This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.

n July 25th, 2017, a Chinese “incursion” into a Himalayan pasture land called Barahoti was widely reported by the Indian media.[1] Coming in the wake of a tense Himalayan border fracas to the east of Barahoti in a place called Doklam that is located at the tri-junction of India, China, and Bhutan, the claims of yet another territorial breach provoked an uproar in India’s increasingly hyper-nationalistic news media. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in New Delhi, however, remained silent on the putative act of territorial aggression by China. Perhaps New Delhi stayed quiet because an incursion never really took place. Or perhaps because India is circumspect in its criticisms of its powerful neighbor. Both these theories were heavily debated. There is a third possible reason for the uncharacteristic silence at the breach of state borders – one that both India and China refuse to acknowledge and that my experience of living in this Himalayan borderland region leads me to suggest: This is a region where neither is the border forensically definable and clearly mappable; nor the territory agreed upon; and one where the “foreigners” that enter and exit tend to be nonhuman animals.

Contestations along the Sino-Indian border are complex and deeply region-specific. When it comes to Barahoti the same understanding of where the border is has never been accepted by China, Tibet, or India. Barahoti is a grazing ground about 16,000 feet above sea-level, close to the Tun Jun La pass between India and Tibet. To date there is no agreement on the geographical location of Barahoti. India claims it lies two miles south of Tun Jun La, China say it is 12 km to the north of the pass (Mathur 2012). In the everyday functioning of the local state’s outpost, this zone is a forgotten space where herdsmen, primarily Bhotiyas (lit. of Tibet) still take their livestock for grazing as the seasons change. In addition, a small contingent of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) is stationed there.

The ITBP guards were themselves somewhat confused by the question of what precisely they were meant to guard due to this cartographic fuzziness; one that is only exacerbated by the terrain of the upper Himalaya where one stands overwhelmingly confronted by vast blocks of unending snow-covered mountains. A broad understanding of Indian territory was gained more from experience and a sense of the place than from official maps or documents, of where – roughly – Tibet begins and India – sort of – ends. Oral knowledge as well as the custom of being in place that is passed down over the generations to the Bhotiyas as well as the ITBP personnel helps shape a sense of space. Crucially, I argue, a sense of state territory is really upheld through the movements and stoppages of nonhuman animals through a perceived border. Nonhumans made their presence felt, firstly, through the use of a key metaphor that several ITBP guards recited to me when I asked them what their primary responsibility was: “we will not allow even a fly to cross from China to India”. Given that the terrain we are speaking of is the Upper Himalaya and it would be rather difficult to police the movement of flies, if they exist at all, this constantly evoked phrase is telling. The physical gesturing to a region somewhere north would often accompany this statement.

Beyond metaphors, there is a commonplace entry of Chinese personages suspected of being spies and, hence, carrying the potential to be termed an “incursion”: yaks. The guards stationed in this region said that they spent most of their time chasing “Chinese yaks” back into Tibet/China. This is not a particularly easy task as anyone who has encountered these lumbering-gambolling animals would attest to, but I was also intrigued by why the guards thought the yaks could be “Chinese”. They had never, as far as I knew, encountered yaks that were proven guilty of espionage. But the shaggy coats of the yaks were suspected of hiding microphones and/or cameras. Furthermore, yaks are associated with the Bhotiyas who keep them as livestock and are, hence, tarnished with the same brush of Otherness that these ‘tribals’ of Tibetan origin carry with them.[2]

Not all yaks were considered Chinese. Only certain specific ones were considered suspect depending on the regions where they were found and, particularly, if they were solitary. Given that the guards professed an innate knowledge of a landscape where the real border is unmarked by signage and the terrain is extremely difficult to read as well as navigate, they were able to reasonably guess which locations one would find an Indian yak or an intruding Chinese yak. It was in the chasing ‘back’ of yaks that the guards felt they were dispensing their duty arising out of a cartographic imagination of India. At the very same time, it was in this guarding against yak-incursions, that the imaginary of a firm Sino-Indian border was being solidified.

Suspicious animals are, by no means, unique to Barahoti. Last summer a Pakistani spy was arrested by Indian officials about 2 miles into the Indian side of the Indo-Pakistan border.[3] Given the history of border skirmishes between these two states, this would not have really made the news was it not for the fact that the spy was a nonhuman: a pigeon to be precise. This suspected Pakistani spy pigeon was carrying a “stamped message in Urdu” as well as a mysterious looking telephone number. The phenomenon of spy animals is not, it turns out, either new or uncommon (see Shell 2015). Thus, in August 2015 we have had Hamas arrest a dolphin making suspicious movements and carrying a camera and bow with arrows.[4] Bobby the monkey was arrested by Pakistan on charges of being an Indian spy.[5] Indeed, dolphins and sea lions are “professionally trained” by, we now know, at least the U.S. navy[6] and Ukraine.[7]

Pigeons and flies fly, yaks lumber, monkeys hop and skip, dolphins and sea lions swim. All these nonhumans are capable of incursions of one form or the other. What is crucial is their capacity to inhabit and travel through landscapes that are, oftentimes, beyond-the-human. In so doing they demonstrate, with a profound starkness, the volumetric nature of space. The flies that are metaphorically supposed to be crossing borders or the pigeons that defy them carrying suspicious notes and numbers with them fly in the face (pun intended) of human occupation of space. Similarly, the yaks that are cheerfully trundling across the precipitous upper Himalayan borderlands of Southern and Central Asia are also moving in a manner that is radically Other despite remaining rooted on land. Yaks appear to almost vertically climb up the steepest mountains; they are huge and slow but still reach corners and angles that most humans would struggle to get to.

The point is not merely the self-evident one that animals occupy and traverse through land, air, and water differently from humans. Rather, it is that their movements can – and as described here – do radically upturn notions of state sovereignty and cartographic clarity rooted in both a 2-dimensional understanding of space as well as in ideologies of the nation-state. Even if one were to insist on classifying a yak as “Chinese” or “Indian”; pigeons as “Indian” or “Pakistani”; yet in their travels across their prescribed territorial affiliations and in the feverish attempts to curtail such mobilities, these animals end up inadvertently revealing the beastly task that is the control of space by humans.

[1] Accessed on Jan 2, 2018.
[2] Cf. Juliet Fall (2005: 251) on how protected avian species at the border between France and Italy tend to “escape” to Italy because “nature is more natural there”.


Fall, J. (2005) Drawing the Line: Nature, Hybridity and Politics in Transboundary Spaces. London: Ashgate
Mathur, N. (2012) Naturalising the Himalaya-as-Border, in: Gellner, D (ed.) Borderland Lives in Northern South Asia, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 72-91
Shell, J. (2015) Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility. Cambridge: MIT Press