By Samah Rafiq

Abstract: This article highlights the colonial roots of international borders in present day South Asia by looking at the partition of British India in 1947. It focuses on the concept of linear borders – straight lines connecting a series of dots on a map in a way that one territory can only fall into one polity – in the region to make its case. It argues that historicizing linear borders in South Asia can help us move beyond the state-military conception of security in the region and focus instead on how these borders affect individuals and communities. The article discusses the contemporary legacies of linear borders in the region, key events during the partition of 1947, and impending security challenges in the region. 

The Kartarpur Corridor, a 4.1 km long cross-border land route connecting the two Punjabs in India and Pakistan opened on 9 November, 2019. It links two holy sites of Sikhism on two sides of the international border between India and Pakistan. The bordering exercise of the Indian subcontinent’s partition meant that most Sikhs ended up on the Indian side of Punjab while their key holy site was on the Pakistani side. It took India and Pakistan 70 years to ensure that the Sikh community in India can travel to Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan for worship. This is a small instance of how the linear borders drawn by the British in 1947 continue to reverberate across South Asia. Linear borders are straight lines connecting a series of dots on a map in a way that one territory can only fall into one polity. 

The partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947 left behind a volatile South Asia; we have seen this volatility transform into deep distrust between the states of India and Pakistan, and manifest in the form of multiple wars in the subcontinent, many of them fought over Jammu and Kashmir. International relations scholarship on security in South Asia remains limited by the cognitive confines made legitimate by linear borders in the region. However, it is important to keep in mind that the concept of “borders as lines” is only a recent phenomenon aided by developments in cartography and geography. 

Prior to independence, British India was a complex web of overlapping sovereignties between the British colonial authority and over 500 princely states (monarchies). The exercise of linear bordering was first attempted by colonial powers in Africa and Latin America to divide their colonial authority over these continents. Hence, linear borders have deeply colonial roots internationally. In South Asia, they were projected as simple and objective solutions to complex questions of identity and belonging, but have resulted in division of communities and resources, increased militarization and distrust, and the reification of identities that linear borders aimed to isolate. 

Historicizing linear borders in South Asia can help us move beyond the state-military conception of security and focus on how these borders affect individuals and communities. The 1947 partition after all led to the largest mass human migration ever recorded with estimates of the displaced ranging between 12-14 million. Over a million people were also killed in the ensuing violence concentrated mostly in Punjab and Bengal – the two provinces through which new linear borders were drawn. If linear borders were only segregating different identities, why did millions have to flee their homes? India and Pakistan were also the first postcolonial independent states to be created by partitioning through drawing linear borders. The partition of British India in 1947 was the first time that territorial partition and the formation of independent states was used as a bordering strategy in the colonized world.

The plan to partition British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan was announced by the British on 3 June, 1947 with a deadline set for June 1948. Yet, independence was preponed to mid-August 1947. Actual new linear borders were drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been to India, and these linear borders were not announced until 17 August, 1947, following days of violence. These lines cut through industries, agricultural fields, and economic zones, disappointing both Indian and Pakistani groups at the time. As the Kartarpur Corridor illustrates, the linear borders that were meant to rationally solve problems of identity complicated rather simplified things.

The legacies of linear borders of 1947 include highly militarized borders between India and Pakistan, the increasingly fenced border between India and Bangladesh, anxiety over Bangladeshi migrants in northeast India, and tensions at the Line of Control passing between Indian- and Pakistani-administered parts of Jammu and Kashmir. The logic of linear borders contradicts the realities of human connection and complexities of identity and continues to shape the geopolitics of South Asia today.

In a region where histories are deeply interconnected across international borders, as the Kartarpur Corridor underscores, the securitized logic of linear borders rooted in colonialism holds South Asia back from finding cooperative frameworks to handle pressing security issues of our time, such as climate change, that do not adhere to the logic of linear borders. While a large body of interdisciplinary scholarship exists on the partition of South Asia, most of it does not problematize the very legitimacy of linear borders. Yet, we need to step out of the cognitive confines of linear bordering both in our approach to knowledge production on security as well as in our practice of security-building in South Asia. 

Samah Rafiq is a Senior Teaching Fellow and Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London. She works on bordering and mobility control (BMC) practices – their evolution, their securitization via the introduction of algorithmic technologies and risk management, and their increasing privatization. She is interested in centering the experiences of the Global South in knowledge production on and practice of BMC, and in colonial hierarchical legacies in BMC today through practices like risk profiling. She received her PhD in international politics from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2023. She was a doctoral visiting Fox Fellow at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies for the academic year 2019-20.

Article or Event Link
Aug 6, 2023
Public Policy


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