PHOTO ESSAY: When a border is at the edge of the state
Karin Dean, Tallinn University
While in Europe the concepts of the state, borders and sovereignty have consolidated over 300 years, in many parts of the world these are rather recent. Most modern Asian states were born out of colonial administrative units with their boundaries drawn in faraway offices, often cutting through ethnic homelands. Turning such arbitrary geo-bodies into sovereign states and transforming local people with age-old connectivities into citizens remains an ongoing process in many borderlands.
Vijoynagar, a historically Lisu-inhabited circle (tehsil) of 16 villages in eastern Arunachal Pradesh State, is not only one of India’s most remote settlements but also surrounded on three sides by Myanmar. Villagers recount that they “were discovered” only in 1961, when the first Indian military mission reached the area.
State-making followed. An Assam Rifles army base was established on May 7, 1961. Subsequently, 200 families of Gorkha (Nepali) soldiers settled there. The largest Lisu villages Daodi and Shidi were given the Indian names of Vijoynagar and Gandhigram respectively. Their trade and family connections with Putao, a larger center 40 kilometers away on the Myanmar side across the mountain range, were slowly but steadily undermined by multiple state-led efforts to impose new identities and connectivities. This has culminated in 2022 with the launch of a 157-kilometer-long road to the nearest Indian town of Miao, which will replace a 6-day-long trek and the airlifting of necessities. “We have been a part of India for 75 years, and finally we got a road!” a villager rejoiced.
The photos taken in January 2023 present some of the ongoing classical territorial and social- symbolic bordering practices.
Click on the images to read descriptive captions.