Borderlands are strategically important from a country’s defence point of view and the author of a just-released book on travels along India’s bounderies has argued that people there are often uncertain about their identities and do not always share a sense of belonging….writes Saket Suman
The solution, he says, is not erecting fences or deploying more military personnel, but long-term significant economic prosperity and enhancement of the quality of life.
“I don’t really think the state has much of a role in overcoming these problems in the short term, but if you think of a long-term solution, significant economic prosperity and enhancement of quality of life in these border towns could make the idea of being an Indian really attractive and sway people this way.
“I don’t think that erecting better fences and putting up additional BSF or SSB outposts could address the issue,” author Pradeep Damodaran said.
The Border Security Force (BSF), set up in 1965, primarily mans the India-Pakistan border, while the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) is mandated to guard the Nepal and Bhutan borders.
Local people in the border areas can play a very constructive role in India’s defence, the author said. The only way to win over the support of locals is by improving their quality of life, giving them access to good education, employment and better living standards.
“Locals are suspicious of the army, the Indian government and the like because they believe that this country and its army have not done anything good for them and cannot do so in future. When the Centre is able to change that perception and actually improve the lives of locals, especially in comparison with our neighbouring countries, then people will automatically root for India and everything that is Indian… (and) security will be automatically ensured,” he added.
Damodaran has just come out with “Borderlands” (Hachette India/Rs 650/pp 387). The book reminds its many prospective readers that while the idea of nationality and citizenship are privileges that are often taken for granted in India’s bustling metros and big towns, the country’s periphery is dotted with sleepy towns and desolate villages whose people, simply by having more in common with citizens of neighbouring nations than with their own, have to prove their Indian identity every day.
Elaborating, he pointed to the twin towns of Raxaul (Bihar) and Birganj (Nepal), along the nepal border. People living here belong to the same community, speak the same language, and marry amongst each other; they have been doing so for generations, asserted Damodaran, who gave up a lucrative career in the software industry to become a journalist and is a former chief of bureau of Deccan Chronicle in Chennai.
“But they are citizens of different nations. Now, if there is a border conflict, should they value their familial bonds or remain patriotic, thereby breaking a trust that has been built for generations? We have to remember that India as a country is just 70 years old, but people have been living here for thousands of years and share a deeper connection with citizens of a neighbouring country,” he added.
But why is there a lack of “sense of belonging” and “uncertain identity” among our border folks?
Damodaran said this was primarily because of two reasons. Firstly, porous international borders allow people to freely move between two nations. As a result, some people have managed to procure identity cards of both these countries, although it is illegal.
He also pointed out that we are festering such feelings by beefing up more security and providing a less-than-desired quality of life. It is depressing to see, he said, that border towns of much smaller countries like Bhutan and Nepal have much better infrastructure and living standards when compared with their Indian counterparts.
“What is more dangerous and appalling is the other kind of identity crisis that people face due to their looks and lifestyle within the country. This is very detrimental and needs to be addressed,” maintained Damodaran.
In the book, he writes about a smart, young man from Arunachal Pradesh who studied in Bengaluru and loved the city but was “forced to return home” to Tawang as he felt he was not welcome in the southern tech hub.
“He and his friends from the Northeast were always branded as ‘chinkis’. He even told me he could connect better with citizens of Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries who lived in Bengaluru. I found it appalling for this young man speaks better Hindi than most South Indians, including me, and is a productive, useful citizen. He does not deserve such treatment in his own country,” lamented the author.
Damodaran considers his book a travelogue and hopes that readers enjoy and appreciate this beautiful, diverse country a little more by the time they have finished it.