Borders As Walls

India is among the few countries with extensive hard borders dividing people

Nandita HaksarNandita Haksar

The Indian government has decided to construct a 100-kilometre-long smart fence along the Indo-Myanmar border. The project is a part of the Narendra Modi government’s plan to completely seal India’s borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The smart fence allows the security forces to maintain the surveillance system through a monitor sitting inside their control rooms. Alarms go off as soon as there is any infiltration attempt.

This move is in consonance with the worldwide trend to militarise international boundaries. While on the one hand, the international community speaks of a world without borders, more and more borders are being fortified to control the freedom of movement of people. In an article titled The Idea of A Borderless World, Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist, argues that the “capacity to decide who can move, who can settle where and under what conditions is increasingly becoming the core of political struggles.”

According to a report entitled A Walled World Towards Global Apartheid brought out in November 2020 by the Transnational Institute, over the last 50 years, 63 border walls have been built worldwide, leading to the growing militarisation of borders. In a table ranking countries by border walls built between 1968 and 2018, Israel has built six walls and India comes next with three border walls covering 6,540 kilometres across 43 per cent of its borders.

The report states the ‘drive and profiting from this surge in wall building is an entire Border Industrial Complex. This industry has reinforced a narrative in which migration and other political and/ or humanitarian challenges at the border are primarily framed as a security problem, where the frontier can never be secure enough, and for which its latest military and security technologies are always the solution.’

According to the report, ‘India could well be described as an Asian fortress. Since 1992, it has built walls along its entire border with Pakistan, and had already begun to do so in 1989 along the border with Bangladesh. In 2003, it also built a barrier along a large section of its border with Myanmar. Of India’s seven shared borders (Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and a few kilometres with Afghanistan), three have barriers along almost the entire border.’

The main reasons given by successive Indian governments for these walls are to prevent immigration from Bangladesh, terrorism and the territorial dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan, and the entry of militants and narcotics across the border with Myanmar.

India and Myanmar formalised their borders with various agreements, and it has been estimated that over 400 of the 1,643-km border has been enclosed, with new reinforcements being made in 2017, in part to prevent the entry of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who are being expelled by Bangladesh.

From 2007, India began to introduce technological improvements to all of its walls, including night-vision devices, handheld thermal cameras, surveillance radars, ground sensors and high-power telescopes. Of India’s 15,106 kilometres of land borders, an estimated 6,540.7 kilometres of barriers have been erected, making 43.29 per cent of its borders walled. In addition, the government later decided that it was not enough to control the country’s land borders, so satellite systems have been installed to control cross-border movement, a cost of over USD 2 billion. It is in this context we must examine the decision of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to build a smart wall on the Indo-Myanmar boundary.


Act East Policy

The Northeast region of India comprising the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, is spread over an area of 2.55 lakh square kilometres, which accounts for 7.8 per cent of the total land mass of India. The region shares its international boundaries with four foreign countries—China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The entire area is connected to the Indian mainland by a 22-km land corridor through Siliguri in the state of West Bengal, popularly known as Chicken’s Neck.

The border between India and Myanmar runs for 1,643 kilometres in the four Northeast states: Mizoram (475 kilometres), Manipur (425 kilometres), Nagaland (200 kilometres) and Arunachal Pradesh (525 kilometres).

In the 1990s, the government of India initiated the Look East Policy. The policy is designed to build closer relations between India and Southeast Asia. Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian country that shares a border with India. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi upgraded the policy to Act East. As a part of this new policy, social-cultural ties between the northeast region and Myanmar were promoted and the Free Movement Regime (FMR) was initiated on the Indo-Myanmar border in 2018.

Under the FMR, citizens of India and Myanmar who are residents of any area within 16 kilometres on either side of the Indo-Myanmar border can cross the border on producing a border pass (one-year validity) issued by the competent authority and can stay up to two weeks per visit without a visa. Manipur suspended the FMR in 2020 during the covid pandemic but efforts are being made to open the border for trade again.

India-Myanmar friendship road border crossing

The Manipur government has extended the temporary suspension of FMR along the Indo-Myanmar border for another three months with effect from 15 November 2022 or until such time as the Indo-Myanmar border gates are formally opened by both sides for the movement of people. The justification for this decision is that the FMR may lead to a further increase in ‘the number of illegal entry of Myanmar nationals into India in view of the current law and order situation in Myanmar.’

There are over 250 villages with over 300,000 people living within 10 kilometres of the border who frequently cross the border through 150 small and large, formal and informal border crossings. These people have families across the border and their fields too have been separated by the border.

There is a dispute over the demarcation of the international boundary with the local villagers accusing the Myanmar army of removing the border pillars into Indian territory. It has been reported that 99 border pillars (BP 32 to 48 in Churachandpur district, 49 to 89 in Chandel district and 90 to 130 in Ukhrul district) have been moved by the Myanmar army. In some cases, the Myanmar army has even built army posts after removing the pillars.

Apart from the local disputes, the question remains: can a smart wall be an answer to the problems and challenges facing Manipur state?



According to a MHA report, Manipur is affected by the activities of Meitei Naga, Kuki, Zomi and Hmar insurgent groups. Many of these groups have their camps inside the jungles of Myanmar and have links with the insurgent groups across the border. After the coup of 2021, the various armed groups in Myanmar have come together under a joint command to form what is called the People’s Defence Force or the PDF. The PDF is committed to protecting people from repression by the Myanmar army.

The PDF are generally larger armed units formed or recognized by the National Unity Government (NUG). The PDF mainly operate under joint command systems established by the NUG and several ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), many of which have been fighting the Myanmar army for decades. According to estimates, there are roughly 65,000 to 70,000 total PDF troops. Approximately 20 per cent of PDF troops are equipped with military-grade weapons and another 40 per cent have homemade weapons.

In the course of the resistance to military repression, these insurgents cross over to the Indian side, and it has been reported that there is some arms smuggling across the border and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has arrested people involved in this. Can the border fence stop the insurgents from India and Myanmar from crossing the border? It is unlikely because the terrain is such that it would be very difficult to build the fence through the mountain and thick jungles; if the smart fence should be built the insurgents would build tunnels or resort to other means to cross.

India’s Myanmar policy of exporting arms to the military junta has made these insurgents hostile to India. There is another aspect linked to insurgency and that is the rise in poppy cultivation and drug mafia.

Members of the Kuki tribe protesting

Poppy Cultivation and Drugs

According to several reports by experts, a large section of the narcotics business is controlled by the insurgents in Myanmar and India who in turn are controlled by drug cartels in Myanmar who in turn are controlled by China. These reports do not make clear whether they mean the government or Chinese businessmen who have been involved in illegal activities such as cybercrimes, gambling and drug trafficking; many are wanted by the Chinese government for criminal activities.

A report in the Goa Chronicle, titled The Narcos Manipur: A story of Rs 70,000 crore narcotics business stated: ‘The Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), and United Wa State Army (UWSA), along with Myanmar’s military, Tatmadaw and People’s Democratic Front (PDF) as well as the insurgent groups and sympathizers in Manipur and other Northeastern states are the main players in this illicit flow of drugs along with the involvement of Chinese networks.’

The report further says that intelligence officers who were tracking global narcotics trade and trends put the drug business in Manipur to be about Rs 70,000 crore, suggesting that underground drug manufacturing units have come up in the state. Many of these were busted by law enforcement agencies. In fact, on 30 October 2020, a brown sugar manufacturing laboratory was raided by Manipur police in which 435 kgs of drugs were seized.

‘As the conflict in Myanmar continues, the drug cartels are finding new routes to enter multiple countries, and Manipur along with other Northeastern states is becoming a transit route for global illicit trade. Manipur is an important border state of India with almost 398 km of porous border with Myanmar. Ever since the military junta took over in Myanmar, the production of drugs has risen exponentially on both sides of the international Border. Because of ease in preparation, transportation, no infrastructure required, and low costs attracting more markets, chemical drugs are becoming more and more popular in Myanmar as well as Manipur along with heroin from the existing poppy cultivation,’ the report said.

In part, the cultivation of poppy in both India and Myanmar has been dictated by poverty; in India the tribals involved have no other source of income and in Myanmar the military repression has resulted in displacing and destroying villages. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2023 report documents that an increase of 14 per cent in opium production in the Chin state can have an impact on India.

It is also important to note that Chin State was never part of the previous Myanmar opium surveys as a hotspot, which underlines the significance of the increase in opium cultivation here with the Myanmar-Manipur border. However, it cannot be said that people fleeing persecution in Myanmar and taking refuge in India are involved in drug smuggling. They are not illegal migrants but refugees.

People from Manipur stage a protest
People from Manipur stage a protest

Refugees from Myanmar

It is important to understand the impact of the latest round of military repression inside Myanmar. In a pamphlet published jointly by Burma Affairs and Conflict Study (BACS) and India for Myanmar, the impact is summed up:

‘On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military overturned the 2008 Constitution, which was drawn up on their own accord without the will of the people, and forcibly and unlawfully seized control from the elected government. In the span of 30 months since the coup, the aggressive Myanmar military has apprehended and incarcerated over 24, 462 citizens, including prominent figures such as public leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s elected President U Win Myint. Among the detained were more than 653 children and over 4,897 women, while the number of individuals sentenced to death reached 101. In addition, the ruthless Myanmar military has been responsible for the deaths of more than 4,007 innocent individuals, including 446 children, within the 30-month time frame. Disturbingly, more than 74,874 structures, encompassing religious edifices and houses, have been subjected to arson, with a significant portion of these acts occurring in Sagaing Division (57,503 buildings) and Chin State (1,637 buildings) along the Indian border.’ Furthermore, ‘over 1.1 million civilians have been compelled to flee the country. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, with an estimated 50,000 seeking safety in India.’

These refugees include ordinary men, women and children who have been compelled to leave their homes because their lives were in danger. A smart fence would affect these refugees the most. As it is the Manipur government is not allowing them to move from Moreh the border town and they are not allowed to go to Delhi to seek the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Even those refugees who contact UNHCR are denied basic rights by both the government of India as well as the UNHCR. Many are living on one inadequate meal a day without any prospects of employment, education for their children (since they cannot legally get Aadhar cards), or medical facilities. The UNHCR has long stopped giving financial assistance and denied even rations to refugees during covid.

Mizoram has shown humanity by insisting on giving humanitarian aid to the Chin refugees, but they do not encourage them to make false identity cards or settle down permanently.

What is needed is a policy that encourages development instead of poverty; a policy that addresses the genuine grievances of the people of Manipur instead of divide and rule; and it requires a transparent policy on drugs alongside international cooperation. A smart fence will only help some vested businesses get richer and the ordinary people living in border areas and the refugees will be more vulnerable. There needs to be an urgent debate and public awareness and engagement on the issue.





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