Militarization in India & Beyond: Suchitra Vijayan & the Borderlands Project

April 7, 2015

Military ruins from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in Kabul, 2011. CREDIT: Suchitra Vijayan

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. My name is Alex Woodson.

Carnegie New Leaders [CNL] is a membership program for young professionals who are working in a range of fields and wish to engage in a dialogue on ethics in international affairs.Through a series of formal and informal gatherings, CNL members interact with business professionals, policymakers, social innovators, and scholars who are changing the way we approach global ethics in the 21st century.

Today our guest is Suchitra Vijayan. Suchitra is a lawyer, political theorist, writer, and photographer. She is currently working on the Borderlands Project, which is a travelogue chronicling stories on India's 9,000 miles of borders with China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma.

Suchitra, thank you for coming. Welcome to Carnegie Council.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: Alex, thank you. Thanks for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: Of course. Just to start off, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and what you're currently working on.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: My background is that I started as a lawyer. I was trained in England as a barrister. The first work I did was working for the war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. After that, I co-founded and I was the legal director of an NGO in Egypt that gave legal aid for Iraqi refugees. That was my legal background.

After that, I went to grad school at Yale, where I studied international relations and political science. That's where I started working on Afghanistan and Pakistan and looking at the impact of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and generally mapping the trajectory of insurgency and various groups there, which later led me to work on the Borderlands Project, because the work I did in Afghanistan was looking at the border—the Durand Line is the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan—and in some ways how that porous border affected the war in Afghanistan, and taking those ideas and implementing it in India to see how we can understand India and India's own borders in South Asia and the larger South Asia better.

ALEX WOODSON: We hosted a discussion with Suchitra and Carnegie New Leader Liana Sterling last November. I just want to pick up on a few things that you touched on during this talk.

One part of the journey that really fascinated me was your trip along the China-India border, which is a state in India called Arunachal Pradesh. I was looking at Google maps today, and what's very interesting—I think, this is true for a lot of India's borders—is that there's actually a dotted line between India and China around the state, and same in Kashmir and a couple of other places.

So I was just hoping that you could talk to us a little bit about your trip to the state. It's probably a place that most people don't get to visit. What were your general impressions of the area? What kind of things did you do when you were there?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: A bit of a history to place that whole region in context is that when India became independent in 1947, India inherited treaties and agreements that the British Empire had made with various people. One of the treaties was the McMahon Line or the McMahon Treaty, which was concluded between the Tibet and the British in India. That line was pretty much the line that India takes for granted as the current line, which China actually disagrees with because later, as you know, China walks into Tibet and occupies Tibet. This is the eastern flank of it. On the western flank, the same border runs all the way into Kashmir.

This has been a very disputed region. It's also a region for which both India and China go to war in 1962. Surprisingly, this region is called Tawang, which India later calls Arunachal Pradesh towards the 1960s and '70s. Not surprisingly, China calls it South Tibet. So what you really see is a region that is very contentious and contested.

Also, this region was mostly a frontier. For a long time, both China and Tibet, at that point in time, and the British government had a disagreement on how to look at this area. The Chinese and the Tibetans wanted it to be a frontier, while the British wanted it to be more of a demarcated line, but they never got to it.

It is quite remote, but over the last 20 years, the Indian government has been trying to promote this region as a tourist destination. But what's terrible is that the distance between, that takes you to get to Tawang—it's a hilly region. It's about 300 kilometers; I think maybe between 120, 150 miles. It takes you about the entire day to get there. Which means that while India is trying to promote this as a tourist region, what you really find is terrible roads. Millions have gone into building these roads, but also what you find is a lot of corruption. That means that it's almost impossible to get there. It took me about a day and a half of travelling.

It is one of those places where there is a large military presence. India has successively built up a large military presence since the 1962 war. What you don't listen about or what is not written about is, again, this militarization of Arunachal Pradesh. What you get to listen to is about the militarization of Kashmir and the Ladakh region, which also borders China. That is another thing that is happening.

Another thing is also how the local population views its loyalties towards India and China. Again, what you see are very divergent narratives. The macro narrative looks at how India and China both look at this region and they both want access to it. They both feel that they're entitled to it, while the local narrative is very different. What they're looking for is not so much loyalty or allegiances, but something as simple as a good school, a good road. Often when you talk to people, initially what you'll listen to is them saying that they want to be a part of India because India is democratic.

Tawang region also has important religious sites because Tawang Monastery is the second most important religious site for Tibetans. It is also the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. As you know, the Tibetan government in exile is hosted in India in Dharamsala.

So a lot of people in Arunachal Pradesh, when you first talk to them, they would say, "India is important because India is democratic and we would much rather value freedom." That is a narrative that is often peddled within in the Indian media establishment. But as you stay longer and you talk to people, what you really see is a sense of deep disappointment, where they'll constantly tell you things like, "Yes, freedom is fantastic, but what is the point if it takes me a day to get to the nearest town or village?" Or, "What is the point when China seems to be doing so well?"

The sense of China doing incredibly well is something that seems to constantly keep coming up in these conversations that I have with people.

ALEX WOODSON: It's really interesting: China and India are the two most populous nations on the planet, they share a border, and, yet, their relationship, at least in the Western media, American media, is rarely discussed.

You mentioned in your recent talk at City College that this region is becoming increasingly militarized.You were just taking about how contentious this area is. So how would you characterize the relationship between China and India? I know you were talking a little bit before the podcast about how their relationship really has an effect on larger policy decisions for the Indian government.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: What is fascinating is that when the Chinese government takes over power just around the time India becomes independent, India is one of the first non-communist governments to recognize the Chinese state. For the first couple of years what you really see are these—the then-Indian prime minister talks about this thing called "how the Indians and the Chinese are brothers." There is a lot of conversation about these huge civilizational intersections and how this would be the future of South Asia. While India recognizes that it did inherit a lot of the border concerns, what you really see in the early years is this—at least from the narrative of the Indian side—the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood.

Later, what you see is the complete dissolution of this and everything goes south from then on. One, while India had a very legitimate argument with the McMahon Line, which is the border with Arunachal Pradesh, and in relationship to Tibet, India had less of a claim with the part of Aksai Chin, which is in the Ladakh region, which, again, if you look at the initial conversations, it was a possibility that this could have been reconciled but that never quite happens.

Then the annexation of Tibet happens. For a long time, India actually supports the Tibetan people. Then the Dalai Lama comes into India and then they allow this to happen. So Tibet has always been an important part. Very soon India relinquishes its right to Tibet and the buffer road zone of Tibet with the Panchsheel Agreement, which again becomes a huge diplomatic problem. By the time of the '80s, India actually says that India acknowledges China's stance.

What you really see are these series of miscommunications and mishaps. Often the narratives are very different, as I was telling you before. When you go to an average Chinese citizen and talk to them about the 1962 war, what you'll hear from them is that they actually know nothing about it. Most of them in their national imagination, this war with India, is seen as some kind of a misunderstanding between two leaders.

On the other hand in India, there is this larger sense of political, military, and psychological defeat. That continuously gets played on over and over again. The narrative you'll listen to as a student at school, when you're reading about India's history, is that India is a very friendly nation with an idealist leader who reaches out to China. However, China betrays India and India faces this crushing defeat in the 1962 war.

That, to a large extent, has affected how Indians themselves see the Chinese. In many ways India's own militarization increases. I think in 1949, it was at 1.8 percent of the GDP. Soon after the 1962 war, there's a huge escalation.

Another problem is that often India is seen in relationship to the India-Pakistan conflict and never in relationship to the India-China conflict. What India has is these two people that it has to fight simultaneously, one China and then the other is Pakistan.

What you really see over the years is India's response to the militarization of Tibet as well, because Tibet, what has happened is that—at one point in time there were nuclear weapons positioned there. For India, that was a huge problem. That again never gets played. Well, India's nuclear stance is often seen in relationship to India's defense when it comes to Pakistan. What all of this successively created is severe militarization of the regions of Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh, militarization of Tibet and militarization of parts of Kashmir. That is what we have as of today.

ALEX WOODSON: So just looking to the future, a few years down the line, how do you see Arunachal Pradesh? You said that India is trying to make this into a tourist destination. Do you think that it's a possibility? Are they working on the infrastructure there?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I think China has done a fantastic job of securing its part of what it calls Tibet. What they did in 2010, 2011 was that they built this—Mêdog is a region in Tibet, and that was pretty much the last of China's frontier regions. They built a train [editor's note: actually a highway] that connects the center of China all the way to Mêdog. Most people say that if China really wanted a war with India, it would take China less than 48 hours to mobilize in the frontier.

On the other hand, India, while it's militarizing, is also ridden with problems of corruption. Lots of money has gone into it and India has militarized this zone to a point where, if someone was there in Arunachal Pradesh 20 years ago, now they would not recognize this place.

At the same time, as I said, there was lots of corruption. Again, you have the Indian forces, you have the border security forces. When you talk to the actual officers on the ground, what you hear is this constant complaint of corruption, how millions have been spent and nobody knows where this money went. Often what you have is soldiers who have to deal with really bad combat equipment. Often when you talk to military officers off-record, they will tell you that it's incredibly difficult because that is a problem. Once you talk to them in a more professional capacity, they'll say that my job is to hold the bridge with whatever I have.

So that will, I think, change because now India is pushing for more militarization. The corporate interest is coming in. One of India's richest corporate houses recently announced that India would start working very closely in building military equipment. A lot of that is happening within India.

China, on the other hand, also has another thing in that 90 percent of China's military arm sales actually goes to the region. It sells to the people in the region, which, again, India sees as being problematic. What I really see happening over the next couple of years is, at least with a more aggressive nationalist party like BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian People's Party] in power, what India will do is definitely push for an increased military spending.

That would actually have some—I don't want to say dire effects, but in some ways it will continue to justify that as in some ways countering China. I think the American view of this would be that, you need to balance this region.

What you also see is that India is increasingly working with Japan. In 2011, they actually had the first maritime exercise. Again, now the Indian prime minister is on a tour to all the South Asian nations in its own backyard, whether it's Sri Lanka or Maldives trying to make sure that the Chinese policy which is—this actually comes up every few years in the media, where you talk about the string of pearls, where India is very worried about China's policy of encirclement. Now China has changed the name to the Maritime Silk Route. In some ways India wants to counter that.

What you will see is both these countries trying to contain each other in one way or the other. I don't expect there to be any kind of a full-blown war, but what you'll really see is a protracted, limited war playing itself out for the next 15, 20 years.

ALEX WOODSON: Moving on to another region of India that you recently visited, I want talk a bit about Kashmir. You were there last September?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: August, September.

ALEX WOODSON: August, September, 2014. The region was hit by devastating floods in September. I was just wondering if you could describe that experience. It must have been a very tough time to be there.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I was staying in Srinagar, which is a very comfortable place to stay. I would travel to the field and come back. I would go to the places I need to do interviews. I would spend time in the field and then come back to Srinagar.

Luckily for me, when the actual floods happened, I had left Srinagar, and I had gone north to this place called Bandipur where I was doing the fieldwork. I didn't quite understand the extent of the damage because when I was in Bandipur, at one point in time, the cell networks were down. I didn't have access to television. All I had was these text messages once in a while saying, "Things are getting bad. It's really bad."

They were saying that the banks might break. The real calamity happened not because of the floods and the rain, but the calamity was that the banks of River Jhelum broke. If the embankment didn't break, then the extent would not have been so bad.

I was in Bandipur when this happens, and I didn't quite know what to do because the roads to Srinagar were cut. I couldn't go back into the city. The entire city was in 15 feet of flood. I was renting a friend's place which is on the third floor. The third floor just barely missed.

When I kind of just went back to Srinagar, the apartment complex was still—there was water still on the second floor. After Bandipur, the only thing I could do was not go back but actually move forward. Instead, I went up north, which was not hit by the floods, which is this place called Guresh, which is, again, one of the most militarized parts of the world. There is actually more military presence than the local population. Often this Guresh is called as the place where India has won the hearts and minds. What you really see is that if your local civilian is outnumbered by one to two, it's very hard not to like the military.

What you very soon see is that the floods showcased how bad the civilian administration was in Kashmir. What the severe military presence in the valley means is that over the last 20, 30 years, the civilian administration has no capacity in actually administering anything.The military is pretty much the only surviving infrastructure, which means that they had to do everything.

What you also see is that soon after Kargil happened—the war in 1999—the Indian government actually puts in this policy on the ground, which is very similar to the American policy in Afghanistan, which is, "We have to go and win the hearts and minds." The military started having this policy of creating development. That basically meant that the army pretty much is responsible for everything. The civilian government is in complete shambles. The people understand that there is deep sense of resentment, but also what you see is that they have no choice but to rely on the military.

While this whole military establishment is seen as winning the hearts of minds of the people, when really you go there and talk to the people on the ground, when you talk to the actual military officers on the ground, they will tell you over and over again that their job is not build a state. Their job is not to win the hearts and minds. Indeed, their job is to protect the border.

Again, what you see repeatedly is the narrative that is very different from what you hear from the state media establishment and the narrative on the ground.

In my second week there, we were running out of food. Then you realize that Kashmir, which only 20 years ago could produce its own food—it was a subsistence economy—now was dependent on everything from outside. At the end of the second week in Guresh, since all the roads were blocked, there was nothing. There was no food. They were running out of food.

That shows that militarization is not just about holding onto barracks or building a garrison state. It also means that you've completely transformed the way the people are dependent on their own land. So the land means that now the people are dependent on the military and roads to bring in food from outside, which means that occupation is complete when a group of people can no longer produce food. They're dependent on the military and the state for everything else.

What you really see is that the dependence translates into complete control of the people. So if there's a flood and there's no food coming in, then the local population is completely dependent on the army, which means that resistance at that point in time is almost impossible. So that was very interesting, because while you see these things, a calamity exaggerates and opens up the space to look at these things in more detail.

ALEX WOODSON: When the floods happened in Kashmir—you have Pakistan, India and China that are all contesting different areas—did the borders disappear a little bit? Was the Pakistani army helping in places in India that they wouldn't normally go? Was China coming in? Was there an attitude of, "We're all in this together"?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: No, because the worst hit part was still the valley. The valley was the worst hit. The border areas, not so much. So what you really have are these—I think both China and Pakistan had these messages out which said, "We are happy to help," but the Indian government also turned it down.

Also, these are very contentious spaces. When finally after about three weeks when the roads opened up and I could finally make my way back to Srinagar, what you see is that once you drive through the old city in Srinagar—I was watching the television just a day before, and then you have pretty much every single media outlet in India telling you how the army is doing everything. They're doing rescue missions and this is the moment when India is going to win over Kashmir. That was a narrative.

On the ground, what you really see, if you drive through the old town, people actually have boards saying, “We don't want the Indian army here. We can take care of ourselves." Then what you see is that even when they know that they need the help of the government in those places, they want to do their own rescue and rehabilitation.

Often there is this huge resentment against the state infrastructure, which is still elected and run by Kashmiris, but the local population sees them with a sense of resentment. Then it becomes very political because India wants to establish that it is there and it is completely capable of running this mission.

On the other hand, when the floods happened in Pakistan, India then does the same game, and India says, "We're more than happy to come over and help you." But in reality, I don’t think there's much of actual aid or help or anything really happening.

ALEX WOODSON: You talked about this a little bit in one of your previous answers. You say the word "militarized" and that's a word that we hear in the United States a lot. Aside from maybe New York City in the weeks after 9/11 or sometimes in Ferguson, we don't really know what that means.

What does it exactly mean to live in a militarized place? Is it the same if you're in Kashmir or you're in Arunachal Pradesh? Is it the same feeling? Is it the same in Palestine? Are there things that these militarized areas hold in common?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: There is a familiar sense that overlaps all these spaces, but each of these spaces also lends to its own localized history. If you look at Arunachal Pradesh, it is nowhere as militarized as Kashmir or even parts of Palestine.

What militarization really means is that increasingly you see the use of force as the most legitimate way of coercing behavior. So you and I live in New York City. If there is a light you walk by, if there is an accident you call the police, they come in. Often your relationship with the police is not as a coercive capacity. You see them as someone who protects you. It is not something to civilize you. It is simply something that maintains civility.

Second, they are accountable. Say, for instance, in most parts of the world, if the police does something or the equivalent of the police does something, they are accountable. Law makes them accountable.

In militarization what happens is that, that accountability gets chipped away, where everything is about exception.If you shoot someone, it is justified, not on a case-by-case basis, but there is a blanket protection that says, "There's complete breakdown, and we need to protect this. These are exceptional times." So, what you really hear is the use of the word "exceptional."

Second, is the question of architecture. What you really see—and this is becoming more and more prominent in Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh, where the government starts taking property and the property becomes the structure which either divides people to monitor them better—it's better for surveillance—or simply to build more actual military establishments.

In Srinagar and Kashmir, what you see is that in the valley now, you won't see a lot of the actual army. What you see is a local police that is very militarized, which means that they have weapons. Imagine if your New York City police has the same kind of weaponry that your Navy Seal has or your Seal Team 6 has. It shouldn’t, simply because the question of proportionality comes in. What you would use to defend the territories of United States should not be what you use on its own population. That is just unacceptable.

What you see in a place like Ferguson is simply that—is that a force that is meant to protect should not become the force that is meant to suppress. That takes place in terms of bunkers. Every time, for example, when I was in Palestine as somebody who was not Israeli, who had an Indian passport, it was easier for me to pass through checkpoints quickly. I could go through checkpoints in like two or three minutes while most Palestinians would have to wait between 30 minutes to six hours depending on where you are.

That is true of Kashmir, as well. I was there on the Indian Independence Day, which is August 15th, and it was curfew. I couldn’t find any Kashmiris on the streets of Kashmir, but as an Indian, I could actually walk around anywhere, and the police didn’t stop me and I walked incredibly close to the stadium where the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir was actually going to preside and have an event. Nobody stopped me because I very physically look like an Indian. They just thought I was some tourist who got lost.

That idea of movement—so it's movement, it's architecture; it is also ID cards. I would walk around pretty much anywhere without any ID, but for most Kashmiris, they cannot step out of their house without an ID. There is no constitutional requirement for them. That is there in Palestine, in occupied territories, as well. For most Palestinians, the ID is important, because otherwise if somebody shoots you or if something happens to you, one, there is no way of identifying who that is.

Second, it's also the question of accountability. For instance, there is a contract between someone like me or you between the State of New York. We pay taxes. In return, the State of New York would protect, would defend, would give us public services. In militarization, all of this is not seen as a part of public good, but seen as a way of controlling the population.

So I think that’s the difference between controlling a population and providing a group of people with what you're supposed to provide for them as public services. This is one of the basic things that militarization does and that’s what happens in Ferguson, as well, that a police force should not be there trying to suppress.

What is fascinating is that I think that the army veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and I think even the National Guard wrote this letter to the police officers in Ferguson and they said that, "We are supposed defend and protect the Constitution, which means that we stand with the people, not with the racist state." I think that is very reflective of the difference between what you see as protecting and, say, oppressing a group of people.

ALEX WOODSON: That’s very well said.

The last thing that I want to talk about is a bit of a departure from what we've been talking about now. I read online earlier today that you backpacked across Sudan in 2009. That’s a pretty amazing thing to do. How did you get there? Why did you decide to this?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: This was a time when I was living in Cairo and I was running the NGO. One of things that we did was we gave legal aid for Iraqi refugees. Cairo is also home to a lot of Sudanese, Ethiopian, Eritrean refugees. One of the things I wanted to do was actually—by this time I'd spent about two years working on their cases. I felt like I knew the map of Iraq and the map of Sudan and South Sudan like the back of my hand.

I'd also worked with clients who'd worked for the SPLM [Sudan People's Liberation Movement], which is the more militant wing of the South Sudanese liberation parties and movements. I just felt that this was a place I knew so intimately because of the clients I had and I had worked with.

I was also leaving Egypt. I was leaving because I was getting married and I was going to move and leave, pretty much, the trial that I had built up for the last two years.

One thing I wanted to do was, it was my last thing of, "I'm going to go travel." So from Egypt it's very easy to get to Sudan. So I go to Khartoum and I made my way down. This was before South Sudan becomes a state. This was in 2009. It was mostly just trying to figure out for myself the space—

ALEX WOODSON: Can I just stop you for a minute? When you say you made your way from Khartoum to South Sudan—did you rent a car? Did you take a bus?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: No, I didn’t rent a car. No, I just took a bus. I was living with someone I knew who we had actually helped a few months ago, whose family who was there. I was living with his family in Khartoum. They were very helpful.

So places that I wanted to travel nearby, there was somebody who would accompany me. But when I finally wanted to get to Kassala, which was south, which was also on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, I just took a bus. Surprisingly, the bus service is quite good. It's not that bad.

I actually got harassed more in the predominantly Arab part of Sudan, which is the North. South Sudan is a lot more open and it's easier to navigate. It’s a more open culture. I always felt safe. I never felt unsafe.

For me it was fascinating because you know something so intimately on paper, you've read these stories. I could draw the map of South Sudan. I know where Abyei is. I know where various factions are. I know how one tribal group was used by the state to kill another tribal group to secure alliances and movements.

There was no rhyme or reason. I just really wanted to go, and I did. I realized that, apparently, a lot of those things that I saw don't exist today. It's almost impossible for you to make your way from Khartoum to South Sudan.

Also what you realize is that that’s one country where there has been no real history writing. It also goes against so much of what we hear about Sudan and South Sudan: There is no sense of nuance and how people see themselves.

It was one of those experiences where I felt I thought I knew what I was getting into, but once you get there you just realize that words cannot quite explain to you how complex these people are, how proud they are, how nuanced their view of the world and the state-making process is.

That was in 2009, and then I returned happily [laughs] with lots of photographs.

ALEX WOODSON: That’s great. Just before we wrap up, do you have any big trips planned next? Are you going back to India to continue the Borderlands Project?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: Yes, I'm actually off from June to September, and that will be it. I will be done with all of my traveling for the research

ALEX WOODSON: Where are you going?

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I actually need to return back to Kashmir. I couldn’t finish the research because of the floods, and I had to come back. Once I'm done, I still have the western flank, which is parts with Rajistan and Gujarat, which is the border with Pakistan.

I also need to return to parts of Burma, where . . . The first time I was in Burma, I actually ran out of money [laughs], and I had to come back because I ran out of money. So there's one part that I need to go and finish.

That’s it. I'll be done with the physical traveling of it, and then I just need to sit down and hopefully have something interesting to say.

ALEX WOODSON: Great, maybe we'll have you back when you're done.

SUCHITRA VIJAYAN: I look forward to it, thank you.

ALEX WOODSON: Suchitra, thank you very much for coming. This has been really informative. We could keep this going on, but unfortunately we have to wrap up.


ALEX WOODSON: This was the Carnegie New Leaders podcast, and I'm Alex Woodson.

You can find this podcast and many others at and You can also find us on iTunes.

Thanks for listening.

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