The Newsletter 91 Spring 2022

Friction and Collaboration in Borderlands: Framing the Sino-Indian Borderlands along the Eastern Himalayas

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman

The Sino-Indian borderlands straddles multiple strategic and securitized territories, and they span across diverse community worldviews and perceptions. As one travels from the northernmost borders of Ladakh through Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh in the easternmost fringes of the Himalayas, there are multiple layers of understanding of the borderlands, across spaces and temporalities. What we call the borderlands between the modern nation-states of China and India – framed in conflict and contestations over territoriality and sovereignty claims – intersect multiple scales of community and ecological worldviews and understandings. The forests, mountains, rivers, and sacred landscapes of communities who inhabit them, who have shifted along and moved across as the Himalayan landscape formed and crumbled over centuries, characterize transboundary spaces between China and India.

Sino-Indian borderlands and borderlines

Willem van Schendel depicts the India-China border as a “sensitive border” marked by uncertain sovereignty and apprehensive territoriality, with remarkably frayed edges. He goes on to argue that such a border cannot be called a border at all, as in official parlance it is referred to as the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC) or, more famously, as the “McMahon Line.” It is based on the ground presence of the respective militaries along the border, or what is the perception of the borderline by them, usually negotiated on a regular basis by “long range patrols” which perform “area domination exercises” and monitor and inspect border pillars, some perhaps once in a year or two, given the remoteness of the borderline. The way ahead, according to van Schendel, is to approach such borders across transboundary spaces from the lens of “anthropology of frayed edges” rather than with the definite “geography of lines.” 1 van Schendel, W. 2013. ‘Afterword: Making the most of Sensitive Borders’, in Gellner, D. N. (ed.). Borderland Lives in Northern South Asia: Non-State Perspectives. Duke University Press.

Along the Sino-Indian border, there are several interesting tri-junctions, which underline the presence of a third country at the borderlines. Such tri-junctions involve Nepal and Bhutan in many different sectors, and these are nodes of traditional migration and trading routes across the difficult terrain of these mountainous regions. These tri-junctions have also been sites of territorial claims, contestations, and conflict, as we have recently witnessed in the Doklam plateau, involving the three countries of Bhutan, China and India. 2 For more on the Doklam incident, please see Jacob, J. 2017. “Doklam: India-China cold front to continue”,  The community imaginations, understandings, perceptions, and worldviews along these borderlands are based on memories of migration, trade, and pilgrimage routes; regular activities such as hunting in the forests, sources of daily livelihood such as transboundary rivers, wetlands and transborder community linkages. They are broader than that of the nation-state’s perception of borderlines marked by mere border pillars.

The practice of marking borders on the ground, along which border contestations and claims are made, has followed natural geographical features such as mountains, hills, valleys, forests, plateaus, plains, and watersheds in the Himalayas. The “water-parting principle,” wherein the edge of a watershed was used to establish the border, was a key marker of international boundary-making around the world in the 20th century, especially in mountainous areas where the dominant cartographical understanding was in terms of border points rather than borderlines. 3 Gardner, K. 2019. Moving Watersheds, Borderless Maps, and Imperial Geography in India’s Northwestern Himalaya. The Historical Journal 62 (1): 149-170.  The historical perception of border points in a mountainous area – such as border points across the length and breadth of the Himalayas – was bypassed with the “water-parting principle” as an imposed colonial marker to draw regional borderlines. We can therefore see that the Sino-Indian borderlands have several divergent markers.

Shepherds, hunters, and shamans

The Mishmi community along the Sino-Indian border in Walong and Kibithoo speak about their meetings and exchanges with Mishmi people across the LAC in the grasslands, where they regularly take their sheep to graze. They say that their brethren living in Chinese territory across Kibithoo are prosperous. They note that the Mishmi villages on the Chinese side enjoy better living conditions, housing, and sanitation facilities mostly made up of pre-fabricated structures. They can see the Chinese villages across the border and wonder why they cannot be opened up and allowed to travel to the other side. Some Mishmi community elders with whom I had conversations say that they do not feel intimidated by being close to the border and will want to visit their relatives across the border as and when such an opportunity comes. While the Mishmi recognize nationalist framings, the perception of the border at the community level is based primarily on shared tribal affinities.

Hunting is common amongst the Mishmi, as it is connected to their animist religion and traditions, which require wild meat to appease the spirits and protect deities in their festivals and family offerings. Mishmi hunters often spend weeks in the forests along the Sino-Indian border, and they come into contact with Chinese hunters who often cross into the Indian side. Apart from consumption and religious needs, hunting in the Mishmi hills is also done for commercial purposes, where musk deer and black bears are hunted for their pods and gall bladders, respectively; these are sold to businessmen from mainland India or across the border in China for the traditional medicine market. 4 Aiyadurai, A. 2011. ‘Wildlife Hunting and Conservation in Northeast India: A Need for an Interdisciplinary Understanding’, International Journal for Galliformes Conservation, Vol. 2, 61–73.  The nation-state of India invokes the hard border in the Sino-Indian borderlands; in practice, however, this border is quite fuzzy and fluid, with Mishmi hunters and shepherds having sporadic interactions across it. However, such interactions happen not through defiance by the local communities, and the nation-state is often cognizant of such transboundary encounters and interactions.

The number of Mishmi traditional shamans (priests), who conduct the animist customs in community festivals and family ritual offerings, has fallen significantly on the Indian side. Meanwhile, almost none exist in the Mishmi villages on the Chinese side. Mishmis from the Chinese side pay tribute to Mishmi priests from the Indian side to conduct rituals. This points towards a unique transnational exchange of rituals, offerings, and animist belief systems between the transboundary Mishmi community. Mishmis in Arunachal Pradesh say that they know that their Mishmi brethren cannot openly follow their animist religious rituals and practices in China due to the prevailing communist ideology. They accord a high value to cross-border interactions between shepherds, hunters, and shamans, in order to preserve their common Mishmi animist religion, culture, and identity, which illustrates a sense of belonging that is socio-spatial.

Borderland community relations effectively look across the borderline, be it contested or otherwise, to take in both sides of the borderland. 5 Evans, R. 2013. 'The Perils of Being a Borderland People: On the Lhotshampas of Bhutan', in Gellner, D. N. (ed.). Borderland Lives in Northern South Asia: Non-State Perspectives. Duke University Press.  Such transboundary human relations help create, maintain, undermine, and even evade borders. They also challenge the idea of a national homeland that is sacrosanct and only determined and controlled by the nation-state. The lived social realities and community imaginations in Arunachal Pradesh can be effectively described by social and ecological framings and worldviews, which are in stark contrast with the strategic securitized framings and worldviews offered by the nation-states. The borderland communities across the Eastern Himalayas negotiate multiple identities to imagine geographies straddling nation-state borders. 6 Gohain, S. 2020. Imagined Geographies in the Indo-Tibetan Borderlands: Culture, Politics, Place. Amsterdam University Press.  In so doing, they foreground a sense of belonging based on transboundary ecologies.

Infrastructuring shared borderland ecologies

The securitized calculations of China and India have brought both countries to gather their strategic footprint along the borderlines through infrastructuring the borderland. The natural features that mark these borderlands (e.g., forests, mountains, and rivers) cannot by themselves serve as sovereignty markers on territory; rather, they have to be infrastructured in certain ways in order to be able to serve as effective sovereignty markers. The process of securitizing and infrastructuring these borderlands has brought roads, railways, mega hydropower dams, oil and natural gas drilling projects, and mining activities to both sides of the border. Several dams are already constructed and commissioned by China, and many are in the pipeline in India. In a race to dam the transboundary Brahmaputra, both China and India have put the shared borderland ecology of the Himalayas and its communities at risk. 7 Rahman, M. Z. 2016. “China and India’s race to dam the Brahmaputra river puts the Himalayas at risk”, The Conversation, 26 September,

The hydropower development plans by India on the Tawang Chuu and the Nyamjang Chuu are a case in point. These have faced continuing protests by the Monpa community, who straddle the transboundary spaces around the tri-junction between India, Bhutan, and China. The dams threaten sacred sites revered by transboundary communities in the region. They also threaten the habitat of the black-necked crane, considered to be the reincarnation of the Sixth Dalai Lama, who was born in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The frictions we witness in the Sino-Indian borderlands operate at multiple levels. Dominant among them is the friction between the nation-states in a securitized framing. The friction is evident between, on the one hand, infrastructuring borderlands to achieve state presence, order, and control, and, on the other hand, the worldviews of borderland communities. This needs reconciliation through a sustained process of dialogue to protect shared ecologies across the transboundary Himalayas.


Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, Visiting Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, India. Email: