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Borderland City In New India (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Duncan McDuie-Ra. 2016.
Borderland City in New India: Frontier to Gateway
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
ISBN 9789089647580

Border city and borderlands?
Studies of Manipur by Western scholars hardly exist due to the severe entry restrictions to the state imposed by the Indian Government. McDuie-Ra’s book on Manipur’s capital, Imphal, based on fieldwork carried out after these restrictions eased in 2010, is therefore to be welcomed. Whether Imphal can accurately be described as ‘border city’ is perhaps debatable, situated as it is nearly 100 km from the Myanmar border along a road (Highway 39) that is very far from being an Autobahn. Be that as it may, the description of Imphal as “a confused transition from an unruly frontier to a gateway city” (as both academic commendations on the back cover assert) is not one that anyone who has witnessed its growth from a semi-rural administrative centre over the last half-century will recognise. In fact Imphal has long been the recipient of trade and migration from the east. The trade route, dating from at least early in the Christian era, along the Chindwin Valley and through the Tamu-Moreh crossing , endured (aside from the periodic wars between Manipur and Burma) right up until the annexation of Manipur 1949, and illicit trade continued even after that. India’s ‘Look East Policy’ is only new in the sense that she has begun to see the potential of an area that had long been regarded only as a militarised buffer state. Manipur has been ‘looking east’ for the best part of two millennia. It is not surprising then, as McDuie-Ra’s book well illustrates, that the main impetus for present cross-border trade with Asia comes from Manipur’s residents rather than any grand plans from Delhi. It would have helped in the understanding of this situation had the author adopted a longer historical perspective.

McDuie-Ra consciously sets his book within the currently popular ‘borderlands studies’ debates. While a comparative framework is quite reasonable it leads him too often into what becomes a parade of somewhat tedious (for me at least) references to mainly Western-based academics, many with their own particular theories derived from situations very different from Manipur’s, and which have little relevance to it. The danger with this is that the empirical material may be forced into constructs and paradigms which are quite alien and unhelpful to understanding Manipur’s peculiar dynamics. I think on the whole that McDuie-Ra generally avoids this pitfall, but there are places in which his use of imported categories may be questioned.

The author several times emphasises that he has been selective in his choice of field material. This is entirely reasonable given the limited time available to him in Imphal. But in a book of this kind it can lead to a lack of balance – what is left out may be more important than what is included. His informants seem largely to have been the younger generation of educated urban dwellers, both ‘tribal’ (for want of a better term) and Meetei, perhaps with a preponderance of the former. While he has explored Imphal quite thoroughly, McDuie-Ra clearly has certain locations where he feels more comfortable (including clandestine locations for alcohol and meat consumption, film studios, and he shows a special interest in clothes stalls selling cheap Chinese and Korean goods – without, however, analysing the impact they have on the traditional cottage industry of skilled weaving). His rather journalistic accounts mainly reflect what one might call a popular younger people’s culture, and in this he is helpfully informative (it is counterbalanced to some extent by his specific investigations into health and education). There are, however, some surprising omissions, especially the impact of the internet, and more particularly of mobile phones. The latter were banned in Manipur until comparatively recently, on the grounds that they might be used by irredentist groups antagonistic to control from Delhi, but are now almost ubiquitous (one reason being that land lines seldom function). Though he frequently refers to sports, he does not mention the many Manipuri athletes (not just Mary Kom) who have gained Olympic or Asian Games medals, or the remarkable phenomenon of women’s football. Nor is there any reference to Polo (Manipur’s gift to the Western sporting world), which in Manipur traditionally was village-based rather than elitist. The Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association, which has done a great deal to revive the sport in its homeland, has been engaged in its own ‘look east policy’ since the 1990s by organising international tournaments that have included teams from Thailand, Mongolia, and Australia along with those from Europe and the Americas – and indeed from ‘India’ (which might be taken as a political statement!). McDuie-Ra’s limited historical perspective also leads him at times to single out ‘media events’ of the more spectacular kind (the burning of the State Library, the naked protest before the Kangla gate) without exploring in detail the long and complex history which these events encapsulate.

The concentration on more popular culture also has the disadvantage of marginalising more traditional aspects of culture. It is not entirely clear whether the author’s evident disdain for those he terms ‘elites’ (in one place he writes of the ‘murky world of elites’) is a judgement only on corrupt politicians and others in influential positions. However that might be, there is little or no discussion of those aspects of Manipuri culture which, despite growing secularisation and obsession with modern media, continue to influence a good deal of life in Imphal. This is especially the case with the Meeteis: the music and dance of the Lai Haraoba and its development in the Ras Lila, traditional music and more modern Manipuri songs, and recitation (parba), drama and literature still create a powerful sense of Identity, which may be utilised to convey social and political messages. Nor can the role of religion be ignored. Though Meetei Vaishnavism may be in decline it still has a strong social hold (especially in the celebration of weddings), as does evangelical Christianity among the hill peoples.

The author is at his best in the second part of the book. His discussion of the economic issues facing Manipur in the context of the inadequacy of India’s development plans for the North East [122ff] and the ways in which Manipuri entrepreneurs are circumventing or using the system (or lack of it) to their own advantage, shows considerable critical insight. The sections on the burgeoning health care industry and the more problematic expansion in private education [145 ff] are excellent and should be on the reading list of Manipur’s relevant Ministries.

Finally, unless an Indian edition of this book is forthcoming, its price (€79.99/US$100) will make it well beyond the pocket of an Indian (especially a Manipuri) readership. It would be a pity if McDuie-Ra’s research becomes simply yet another expensive publication for Western based academics rather than a contribution towards a positive dialogue with those whom it concerns.

A Response From the Author:
Thank you for your review, I read it with great interest. In response I will be clear that, as noted in the introduction, the book is about the city of Imphal rather than Manipur as a whole. Given the divisive nature of the polity in Manipur the book looks at space rather than narrative. It is also an appeal to take cities more seriously in studies of the Northeast, a task which is already gathering momentum based on responses to the work thus far (in India and even in 'the West'). As part of Amsterdam University Press’s Asian Borderlands series the idea of a borderland city has logic, especially, when placed in the cannon of literature on borderlands with which the reviewer appears unfamiliar.

Please note the book is available open-access, which should do as intended--and as clearly demonstrated here--open debate and interest in urban space in a rapidly urbanising region where the scholarship is still bogged down in studies of identity, conflict, and conventional humanities. Thank you for taking the time to read the book and review it so thoughtfully. Find the book free for download here:;keyword=borderland%20city.

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