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This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
ne winter morning red dust spiraled from the surface of a broken road. It rapidly gathered volume as a convoy of border-patrol jeeps whizzed past India’s newly constructed border wall with Bangladesh. This infrastructure encloses significant stretches of the 2545-mile-long India-Bangladesh border, South Asia’s longest international boundary. Unlike the rusty fences and fence-like structures that had earlier divided this landscape, the new barrier was distinguished by furiously coiled barbed wires that were placed between angular iron frames.
I had followed the construction of India’s new border fence with Bangladesh in the geographically isolated and heavily militarized Northeast India since 2007. In the state of Meghalaya, Northeast India, this infrastructure intends to contain smugglers, dissidents demanding independent homelands, and unauthorized Bangladeshi migrants (see Baruah 2013). Here, construction workers were digging deep trenches. Recruited by a civil engineering firm who had acquired the tender for construction, they set about delimiting Indian from Bangladeshi territory, uprooting brittle pillars and wires and planting new ones.
Heavy barbed spirals were central to the production of the new border. Engineers carefully measured their weight. They tested the sharpness of the spikes, discarding coils that did not meet the prescribed standards. Workers hunched on the flattened ground, twisting and re-arranging the coils to create a lethal buffer. Women villagers, recruited to mine wet sand from rivers to make the concrete foundations of the fence, resented the presence of the migrant laborers the firms were mandated to hire, who earned far more than they did. They desired to make a living by building the fence, aware that it may displace their homestead land and enclose their village separating them from their kin who lived in Bangladesh.
That winter morning in 2015, as the convoy of vehicles jolted uphill and down, their rotating tires damaged the uneven road even further. Dust enveloped us as we walked from one village to another. It rendered hazy the fields adjoining the fence, deepening the sense of crisis that the razor-sharp wires had earlier set in motion. Spiraling wires and dust impeded access to the border and its everyday use as a resource.
The spiral is a political register and a metaphor. Its twisted form palpably establishes what border infrastructures seek to do. Its spatial propensity to gather volume, aggregate, and generate disorderly forces amplifies the nation’s unsettling presence in the lives of its remote border residents. Coiled wires and dust’s distributive capacities as well as their disruptive powers establish the anxious domestication of lethal infrastructures in rural life.
The spiral then, forces us to rethink the relationship between the global rescaling of border walls and nation-building. Wendy Brown (2010) powerfully argues that the proliferation of global fortifications across rich and impoverished nations, far from reflecting the escalating sovereignty of nation-states, in fact establishes the contrary. The border walls that guard against non-state actors, individuals, industries, and syndicates actually symbolize declining national sovereignty and a shift in the locus of sovereign power, from that which is concentrated in the nation-state, to capital and religiously sanctioned violence (Brown, 2010: 24-34).
The spiral’s volumetric properties displace scholarly preoccupations with barriers as uniform artefacts of sovereign losses. Instead, in both its calculative forms and residual afterlives, the spiral attunes to the expansions and extensions of national margins (see McNeill, forthcoming). At borders, the placement of barbed wires and the movement of dust along the horizontal and vertical axis, located under and on the surface and rapidly circulating in air, establishes the nation’s volumetric excesses. Border construction gathers distinctive materials in unexpectedly “voluminous” ways (Bonilla, 2018). They rely on and accumulate corrosive and infiltrating matter.
In regions where barbed-wire fences do not barricade either farmlands or grazing grounds, dust is not only an ordinary residue. Its amplification through border making and maintenance make it a noxious political matter.
As Reviel Netz powerfully reminds us, barbed wires operate at “the level of flesh” slicing across spatial and biological boundaries. The global proliferation of the barbed wire relied on its forceful capacities to perpetrate pain; the relationship between the iron and flesh that the razor-sharp wires fostered, also intimately connected the predicaments of humans and animals (Netz, 2004: 12).
India’s new barriers disrupted bull-smuggling routes from India to Bangladesh, and traders were forced to change routes of cattle traffic. They crossed the border increasing risks to their lives and bodies, and to that of the animals that they traded in.
The never-ending dusty trails that bull-smuggling generated stood apart from the dusts that quickly arose and subsided at dawn and dusk with the regular return of cattle from pastures. Women householders—some of whom were earlier willing to work at the dusty fence construction site—now begrudged cattle dust for infiltrating their homes and lungs.
Long after the engineers and laborers had finished assembling India’s fence, the spiraling dust continued to gather momentum. With every rotating jeep tire, gust of wind, and soldier’s heavy footfall on the broken earth, the villagers encountered disorders and disruptions through material enactments (Choy and Zee, 2015).
Spirals tell the story of the nation’s territorial power through its “fragments” (Chatterjee, 2003). Forced into shape, the spiral is a metaphor for a nervous nation which rapidly envelops people and bulls in its own ‘circles of insecurity’ (Krishna, 1997; Banerjee and Samaddar, 2010). The spiral’s shifting contours chronicle the nation’s irredeemable presence in the lives of its suspects and citizens. Through its visibility and volume, nations mutate human and cattle populations into citizens; sovereignty’s veiled forms escalate women’s domestic burdens at borders. Yet, circulating dust connects people despite the barbed wires. It continues to remind them that dust is homeland and livelihood.
I thank Franck Billé and George Jose for their valuable suggestions.
Banerjee, P and R Samaddar (2010) Migration and Circles of Insecurities. Rupa: New Delhi.
Baruah, S (2013) Nationalizing Space: Cosmetic Federalism and the Politics of Development in Northeast India. Development and Change 34(5): 915-939
Baruah, S (2007) Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Bonilla, L (2017) Voluminous. In: Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, October 24. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1243-voluminous
Brown, W (2010) Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books.
Chatterjee, P (2003) The Nation and its Fragments. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Choy, T and J Zee (2015) Condition—Suspension. Cultural Anthropology 30(2): 210–223.
Krishna, S (1994) Cartographic Anxiety: Mapping the Body Politic in India. Alternatives 19(4): 507– 21.
McNeill, D (forthcoming) Volumetric urbanism: The production and extraction of Singaporean territory, Environment and Planning A.
Netz, R (2004), Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.