In January, as it became clear that China was facing a new disease, the Chinese government convinced millions of citizens to stay home, hoping to break the human-to-human transmission strain for the coronavirus. This strategy was unprecedented in human history and the World Health Organisation has called it the most “aggressive disease containment effort in history”.

As India now tries to follow in China’s footsteps and institute a similar lockdown, New Delhi is also implementing drastic steps in order to try and contain the disease. One of them is the sealing of state borders.

This has never happened before in the seven-decade history of independent India.

As a federal union, India has a Centre-heavy structure that gives little power to states to regulate inter-state traffic or restrict the movement of Indians through them. In fact, the right to “move freely throughout the territory of India” is a part of the Indian Constitution.

Despite this, as the coronavirus cases rose in the country, states started sealing their borders attempting to implement a China-style lockdown. On March 16, the northeastern state of Sikkim sealed itself to other Indians. On March 20, Tamil Nadu also sealed its borders. When Prime Minister Modi announced a 21-day country-wide curfew starting March 24, this meant every state in the union sealed off its borders.

‘Illegal’ migrants

The immediate fallout of this was that an Indian citizen’s fundamental right to move freely through any state in the union stood suspended. Crossing a state border now became an illegal act. This created significant problems for millions of migrant workers in India, who were desperate to get back to their villages now that there was no work – and no food – in the cities.

This, in turn, led to unfortunate scenes of human smuggling, usually only witnessed at international borders. On the Haryana-Uttar Pradesh border, migrants chose to cross the Yamuna River in risky rubber tubes as a way to avoid the now-sealed highway border crossing. Similar scenes were witnessed on the Maharashtra-Telangana border, with desperate migrants illegally crossing the Penganga river – leading The Hindu to use the phrase “conflict zone” to describe the state border.

Further north, some migrants were caught crossing the Maharashtra-Gujarat border by smuggling themselves in empty milk tankers, reported the Press Trust of India. A similar strategy was used by a five truckers, who hoped to smuggle 250 migrants across Tamil Nadu’s borders, but were caught by the police on the road, reported The Hindu.

Border dispute

As remarkable as these cases of human smuggling were, maybe the starkest outcome of this phenomenon was a legal dispute between the states of Kerala and Karnataka over the latter barring the entry of Malayali patients into its territory. To implement this, the state of Karnataka has erected barricades on the national highway connecting Kasargod district in Kerala to Mangaluru.

What explains Karnataka’s unusual stand? Kasargod, a relatively small district in North Kerala with just 13 lakh people, has the second highest number of Covid-19 cases among all districts of India, with 115 active cases as of April 2. Its closest urban centre is Mangaluru in Karnataka – which is where many Covid-19 patients would have ended up being treated if not for the closed state border. By blocking off the highway, therefore, Karnataka aims to quarantine itself from the district of Kasargod.

As part of its submissions, the state of Kerala has pointed out that Indian states cannot seal themselves in the manner of sovereign countries. “We [Kerala and Karnataka] are not India and Pakistan,” the additional advocate general of the state told the Kerala High Court.

Kerala further pointed out that Karnataka’s act of sealing its borders even to emergency patients violated the Union government’s directions for a country-wide lockdown on March 24. While the Union’s order prohibited all road transport, it explicitly made an exception for “emergency services”. To this, Karnataka claimed that it, by itself, had the power to seal its borders, and the Union government had only issued “guidelines”, reported Live Law.

At one point, things got so outlandish that Kerala complained sand mounds erected by Karnataka in order to block the highway were encroaching into Kerala’s territory.

Eventually, the Kerala High Court held that Karnataka’s border restrictions were illegal and directed the Modi government to get them removed. “The right of a citizen to move freely throughout the territory of India, subject to reasonable restrictions that may be imposed in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, public order etc. is recognised under Article 19(1)(d) of our Constitution,” argued the judgment. “So long as it is an integral part of the Union of India, the State of Karnataka has necessarily to respect, and guarantee, the fundamental rights of a citizen of this country, irrespective of the place of his residence or domicile within the country.”

The Union government is yet to act to remove Karnataka police’s border barricades.

‘Save Karnataka’

Meanwhile, the incident has sparked off nationalist outrage within Karnataka with hashtags such as #SaveKarnataka being run on social media, emphasising that the state should control its borders given the health emergency.

The day after the judgment, Karnataka’s culture and tourism minister CT Ravi even went on social media stridently arguing that his state’s borders should remain sealed. Responding to a comment asking for the borders to be opened, the minister responded: “You mean to say Karnataka must suffer at other’s cost?”