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This article explores the varied nuances in the functioning of the border haats (rural local markets) located along the borders of Bangladesh and the two North Eastern states of India, Meghalaya and Tripura, by analyzing their inner workings, identifying their difficulties, and putting forward a case for establishing more such haats at the borders that other Indian states share with Bangladesh. It will, no doubt, foster the prospects of further improving bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh and provide a boost to the faltering regionalism in the South Asian region. At best, it would help region in the exorcizing the ghost of Radcliffe and his ill-fated awards.

Author’s Update: The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the functioning of the border haats along the India-Bangladesh borderland. The four border haats straddling the North Eastern states of Meghalaya and Tripura have been asked by their respective district authorities to shutdown in consultation with their Bangladeshi counterparts for the time being. The government of India has suspended the operation of all its Integrated Check Posts (ICPs) and border haats since March 15, 2020 until further notice. Needless to add, the ‘formal’ or ‘official’ border haats might be closed, but there are ways by which border economies sustain themselves irrespective of the presence, or absence, of the state.

It can be argued with fair certainty that the centrality of borders as a potent definitional idea that animates the concept of nation-states has always been—and is always likely to remain—a political one. It is a purely political construct whose genealogy can be traced to the administrative necessities of the colonial times.[1] Interestingly, it could be discerned that after the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the postcolonial states of South Asia were predisposed towards to what Sankaran Krishna refers to as a form of “cartographic anxiety”—an anxiety which was foregrounded in the penchant for well-rounded nation-states: as states without any territorial aberrant or loose ends. It was this anxiety that explained their subsequent employment of strict bordering practices immediately after 1947.The implications of the Radcliffe Award have been catastrophic for the people living on the newly established borders, particularly in the truncated Bengal region.[2] Besides coming up with various bureaucratic mobility-controlling mechanisms and a regulatory vocabulary, even the mundane or everyday acts of inhabitants moving across the borders for their daily chores were viewed through the lens of ‘legality’ and ‘illegality’ by these two postcolonial states of South Asia, India and Pakistan (East Pakistan before 1971), and there after Bangladesh which was created in that year.

In this context, the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for establishing border haats (rural local market) between India and Bangladesh in 2010 heralded a much-needed thaw in their bilateral relationship. They were to be established in the districts bordering the two North Eastern states of Tripura and Meghalaya along with the contiguous border districts of Bangladesh. Four border haats were established between 2011 and 2015 as part of confidence-building measures between India and Bangladesh. They were located at the border of Balat (Meghalaya) and Sunamgunj (Sylhet); Kalaichar (Meghalaya) and Kurigram (Rangpur); Srinagar (Tripura) and Chagalnaiya (Chittagong); and Kamalasagar (Tripura) and Kasba (Chittagong).[3] Despite all the bureaucratic novelty of this fairly new process, the border haats have been an ingenious way of fostering people to people contact in the border region. Although their brief was limited in more ways than one, the haats have no doubt helped in improving the lot of people on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border.

The Four Border Haats

Kalaichar border haat (Meghalaya).
Balat border haat (Meghalaya).
Srinagar border haat (Tripura).
Kamlasagar border haat (Tripura).
Source: ICRIER.

As a matter of fact, it can be argued that academic understanding of borders and borderland communities in South Asia have long been studied with a blinkered perspective. Essentially, this perspective envisaged the all-encompassing security paradigm as its core constituent.[4] This line of thinking denied alternative imaginings of borders as a distinct or independent unit of analysis in itself. It subsequently rendered their study as unwarranted sites of critical engagement. Following the partition of British India based on the hastily executed Radcliffe Awards of August 1947,it has been argued that the postcolonial nation-states of South Asia suffered from a sense of what  Krishna has referred to as postcolonial insecurities pertaining to its territories.[5]This partly explains the rigorous securitization measures adopted by the postcolonial states of South Asia with respect to their border regions.

Following the implementation of the Radcliffe Awards, the India-Pakistan borderland came to represent a space wherein seemingly innocuous activities of hitherto pre-partition days acquired an element of illegality or rather became circumspect in the eyes of the newly founded bureaucracy of India and Pakistan.[6]Subsequently in the post-partition years, the states of South Asia came up with a host of mobility-controlling vocabulary to make sense of themselves and their citizenry. The inhabitants of the newly constituted border areas in the India-Pakistan region did continue to carry out their routine activities of trade and social relations, although without ease, until the respective nation-states of India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh from 1971 onwards, came up with strict mobility-controlling mechanisms to regulate the movement of their citizens across the borders.

A host of new official/bureaucratic terminologies like refugees and migrants, categorized under terms such as ‘legal’ and ‘illegal,’ gained much political traction in the discourses of both the nation-states. Subsequently, the passport and visa regime introduced by India and Pakistan in October 1952 added a new dimension to the cumbersome bureaucratic regimen of the inclusionary and exclusionary practices of the state.[7] It was precisely the everydayness of the people living on the borderlands and their livelihood patterns which were to be disturbed by the institutionalization of the new borders in the South Asian region.

The Idea of the Haat: Soft and Hard Borders

A brief introduction to the idea of the haat in the South Asian region might be timely. The haat as an informal rural marketplace in the Bengal region has been in existence since pre-colonial times. It can be argued that these old rural markets which served as places of trading of locally produced goods and services transformed into border haats with the imposition of political borders after 1947 and the creation of new nation-states. It was primarily the ‘softer’ nature of the border on the eastern front which made it much easier for the border markets to function without much hindrance until 1971. However, the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 led to a sudden disruption in the functioning of the border haats.

Following the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state, both New Delhi and Dhaka decided to reintroduce border haats in their scheme of bilateral relations. As a result, an India-Bangladesh trade agreement was signed between the two nations on March 28, 1972, where the reintroduction of border haats featured as an important component. Of significance is Article IV of the trade agreement, which contained a provision for border trade by people living within sixteen kilometers on either side of the border on a mutually agreed set of goods and services.[8] However, before the border trade could be put into practice, a dampener appeared due to suspicion on the part of the Bangladeshi side that the free flow of goods at these border haats would lead to an increase in large scale smuggling of goods.

The newly created of state of Bangladesh showed much goodwill towards India in the 1970s, when both countries entered into a host of institutional mechanisms to deal with various aspects of their bilateral relationship. The signing of an India-Bangladesh Trade Agreement on March 28, 1972 is of relevance to this discussion as it envisaged border trade. Article IV of the agreement had a provision to initiate border trade in specified commodities, in order to fulfill the day today requirements of the people living within a sixteen kilometer belt of the borderland between West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram on the Indian side, and Bangladesh on the other.[9]But under the new trade agreement, some of the existing commerce suddenly fell into the category of the illegal. The provision in Article IV was discarded within six months of its formulation in October 1972. Bangladeshi suspicion of large-scale smuggling in the border haats led to the annulment of the provision by mutual consent of both countries. They were concerned about the flourishing cross-border ‘smuggling’ because many parts of the India-Bangladesh border were left unguarded. Eventually these concerns prevented the institutionalization of border haats as formal and legal spaces. The mutual suspicion of both countries, stemming from the menace of ‘smuggling’ in the border areas, led to non-compliance with the provision of border haats as mentioned in the trade agreement.

Like most official policy proposals, the trade agreement was ambitious in its tone and tenor. However, the same securitized perception of the state authorities in relation to “enclaves” or chitmahal as spaces of ‘subversive’ and ‘illicit’ activities guided their policies towards the functioning of the border haats as well (see the note, for background on the enclaves). [10] The restrictive tenor of the 1972 agreement was too state sponsored an idea to be internalized by the borderland people in proper letter and spirit. Their ‘everydayness’ was always circumspect.

The two countries’ inability to get a regular source of revenue from the border economies of the India-Bangladesh region might explain the constant markings of such spaces as clandestine economies. Added to the absence of logistical infrastructure (and the lack of political will) to carry out ‘formal’ and ‘legal’ trade, the idea of border haats was sure to hit a rough patch and eventually it did within a year of its operation. Having said that, there are many ways one can conceptualize the idea of ‘economic exchange’ in the border regions.

 Apart from the statist tropes of ‘legal’ and the ‘illegal,’ there exists another way of looking at these commodities which Schendel and Abraham have located within the domain of the ‘licit,’ primarily meaning all those goods whose trade is considered as morally justified by the borderland communities.[11]A certain ambivalence marks the perception of such ‘licit’ commodities as their trade is often overlooked by security agencies in normal times but may fall in the category of the ‘illicit,’ depending on the state of bilateral relations of the times. A sudden border dispute between the two countries would make the categories of ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ quite fuzzy. The use of pirated goods in the border economies is a case in point.

As Malini Sur tellingly observes, the cross-border social linkages and ethnic similarities spanning both the sides of the India-Bangladesh border render the existence of these borders as fluid entities.[12] The border haat, thus, was not a novel idea; these haats were operational till the 1971 India-Pakistan War. It was only much later, after nearly four decades that both India and Bangladesh again decided in 2010 to revive the haats in the border regions.

The India-Bangladesh Border: An Overview

The India-Bangladesh border, measuring roughly around 4,096 km, encompasses the state of West Bengal and the four states of Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and Mizoram in India’s North East Region (NER). While West Bengal alone shares a2, 217km border with Bangladesh, which is the longest, the NER states share borders with Bangladesh as follows: Assam (262km), Tripura (856 km), Mizoram (180 km), and Meghalaya (443 km).[13] It must be noted, however, that the ‘shifting’ and unstable nature of these borders has long been a constant irritant in the bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh. As a significant part of India’s borders with Bangladesh falls within the riverine sector, a sudden monsoon downpour frequently causes the shifting of rivers, which makes policing or fencing of the rivers a challenging enterprise.

The India-Bangladesh border is a man-made construct whose genesis can be traced to the political machinations of 1947. Critically analyzing the state-centric definition of borders, political geographer Agnew has perceptively observed that borders “are not simply practical phenomena that can be taken as given. They are complex human creations that are perpetually open to question.” He further explains that:

. . . rather than reflecting unambiguous sovereignty that ends/begins at a border or that must be overcome as such, border thinking should open up to consider (a) territorial spaces as ‘dwelling’ rather than national spaces and (b) political responsibility for pursuit of a decent life as extending beyond the borders of any particular state. Borders matter, then, both because they have real effects and because they trap thinking about and acting in the world in territorial terms. They not only limit movements of things, money, and people, but they also limit the exercise of intellect, imagination, and political will. The challenge is to think and then act beyond their present limitations. It is with this perspective one has to analyze the India-Bangladesh borderland as an independent unit of analysis, with its own nuances and specifics, rather than bogged down by the national space discourses of the state system.[14]

Faultiness of the Radcliffe Awards

To begin with, Joya Chatterji has perceptively observed that the Radcliffe Awards which led to the partition of British India in 1947 was a farce, at its best. Called upon to preside over the two Boundary Commissions of Punjab and Bengal, which were to decide the fate of the two provinces, Radcliffe was given a very short remit. Barely six weeks to draw a boundary line between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Punjab and Bengal provinces of British India, and to create separate nations of India and Pakistan. Radcliffe did not bother to look into the intricacies of the boundary-making process. With old district maps at his disposal and no fieldwork to accompany it, he hurriedly delineated the border on the maps.[15] In a way, he did what he was asked to do: create borders on paper. The results were to be cataclysmic for the people who were caught unawares by the sudden imposition of the new border.

The new nations of India and Pakistan adopted a differentiated approach towards their borders in the eastern and western parts of the subcontinent. Unlike Punjab in the west where the border was completely sealed off, the eastern side of the Bengal region was kept relatively open until 1952. Perhaps the state’s rationale, that the movement of people across the border could be short term and would cease when violence would subside, might have guided their decisions on the eastern front. The question of ‘violence’ pertains to the states’ perception of the ‘eastern problem’ immediately after the partition of British India. It was primarily the partition of Punjab and its violent aftermath that has molded much of our understanding of the partition experience in South Asia. The absence of any major partition-related migration or massacre in the Bengal region gave the state a warm comfort that the eastern region would not go the ‘Punjab’ way. It was not until October 1952 that the states of India and Pakistan decided to regulate the border in the East, i.e. with the introduction of passport and visa regime. The intermittent or relative lack of physical violence on the Punjabi scale might have led to such positions in those initial years after partition.

Away from the mainstream developmental process of post-1947, one wonders what Nehru’s tryst with destiny meant to those people living in the borderlands of India and Pakistan. This is not to say that attempts were not made by the respective nation-states of India and Pakistan to alleviate their problems and solve the boundary issue.

Significant attempts were made to solve the boundary issue: a remnant of the ill-advised Radcliffe Awards. Of the most important treaties, the India-Bangladesh Friendship Treaty of 1974 merits much attention although it had to wait for forty-one years for its successful fruition in the form of ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement in 2015.Much has been achieved in fostering cross-border ties between India and Bangladesh. However, the state machinery—guided by its all-pervasive securitized perceptions—imposed excessive security arrangements at the borders which deterred contact at the borderland regions, thereby causing both economic and social loss. A remedy has been made with the reintroduction of the haats in the affected regions.

It was in this context that the setting up of border haats in 2010 assumes much importance. A unique initiative of India and Bangladesh, the opening of the haats was a modest attempt to exorcize the ghost of the unfortunate Radcliffe Awards and its impact on the people living on the borders of the two countries.

Border Haats: Inner Working and Functionality

In simple terms, a haat refers to rural marketplace where vendors and vendees engage in the buying and selling of locally produced goods and services on a weekly basis. In the context of India-Bangladesh borderland, haats refer to the specially designated spaces located in the border areas of the two North Eastern states of Tripura and Meghalaya with the adjoining states of Bangladesh where buyers and sellers would engage in trade of modest value. The value of trading has been set at a maximum of US$ 200 per day in their respective currencies according to the terms of agreement between two countries.[16] The upper ceiling of this limit could, however, be modified with mutual consent.

The unique initiative of opening border haats has a fixed mandate to improve the economic condition of the people living in remote areas of the India-Bangladesh borderlands. Besides providing them with decent livelihood alternatives, for instance as small-scale traders in goods and services, it also provided space for relatives on either side of the border to meet occasionally without facing the hassle of middlemen in those areas. The existence of brokers and middlemen, the ‘go to men’ for people to move across borders, legally and illegally, is a sad commentary on the state of India-Bangladesh relations.

The terms and conditions of operations in the borders haats have been extensively state-choreographed, to say the least, both by India and Bangladesh. Depending on the states in which haats were to be located, the timing for opening and closing varied among the haats. The standard timing of operation of the border haats was from 9.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. on designated days (either on Monday or Wednesday or Sunday). Besides, the vendees and the vendors had to get prior clearance from the respective Haat Management Committees (HMCs) of their respective countries. The HMCs primarily consist of five members: they were to be headed either by an Additional District Magistrate/Sub-Divisional Officer along with members from the customs, border security agency, the local village administration and the police.[17] The HMCs have a supervisory role over the border haats in their respective districts. The border haats have two entry and exit points: one for Indian nationals and the other for Bangladeshi nationals. The HMCs are guided by their respective border security agencies in the planning and layout of their respective border haats.

According to the MoU signed between India and Bangladesh in 2010, only persons residing within five km of the border are allowed to participate in the activities of the border haats. The goods which can be traded at the haats can be categorized as follows: (1) Locally produced edibles (oil, fruit, spices, and food items); (2) Minor forest produce (bamboo and broom, excluding timber); (3) Handloom products (gamcha, lungi and sarees); (4) Agricultural implements (plough, chisel, axe); (5) Melamine products (cosmetics, toiletries and plastic products); and (6) Any other item which has been cleared by mutual consent of both the countries.[18]

Besides, the transactions can be conducted by using either their respective national currencies or in the form of barter. Neither customs duty nor any tariff or non-tariff duties were to be levied on goods to be traded at the border haats. The focus was to be on the free flow of locally produced goods and their local consumption by the people in the border areas.

In April 2017, an MoU between India and Bangladesh called for the constitution of a Joint Committee on Border Haats, which was to review haat operations, suggest modifications in operational modalities, and propose new locations for border haats. Their first meeting was held in the Indian state of Tripura in July 2018. The participants argued for developing infrastructure particularly pertaining to logistics in the border haat region. According to data furnished by the concerned state governments, trade in cash equivalent to Indian Rupees (INR) 1,686.62 lakhs (INR 168.6 million) was carried out at the four border haats in the five-year period ending 2015-16.[19]

The present data suggests that India and Bangladesh have four operational border haats. In addition, the two governments have approved six more border haats—two in Tripura at Palbasti and Kamalpur, and four in Meghalaya at Bholaganj, Nalikata, Shibbari and Ryngku.

A Case for Effective Border Haats: Problems and Prospects

Both India and Bangladesh have agreed on the exact nature and number of goods that can be traded at the border haats. However, even a cursory reading of the list reveals the prevalence of excessive state interference in deciding the quality and quantity of goods that would be allowed to be traded in these rural markets. An obvious question that arises is, why are the border haats not allowed to function independently just like other regular spaces of buying and selling where market forces decide the trade? What explains the excessive interference of the state in the matters of the border haats?

The answer to these questions is not that simple or easily forthcoming. Nonetheless, this article attempts to provide some answers. First, discourses (policy-making and academic) on borders and borderland communities in South Asia are still in their nascent stage of development when compared with Europe or North America. The security component in understanding borders and their people continues to dominate all other imaginings; its pervasiveness is reflected in the policy documents concerning the borders of India and Bangladesh. The state’s suspicion of borderland communities as potential agents of subversion of state sovereignty partly explains the excessive micro management by the state of the commercial activities of the border haats. The actual functioning of the haats, however, indicates that the vendors were found to be sourcing their wares from distant places like Gujarat or Maharashtra, ignoring the criteria that the haats must source and sell products of local origin.[20]

Secondly, what can we make of the nature of these border haats. In matters of official documents and policies, an element of strict adherence to the terms and conditions of the MoU has to be maintained. The official documents on border haats are not an exception to this rule. However, there are complaints as well. According to Pushpita Das, the small-scale traders living in and around the Bangladesh border have been alleging that big businesses from Dhaka are calling the shots in the functioning of the haats.[21] Their complaints manifestly express the opinion that prominent businessmen from Dhaka with significant political or financial clout are deciding who gets to trade in the haats. The Joint Border Haat Management Committee must look into these matters and take appropriate remedial measures so that the real beneficiaries of the project are the border landers and not the affluent businessmen from Dhaka.

Thirdly, even the amount of paperwork required for the procurement of trading licenses from border officials provides ample space for manipulation and bribery on either side of the border. It is well known that corruption has been found to be all-pervasive in its tone and temperament in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy. In this case, imagine the plight of an unlettered small-scale trader inhabiting the remote areas of the borderland and the hassles the trader might have to undergo for procuring trading licenses from the relevant authorities.

Fourthly, a significant area which should be investigated is the possibility of incorporating the informal and illegal cattle trade into the official ambit of the haats. It is an open secret that the cross-border cattle trade is one of the primary causes of the killings of smugglers. On the Indian side, there are recurring killings of smugglers by the paramilitary forces, fueled by two reasons: an absence of clear-cut rules and regulations which makes the trade in cattle a dubious enterprise, and the state’s perception of the border population as suspect and subversive. These factors might explain the regular opening of fire by the security forces, giving currency to what Van Schendel refers to as “Rifle Raj” at the borders.[22] Legalizing cattle trade through the border haats can provide a remedy if its potential could be harnessed in a systematic and non-partisan manner.

There has been much controversy regarding the export of cattle from India to Bangladesh. Border haats can provide an interesting space where the illegal trade of cattle can be formalized or made official. There is, however, a difference in perspectives on cattle trade between the two countries. While Delhi sees the smuggling of cattle to Bangladesh as an illegal act, for Dhaka it is legitimate cross-border trade. The leadership in Dhaka has, many a time in their official rendezvous, raised the issue with the Indian authorities and has asked them to go easy on cattle trade. The Indian government might do well by delinking its domestic policy priorities from its long-term foreign policies. Separating the two might work wonders in improving the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Thus, formalizing cattle trade in the border haats could play a very positive role in improving the bilateral relationship.

To underscore the need to ‘delink’ domestic and foreign policy, I posit the South Asia is one of the least economically and politically integrated regions of the world. Despite possessing various competitive competencies, the South Asian states look towards other regional blocs for trade and commercial possibilities. A sound and well thought-out foreign policy with economies of scale at its core is the need of the hour.

One example of domestic issues impinging on foreign policy is the Teesta River issue where the government of West Bengal declined to share waters with its neighbor, Bangladesh, leading to a loss of face for the central Indian government in Delhi at the last moment. By not pandering to the domestic constituencies in West Bengal, the sharing of waters would have provided, in return, easy and cost-effective logistical linkages for the North Eastern states of India. By ‘delinking’ I primarily mean that in the formulation of foreign policy, there is a need to calculate the comparative long-term costs and logistical advantages over short-term domestic political gains of the party in power. The ‘cattle issue’ is a case in point as well. A strong foreign policy which sees the bigger picture is important. Reorienting local/domestic politics into issue-based discourse would go a long way in imparting a qualitative attribute to domestic and foreign policymaking.

Lastly, there is a need to address the question why border haats—which have the potential of improving the livelihoods of border communities by providing them alternative sources of income—are not being replicated in a much larger way in other border areas, particularly in Bengal which shares the largest boundary with Bangladesh? How can such an approach taken by the two countries be explained?

Offering an insight into this problem, Pushpita Das has observed that there has been much reluctance on the Bangladeshi side to provide land for establishing border haats.[23] The age-old fear of Indian goods overwhelming their domestic markets could have led Bangladesh to adopt a policy of not providing land and other infrastructure for the haats. Nevertheless, Nath in his study of border haats in Tripura has observed that the overall trade balance in the haats has been in India’s favor.[24]

The functioning of border haats would be much more efficient and cost-effective if the stakeholders of the haats were to develop an effective communication system that would help them decide on the goods to be traded, rather than following a state-sponsored list of goods. The haats may succeed in their stated goal if the spirit of the haats—to improve the livelihood of the border publicis internalized by the stakeholders concerned.

Keeping the modalities aside, there are a lot of initiatives that could be undertaken by the two countries to strengthen border haats and unleash their potential to make positive changes in the lives of the borderland people. Nath, in his study, found that the functioning of the haats faced greater infrastructure deficiencies on the Bangladeshi side as compared to India. First, there is an absence of warehousing facilities, which inconvenienced the sellers, who have to repack their unsold goods and take them back to their homes after the closure of haats.[25] Secondly, Nath notes that a lack of transport and logistical infrastructure meant that the sellers had to load their wares on their heads and carry them back. The provision of transport facilities on either side would go a long way in improving the state of the haats. Thirdly, efforts must be made to provide basic trading infrastructure to the haats such as electricity, banking and internet services, as well as refrigeration facilities which would go a long way in increasing the shelf life of perishable items that they trade in. At the same time, efforts must be made to improve the sanitation facilities at the haats. Finally, efforts should be made to increase the range and spectrum of goods that could be traded at the haats, which still require strict prior approval from the respective HMCs.

The strict criteria of allowing persons to trade and transact business within a five km radius smacks of the same old state propensity to view the borderland communities as potential suspects carrying out illegal activities. Restrictions should be lifted on trade in third-party goods (sourced from areas further than five km from the haats) to enable the sale of a greater variety of products. The two countries would do well if they scrapped such strictures, thereby widening the scope for borderland people to engage in economically viable trade at the haats. The limited list of goods that is allowed to be traded, barring the cattle trade, inhibits the potential of the haats and encourages illegal trade. There is, indeed, a case for legalizing the cattle trade. On both sides of the border, there is a need for the authorities to develop a qualitative understanding of the border economies by primarily focusing on the demand for goods on either side, which would help expand the basket of goods traded in the haats.

Nevertheless, there are positive signals. The number of goods traded at the border haats has increased incrementally since 2010. Further, a case can be made for replicating the success, albeit limited, of the border haat experiences of Tripura and Meghalaya in other states along the borders of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. 

Border Haats as Agents of Change in the North East

The North Eastern Region, comprising the eight states of Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Assam, has been a late entrant in the developmental landscape of mainland India. The benefits of the various processes of globalization have seldom reached those states, let alone their isolated borderlands. An apologist would be quick to argue that perhaps the geopolitical landscape and the remote geographies of the NER states were to be partly blamed for this sense of isolation from mainland India. And it may be the NER states’ own refusal to change with the times, as they struggle to protect their traditional/conservative lifestyle from outside influences. All these factors are offered as plausible reasons to explain their relative backwardness in comparison to other Indian states.

The NER shares less than 1 percent of its borders with mainland India, but it shares more than 99 percent of its boundary with either one or two Asian countries, (Bhutan in the north, Bangladesh in the southwest, and Myanmar in the east).Moreover, with the unique thrust of the Indian government to “Act East,” there is a new sense of good will surrounding the development of the NER states. No longer can Delhi ignore the legitimate aspirations of the people of the NER.

Within this strategic framework lies the importance of the border haats at the India-Bangladesh borderland. These are not just ordinary marketplaces but are tropes of a new approach to the development of the NER that offers both immediate benefits and the promise of wider economic development. First, besides providing the inhabitants of the remote areas of the borderlands a fair chance at life by equipping them with employment opportunities and improving their lot, the haats have also played a key role in lessening the volume of informal and illegal trade between India and Bangladesh, thereby boosting the legal trade. Secondly, the foreign policy decisions of the Indian government now have a sharper focus to reinvigorate the flailing regional integration in South Asia. Yet, a word of caution should be inserted here: before categorizing the NER states as “gateways to Southeast Asia and Bangladesh,” it would be helpful if the Indian government would prepare the NER states for their future responsibilities as trading places of global standard. Further, the idea of border haats, albeit limited in its tenor and intention, is a significant step towards improving relations between India and Bangladesh. A renewed Indo-Bangladesh relationship should view borders and its inhabitants as spaces and entities with their own dynamics rather than through the state-centric definitions of relentless securitization and ‘suspect’ populations situated on the borderlands. Reorienting the discourse on borders and its people in South Asia is the need of the hour, and a good start has been made with the unique initiative of the Border Haats. Maintaining the momentum of this initiative is the need of the hour.

The role of the state should be confined to that of a regulator which should only intervene to respond to the needs of local traders. The political elites should undergo what the Kenyan novelist and postcolonial theorist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, has referred to as the “decolonization of the mind.” The flexibility that would accrue from this form of decolonization would go a long way in making up, to some extent, for the opportunities lost to the people living on the borders and their adjacent areas since the partition of 1947.

Jigme Wangdi is presently pursuing his PhD degree at the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, on the topic, The Politics of Citizenship Practices and Property Rights in West Bengal and East Pakistan, 1947-1971. He did his MA in Modern History at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU. His M.Phil dissertation was on Enclaves on India-Bangladesh Borderland: Issues and Policies. He did his BA with Honours in History at Presidency College, Kolkata. His research interest spans border studies, South Asian politics and post-partition studies concerning India and Bangladesh. His recent article, “Performing State Craft: Delineating Citizenship and Documentary Practices in India and Pakistan, 1947-52,” was published in the Journal of Department of History, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka. His forthcoming article, “Identification Regimes in Post-Colonial India and East Pakistan: Perspectives from the Bengal Borderland,” is to be published in CLIO: An Annual Interdisciplinary Journal of History by Corpus Research Institute, Kolkata. The author is presently teaching in the Department of History, Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri College, University of Calcutta.


[1] Thomas Simpson, “Border and Frontier Making in Nineteenth Century British India,” The Historical Journal (June 2015): 542.

[2] Willem Van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London: Anthem Press, 2005), 40.

[3]  Press Information Bureau, Setting up of Border Haats, August 2, 2017; and Nikita Singla and Sanjay Kathuria, “Connecting Communities through India and Bangladesh’s Cross-Border Markets,” The World Bank, September 24, 2018. https://blogs.worldbank.org/endpovertyinsouthasia/connecting-communities-through-india-and-bangladeshs-cross-border-markets.

[4] Sreeradha Datta, “The Changing Narrative: India’s North Eastern Borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar, “Asian Confluence Monograph Series (April 29, 2017): 3.

[5] Sankaran Krishna, Postcolonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka, and the Question of Nationhood (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[6] Michiel Baud and Willem Van Schendel, “Toward a Comparative History of Borderlands,” Journal of World History8, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 215-217.

[7] Haimanti Roy, Partitioned Lives Migrants, Refugees, Citizens in India and Pakistan, 1947-65(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[8] Pushpita Das, “India-Bangladesh Border Management: A Review of Government’s Response,” Strategic Analysis 32, no. 3 (May 2008):5.

[9] “Trade Agreement Between the Government of India and the Government of the People's Republic of
Bangladesh,” Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, March 28, 1972, https://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/5606/Trade+Agreement+Protocol+1+Nov+1972.

[10] See, Adam Taylor, “Say Goodbye to the Weirdest Border Dispute in the World,” The Washington Post, August 1, 2015.  In August 2015, India and Bangladesh began the exchange of over 160 enclaves that were small areas of sovereignty completely surrounded on all sides by another country. The two countries ended a dispute that had lasted almost 70 years. It had a major effect on the lives of more than 50,000 people living in these enclaves in Cooch Behar in West Bengal. They had been surrounded by a country they did not have citizenship in for decades, but they finally gained access to services such as schools, electricity and health care. Dahala Khagrabari was the only “third-order” enclave in the world, which is an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by another state. Dahala Khagrabari was a part of India, surrounded by a Bangladeshi enclave, which was surrounded by an Indian enclave, which was surrounded by Bangladesh. Since August 2015, the enclaves became the territory of the states that surround them and the citizens who live within them got to decide whether they wanted to stay put and accept new citizenship, or whether they wanted to keep their original citizenship and be relocated.

[11] Willem van Schendel and Itty Abraham, ed., Illicit Flows and Criminal Things: States, Borders and the Other Side of Globalization (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005).

[12] Malini Sur, “Bamboo Baskets and Barricades: Gendered Landscapes at the India-Bangladesh border,” in Transnational Flows and Permissive Polities: Ethnographies of Human Mobilities in Asia, ed. Barak Kalir (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), 127-150.

[13] Pushpita Das, “Status of India’s Border Trade: Strategic and Economic Significance,” IDSA Occasional Paper (December 2014): 1-51.

[14] John Agnew, “Borders on the Mind: Re-framing Border Thinking,” Ethics & Global Politics1, no. 4(June 2008): 1-17.

[15] Joya Chatterji, “The Fashioning of a Frontier: The Radcliffe Line and Bengal's Border Landscape, 1947–52,” Modern Asian Studies 33, no. 1 (February 1999): 185-242.

[16] Ministry of Commerce and Industry, “Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh,” April 8,2017), 5.

[17] Ashish Nath, “Border Haats: New Dimensions in Cross Border Trade,” Economic and Political Weekly LIII, no. 11 (March 2018): 14-17.

[18] Ministry of Commerce and Industry, “Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, April 8,2017), 2.

[19] Press Information Bureau, Border Haats, December 14, 2016.

[20] Pushpita Das, “Status of India’s Border Trade: Strategic and Economic Significance,” IDSA Occasional Paper (December 2014): 1-51.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Van Schendel, The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia, 296.

[23] Das, “Status of India’s Border Trade: Strategic and Economic Significance,” 1-51.

[24] Nath, “Border Haats: New Dimensions in Cross Border Trade,” 14-17.

[25] Ibid.