Borderland Orders: Gendered Geographies of Mobility and Security across the India-Bangladesh Border


Sahana Ghosh

PhD defended at: 

Yale University


Borderland Orders asks what it means to live and work along and across an international border that is being violently militarized. With India’s construction of a fence to seal its border with Bangladesh, there has been a growing security apparatus in both countries. This has led to a high level of violence along an officially ‘friendly’ border that divides a socio-culturally intertwined and densely populated region. The illegal economies and networks across the India-Bangladesh border are popularly criminalized in the public spheres of both countries, though variably and under distinct national security agendas. While Indian and Bangladeshi national security interests each viewed in isolation appear contradictory, methodological nationalism in research prevents the interconnections by which trans/national security frames tie people and goods in hierarchies of value across regional scales to come to light. I draw on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in both countries to study border security regimes and transnational flows and networks, as they are constituted at local, global, national and regional scales. The chapters of the dissertation explore “illegality” as material and discursive practice that reconfigures gendered social identities, experiences of citizenship and belonging, and shape civil-military encounters in the everyday lives of borderland communities and security forces. For instance, how women marshal the moral force of the family to persuade security forces to allow them to cross to visit relatives or how young Muslim men coming of age in these impoverished borderlands under relentless surveillance from security forces value risk in the illicit border economy are all vital questions that sit at the heart of borderland orders. The ethnography lays out such gendered geographies of permissible mobilities, reorienting the frame of analysis from high politics to borderland political economies as the shifting grounds for the consolidation of exclusionary national law, economy, and security.

My research is grounded in the study of borderlands as products of national imperatives and regional political economy. The conceptual framework of what I call ‘borderland orders’ argues that such regional political economy is constituted by a range of daily frictions by which borderlands are imagined, embodied, and inhabited by those that live and work in them. This reorients most social analyses that oppose clandestine mobilities with state regulations of borders by showing, instead, that border security is not simply imposed on borderland communities from above. State governance of mobility materializes borders just as the sticky realities of borderland life ground state security practices in social relations, drawing law enforcement agents into daily processes of ethical evaluation that shape dangers and threats at different scales. As border walls proliferate across the globe, Borderland orders shows how the life of regional geopolitics advances as nations are gendered and bodies on the move sexualized in particular expressions of threat and vulnerability within, at, and across their shared borders. My research illuminates the political economies of borderlands, state security regimes, and transnational mobilities as profoundly gendered and embodied entities and processes. While much literature on transnational migrations are based on long-distance mobilities between the global south and north, I focus on transnational mobility and border regimes within regions of the global south, showing how and why particular mobilities of people and goods come to be linked with national security and criminalized. Such an analysis of transnational living across a South Asian borderland region also intervenes in migration studies, where typically India and Bangladesh are viewed as sources of migrants to the global north, to illuminate regional genealogies of migration and border control governance regimes. Finally, my work engages with the anthropology of violence, exploring the gap in both a theoretical vocabulary and empirical studies of militarization and violence in times of ‘peace’. Militarization as border control is a topic of global import yet nuanced regional articulations are few. With its ethnographic focus on ordinary borderland lives, socio-politically charged migration histories, and the persecution of religious minorities in both countries, Borderland Orders peoples the canvas of South Asian politics, shifting the terms of the debate to more humane priorities.