Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism

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archie.oj.davies@gmail.com # Posted on February 4, 2014 at 16:06

Reflection on Gunnel Cederlof Seminar, Lecture and Reading
4th February 2014
Archie Davies

Maps and Borders

Central to Gunnel Cederlof’s thesis is an analysis of the interaction and disjunction between British attempts at exercising power and the physical realities of the region of North-East India under study. In this context she draws attention to the role of maps and map-making in the establishment of borders (of multiple types) in the region. She argues that there is an important difference between a border constructed out of linked points – which she associates with the mercantile expansionist border-making of the East India Company – and a border which manifests as a physical line. She argues that in the case of political or state borders, which she conceives of as continuous lines, “political power [is] correlated with space” while in the case of the mercantile borders “military and strategic concerns resulted in maps of interlinked strongholds.” She suggests (broadly speaking) that we could understand the development of political boundaries in North-East India as the former developing into the latter over time.

The case that there is a change in the nature of these borders over time is fairly convincingly put forward. However, it is not absolutely clear what the fundamental difference is between the two types of borders which she posits. Whilst it is comprehensively demonstrated in the book that a mercantile motivation leads to a different treatment of space and expansion in North-East India, the way in which this connects back into the nature of the borders is less clear. Though different subjects within what she describes as the ‘dual polities’ of the area in the period had different experiences of the operation of power, as explained for example through the question of land rights and fiscal subjectivity, it appears that this is less a consequence of one type of border over another, than of differing exercises of power – through governance, taxation, land control etc – within the space of the North-East. Though the analysis of the different processes undertaken in the course of establishing borders is clear, as is the historical import of different types of borders, the socio-political consequences of different types of borders is less obvious. Therefore it seems worth questioning what the substantive difference is between the two. After all, most political borders (with some very small number of exceptions) are not physical, man-made walls, but lines on the map and interlinked strongholds, which blurs the differentiation which Cederlof posits. She emphasises that the border was constructed through natural, rather than human interventions. Whilst some borders are aligned with natural features, even these are of course arbitrary human distinctions placed on the landscape. How artificial or natural the border lines are is relative rather than absolute. As is the fixity and continuity of the border over space.

What the consequences of different types of borders are is not fully considered. It would be interesting to consider, for instance, what the difference would be for a subject in the period between crossing a ‘mercantile’ border constructed of interlinked strongholds, and crossing a ‘political’ border understood as delimiting a political space.

This consideration of multiple types of borders, and the question of how borders manifest themselves within political spaces is of topical interest. The nature of surveillance and technological bureaucracy has rendered borders a more invasive concept. For instance in the United Kingdom, the government is currently considering proposals to introduce responsibilities for landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, a controversial move which would extend borders into and throughout the political space of the state. This type of border is of course of a different order to that discussed by Cederlof, but it is an example of how borders in the 21st century have developed. In this case it is clear that the nature of the border itself as a fixed and active metaphor for an exclusive national identity with associated rights is important in understanding the nature of political life for those within the space delimited by the border. The nature of the border therefore has consequences. How this dynamic plays out in North-East India in the period under study would be interesting to understand further.