A book review and discussion on this recent academic publication.

Tonmoyee Rani Neog and Rimpi Borah

Jungle Passports by Malini Sur recasts customary concepts of citizenship and mobility along borders in South Asia. Sur illustrates the myriad ways through which division of sovereignties and distinct regimes of mobility and citizenship push undocumented people to embark on perilous journeys across previously unrecognized borders every day. Paying close attention to forces that shape the life-worlds of deportees, refugees, farmers, smugglers, migrants, bureaucrats, lawyers, clergy, and border troops, she reveals how reciprocity and kinship and the enforcement of state violence, illegality, and border infrastructures shape the margins of life and death. With years of ethnographic and archival fieldwork, Sur’s  meticulously written book is a testament to the force of life in an era of closed borders, insularity, and ‘illegal migration’. In the book, Sur trails through the struggles of the residents of the borderlands of Northeast India and Bangladesh in securing their lands, gaining access to rice harvests, and smuggling of cattle and garments upon which their livelihoods depend.

The book tries to give a metaphorical charge to India’s border fence and transforms into a potential political register although the international border beckons for a neat territorial division. Things like rice, roads and cows, mark their presence like divisive forces, as markers of borders and boundaries. Sur points out that the border functions as a life force for the border-landers and notions of sovereignty, territoriality, legality, and identity are re-arranged accordingly. The crossing of borders pose a serious risk to lives of those who cross the border and to the economies of the bordering states, but the social relationships make the border penetrable.

In chapter one and two that discuss about the Rowmari-Tura road and rice wars respectively, Sur demonstrates the way people construct borders and relate to them in unanticipated ways, especially in regions where ethnicity, religion, language, families, and trading ties spill over the confines of national territories. Here, mobility is a fundamental attribute of life as people’s claim on land historically precedes present day national boundaries. Sur argues that it is the, “power that infrastructures gather that makes old roads familiar even in their material remnants and fragmented afterlife” (p. 40).

One of the fascinating ethnographic passages in Jungle Passports concerns fang-fung,which Sur characterises as denoting, “at once both duplicity and dependency…their semantic union 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” (p. 69). Sur brings out this concept in the case of cattle smuggling from India to Bangladesh. The focus here is not much on cow, but on bovines as both, “legally immobile commodities in India to highly mobile ones in Bangladesh”(ibid.).  Export of cattle for meat and leather is limited by India and regulated by Bangladesh, and thus, is highly lucrative as an unauthorised business.

The ‘jungle passports’ as the title of the book suggests, is about the skills and activities of small-scale smuggler-traders, bringing items such as clothing discarded by export garment plants in Bangladesh to markets in India. Sur discusses about ‘jungle passports’ as the, “use of forest camouflage to cross the border” (p. 94) in chapter four while narrating the skills and activities of small-scale smuggler-traders, mostly Garo Christian women of Bangladesh. They carry goods, such as clothes discarded by export garment plants in Bangladesh to markets in India and visit relatives through remote and poorly guarded paths across a lengthy and complex riverine border. While the concept of jungle passports exists at present times — the matrilineal Garo kinship, remote passage ways, market sites in the back country — existed before the imposition of a border between India and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), the profit garnered by smuggling goods through a real but also ineffective barrier engenders a way of life at the border. People and livelihood exist near the border as a result of direct and indirect involvement in consumer-goods smuggling. Borders, thus, give rise to new or reworked ways of life, social groups, geographies, and so forth.

In chapter six, Sur narrates her ethnographical experiences as an observer of the National Register of Citizens and at the Foreigners Tribunals. Sur has stated that India’s contemporary populist politics have imposed, “judicial borders in everyday life in Assam and along Assam’s borders with Bangladesh. Police surveys, court trials, detentions of unauthorized Bangladeshis, and now digital surveillance of night cameras and drones generate a panoptic of fear” (p. 159). India’s Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which seeks to give preference to non-Muslim immigrants from among India’s neighbouring countries, also fans the narrative of the ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi Muslim migrant taking over land and jobs. Having said that, one also needs to understand that the anxieties and complaints of the indigenous Assamese people of not being protected enough against the threat of the immigrants coming and taking their land are well-rooted in history. National and international media narratives however, have mostly erased such anxieties and presented and symbolised the entire indigenous population of Assam as chauvinists at best, and genocidal at worst. But the indigenous population in Assam endeavours time and again to remind others from outside the Northeast region, that Assam has had a very serious issue of not being understood by the rest of the country along with the rest of the world. The book misses out on the fact that the contemporary citizenship issues in Assam regarding migration is the history and legacy of colonisation. However, Sur mentions that those who submit themselves to the demands of Indian citizenship in Assam, as well as those who refuse, ensure that the borders between citizens and outsiders will continue to shift.

Security forces and discourses on security and policy around borders, focus on assigning people to definite bounded territories, with outsiders marked as security threats to the nation-state. This is supposedly demonstrated through various documents of identity, territorial presence, voting rights, work rights, public resource rights, and so forth. This social-political concept of documentation is expanding in the contemporary world,  which explains much of the fear, loathing, and coercive force of contemporary borders. Since the independence of India from colonialism, citizenship has been expressed through documents which is also the case in Assam. While showing that material artefacts like files, make the borderland population encounter the state, Sur argues that, “the bureaucratic actions and paper documents that state agents and people provide, acquire, submit, classify, manage, and retrieve all recall the centrality of state machineries and their influence on democratic functioning and practices. In generating complex paper economies, these not only support state actions but are themselves constitutive of the state” (p. 152). 

However, Sur does not discuss that the documents-generation-process in Assam is not necessarily only within the monopoly of the state. There is recorded existence of large scale counterfeited citizenship documents because such counterfeited documents allow people to claim citizenship rights and participate in a community of their choice. Through this process they directly challenge notions of rights-exclusivity and state-sovereignty. The state’s dependence on an infrastructure of citizenship is increasingly creating a nation of document-wielding individual-citizens and non-citizens alike. The idea that people have clear identities associated with definite bounded places flies in the face of the relationality of human life, not least the generative quality of borders and the slippery daily movement across them. Through conflicts and scarcity, the life of border-landers are made possible at the borders outside the rationality of nation-building and inevitability of fences and walls. Jungle Passports argues that regardless of the uncertainties and qualms, and despite the violent state, rural societies will assert, alter and transform the way border is seen. This is because the Northeast India–Bangladesh border divides and sustains far more than just two nations, religions, tribes, ethnicities, citizens, and troops.

The recent study of borders in South Asia scholarship have enriched the discipline of border studies, but at the same time, has also obscured what a ‘border’ is. Although, borders have undergone shifts, it is of utmost importance to consider the legitimacy of borders. Borders are diffusive and proliferating and can be considered as a primary ethico-political division between the possible politics inside the state and hostility outside the state. However, it is the need of the time to locate borders to understand networked connectivity and also the nuances of identity, belonging, political conflict and societal transformation. Despite observant and meticulous accounts like Jungle Passports, the ‘border’ is produced and consumed in reductionist ways, even in apparently serious academic work: the word ‘border’ is simply used as a political stance.

Title: Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border (2021)

Author: Malini Sur

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press

Page extent: 248 pages

Tonmoyee Rani Neog is an Assistant Professor (History) at Jagannath Baruah College (autonomous), Jorhat. She is pursuing her PhD from the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interests are literary history, gender studies, borderlands and cultural studies. Her writings have appeared in The Wire.in, Scroll.in, The Print, Firstpost and Raiot.

Rimpi Borah is a doctoral fellow in the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests are gender studies, sociology of law, and citizenship issues with special focus on Assam.

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