Frontiers to boundaries


It is often said with a touch of sarcasm that when the British inherited Kashmir in 1846 after defeating the Sikhs in the First Sikh War, they also inherited a boundary problem. Kashmir`™s Dogra rulers were under the Sikhs at the time, and defeating the Sikhs meant the gift of Kashmir to the victors. And the British inherited a boundary problem precisely because there was no boundary. Explaining why this was so half a century later, Lord Curzon, two years after he retired as Viceroy of India, in his famous Romanes Lecture 1907, titled `Frontiers` had this to say: `In Asiatic countries it would be true to say that demarcation has never taken place except under European pressure and by the intervention of European agents.` Explaining this further he said: `In the first place the idea of a demarcated Frontier is itself an essentially modern conception, and finds little or no place in the ancient world. In Asia, the oldest inhabited continent, there has always been a strong instinctive aversion to the acceptance of fixed boundaries, arising partly from the nomadic habits of the people, partly from the dislike of precise arrangements that is typical of the oriental mind, but more still from the idea that in the vicissitudes of fortune more is to be expected from an unsettled than from a settled Frontier.`

Quite in tune with Curzon`™s insight, if Asiatic societies were not too concerned with exactly demarcated and administered boundaries, the British, as also all Europeans, find themselves extremely uneasy in situation where they find themselves with the prospect of governing territories with no exact boundaries. After inheriting Kashmir in 1846, they immediately began taking up measures to draw Kashmir`™s boundaries. This involved, among others, sending out expeditions into the mountainous territories to decide where the most defensible position for the British would be, together with setting up boundary commissions after commissions. One of these exploratory missions was led by Capt. Francis Younghusband, the same officer who much later as a colonel would lead the infamous Younghusband Expedition in 1904 to Tibet. The recommendations from these explorations were that India`™s natural and most defensible boundary should be the Karakoram watershed. However, politics of the time determined that this recommendation was not totally accepted. If militarily, the Karakoram ridge was the most logical boundary for India, on a larger geopolitical consideration prompted by Britain`™s cold war with Russia at the time, generally referred to as the Great Game, another lobby in the British establishment wanted to extend the Indian border right up to the Kuenlun mountain watershed, a mountain range that ran parallel to the Karakoram, and in the process incorporate the Yarkand river basin and the forbidding white desert of Aksai Chin, so that Russia cannot have a passage to Tibet. The British ultimately left this border ambiguous, coming up with three different alignments, one which incorporates the Aksai Chin totally, another partially, and yet a third which left out the Aksai Chin altogether and made the Karakoram ridge the Indian boundary, leaving room for intractable dispute between India and China over it which continues to this day.

This longish account of Kashmir boundary history was meant as a pointer to what would have been a similar scenario in the Northeast. Before the British arrived, although there were several established `Paddy States` as James Scott called them, they too would not have had the exactly demarcated and administered borders. When the British annexed Assam in 1826, this was indeed what it was, and as in Kashmir, the British, began immediately to fix boundaries. The first boundary they established formally was with Manipur by a treaty in 1833. This treaty also made it obligatory for Manipur to extend military support to the British in its expeditions in the region. But not satisfied with this, the British also wanted to establish Manipur`™s eastern boundary, quite in keeping with the European mindset of creating buffers that Curzon also talked of in his Romanes Lecture. In 1826, after the defeat of the Burmese in the 1st Anglo Burmese War, the Manipur boundary was fixed at the Chindwin River, thereby awarding Kabaw Valley to Manipur. In 1834, one year after fixing Assam`™s boundary with Manipur, the British decided to concede the Kabaw Valley to the Burmese who had been protesting all along, on the plea it can be better administered by Mandalay. This is not an argument about who deserved which territory, but the point we want to raise is, from what were once very fluid frontiers between various kingdoms and principalities before the British arrived, hard boundaries were being drawn, therefore would have meant considerable readjustments amongst frontier tribes. This was indeed the case when Chassad Kukis began to be restive attacking Tangkhul village in Manipur territory. They claimed they were in Burmese jurisdiction when pursued by Manipur authorities and that they were Manipur subjects when chastised by the Burmese. To take care of this administrative problem, at the behest of British Political Agent in Manipur, James Johnstone, Manipur`™s eastern boundary was readjusted in 1881 incorporating the Chassad settlements completely within Manipur. These outlooks to frontiers and boundaries should not be forgotten in dealing and resolving the issue of migration currently gripping Manipur.

Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam


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