Amritsar is a city where history is constantly being made, a city in chrysalis. On its story is etched the experience of great religious and spiritual awakening, entrepreneurship and enterprise, fearlessness, the tragedy of Partition, war and peace—it is situated in a geopolitical borderland.
Amritsar is, in borderland terminology, the quintessential “contact zone”. By contact zone, I mean the space of encounter, where ideas, cultures, languages and lifestyles, trade, commerce, ethnicities, poetry and prose create a confluence, where the courage to speak out in the quest for freedom from fear, to debate and accommodate difference and to celebrate diversity, is—and should be—an enduring constant.
My focus over years of professional involvement has been with the Himalaya, where India meets Central Asia and what in the early 20th century was called Inner Asia. I think in this context of the Pamirs, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalaya. This is where borderlands and contact zones beckon—contact zones which are now no longer what they were, because politics intervenes, and the concept of sovereignty speaks the final word.
The borderlands in the Karakoram and the Himalaya today are fractured and fissured by circles of containment and conflict, and the destinies of their inhabitants are determined in New Delhi, Islamabad or Beijing. These capitals have turned ventriloquist, speaking for the networked cosmos that was the borderland.
But borderlands are not limited to mountain frontiers or areas contiguous to international borders. Countries can also fit the definition of borderlands. Nineteenth century European travellers called India “the celebrated region” because of its location on the margins of two regions—Europe through the Gulf, and South-East Asia through Myanmar, the Malay Peninsula and Andaman Sea. It is a central nation, a connector.
This “centrality of marginality”, or the importance of territories on the periphery or on the margins of nation states, has now been lost to the borderlands wherever they exist. They no longer connect and integrate or are the place of every arrival. Today, they are fenced in, populated by the ghosts of travellers past, militarised, their mountain passes and valleys scenes of combat, the axis of trade, pilgrimage and fraternal exchange with peoples across the frontier, severed, all doors shut.
Kalimpong, a Himalayan town in Bengal, not far from the border of Sikkim with Tibet, is a classic example of such a borderland. A January 1951 article in the now defunct Himalayan Times commenced its lofty description of the town with the title: “Kalimpong, Border Cosmopolis”. It was a place where you could drop your calling card “on a Tibetan sorcerer, a yogi, a self-styled reincarnation of Joan of Arc or a pretender to the long-vacated throne of Burma”. Tibetan, Marwari, Newari and Kashmiri traders as well as Chinese merchants came together for trade, pilgrims and adventurers congregated, and a good dose of spies created a problematic mix.
From being an idyllic mountain township, by 1959, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai separately looked on it as a “nest of spies”. After the 1962 conflict between India and China, Kalimpong recedes into the shadows of history, its checkered story gathering dust.
Kalimpong is just one example of how the Himalayan regions of India have lost linkages with their neighbours. Ladakh, the Himachal and Uttarakhand Himalaya, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are all part of a Himalayan Fringe or Himalayan borderlands of peoples linked to Central Asia and Tibet by historical experience, spiritual and religious conditioning, climate and geography. Modern-day cartography glides over these borderlands and the cosmology of the lives contained therein, of trade routes and pilgrimage trails, and cross-cultural permeation.
This recognition of a shared habitat that was once common to the Himalayan borderlands, is alien to the diplomatic negotiating agendas of today. It is unrealistic to assume that these ideas will occupy the consideration of governments in future.
The Himalayan Fringe, which marks the frontiers between South and Central Asia, including Tibet, holds the key to the future of close to three billion people. But contested sovereignties and cartographies have prevented the coordinated, sustainable development of these areas and their opening to the world. A Himalayan Consensus is as yet a visionary and elusive dream, even as the discourse on territorial sovereignty dictates the closure of borders and traditional points of interaction and movement of peoples.
Frustrations among the youth, ethnic nationalisms, issues of identity, self-determination, human rights, geographical isolation, the use of armed force by the state, cross-border terrorism and questions about governance, straddle these borderlands today. They have tended to be viewed as targets of central government policy radiating from national capitals rather than as areas that possess their own ecosystems of existence, where policy must focus on local issues—water, human security, preservation of cultural heritage, border trade and language.
Today, the map precedes everything. It becomes the anchoring geometry for a nation. Mountain passes become a centrepiece of tussles over territory and border claims. Just as in the Himalaya, mountain ranges resulted from the physical collision between two tectonic plates, so too the borderlands have developed fault lines and fissures in the ongoing contest between India and China.
1962, the year of the brief war between India and China, was the moment of transformation in this region, when the doors on Tibet from India closed, after which India’s border peoples were cut off from traditional trans-Himalayan exchanges.
Once upon a time, Ladakh’s contiguity with Central Asia and Tibet made its capital, Leh, the emporium of cross-border trade between India, Tibet, Central Asia and Afghanistan. Amritsar was an intrinsic constituent of this canvas. Caravan routes converged on Leh, and its connection with the Silk Route and Yarkand, Kashgar and Khotan through the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh, made the latter the most important thoroughfare between India and Central Asia. That ecosystem of human-level contact between our Himalayan regions is now lost forever.
Borderlands are not just land-based but also straddle the oceanic spaces between us and our neighbours. It is but a narrow stretch of a few nautical miles that separates the southernmost districts of Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka. We have lost connectivity in the direct sense of the word between these areas.
Years ago, I remember buying a train-cum-ferry ticket for Chennai from Colombo to travel on the night train to Talaimannar in the northern part of the island, and thereafter, boarding the ferry S.S. Ramanujam to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, a journey of about two hours. At Rameswaram, one hopped aboard a train to Chennai. Sri Lanka and India were organically bound by the ties of their people—migrant Indian labour, teachers and businessmen in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan students, pilgrims and businessmen in India, easy comings and goings between the two countries. The civil war in Sri Lanka changed all that irrevocably.
Little wonder that South Asia is called the least integrated region in the world. This chasm between the border regions of two countries separated by the narrow Palk Strait is yet another example of how people-to-people connectivity becomes the first casualty of political upheaval or estrangement between close neighbours.
Perhaps there is a need for those of us who live in metropolitan centres to explore our borderlands more closely in order to witness and feel the pulse and sentiments of our border peoples. These are also people struggling to preserve their habitats and unique identities.
Let me return to Amritsar as I conclude, and to war and peace. To the concept of borderlands, I would like to add that of the “commons”, a space we share with all our neighbours in South Asia. To quote former UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld: We have forgotten that the weakness of one is the weakness of all, and the strength of one—not the military strength, but the real strength, the economic and social strength, the happiness of people—is the strength of all. The “commons” teach us that there is a cosmos of connections in a single flower, as the art of Georgia O’Keeffe demonstrated.
To the west of us lies Pakistan, both of us crafted from the same timber of humanity but like two planets on a collision course. The legacy of Partition seems concentrated in our borderlands. The periphery defines the core of bitterness between us. The problems in our relationship or those relating to the issue of Kashmir cannot be solved easily against the backdrop of a landscape pockmarked by the absence of trust.
Perhaps our generation and at least two or three more are condemned to live with this reality. Perhaps neither side will achieve what it regards as the best solution. Maybe what is realised will be a “balance of dissatisfaction” but it may yet bring the peace crafted by mature minds, who think beyond the narrow confines of hyper-nationalism and the politics of the amphitheatre, and who want our peoples to prosper and have better lives.
Nirupama Rao is the author of The Fractured Himalaya: India, China, Tibet 1949-1962. She was ambassador to China from 2006-09, foreign secretary from 2009-11 and ambassador to the US from 2011-13. This piece is adapted from Borderlands: Lt S.S. Gill And Kuldip Nayar Memorial Lecture, which she delivered at Majha House in Amritsar on 26 November 2021.