Straddling the Border in the Himalayan Borderlands

One of the fondest childhood memories of Lham Tsering, a media professional in Tawang, is travelling to Bhutan with his father for the Gomphu Kora festival. The festival, celebrated for three days near Tashigang in eastern Bhutan, gets a lot of attendees from Tawang. Wedged between China to the north, and Bhutan to the west, Tawang is the last administrative district of Arunachal Pradesh in this Himalayan borderland.

Tsering remembers the arduous journey they had to take in the absence of road connectivity between Tawang and Tashigang. The journey had to be completed through foot tracks in the mountains, passing through the Bhutanese villages of Kheney and Zangfu, before finally reaching Tashigang.

For centuries, these foot tracks have existed as vital routes for the movement of people and goods in this Himalayan terrain. Recounting his younger days, Tsering recalls the popularity of Bhutan produced peach wine Zumzin in Tawang, which people used to bring on their way back from such trips to Bhutan.

Borders are understood as inherently divisive and exclusionary, limiting the social life of people. But borderlands are also spaces for socio-economic exchanges between communities partitioned across borders. Tsering belongs to the Monpa community, which is one of the major tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and is found in Bhutan as well.

The consolidation of the India-Bhutan border along the Himalayan territory of present Arunachal Pradesh took place during colonial administration. This stretch of the border doesn’t have a formal border crossing point, but that has not ensured the suspension of ties of Monpa people. Owing to the ethnic and religious commonality, Monpa people on both sides of the border have continued to maintain an enduring relationship.

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Being located on borderlands generates its own kind of physical and economic circumstances, which demands people to rely on ties of shared ethnicity, kinship and familiarity with those across the border to forge livelihood strategies.

Tawang, located at an elevation of 10,000 ft., faces harsh winters. Temperature plummets to sub-zero, making cultivation unsustainable. In the absence of local produce, inhabitants of the town are dependent on people from nearby villages of eastern Bhutan who regularly come to sell dry vegetables in the local market of Tawang. These strategies which are essential for survival in the geographically-challenging frigid Himalayan borderlands.

In the local memory of the people of Tawang, the 1962 Sino-India war exists as a defining moment for many families who now live separated across the Indo-Bhutan border. When in 1962, the Chinese military invaded the territory of NEFA, present-day Arunachal Pradesh, many people from Tawang fled to Bhutan to escape the brief war that ensued. After the Chinese military forces retreated from Indian territory, many returned to their homes in Tawang but few families decided to settle in Bhutan. One such family is that of Lham Chotten, my host in Tawang, who tells me about her extended family who stayed back in Bhutan post-war and took Bhutanese citizenship.

A significant amount of time has passed since Lham Tsering had visited Bhutan as a child on foot. Still, there is no road connectivity between Tawang and Tashigang. While India has completed the road construction till the last village on the Bhutan border, the government of Bhutan is yet to develop a road network till the border post from its side. So elderly people like Lham Chotten, who cannot often undertake a journey using the existing foot track, have ensured to remain connected with their extended family across the border through WhatsApp groups.

She showed me a chat from one such WhatsApp group on her phone, where I could see Lham’s family in Bhutan enjoying picnics in the winter sun with laid out carpets, home-cooked food, and thermoses full of tea. The set-up parallels the frequent picnics that Lham Chotten had been organising with her family and friends before severe winter hits Tawang. It was a learning moment for me. Despite being separated across the border for decades, they have chosen to derive happiness from doing similar things in their spaces and being able to share them virtually.

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Though Lham has not been able to visit Bhutan yet, she excitedly tells me that there have been instances when her family members have visited Tawang. And on such rare occasions, they make sure to have a big celebration. The last time they visited was when the Dalai Lama was in Tawang in 2017. Religious commonality and shared sites of pilgrimages have served as a crucial factor in cementing and sustaining the familial and social ties of Monpa people.

On travelling to the last Indian village of Bleteng, along the Bhutan border in Arunachal Pradesh, I had the opportunity of interacting with Tashi Tshering. He works as an advocate in Tawang and comes to the village on weekends. He tells me that local inhabitants of Bleteng enjoy their weekends by organising friendly archery or volleyball matches with those from nearby villages across the border. In his words “local sentiment regarding people across the border is that we all belong to the same territory”, so the idea of the border gets manifested only in their citizenship identity.

However, in times of medical emergencies, they shed this national identity also. As travelling from Bleteng to the nearest hospital in Tawang takes around four hours, local people prefer to go to Tashigang which can be reached in an hour. When the medical facility in Tashigang is unable to resolve the condition, the patient is referred to Guwahati in Assam. If the same patient was to make the journey from Bleteng to Guwahati through the existing road network within Indian territory, it would take him two days to reach Guwahati.

These narratives from the Himalayan borderland reflect that though people are cognisant of the political border, borderland communities have learnt to circumvent it through socio-economic practices – for survival.

Shubhanginee Singh is a PhD research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University with research interests in border studies.

Featured image: Author provided