Book Excerpt / Frontier to Boundary


By Pradip Phanjoubam

(The following is another excerpt from the author`™s forthcoming book written as a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, IIAS, Shimla.)

When the British took over the administration of Assam in 1826 after repelling the Burmese in the First Anglo-Burmese War, Assam constituted almost the entire Northeast, with the exception of the kingdoms of Tripura and Manipur. Available commentaries and records from the period indicate there were two primary interests of the British in the newly acquired territory of Assam, which was initially kept under the British province of Bengal.

The first was strategic. They were interested in keeping the region as the first layer of buffer between their established Indian territories and possible hostile neighbours and rival European Powers as we have seen in the previous chapter. That the British thought fit to intervene and stop the Burmese push westward beginning 1824, is testimony to this interest. The Burmese kingdom, with capital at Mandalay, would also come to be ultimately annexed into the British India Empire after the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, and Burma itself would become the next layer of buffer between core British territory and what Lord Curzon called `spheres of interest`™ of rival European power, the French. This too has been discussed.

The second interest was economic. The region, it was soon to be discovered, is rich in mineral and forest resources. Its potential as a tea growing area had already become evident. Robert Bruce, encountered wild tea growing in the Assam hills in 1823, and in the next few decades, tea gardens rapidly spread through the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, causing land pressure and frictions between tea planters and local farmers. These lucrative expanding business interests obviously had to have security cover. Details of how the British charted out their ways to ensure a level security matching their needs and interests, cost effectively, has already been described in the chapter on militarisation of the Northeast.

A convenient entry point to start an assessment of the nature of British administration in the Northeast region would be to briefly refer to the history of the McMahon Line 1914 and the circumstances of its drawing. One of the consistent themes that run through all boundary making exercises of the British in their former colonies is the notion of the frontier, as distinct from a boundary. Here is how Sir Henry McMahon the man behind the McMahon Line described this notion. In his address to the royal society of Arts in 1935 he noted that `a frontier meant a wide tract of borderland which, because of its ruggedness or other difficulties, served as a buffer between two states. A boundary, on the other hand, was a clearly defined line expressed either as a verbal distinction, that is, `delimited`™, or as a series of physical marks on the ground that is `demarcated`™. The former thus signified roughly a region, while the latter was a positive and precise statement of the limits of sovereignty.`™

The Northeast in British hands began as a frontier therefore boundaries were ambiguous for a long time, and some of these ambiguities, in particular that of the McMahon Line, tragically still persists. This outlook is evident in the manner in which the British looked at the hill areas beyond the fertile alluvial plains of Assam. This is also again evident in Henry McMahon`™s effort to create a double layered Tibet, Inner Tibet and Outer Tibet, the southern overlapping perimeters of which would form the border between Tibet and India, during the Simla conference of 1913-1914. This will come up for a more detailed discussion later in this chapter. There are still more evidences of this frontier approach to the Northeast. As for instance, the notion of the `excluded area` and `partially excluded area` declared on 3 March 1936 when the Government of India Act, 1935, came into force, amounts to giving an institutional mandate to this outlook. Much earlier, in the administration of the tribal areas of the Northeast, this approach had been around in different avatars. Hence, by the Government of India Act, 1919, the territories that came to be categorised as `excluded areas` and `partially excluded areas`, were simply called as `backward tracts` and were left un-administered.

The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation which was promulgated in the year 1873, can be said to be a prominent predecessor of these later declarations. The regulation created an `Inner Line` beyond which no British subject could cross without a permit. However, as if anticipating future misinterpretations, British authorities and commentators of the time repeatedly stated that the Inner Line did not constitute the international border. By implication though, beyond this Inner Line was an Outer Line. Some eminent scholars like Alastair Lamb claim the Outer Line was not just implied, but existed officially, thereby raising the question of where this Outer Line actually was. This is pertinent, for if this Outer Line did exist officially, it would mean this was where the international boundary was between British India and Tibet. Furthermore, the path of the Outer Line, Lamb contends in a map, is nearly identical to the Inner Line. It runs from the southern base of Bhutan along the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh right up to Nizamghat near Sadiya in the Lohit Valley.

Outer Line

The intriguing thing about this claim is, if the Inner Line and the Outer Line are either identical, or else are set apart by only a few kilometres, it does not make administrative sense. The British India government as well as the British home government denied there ever was an official Outer Line, and that the implied Outer Line, was always roughly where the McMahon Line was drawn in 1913-1914. Lamb himself notes that `the India Office, as we have seen, was already in November 1911 implying that the new Outer Line was really the same as the old Outer Line. The Indian Republic is still saying this today.`™ Tellingly however, while Lamb reproduces a number of maps showing separately the Inner Line and Outer Line, there is not one which has both the lines on the same map. He also acknowledges overlaps of the two in certain sectors: `The definition of the Inner line in Darrang and Lakhimpur Districts of Assam adjacent to the Himalayan range, which took place in 1875-6, rather tended to obscure the definition of the international boundary, or Outer Line, which was made here at the same time.`™

Lamb is so passionate about this theory of the existence of two lines that he would go to the extent of calling those who deny this as `apologists of the Indian side`™. Lamb further writes: `Of the existence of the Outer Line, however, there can be no real doubt. It has been implied in such instruments as the British agreement with some Abor gams… It followed the line of the foot of the hills a few miles to the north of what became the course of the Inner Line.`™ Two administrative boundaries running parallel to each other, one of which an international one, separated from each by only a few miles and even overlapping in certain sectors seems to defeat the very purpose these lines were meant for, that is, if at all an Outer Line officially existed.

There apparently were some inter-government exchanges of notes in which an Outer Line was referred to, but this could have been slips born out of bureaucratic mental lethargy so common especially in routine and mundane usage of references, and what was meant could have probably been the Inner Line itself, for unlike the Inner Line which came into existence by promulgation of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, there exists no record of any ordinance or regulation or Act by which the Outer Line was created. Since Lamb`™s old `Outer Line`™ runs along the foothills of the Assam hills, this supposed `international boundary`™ excludes the present state of Arunachal Pradesh, somewhat giving credence to China`™s claim of this territory as South Tibet. Lamb claims this old `Outer Line`™ was later pushed northwards as a counter to a Chinese Forward Policy in the first decade of the 20th Century, to become the new `Outer Line`™. This new alignment is where the McMahon Line was to be drawn.

Nobody however disputes or can dispute the existence of the Inner Line which was created by a definite Regulation. The logic for introducing this line, even Lamb admits, is also far from ambiguous: `it was a device to create a buffer zone, as it were, between the international boundary and regularly administered territory, a tract which marked the transition between the tribal hills and the Assamese plains. By limiting access from the south to this area it was hoped to minimise the risk of trouble with the tribes. At the same time, tribesmen who crossed the international boundary from the north, but remained beyond the Inner Line, still passed under British jurisdiction should the authorities choose to exercise it`™.

Colonial historian Edward Gait has this explanation for the Inner Line in `A History of Assam`: `The unrestricted intercourse which formerly existed between British subjects in Assam and the wild tribes living across the frontier frequently led to quarrels and, sometimes, to serious disturbances. This was especially the case in connection with the traffic in rubber brought down by the hillmen, for which there was great competition. The opening out of tea gardens beyond the border-line also at times involved the Government in troublesome disputes with the frontier tribes in their vicinity.`™ In order to prevent the recurrence of these difficulties, `power was given to the local authorities by the Inner Line Regulation 1873 to prohibit British subjects generally, or those of specified classes, from going beyond a certain line laid down for the purpose without a pass or license issued by the Deputy Commissioner and containing such conditions as might seem necessary. As it was not always convenient to define the actual boundary of the British possessions, this line does not indicate the territorial frontier but only the limits of the administered area; it is known as `Inner Line`…`™ This line was `being prescribed merely for the above purpose, it does not in any way decide the sovereignty of the territory beyond. Such a line has been laid down along the northern, eastern and south-eastern borders of the Brahmaputra valley,`™ he further explains. These accounts also indicate how the Inner Line was amenable to changes as per the whim of the administration: `There was also formerly an Inner Line on the Lushai marches, but is has been allowed to fall into desuetude since our occupation of the Lushai hills.`™ Further, the other important purpose of the Inner Line was to limit the land grab by tea planters into the hills causing frictions between the administration and the hill tribes. `Planters are not allowed to acquire land beyond the Inner Line, either from the Government or from any local chief or tribe.`™

An important colonial administrator and author in the northeast, Alexander Mackenzie explained how this regulation was also meant to protect elephants against unauthorised captures. The Bengal Inner Line Regulation `gives power to the Lieutenant Governor (of Bengal and with responsibility for Assam) to prescribe a line, to be called `inner line` in which each and any of the districts affected, beyond which no British subjects of certain classes or foreign residents can pass without a license. The pass or license, when given, may be subject to such conditions as may appear necessary. And rules are laid down regarding trade, the possession of land beyond the line, and other matters, which give the executive Government an effective control. The regulation also provides for the preservation of elephants, and authorizes Government to lay down rules for their capture.`™


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