Northwest by northeast: a tale of two frontiers

Sanjib Baruah
17 July 2009

The violence unleashed by unmanned US drones, with the acquiescence of the Pakistani government, on remote mountain villages in the "lawless" Tribal Areas bordering Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is more than a tactical shift in the US war on terror, or what has since been redubbed Overseas Contingency Operations

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), consisting of seven largely autonomous "agencies" and six semi-autonomous "frontier regions", have increasingly come into the purview of western strategists and media after Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants gained footholds in the rugged region. The focus on Pakistan's Tribal Areas privileges a history of violence across the western border with Afghanistan - a story that spans the western-backed Afghan jihad of the 1980s and the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Thus most commentators see unrest in the NWFP and FATA as an extension of Taliban militancy.

Little attention is paid to the much more intricate, difficult context of local conditions and structures. This much neglected local story has a crucial historical dimension. And curiously, Pakistan shares that history not with Afghanistan, but with its neighbour to the east.

The administrative structure of Pakistan's northwest - including its system of tribal governance - owes its shape to the peculiarities of what the Viceroy of India and imperialist par excellence George Nathaniel Curzon called the "frontier system" of the British Empire. While Pakistan, as a successor state of British India, contains the North West Frontier, the old North East Frontier is part of India, the other successor state. The northeast of contemporary India, like the northwest of Pakistan, is restive and wracked by violence, scarred by armed "separatist" movements and the heavy footprint of state counter-insurgency. Both frontiers were, in Curzon's conceptualization, "threefold" frontiers, with an "administrative" border, a frontier of "active protection", and an outer or advanced "strategic" frontier.

The threefold frontier

Only in the areas inside its "administrative" border did Britain try to establish regular rule. In the North East this was the area - mostly comprising the present-day state of Assam - where, by the latter half of the nineteenth century, a promising new economy of tea, oil and coal production had emerged.

Sanjib Baruah is the Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York and Honorary Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

He is editor of the recently released collection Beyond Counterinsurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India (Oxford University Press 2009). In this enclave of global capitalism, British officials considered it crucial to establish modern property rights and a modern legal and administrative system. Using the fiction of Assam's vast "wastelands," the British had given away huge tracts of land to European tea planters. But the process in reality involved the massive disruption of old economic and social networks, and property regimes. As a result, the tea plantations of Assam in their early years were subject to attacks by neighboring tribesmen. So the colonial rulers had to find a way of fencing off the fledgling plantations from the marauding "barbarians" protesting their dispossession. This "Inner Line", cordoning off areas of clear, cemented colonial rule, was first introduced in 1873

Beyond it were "Tribal Areas" that were claimed as British territories - a zone of "active protection" in Curzon's words - but the colonial government maintained little interest in extending modern governmental institutions into that zone. Launching occasional military expeditions to teach the tribesmen a lesson was considered enough. Thus the Inner Line, in the words of Boddhisattva Kar, a brilliant young historian of Assam, was "not only a territorial exterior of the theatre of capital - it was also a temporal outside of the historical pace of development and progress" ("When Was the Postcolonial? A History of Policing Impossible Lines," in Sanjib Baruah ed. Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India (Oxford University Press, 2009). Even though a minimal administrative presence - very different from the edifice of colonial rule set up within the administrative borders - was gradually established in many of the Tribal Areas, there were still many places at the time of independence where the state had no presence whatsoever.

Beyond the Tribal Areas, on the empire's outer edge, was what Curzon called the advanced "strategic" frontier. These were territories that were technically independent but it was the task of imperial diplomacy and military power to ensure that they serve as buffers for the British Empire. It is not surprising that the two lines drawn to define the outer limits of Curzon's zones of "active protection" - the Durand Line in the North West, and the McMahon Line in the North East - are both contested international borders today.

Elusive peace

India's northeast (from wikipedia)

Despite the different histories and trajectories of independent India and Pakistan, peace under post-colonial sovereignty has eluded both frontiers. They both remain fractious, disputed zones. In the North East, starting with the challenge at the very moment of India's independence by the Nagas - a people of one of the Tribal Areas - numerous armed groups have resisted the Indian state. Nor did the rebellions remain limited to the "Tribal Areas". By the 1980s the United Liberation Front of Assam emerged to challenge the postcolonial order in the state of Assam, the economic heartland of the North East Frontier.

During the final years of British rule in India, anti-colonial nationalists objected to the exclusion of the Tribal Areas from the jurisdiction of India's fledgling elected provincial governments, as well as how British officials attempted to insulate the people living in those areas from nationalist ideas and campaigns. However, after independence in 1947, there was no sweeping overhaul of the threefold frontier system; the leaders of both India and Pakistan retained many of the old exclusionary arrangements (albeit with a few modifications). Taking apart the system did not seem politically viable at the time. In neither Pakistan nor India, did nationalist leaders enjoy enough support and credibility among people living in the Tribal Areas to change the status quo. 

In an effort to counter or pre-empt rebellions, the Indian government gradually took to turning many of the old Tribal Areas into formally full-fledged states in India's federal structure. However, they continue to retain many of the properties of Curzon's frontier system. For instance, movement back and forth across the Inner Line of 1873 to the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram is still regulated for Indian citizens and foreigners alike.

The cost of counter-insurgency

A horrendous piece of legislation, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), has since 1958 provided the legal framework for counter-insurgency operations targeted against the numerous armed rebellions that have wracked the region. At various points of time in India's postcolonial history, this law has enabled de facto pockets of military authoritarian rule in the North East, at odds with India's much vaunted commitment to democracy.

The AFSPA allows the government to declare any area in the North East "disturbed." Following such a declaration, the security forces can make preventive arrests, search premises without a warrant, and shoot and kill civilians with relative impunity. Legal proceedings against soldiers are contingent on the central government's prior approval.

Folk memories of postcolonial repression - of being on the receiving end of counterinsurgency - has by now produced newer generations of rebels in cases like the six-decades old Naga movement for independence. Such movements have thrived by taking advantage of the imperfections of the rule of law, maintaining ties with mainstream politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, and engaging in criminal violence (see Bethany Lacina, "Rethinking Delhi's Northeast India Policy: Why neither Counter-insurgency nor Winning Hearts and Minds is the Way Forward," in Sanjib Baruah ed. Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India). These conditions - not unlike those associated today with the unrest in the North West - are the product of the peculiarities of a system of governance that has been only stutteringly reformed in postcolonial times, remaining firmly grounded in the legacy of Curzon's threefold frontier.

Missed connections

In October 1946, under a year before independence, India's future prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru toured the Tribal Areas of the North West Frontier Province in his capacity as External Affairs member of the Interim Government (and even after independence, certain areas in both frontiers remained for a while under the jurisdiction of the External/Foreign Affairs ministries of the two successor states). "India, which for a long stretch of years has been more or less isolated on its land frontier," he said in his note to the then NWFP Governor Olaf Caroe, "is now bound to develop closer relations with its neighbors both on the North West and North East." He speculated on railway lines connecting "the Chinese railway system through India with the Western Asian railway system and Europe" - developments that were destined to have "far-reaching consequences in the social structure of the Tribes."

Recent rhetoric from Indian officials about the future of northeast India echoes the hopes expressed by Nehru sixty years ago. For instance, in 2004 a top Indian diplomat explaining the India's "Look East" policy - a plan to build closer economic and diplomatic ties with India's neighbors to the east - said that it "envisages the northeast region not as the periphery of India, but as the centre of a thriving and integrated economic space linking two dynamic regions with a network of highways, railways, pipelines, transmission lines crisscrossing the region." Yet the vision of transforming the colonial-era frontier regions into normal, governable national spaces remains unfulfilled in the North East as well as in the North West.

If today the sovereignty over the lives of people living in certain so-called "ungovernable" territories has entered the realm of international scrutiny and intervention, the fault lies not with Islamicist radicals or "ethnic separatists" alone. It is instead largely because the project of decolonization has long run out of energy, idealism, creativity and political imagination.

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