Disputed Indo-Tibetan Borderlands


A review of Imagined Places: Politics and Narratives in a Disputed Indo-Tibetan Borderland, by Swargajyoti Gohain.

Swargajyoti Gohain’s Imagined Places: Politics and Narratives in a Disputed Indo-Tibetan Borderland examines the cultural politics of place-making in the Mon-yul corridor in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. As suggested by the title, both Mon-yul and the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh are located in and central to a protracted territorial dispute between India and China. Gohain’s study thus explores how cultural and political ties to Tibet are both mobilized and contested in contemporary movements for greater territorial autonomy for Mon-pa communities in Arunachal Pradesh. Through close readings of both geopolitical and cultural histories at this Indo-Tibetan borderland, Gohain’s dissertation analyzes the ways in which Mon identity is negotiated and the extra-local relationships that are constitutive of geographical imaginations in Mon-yul.

Towards a biography of the Indo-Tibetan border at Tawang, Gohain illuminates the powerful but often overlooked implications of colonial bordering practices on contemporary senses of place. Mon-yul and its cultural and political center of Tawang were historic points of intersection on Indo-Tibetan trade routes up until the 20th century. However, these trans-border connections were largely severed as a result of colonial Britain’s designation of the McMahon Line. Moreover, Tawang’s cultural and political ties to Tibet are fundamental to ongoing, post-colonial conflicts between India and China over Arunachal Pradesh. The fact that Mon-pa communities currently live across a trans-state region comprising territories in India (western Arunachal Pradesh), China (southern Tibetan Autonomous Region), and Bhutan (eastern Tashiyangtse) complicates grassroots efforts to designate Mon-yul as a specific political place and cultural space. Reflecting the trans-bordered places where Mon-pas historically and currently call home, narratives of what constitutes indigenous Mon-yul are also complicated by several other social and political dynamics; these include, but are not limited to, the legacies of colonial administration through “scheduled tribe” designations in Northeast India, the social and cultural politics of Tibetan language and the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism throughout northern India, and the significant Indian and Chinese militarization of borderland spaces across Arunachal Pradesh.

Gohain’s ethnography reads the socio-cultural and political-historical complexity of Mon-yul through the literatures and analytical frameworks of both cultural studies and cultural geography. Bringing rich ethnographic detail to bear on key discussions around the cultural politics of place-making, Gohain makes strong contributions to conversations generated by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson’s seminal work Culture, Power, Place (Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997). In so doing, Gohain illustrates the ways in which structures of the state, religious institutions, mobility practices, social consciousness, colonial legacies, and contemporary geopolitics converge in the very politicized process of naming and identifying place. Gohain also draws heavily on Henri Lefebvre’s theoretical framework of the social production of space to interpret how everyday practices such as trade, worship, and the naming of place converge into contests over Mon-pa space in Arunachal Pradesh (Henri Lefebvre, The Social Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991). Furthermore, Gohain also expands conversations on the place-space debate and calls for new considerations to place in the context of the highly influential “spatial turn” across the social sciences (Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989). Finally, Gohain also complicates the field of Zomia studies by effectively showing the ways in which borders are fundamental and constitutive to geographical imaginations in trans-state spaces across highland Asia (Willem Van Schendel, “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20, 2002, pp. 647-668; Jean Michaud, “Editorial: Zomia and Beyond,” Journal of Global History 5, 2010, pp. 187-214; James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

The dissertation is smartly organized and divided by chapters according to six key geographic concepts. In addition to the Introduction and Conclusion, these include: Ethnographic Profile; Locality; Connections; Separation; Periphery; and Region. Following these geographic themes, Gohain’s study thus traces the trajectory of place-making, place-naming, and the identity of place in the contested context of Mon-yul/Tawang. Especially effective is Gohain’s ability to move between wide geopolitical histories and more granular narratives drawn from both oral history and everyday life in these Indo-Tibetan border areas. These two narrative scales are both mediated and complicated through articulations of Mon-pa identity and the specificity of Mon-yul as place in both memory and in practice.

Putting oral histories in concert with geopolitical histories, Gohain demonstrates the ways in which Mon-pa is not merely a “negotiated identity,” but that “Mon is a concept, an idea put forward to resist current marginality and to construct community” (pp. 5-6). In the context of widespread “cartographic anxiety” experienced across the Indian Subcontinent (Sankaran Krishna, “Cartographic Anxiety: Mapping the Body Politic in India,” Alternatives 19, 1994, pp. 507-521), Gohain effectively shows how northeast India’s communities today are not only subjects of a state designated and defined by colonial bordering policies, but that such subject positions can be leveraged for political gain. Throughout the text, the current physical and political location of Mon-yul/Tawang in India is specifically contrasted to dominant narratives that socially, culturally, and historically situate Mon-yul/Tawang in distinctly Tibetan spaces. Unraveling, without resolving, this tangled web of relations, affiliations, and ascriptions is a key dimension of Gohain’s ambitious borderland project and the basis upon which Mon-pa “geographical imaginations” are generated.

Imagined Places: Politics and Narratives in a Disputed Indo-Tibetan Borderland makes valuable empirical and theoretical contributions to the literatures on Himalayan and Tibetan studies, cultural studies, and border studies. In addition to providing a new lens with which to examine cultural politics in Northeast India (Sanjib Baruah, Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), Gohain’s dissertation adds important new understandings to a limited body of literature on Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh (Toni Huber and Stuart Blackburn, Origins and Migration in the Extended Eastern Himalaya. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012). Beyond this significant empirical value, Gohain disrupts the social sciences’ ongoing “spatial turn” with a critical place-based intervention and illustrates that geographical imaginations are always in the process of “becoming” (Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage, 1996). Showing how and why borders still matter, Gohain furthermore brings rich ethnographic knowledge to the border studies literature and demonstrates that Zomia is best approached as a way of thinking rather than a conceptual place itself (Sara Shneiderman, “Are the Central Himalayas in Zomia? Some Scholarly and Political Considerations across Time and Space,” Journal of Global History 5, 2010, pp. 289-312).

Framed with theoretical rigor and rich in ethnographic detail, Swargajyoti Gohain has crafted a powerful argument and composed an excellent thesis. This reviewer eagerly anticipates the publication of Gohain’s dissertation in book form and looks forward to the new conversations it will generate on the cultural politics of place making in contested borderland spaces.

Galen Murton
Department of Geography
University of Colorado, Boulder

Primary Sources

Interviews and focus groups with Arunachal communities (e.g. Monpa, Tibetan, monastic, Indian military)
Tawang District Library, Arunachal Pradesh, India
Central Institute for Himalayan Culture Studies, Dahung, Arunachal Pradesh, India
National Archives, Delhi, India.
Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, India

Dissertation Information

Emory University. 2013. 331 pp. Primary Advisor: Bruce Knauft.

Image: Chaksam Iron Bridge in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.

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