Separatism and border control

February 12, 2023

In his new book, Ilyas Chattha focuses on cross-border flows — conventionally called smuggling

Separatism and  border control


r Ilyas Chattha is well-known as a serious historian of South Asia whose book, Partition and Locality (2012) was very well-received by scholars working on South Asian studies. That book provided fresh insights into aspects of the Partition, especially the violence and the redistribution of property in the Punjab, which are milestones in this kind of scholarship. The book under review is an extension of this pioneering work with a focus on the border created by the Radcliffe award, which divided the colonial British Indian province of the Punjab into a Pakistani and an Indian Punjab. However, this time Chattha has focused his scholarly attention on cross-border flows (the title of chapter 2), which cover what is conventionally called smuggling. The seven chapters of the book, not counting the introduction and the conclusion, are about flows of people indulging in the sort of trade that served the demand for certain commodities, of those who ventured to make huge profits by smuggling gold and narcotics (informally called blackias as they contributed to the black market); and, finally, of the state itself to further its strategic interests.

The introduction begins with the claim that the work is a social history of the 550 kilometres long Punjab border created in 1947. The interesting observation about it is that the boundary line, which was neither fixed nor separated by a barbed wire till the late 1980s. It was not really accepted as a national boundary by the inhabitants of this area. While the states did construct the boundary as a point of separation and breaking away, the people considered it as an inconvenience, and the more enterprising among them saw it as a new opportunity for personal and group (biraderi) enrichment. In short, Chattha shifts his historical focus from the suffering of the partition to cross-border mobility and materiality, which, in fact, could also be constructed as ‘a form of resistance’ to the elite political construction of the inalienable state borders with its ideology of alienation, ‘othering’ and state-formation through emphasis on severance rather than continuities (p. 5). Apart from this heterodox line of argument, Chattha questions the scholarly consensus that the Bengal border was ‘adolescent’, which means that it was very porous, while the Punjab one was ‘hard’ since it was not porous. He argues that this border was very porous until 1987, when India fenced it in the wake of arms smuggling from Pakistan to help the Sikh insurgency (chapter 1).

After these two theoretical chapters, the author examines what he calls cross-border flows (chapter 2). These flows, using the language of the law, were either legal or illegal. However, while this much was known through newspaper stories, fiction and anecdotal evidence, this is the first time someone has actually used archival sources of various types to describe crossing points (seven of them), the people who crossed them illegally and the reasons they gave for it (see chart on p. 66), the non-border people who crossed them, such as Biharis after the 1971 war, and the ethnic groups which helped them. It also mentions the role of Meos, migrants from India who were not Punjabi-speaking, as spies for the agencies of the state of Pakistan to control smuggling. On the other hand, the border dwellers, who were Punjabi-speaking on both sides of the divide, mostly became carriers of goods, making money during this transaction. As mentioned in later chapters, some of them became very rich and powerful while others kept working for them, even going to jail if caught.

And what did these carriers (pandis) carry across the border? All the subsequent chapters focus on this, but it is best to follow the author as he begins with the twin cities of Amritsar and Lahore for examination in chapter 3. While India and Pakistan did carry out trade worth Rs 100 million at the time of the 1965 war, the border people supplemented this with an informal trade in cotton, cloth, wheat, rice, betel leaves (paan), cardamom, alcoholic drinks, narcotics and gold along with other goods such as machinery. The states tried to curb what it saw as smuggling but could not manage to do so since its functionaries, certainly at the local level and possibly at a higher one also, made money on the side by looking the other way when the smugglers carried the contraband items usually at night. The public, notwithstanding rhetorical condemnation of smuggling in the abstract, was complicit in it since goods like betel leaves and cloth were bought by consumers in Lahore while gold, much prized in India, was enthusiastically bought in India. More than this, as Chattha points out, “the bourgeoning emergence of Indian bazaars was vital to the post-independence expansion of Lahore’s marketplaces”(p. 125). This insight, like others, gives us a unique and hitherto unused lens for looking at how the state’s intentions, based on abstract legal regimes as they are, are subverted by the existing realities on the ground which are about lives as they are actually lived.

Borders are buttressed not only by a security apparatus but also by a nationalistic ideology of separatism and ‘othering’. 

A major source of enrichment of what emerged as a criminal elite was the smuggling of gold, drugs and weaponry. Gold, the burden of chapter 4, involved not just the carriers at the Punjab border but also international players such as the crew of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) – later British Airways – models and others from more urban backgrounds. In fact, Karachi and its islands, as well as Dubai, also became its nodal points and waterways, in addition to air, were also used for operations which covered a large part of the globe. In the same way, the smuggling of heroin was an international phenomenon in which some people informally called ‘kings’ made their fortunes. The most intriguing aspect of smuggling in the 1980s was that of weapons since it was patronised by the Pakistani state at the highest levels in order to arm the Sikh militants who were fighting against India. For Pakistan, it was a case of a proxy war, even though the smugglers also carried drugs which caused much psychological, cultural and physical harm to its users both in India and Pakistan. For India, of course, this was no longer the kind of informal trade that had been going on since 1947, but a war. Hence India erected fences and increased its military presence along the border, which changed the nature of cross-border activities. The author has embellished his account with Punjabi ballads which lament the loss of a period that the border people called the ‘golden age’.

The book has many strengths. The most notable among them is that it is an original and significant contribution to learning on account of the insights offered in it. These insights deconstruct some of the traditional understanding of the way borders operate; for instance, that nborders are barriers buttressed not only by a security apparatus but also by a nationalistic ideology of separatism and ‘othering’. Instead, they are spaces for continuities to flourish, economic opportunities to benefit from and the proclaimed hegemony of the state to be resisted. This passive resistance is very much in the category of the ‘weapons of the weak’, which marginalised communities often resort to. Another strength of the book is its use of sources which have not been utilised earlier. Among these are police records, land and customs records, reports of the intelligence authorities and the files of ministries, the Punjab secretariat, the CIA and other official bodies. These are supplemented with interviews and published works. After reading the book, one wonders at the richness of the archives the author commands and realises that such archives cannot be obtained without really backbreaking work. One also understands how difficult and dangerous interviews with the ‘kings of smugglers’ and their agents can be.

While I find no major flaw or weakness in the book, I wonder if the author finds parallels between the resistance offered by his border people to the state ideologies of separatism and border control and what Marxist theoreticians call subaltern swings between hostility and cooperation with the powerful i.e. what Aasim Sajjad calls The Politics of Common Sense (2017). If so, would it be possible to see all such phenomena as ways of dealing with power, subverting it and exploiting it where possible? The author might have made these ventures into political theory for further enrichment of his theoretical underpinnings. While this is a question, I should add that there is also a flaw in an otherwise excellent book. It is that the book has repetitions, sometimes with few connecting links (like ‘as I mentioned earlier…), which careful editing can remove. Also, the book has many mistakes, not only in spellings but also in missing words and, in places, confused syntax. None of these mistakes are such that thorough proofreading cannot remove them. And none, I should add, detract from the intellectual worth of the book.

The book is a unique and valuable study of the Punjab border which should count as a milestone in border studies for a long time to come. I recommend it unreservedly to scholars of South Asian studies, social history and subaltern studies. I think it is one of the most meticulously researched books published recently and should be valued by those who understand the worth of careful scholarship.

The Punjab Borderland

Mobility, Materiality and Militancy,


Author: Ilyas Chattha

Publisher: Cambridge & New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2022

Pages: 313

The reviewer is an occasional contributor.

Separatism and border control