From Fortress Europe To Family Separation, Borders Get Ugly

It's not just Donald Trump's wall. Around the world, people are erecting new and increasingly strict lines of division.

At the US-Mexico border
At the US-Mexico border
Prithvi Hirani*

Borders today are increasingly contentious, violent and tightly secured. And since 2015, the world has witnessed a rapid increase in the number of new border fences being constructed in a short span. Over the last three years alone, a staggering 63 new border fences have been constructed or are in the process of being constructed.

The once border-less Schengen zone now has border fences erected between member states and stringent border controls within the European Union. The divisive Brexit vote, based largely on the fear of immigrants, has altogether altered the very shape of Fortress Europe, giving rise to new questions about Britain's borders and immigration policies as well as the very idea of Europe.

Across the Atlantic, the cacophonous chants to "build that wall" between the United States and Mexico have materialized into a Muslim ban, atrocious border-wall prototyping and, most recently, the brutal policy of separating immigrant children and families.

Closer to home, in South Asia, the pernicious Rohingya genocide has led to the creation of the largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Adding to this, border violence between India and Pakistan reached an all-time high in 2017 with the highest number of incidences of border violence.

Industry of division

As these examples illustrate, the once popular, turn-of-the-21st-century notion of a globalized and borderless world has come into question. Instead, borders are being reinstated, redrawn, and rebuilt — even in remote villages that have shared culture, languages and relations.

The notion of territorial loss is deeply engrained in the breaking and forming of nations, identity and political states in South Asia.

The recently completed border between Turkey and Syria, for example, boasts a so-called "electronic layer" that consists of close-up surveillance systems, thermal cameras, land surveillance radar, remote-controlled weapons systems, command-and-control centers, line-length imaging systems and seismic and acoustic sensors. There's also an "advanced technology layer" of the project that includes wide area surveillance, laser destructive fiber-optic detection, surveillance radar for drone detection, jammers and sensor-triggered short distance lighting systems.

Border technology, the development of newer forms of surveillance whether that includes drones and thermal imaging devices, or even the growing number of "volunteers' patrolling the borders between the United States and Mexico, for instance, are indicative of this growing industry of division.

But if we are to critically examine what shapes the current border politics and thinking, it is vital to ask a few questions. What makes borders desirable? In a world that is arguably so digitally and economically connected, where goods, services and finance travel so freely, why is it so hard for humans to move?

To address these issues, one cannot ignore the impact of 9/11 and terrorism on global security practices. That said, the shift from traditional forms of violence to more dispersed forms of attacks like the events of November 2008 in Mumbai and, more recently, the Paris attacks in 2015, have displaced fears from the distant border to the nation's heartland. It has infused security practices into our daily lives, with things like airport-like security at cinema halls, malls, and hotels. X-ray baggage screening and body checks have become mundane rituals of urban life in India.

Security fences lat the Serbia/Macedonia border — Photo: Jordi Boixareu/

These changes have also influenced the way academics view the border as a concept. The traditional notion of the border, understood as a line in the sand located at the territorial limits of the nation-state, has been increasingly challenged. Scholars like Étienne Balibar and Nick Vaughan-Williams, for example, argue that borders have not only vacillated, but are also no longer where they used to be. Thinking of borders as verbs and not nouns, the emphasis from borders to bordering has brought to light new locations, practices, and actors. Borders are also practiced and enlivened at airports, train-stations, detention centers, visa forms, border-towns and complex algorithms that profile individuals.

They're also practiced with more frequency. Indeed, the pervasiveness of the notion of the border is both intriguing and perverse. In the United States, for instance, individuals in towns and cities within 100 miles of the border can be subjected to random border checks and forced to produce their legal documents. This shifts the border from the precise border line to a far more encompassing border zone.

The recent Windrush scandal in the UK questions the legitimacy of its Caribbean immigrant descendants and their legitimacy in British society. This issue has successfully pulled the border from the periphery to the center, but also raised questions about identity and citizenship in post-Brexit Britain. Furthermore, the everyday bordering of international students at British universities is also demonstrative of the new role of academics as border guards. In a sense, the question of where the border is located is also being transformed into who is performing these roles.

Invisible fences

When it comes to India's relationship with borders, it is first important to locate India's thinking on the matter within its historical and political contexts. Historically speaking, the conflation of borders as a problem for postcolonial India can be linked with Partition and the ongoing territorial dispute over Kashmir.

Jason Cons defines India's borders as "sensitive spaces' ... in terms of both political sensitivity as well as places that are associated with unexplainable fear and anxiety.

While the inevitable association of borders in South Asia with the Partition, wars and mortality cannot be done away with, it is equally necessary to move beyond these congenital associations, especially because the teleological link between the creation of the postcolonial nation states is seen in relation to bloody partitions, be it in 1947, when India was divided to create East and West Pakistan, or in 1971, when West Pakistan lost East Pakistan to the creation of Bangladesh.

The notion of territorial loss is deeply engrained in the breaking and forming of nations, identity and political states in South Asia. In a way, the historical burden of this has also led to an overly nationalist understanding of the nation whereby territory — with an emphasis on things like blood and soil — is made sacred. More notably, the notion of Bharat Mata, or the anthropomorphic distortion of India as Mother India, renders the borders of the state as highly emotional and evocative issues.

Border scholar Jason Cons defines India's borders as "sensitive spaces', and explains sensitivity in terms of both political sensitivity as well as places that are associated with unexplainable fear and anxiety. This sensitivity state — or what Sankaran Krishna defines as cartographic anxiety typical of a postcolonial nation — runs deep in psyches of the state, polity and people. Considering the hypersensitivity to maps and the depiction of India's borders in foreign publications like The Economist, the capturing of alleged Pakistani spy-pigeons, or the fact that India's borders with Pakistan are not only electrically charged and flood-lit but are also visible even from space, elucidates the extent of border fixation and anxiety.

In many ways, the physical unfixity of the line of control between India and Pakistan is what has rendered this border-line fixed in the minds of politicians and citizens alike, whereby the borders of Bollywood and cricket remain firmly outlined for Pakistanis.

Borders of postcolonial India, too, are not limited to their territorial location or material articulation but today are subtly articulated through the increasingly exclusionary narratives of the nation sifting through those who belong and those who do not. The unofficial housing apartheid that occurs in urban spaces against minority religious communities, the notion of chhota-Pakistans in cities, or the bogey of "Love Jihad" and attacks on "anti-nationals' consistently outline stereotypes, prejudice and everyday forms of bordering.

Although they lack the infrastructure of fences and guards, they still perpetuate invisible fences of difference and division.

*The author was recently awarded a PhD in International Politics from Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Her thesis is titled The Border, City, Diaspora: The Physical and Imagined Borders of South Asia.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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