What is the Infrastructure of the Border?

Jasnea Sarma and Dina Krichker organized and led a thematic discussion “Infrastructures on the Edge – Let the Borders Speak for Themselves.” Hussain Mushahid reflected on the debates.

“What is the infrastructure of the border?” was the question that Jasnea Sarma and Dina Krichker reflected upon in the context of their respective fieldwork experiences. This attempt was a very relevant and ambitious exercise at interpreting a wealth of ethnographic observations in terms of an expansive understanding of the ‘border’ in very different contexts. Dina talked about her research at the North African border between Spain and Morocco, which has lately become an important corridor for migration by refugees from the African continent. Jasnea presented her research located at the Bangladesh-Assam (India) border at the northern part of the Bengal delta, long-established corridors for the movement of peoples and commodities (cattle, among others).

Jasnea Sarma, Dina Krichker

Dina and Jasnea began by exploring the meaning of the border in terms of symbolic and material relationships within and between peoples and things, asking how it is actualized as “infrastructure.” Such infrastructure regulates flows of people and commodities but also enacts forms of everyday violence and produces new subjects. They situated their paper in a scholarly context that unpacks a gap between the rhetoric of globalization which promises the erosion of (national) borders and the reality of their proliferation today. A key conclusion they emphasized was the need to understand the making of borders (as infrastructure) in terms of the outcomes of interactions between the vested interests of specific groups or social actors at their particular border spaces. Their main argument called for seeing how people and their activities are integral to the infrastructures they build, and how such infrastructures actually operate.

Mushahid Hussain

I was intrigued that despite their expansive understanding of the border, both Jasnea and Dina chose quintessential national borders as their field sites. I then posed a question, which is crucial for the overall analysis of borders as infrastructures – what is the duration of such borders? In other words, what do such border spaces tell us about the contemporary anxiety over national sovereignty and how is this done through the specific histories that make the borders under study? For instance, what is particular about the histories of peoples and places in Melilla or the Assam-Bangladesh border that justify a comparative exercise? Does it perhaps indicate a general point about the significance of politically performing the institution of borders today (i. e. the exercise of sovereign power in an era where economic and cultural flows can no longer be contained within the territorial claims of the nation-state)? My reason for raising such questions was to suggest a move away from a seemingly terminal present that characterized the discussions. I considered such an analytic move to be essential for enriching our understanding of these cases in terms of the narratives people generate in both coping with the effects of power as well as in laying specific claims on its exercise. The vantage point of the border not only allows for a fixing of space but also opens new terrains for exploring how such space is temporalized in everyday narratives and practices –  Tim Mitchell (2000) and David Scott’s (2004, 2013) works are suggestive here, among others.

Another related issue, which was raised by Saikat Maitra, concerned the specificities of places. An eye for seemingly trivial or quotidian practices may reveal cosmologies of belief and action among those who cope with the effects of power at the border (or those who exercise it) may be embodied in the same actors at different times. Such an ethnography, as Saikat maintained referring to Dina’s observations of rituals and mystical practices, might enable a comparison of how contemporary borders are negotiated by the different actors that constitute them.

A final point was raised by Franz Waldenberger regarding the (apparent) paradox between the humanitarian zeal in aiding migrants (once they have crossed into the EU for instance) and the militarization of the borders themselves. Given our time constraint, the point was not discussed further but nevertheless brought into light the necessity for examining the role of non-state actors, human rights groups, etc. in the making of borders today. Overall, the discussion was lively and brought out a range of substantive political issues, methodological concerns and the ethical as well as conceptual/theoretical quandaries that made Jasnea and Dina’s comparative exercise an intellectually provocative one.

Jasnea Sarma is a PhD candidate in Asian Studies and Political Geography at the National University of Singapore. Her Ph.D. thesis titled “Seeing From the Periphery – Small people, Big Resource, and the Lines in Between”  uses ethnographic methods and GIS mapping in several sites on India and China’s borders with Myanmar to critically analyse spatial transformations in sites which not only traditional borderlands but are also evolving as nascent ‘resource frontiers’.

Dina Krichker is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore in the Department of Geography. Prior to her doctoral studies, she obtained her Master’s degree in Geopolitics from King’s College, London after an undergraduate education in Russia. Her research interests lie in the area of border studies, and her doctoral project examines the proliferation of borders in the urban space of Melilla, the small Spanish enclave in Morocco.

Mushahid Hussain is a PhD student in Development Sociology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NewYork. His current research explores everyday practices and idioms of meaning that make places, developmental plans, political platforms and markets at the fringes of an urbanizing region in central Bangladesh.

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