Rowmari-Tura Road is a passage that connects a local town in the riverine area of Bangladesh to Tura, the second largest town in the hilly Meghalaya state in India. The first chapter of Jungle Passport by Malini Sur starts with a narrative of a Muslim man in the char-chapori (river island and riverine) area remembering Rowmari-Tura Road, and how he travelled it with bullock carts.

The author illustrates the lives of people who trespass on the road, which was constructed more than a hundred years back during the colonial period. The road not only goes through the border between Bangladesh and India, but also passes through an area where the riverine plain areas of Bangladesh and Assam meet the hill areas – home to indigenous tribes such as Garos. Although crossing the border has become increasingly difficult, this road has seen people using it for over a century.

When imagining the border between India and Bangladesh, it is common to picture crimes and illegality, including “illegal migrants” or cow smuggling. However, Sur beautifully illustrates the daily lives of the people who have adapted to the changing border policies of the two countries. Although they are influenced by the creation of the border and constant changes in rules and regulations, they find benefits from these and continue their relations with people on the other side of the border at the same time.

Precarious trading

Chapters 3 and 4 illustrate such aspects well. Chapter 3 deals with cow smuggling. Here, “Zebu” cows and bulls, which are far bigger than locally bred cows, are seen as being highly valued for their greater volume of meat and leather. In the border villages in India, a network of various kinds of people creates a web for the smuggling business. Aladdin, for example, is a border broker and politician, as well as a self-claimed social worker, who attempts to intervene when cattle are confined. Moi Ali, a grassroots fence cutter who invests in the cattle trade, seeks Aladdin’s assistance. Ghosh, a Bengali Hindu businessman and politician who makes money by negotiating with Hindu Bengali-speaking clerks when their deals go wrong, is also involved in the cattle trade. There is also a Garo police officer who takes bribes by releasing consignments.

Indian regulations on cow slaughter, transport and beef consumption have not deterred trade between the two countries. Rather, they have escalated the value of the animals in Bangladesh, making cattle smuggling a risky but profitable business. Sur argues that border traders and intermediaries depend on state agents to facilitate illegal flows. The involvement of state agents blurs the distinction between the legality and illegality of smuggling in daily life in the area.

The focus of Chapter 4 is a lesser-known aspect of illegal trading. It is the story of Garo Christian women bringing export-rejected garments from Mymensingh, Bangladesh, to border markets in Meghalaya using “jungle passports,” a term that indicates the use of forest camouflage to cross the border. Some women do this every day, chatting and maintaining a cordial relationship with the border guards and police. Compared to the smuggling of Zebu cows, there is less of a sense of illegality regarding this trade, both among the women traders themselves and those patrolling the borders. Garo female traders engaging in a subsistence trade do not see themselves as smugglers, and their aim is not to make high profits. Border troops sometimes confiscate their goods, but they do not punish the women or prevent them from travelling to Meghalaya.

There are a few reasons for this type of trade by the Garo women being considered less illegal. First, although they are divided by a border, the Garos on either side belong to the Mahari clan, and this extended kin group gives them a legitimate reason to cross the border. Also, the Mahari association leaders have established meaningful relationships with the outposts of Indian and Bangladeshi border troops living there, regularly lending them daily necessities and enjoying joyful conversations with them. Such relationships have allowed Garo villagers to travel across the border and collect daily necessities.

Unlike the preceding chapters, Chapters 5 and 6 touch upon the harsh and cruel reality of the border. In Chapter 5, the author describes how the construction of fences, which was reinforced in the late 2000s, changed the landscape and lives of the people. More efforts were put into border patrols and restrictions, and some activities that had not been prevented in the past became impossible, such as cultivating land, visiting burial grounds and participating in church activities. Electric fences have become a deterrent.

Becoming a ‘foreigner’

The next chapter presents a rare ethnography of the Foreigners’ Tribunals. During the National Register of Citizens update process, the FT and the detention of declared foreigners came to be well known. Before that, however, few people paid attention to the fate of suspected foreigners during the trials. This chapter is a very rare record of how this legal process is conducted and how people without legal documentation come to be declared “foreigners.”

What I felt deeply upon reading this book is the resilience of the people living on the border and their flexibility in living with others. Even before the recent expansion and strengthening of the border wall and the NRC update, people in the India-Bangladesh border areas had sometimes been violently displaced owing to political disturbances and changes in border policies. The implementation of the NRC has also caused fissures between communities, with many people of migrant origin afraid of exclusion attempting suicide, resulting in confusion and fear among certain people. Social fissures have also developed between migrants and “sons of the soil,” who strongly advocate for the exclusion of “illegal immigrants.”

However, this aspect does not represent the grassroots reality of the northeastern border region. Even in the midst of this growing exclusionism, people have negotiated, traded, and sometimes cooperated with others to coexist in local markets, schools, churches, mosques, and other religious institutions, and in a variety of other places. While it is true that there is strong resentment of outsiders, villagers in the Northeast have accepted and coexisted with others in their daily lives.

The detention of “foreigners” is a threat not only to people of migrant origin but also to the native residents. Since 2018, I have interviewed more than ten former detainees intermittently, and come across a few people of indigenous origin who have endured detention, for example, a Koch and a Desi Muslim. Like other people of migrant origin, they had been detained because they were either regarded as suspects by border police, or as suspicious voters (“doubtful voters”), but could not prove they were citizens at the Foreigners Tribunal.

Many of the detainees were poor and illiterate, and were detained because of inconsistencies or spelling mistakes in their documents; many lost their lives in detention because prior to 2019 they could not be granted bail. The current system is such that anyone who fails to have their documents ready, whether during the FT or NRC deliberations, can be considered a “foreigner” even if they are an Indian citizen or belong to the “sons of the soil” community. The damage to people affected by this is immeasurable.

The border lines drawn between India and Bangladesh have not completely separated people’s lives. However, a strict application of border controls may result in divisions within communities that have existed long before the border was drawn, as well as many citizens being categorized as “foreigners” and detained. With the flexibility and resilience of ordinary people living in the region, isn’t it possible to imagine more inclusive communities and nations in this region? During the ULFA independence movement in the 1990s, for example, there were ways to imagine a more inclusive Assamese nation.

The NRC update in Assam since the late 2010s, and mainly the party politics surrounding it, have further complicated the immigration issue in the region, making it more difficult to resolve. Sur’s book, however, offers hope that hints for coexistence may already exist among grassroots people.

Makiko Kimura is a professor at Tsuda University, Japan.

Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border, Malini Sur, Yoda Press.