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Perilous Trans-Border Journeys

M S S Pandian The persistent indeterminacy of national borders and the consequent violence of the nation states in south Asia have been the theme of several books and monographs. But, as the book under review rightly argues,

Perilous Trans-Border Journeys

M S S Pandian

he persistent indeterminacy of national borders and the consequent violence of the nation states in south Asia have been the theme of several books and monographs. But, as the book under review rightly argues,

…studies on wars, conflicts and tension between countries of south Asia…have been focused on ‘big’, ‘visible’ issues like Kashmir, nuclear politics… there is scant mention of the less spectacular, everyday conflicts…

Departing from such emphasis on “big” and “visible” issues – yet not overlooking them – the book foregrounds the theme of routine and everyday violence endured by the fisher folk of the coastal states of south Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – because of their crossing national maritime borders while fishing.

The haziness of the borders on the high seas, the shared identity as fisherfolk (despite belonging to different nations), the sense of geographical closeness and livelihood strategies are some of the factors which make fisher people cross sea borders. Such border-crossing, as the book eloquently shows, gives the fisher people fluid and multiple identities other than the national identity anchored in citizenship. To cite an instance from the book, when Sisira Fernando, a Tamil Sri Lankan fisherman, was brought before a court in Kochi for violating Maritime Zone of India Act 1981, he introduced himself thus: “I live in Sri Lanka. My forefathers lived in India. Relatives are here and there. I go off and on to meet them. I work and live in the sea. India or Sri Lanka does not come to me.” He continued, “What is citizenship? Passport? I have none.”

Such fluid identities which discount one’s national identity and celebrate multiple affiliations, are a constant source of anxiety for the nation states. What compounds this crisis is the fact that the maritime boundaries among the states in south Asia are not yet – perhaps never will be – fully demarcated. The book illustrates this

book review

Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia by Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma (New Delhi: Routledge), 2008; pp x + 251, Rs 650.

by a detailed discussion on the dispute between India and Pakistan over Sir Creek, a 100 km long estuary in the marshes of the Rann of Kutch which lies on the border between the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh. Des pite nine rounds of discussion starting in 1969, the issue has not been settled and the border has not been demarcated.

Hazy Legal Regime

Similarly, the fishing laws are also ambiguous. Analysing the legal regimes governing fishing in India and Pakistan, for instance, the book notes:

Not only are these boundaries unsettled, there is an absence of any other clear-cut fishing laws. Further, the Maritime Zones of India Act 1976 and 1981, under which the fishermen are detained and punished, do not correspond with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of which India is a signatory. The same is true with the Maritime Zones of Pakistan Act, which is virtually identical to that of India.

The actual process of implementing these fishing laws too is arbitrary. Through a series of interviews conducted among the fisher people in all the four south Asian coastal states, the book movingly documents the plight of those who are caught in this hazy legal regime:

They complete their term of punishment as per the court order, but even then they are not released. Often they are never tried and just locked away in prison. They have to wait years for a formal process of exchange of prisoners to take place. They are usually released only through an “exchange protocol”, almost similar to the procedure followed for the prisoners of war. The release is mainly dependent on the state of relations between their governments (p 69).

While the loss of breadwinners reduces families to penury, children who are working in boats too are occasionally arrested and kept in prisons for long periods of time. The economic consequences of being caught by the rival navies or coastguards can be ruinous to boat-owners as well. It is bureaucratically cumbersome and very expensive to get a boat released when it is caught. Often, it leads to the bankruptcy of the boat-owners.

Ecological Dimensions

Significantly, the book complicates this picture of the national anxiety about borders and the routine violence unleashed on fisher people by adding the ecological dimensions of fishing resulting from the growth of capitalism in the fishing industry. In the post-independence period, the south Asian coastal states – in particular, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – have modernised their fishery industry through foreign aid, subsidies and the introduction of modern equipment such as nylon nets, multi-day fishing vessels, trawlers, freezing and canning equipment and diesel engines. The growth of capitalism in the fisheries sector and the industrialisation of the fisheries have, on the one hand, led to overfishing and the fast depletion of fish stock. On the other hand, people from outside the traditional fishing communities have come to dominate the sector marginalising artisanal modes of fishing and often reducing traditional fisher people to the status of workers in capital-intensive fishing vessels. Large-scale pollution of coastal waters, reduction of fresh water flows to the sea, increasing salinity of creeks, and reduction in mangrove estuaries (where “around 90% of tropical marine fish species pass at least one stage of their life cycle”) have resulted in further depletion of fish stock.

If the fisher people crossed borders in the past due to certain disposition towards the openness of the sea and as a celebration of multiple affiliations, the new economy is fast changing this. It is often the competition over fish stock which now leads to border-crossing. While the multiday fishing vessels of Sri Lanka poach into the Indian waters, the fish workers from

Economic & Political Weekly

SEPTEMBER 26, 2009 vol xliv no 39


India, at the insistence of vessel-owners, fish in the Sri Lankan waters. Paradoxically, this has led to the fisher people partaking in a nationalist discourse similar to that of the state – often abandoning their multiple affiliations of the past. For instance, “on 3 and 5 March 2003, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen from Pesalai and Neduntheevu attacked 154 fishermen from Rameswaram and Mandapam and seized 21 boats because they were fishing beyond Kachchativu. Two fishermen from Rames waram fractured their hands.” This is despite the fact that both the groups share a common Tamil identity and have fished in each others waters amicably, each targeting different species. They too came in the past together annually at Katchchativu to barter goods.


Given the human dimension of the problem and its pervasiveness, the book makes a plea that states should shift their attention from the security of the borders to the security of the people:

Every geographical coastal unit in south Asia is a combination of centuries of mixings, adulterated histories, cultural interminglings, natural migrations, and multiplex affiliations. If provincial boundaries can be created on linguistic and other particularities, surely coastal borders can be concretised on the coastal identity of coastal people, by the creation of coastal enclaves and by the promotion of cultural, economic, political and social linkages amongst”.

Given the ecological dimen sion of the problem, the book also argues that designing alternative livelihood systems in the place of profit-seeking capitalism in the fisheries sector is a necessary precondition for ensuring the security of the coastal people.

The importance of the book lies in several registers. First, in a manner of speaking, it descends from the event to the everyday in exploring the border anxieties of the nation states in south Asia. In other words, it recovers a slice of the past and present of communities which are mostly rendered invisible in the current literature. Second, the empirical richness of the book adds to the slowly emerging body of important works on borderlands in south Asia a la Willem van Schendel’s The Bengal Borderlands: Beyond Nation and State in South Asia (London: Anthem Press, 2005). Such studies are essential to unravel the ever incompleteness of the territorial sovereignty of nations and its often violent consequences. Third, it makes a radical attempt to redefine the notion of national security by means of debordering rather than actualising borders on the seas. Thus, it invites us to partake in a postnational political imagination, wherein deterritorialised commingling of people and multiple affiliations are a possibility. Such imagination may sound utopian given the current state of relations among the coastal nations of south Asia. Yet, without such flights of imagination, one will be condemned ever to live in the oppressive present.

M S S Pandian (mathiaspandian57@gmail. com) is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics

(Deemed to be University)

Pune – 411 004

Applications are invited in the prescribed form for the following faculty posts in the UGC pay scales:

(A) Faculty position in the UGC sponsored ‘Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy’

of the Institute.
Professor : 01 (Open)
Reader : 02 (1 SC, 1 Open)
Lecturer : 01 (Open)

Desirable areas of Specialization: Economics/Sociology/Political Science/Public Policy. The above appointments will be made for a period of one academic year, likely to be continued for another two years subject to (i) receipt of grants from the UGC and the State Government, and (ii) satisfactory performance of the selected candidates.

(B) Institute also invites applications for the faculty positions (Lecturer, Reader, Professor), initially on a contractual/ visiting basis, for the following Endowment Chairs/Units:

  • (1) Planning Commission Endowment Chair in Planning and Development
  • (2) Reserve Bank of India Chair in Money and Finance
  • (3) Ford Foundation Endowment Chair in International Economics
  • (4) Kamalnayan Bajaj Chair
  • Desirable areas of specialization: Financial Economics/Public Economics/Planning and Development/International Economics/Industrial Economics/Environmental Economics/Econometrics/Micro Economics/Macro Economics/ Development Economics. Selection would not be restricted to only those who would apply. The names of suitable candidates for these positions could also be suggested by reputed academicians.

    The prescribed application form and information regarding the minimum qualifications and other particulars can be downloaded from our website (, or can be obtained from the Registrar of the Institute either personally (free of charge) or by post on sending a self addressed envelope with stamp worth of Rs. 25/-. The last date for the receipt of the application is November 06, 2009.

    Offg. Director

    SEPTEMBER 26, 2009 vol xliv no 39

    Economic & Political Weekly

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