflexively corresponds with the requirement of capital’s movement. Fence posits itself capitalizing its ‘trans-historical’ meaning, which implies certain collective signification for the demarcated communities. Border-fence always-already presupposes the heterogeneous presence of diverging politico-economic as well as cultural sites, as the reproduction of its own validity would have become uncertain if it fails to account for the real abstraction that it implies. Border-fence thus signifies the seclusion of a community in its relational instance i.e., seclusion as nation, ethnic group, religious group and so on. What is most significant in the contemporary resurgence of border fence is its globalized significance rather than bilateral specificity that was common to the history of perimeter fences. In other words, the validity of the fence is essentially justified by putting forward trans-national issues such as restriction of Islamic militancy, illegal workers, left-wing radicals etc.


    In a recent intervention in the aftermath of Arab spring, Kees Van Der Pijl, suggestively remarked that the study of imperial domination should not be reduced into an isolated exposition of capital’s movement, rather it is “equally urgent to analyse the structures of imperialism in terms of modes of foreign relations.” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America’s Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.] He goes on to explicate the essential linkage of the internal structure of subordinated nations with the functioning of imperial orders. Similarly, the apparently externalized positing of certain nations in the topography of `war on terror’ interacts with the internal organization of the nations. The diachronic impact of such supra-national politics ultimately intertwines with the structural reorganization of society. 

    The meaning of the border-fence, in the lexicon of national-political, remains confined within the abstract exercise of sovereignty and suchlike fetishes, while the totality of border-fence’s operation – due to the specificity of its appearance as a political signifier of the horizontal moment of national life – inflicts even the micro aspects of the particular political-economic site. The Border-fence, needless to say, is not the only active agent in the process. The reflexivity of the fence is essentially conditioned by the immanence of ‘nation’ as an over-arching category in post-colonial political spaces . Hence, border-fence becomes the emblematic appearance of the ‘exclusion’ from the civilized world. To put in another way, the over-arching expansion of fence is precisely conditioned by the constituted fear of contemporary developmental liberalism: the fear of being unrecognized as “moderate developmental state.”

     In the post 9/11 re-articulation of geopolitics, territorial exclusion becomes a crucial strategy to impose the label of heterogeneity on certain nations vis-a-vis homogeneous or normal nations. The physical blocking of hitherto loose borders, however, is only the semblance of this process; the cruciality of conspicuous territorial separation is vital insofar it signifies exclusion as heterogeneity, since this process of exclusion inversely works through the concomitant internal dichotomization of the supposedly heterogeneous nation i.e., the nation which is ‘unnegotiable’ in terms of perceived homogeneity. That is to say, the national devaluation or the “national shame” of being heterogenized provokes the internally hegemonic institutions (e.g. state, civil society, NGO, Media etc), which are affected by their supra-national ‘heterogeneity’, to attack the internal others who are responsible for nation’s not being ‘normal.’ That means geopolitical deployment of the exclusion as ‘abnormal’ fuses with the heterogeneous nations’ homogeneity-seeking forces (who, in the determinate instance, always align themselves with the hegemonic logic of neoliberal capitalism) to doubly invigorate the internal repression of the subversive elements (which, however, are not necessarily opposed to the logic of capital). Simultaneously, that double pressure processually leads nationally representative institutions to find the way of “being normalized” in uneven dialogue or transactions with ‘normal’ nations . This leads us to the revealing moment, when the cool-headed Economic Adviser of Sheikh Hasina, Mashiur Rahman, suddenly overrides the policy of putting the economic gain as the reason behind allowing India to use Bangladesh as a transit-route. Being a rupture in the continuity of otherwise consistent narrative, this statement revealed the deep-seated complexity hidden beneath the rhetoric of economic gain : “Had our country been an uncivilized one or our leaders been illiterate then we could have asked for the fees [the proposed duties on Indian goods to be transited through Bangladesh], but that’s not the case.” The functionality of national-political, given the over-arching urge to be “normalized”, gathers it force around the ghosts of heterogeneity that is not coeval with standard of ‘secular-civilized nations.’ Since this witch-hunting by state is inextricably related with governance as well as reproduction of the state apparatuses, the process of locating ‘evil’ often subverts the territory of a particular group owing to the essentially indeterminate logic for identifying subversives. Therefore, the process for the determination of the Islamist militancy(i.e. responsible for exclusion) effaces the demarcating lines between various ideo-political groups , and re-emerges through the registers which are not coeval with the logic of domination: thus, a veteran leader of RMG workers’ movement has been accused of having rapport with Islamist groups, since she chatted with a fellow prisoner in the prison van, who incidentally belongs to a far-right Islamist group. Nevertheless, this `Aesopian’ evidence was enough to file an allegation against her given that workers, not unlike Islamists, contribute to the ruining of sacred national image abroad through protests, vandalism and so on.


    “What has changed in the time between Reagan’s ’empire of evil’ and Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ is not the intensity of the evil but the juridical status of the subjects that are supposed to embody the ‘evil’ .However destructive the military capabilities on the both sides of the Cold War antagonism were, the ‘willingness’ to respect each other as subjects of international law was never seriously questioned during the Cold War period” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America’s Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.]

    The indeterminate positing of enemy (i.e., the non-negotiable), so to speak, is precisely the rupture heralded by post 9/11 rearticulation of global politics. Just as we have seen the dislocation of enemy/heterogeneity in the internal organization of a given politco-economic site amounts to a breaking through of traditionally static identification of subversive-element in a particular group, so the inter-national appearance of a nation – from the vantage point of hegemonic projections – is an equally indeterminate constellation of good and evil, as though the concern of national security, like Schmitt’s X-ray flashes, exposes the potential explosiveness of `incarcerated’ people at the very moment they disregard the distributed place. The border between India and Bangladesh is an exemplary instance. As F. Balke reminds us of the difference between the juridical status of the evil-embodied alien subjects that owes to the changed notion of national security, Indian state—being coterminous with the global trend of Islamophobia– gunned down more than 1,000 Bangladeshi citizens (working peoples, small-time cow-smugglers etc) who dared to pass the border illegally. That is, the frequent and intentional killings of BSF is precisely a manifestation of the heterogeneous or juridically uneven status of Bangladeshi citizens. Numerous flag meeting between BSF and BGB (erstwhile BDR) could not reach to an agreement for the very reason that sovereignty – the state of exception – only can express itself through the pride of acting alone. The blatant functioning of the presupposition that Bangladesh is a mere combination of ‘good secularists’ and ‘bad Islamists’ can easily be discerned from the recent portrayal of Bangladesh in the hegemonic neoliberal voices of India. Indian Prime minister recently claimed that 25% of Bangladeshi citizens belong to parliamentary Islamist organizations(hence a threat for India’s security), while the actual number is less than 5% (in terms of electoral votes). Similarly, India’s mainstream medias consistently portray Bangladesh as a vying field between “Bengali-secularist-India-friendly’ and “Islamist-anti-India”, where only the tutelage of India (which also implies that the strict isolation of subversive elements from Indian land) could save both parties. As Kolkata-Based Daily Anandabazar clearly says: “The main conflict in Bangladesh is between its Bengali-self and Islamic-self. After the Mujib-assassination, Pakistan (sic) sought to invigorate Islam undermining the Bengali-self. That struggle still continues. In this historical moment, Indian diplomats think Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh will help the initiative to build a new Bangladesh.” In other words, the forced bifurcation of Bangladesh between good and evil, as evident in the aforementioned instances, does not only sustain the presuppositions of mutual relations, but also reproduces the legitimation of the logic that governs the site of inter-national differentiation. To that extent, Border killings – by virtue of its reassertion of the symbolic order embodied in the fence – is political killings par excellence.

    While the movement of labor is delimited by such forced containment, the hegemonic capital is making it way annihilating the disjunctive spaces (as in the enactment of much-debated transit-route through Bangladesh). The ironclad body of border-fence that seeks to restrict people’s movement through force has been appearing as a site of a struggle that can’t be reduced into a national barrier. In other words, the generality that underpins the struggle is a thoroughly global phenomenon, notwithstanding the specific historicity that concerns Indo-Bangla border-fence. That is to say, the meaning of border-fence, for the affected people of global south, is unambiguously concrete. This is a kind of concreteness – to paraphrase Anna Feigenbaum – that requires no metaphor. [Anna Feigenbaum, “Concrete Needs No Metaphor: Globalized Fences as Sites of Political Struggle,” Ephemera 10/2 (2010): 119-133. This is how she defines contemporary border-fences: “….‘globalized fences’… can be identified by four commonalities: they serve transnational security functions (particularly in a post 9/11 homeland security context), they are contracted through multinational companies, they are built with materials imported from different nations, and they integrate ‘virtual’ and  physical technologies]


2 thoughts on “The Meaning of India-Bangladesh Border-fence

  1. nice post Nazmul — I’m curious where Plato speaks against walling-in a city? It would seem that the fresh memory of the Athenian walls being broken down by the Spartans would have an effect on the different classical theories of a great wall. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think Sparta had a wall around its city. Instead, they fought offensively, on the ground, whereas democratic Athens fought defensively, holing up in their citadel, watching their fields burn below while sending out fleets of ships to harass the Spartan coastal towns. Perhaps Plato sympathizes with the manly simplicity of the Spartan plain; Plato of course was no fan of the democratic chaos of Athens and its leveling instinct –The foundation of his republic is civil institutions and strict educational guidelines.

    This is also the ideal for neo-liberalism as well: a borderless world where capital is free to explore and exploit new territories. “free trade” is the mantra of all economics textbooks, but in these ideal formulations it is commercial capital transactions that is usually envisioned; a certain country has a more efficient way of creating some good so they should concentrate on this good and ship it to other countries who would be better suited to concentrating their efforts on something else. What’s interesting is that these textbooks leave out the movements of human bodies and their value-creating abilities from the elegant equations.

    I think you write about this, but fences seem to me to be giant signifiers/symptoms of the denial of labor power in the contemporary capitalist equation. Here in the US, NAFTA was theorized in language of free trade and the ability of US manufactures to take advantage of cruelly-cheap Mexican labor — NAFTA combined with other forces has instead seen the impoverishment of Mexico and the millions of humans who poured over the borders of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to find a job in the US– They build a fence after the “damage” has been done now, as you write, to assuage the racism of Southerners, which is exacerbated by economic collapse, the need for a scape-goat, etc.

    The fence then becomes the solution which solves nothing–the placebo pill of a capitalism in crisis (and should be categorized as a defense expenditure–propping up the GDP by constructing vast creations whose use only serves to hinder and destroy a free flow of labor and capital).

  2. @Guavapuree: Plato discussed about the border-wall question in his last dialogue: Laws. As you hinted above, Plato took up the example of Sparta to back his position: ” As to the walls.. I agree with Sparta in thinking that they should be allowed to sleep in the earth, and that we should not attempt to disinter them… how ridiculous of us to be sending out our young men annually into the country to dig and to trench, and to keep off the enemy by fortifications, under the idea that they are not to be allowed to set foot in our territory, and then, that we should surround ourselves with a wall, which, in the first place, is by no means conducive to the health of cities, and is also apt to produce a certain effeminacy in the minds of the inhabitants, inviting men to run thither instead of repelling their enemies, and leading them to imagine that their safety is due not to their keeping guard day and night, but that when they are protected by walls and gates…”

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