The Field, the Border, and I
12 May 2021
In 2015, the Nepali government’s miscalculation of the public sentiment regarding the promulgation of a new constitution led to the country witnessing some of the biggest protests of their modern history (Snellinger 2018, 128). The new constitution discriminated against the Madhesi ethnic group that live in the Terai region that borders India.
In terms of languages, cultures, cuisine, and traditions the people in the Terai lowlands have more in common with their Indian neighbors than their fellow Nepali nationals. Over centuries, power in Nepal has concentrated in the hands of hill dwellers, making second class citizens of those like the Madhesis who live on the plains. These protests were part of a long and continuing struggle by the Madhesi people for their fair and just inclusion in the Nepali society.
To force the government to meet their demands, protesters blocked roads between the city of Birgunj in Nepal and the town of Raxaul in the Indian state of Bihar, on the Indo-Nepal border. Raxaul-Birgunj is important because it sees most trade and migration between the two countries, and even the bulk of Nepal’s other international trade. The Indian government incurred losses of around 200 crores, and Nepal even more. Among these reports about India and Nepal losing out on business, there was news about people from the Indian side supporting the Nepali protesters by providing them moral support as well as water and food. In trying to discredit the demands of protesters Kathmandu started accusing New Delhi of being behind the protests like they always do whenever Madhesis raise their voice. People of Terai have to regularly undergo being called proxy Indians in their own country.
I became interested in the region when I was preparing for my master’s dissertation as a university student in Delhi. The extent to which the R-B borderland became a choking point for both India and Nepal was, to me, fascinating. This is when I started thinking about borderlands more as essential independent units rather than just unimportant, distant, and alien peripheries to powerful state centers. To find these centers in the peripheries I decided to move to the borderland to study it with an approach I call periphery-is-the-center. During my fieldwork I learned that protesters selectively restricted access to the border. As many small shopkeepers told me proudly, and many big businessmen told me frustratedly, “those protesters were only letting the people on two-wheelers and on foot cross the border while the trucks carrying bigger consignments were not allowed to enter Nepal”. This was a major development in my research. Protesters’ control turned the borderland into a centre, affected the states and big businesses on both sides. My field work was cut short due to Covid-19 but I was able to get a little understanding of this border region in which the Indian and Nepali sides share similarities in terms of culture, language, history, alienation from their respective capitals, and determination to claim their centrality. Below is an ethnographic account of some surprises I experienced during my fieldwork that made me question my position and identity in this overlapping market region called the Raxaul-Birgunj borderland.
On March 1st, 2020, I arrived in Raxaul-Birgunj on the Indo-Nepal border, excited to finally reach the field for two reasons. One was the relief of being out in the field, and among the people I set out to study. The second was that I was going to step outside of India for the first time. My first international trip.
Crossing the border was anticlimactic, a 10-minute walk through the old, dusty, and broken road on the Maitri bridge that connects India and Nepal over the Sirsiya river. This was one of many routes that connect the Indian state of Bihar with the city of Birgunj in Nepal, but as the only one with a concrete road, it was the most important. My first steps outside my country were not exactly as majestic as I had anticipated. It was not a big infrastructure that I had to go through to enter the other side. Nor were there any big imposing ‘welcome to Nepal’ or ‘welcome to India’ boards. In a short walk I and others around me moved between the two countries. There were people walking toward India and Nepal on two wheelers, rickshaws, autos, and horse carts. The only time anyone noticed me was when the auto-wallas looked for customers. Otherwise, I was invisible, at least to the borderland. I didn’t look, speak, or move differently and no one cared about me. I was too familiar for them to care, too familiar to pay attention to, and too familiar to worry about. This made my field work unadventurous, far from the spirit of the colonial anthropologist.
There was no exquisite language or food, only the same mix of Bhojpuri and Hindi along with some sprinkled Nepali, and the same old daal-chawal. I wondered, ‘have I even crossed an international border or am I still home’? It was just the beginning of my fieldwork, and everything seemed too easy, almost like ‘this is all there is; what am I to research here?’ I had covered some of the literature on Indo-Nepal relations, and was aware of the history between the two countries, but the apparent flatness of the field was already boring me. Only later in my meetings and interactions with the people Martinez (1994) refers to as ‘borderlanders’, did I find out to my surprise that studying this region was not easy after all.
Being a first-time visitor to Nepal and for that matter any international border, there was a lot to learn. One time I was in the Birgunj market trying to talk to shopkeepers about their experience of running their businesses in this border region. I entered a saree shop. It was a corner shop, and opened from two sides. Front and left. As I entered from the front, I greeted the owner, who sat comfortably on a cushion placed on the floor among the mattresses for customers to sit on, and two other people who leaned in with their hands on a diwaan inside the shop with the rest of their body outside. Since they were already conversing in Hindi, I decided to approach them with greetings in Hindi.
“Namaste,” I greeted them. “My name is Prince Tomar. I am from Delhi. I am doing a research on India-Nepal border. Can I ask you some questions? “
They stopped their conversation.
“I do not know who you are,” said the owner in Nepali, staring at me. “First tell me who you are, where you have come from, and why you are working here.”
I did not understand much Nepali but I could make up their questions. “My name is Prince Tomar, I am studying in Delhi. I am doing research for my master’s thesis. I am trying to study the life of people in this border region.”
One of the two men resting on the diwaan stood up and asked for my name again: “Naam to batayie pehle” (tell us your name first).
Was I inaudible or had I erred in assuming Hindi’s universality in Nepal because of their geographical and cultural proximity with India? I would later learn that Hindi is a hidden language in Terai. Because Madhesis are already abused as proxy Indians due to shared looks, cultures and traditions, they use language to carry their Nepalese identity forcefully. I do not know if their sudden movement from Hindi to Nepali when I entered the shop was for me or for each other.
A little confused with my choice of Hindi, I decided to hand them my college ID and the NOC letter from my university. As they started to exchange a few words in Nepali while passing my ID and the letter, I asked them if they would prefer me to talk in English as I do not know much Nepali
Koi baat nahi Hindi chalegi (That is fine, Hindi works), said the same guy who asked me my name the second time.
With a little annoyance hidden somewhere bursting to get out, I told them my name again. “Prince naam hai mera” (Prince is my name).
The same guy started smiling, and said, “it does not sound like a real name.”
By this time, I was completely confused, angry, and curious as to what these people in a little saree shop were so suspicious about.
I was no longer the invisible, not-different, just-observing-another-home researcher. I was nearly annoyed enough to start making the sarcastic comments that usually precede my turn to complete rudeness. The owner was partly satisfied with my ID and letter, but the other two were still inspecting them. Finally, the owner asked me to continue. I started with asking about his life and work.
“Can you tell me about yourself and your work?”
He looked at the other two guys and said, “there is nothing worth sharing about my life. I do whatever you can see here.” He gestured at the sarees around.
“Where do you buy these sarees from?” I asked.
“How has your experience been of importing sarees from India and selling them here?”.
“Thik hi hai ab isme kya bole?” (It is fine, I guess. I don’t know what to say), he said.
“How much extra do sarees in your shop cost in comparison to the Raxaul market that is just a rickshaw ride away?’’ I asked.
“Hume aapke sawaal samajh nahi aarahe. Mujhe nahi lagta ye sab poochne ki koi zaroot hai. Aap koi shodh nahi kar rahe” (we do not understand these questions. I do not think there is any need to ask such questions. You are not doing any research.), said the owner, completely annoyed with my questions.
The other two guy nodded in agreement.
“Aapne poora naam nahi bataya apna. Jaati kya hai aapki?” (You didn’t tell us your full name. What is your Caste?) asked the owner after drinking some water from a bottle sitting next to him.
If their suspicion hadn’t made the interaction awkward and difficult, his responses and expressions made sure that my excitement of being able to use my mother tongue to conduct research in a different country went down the drain. There was nothing left to go down anymore when he asked me about my caste. I guess I had assumed that as a Nepali, he wouldn’t ask me – an Indian – that question. I thought, almost like a coloniser dealing with “lowly” others, that he should treat me with an extra level of respect. I did not feel bad for assuming this; I had no time to. I had my mini field notes diary open in one hand and my pen in the other, but I did not note down anything. The few ink spots on the paper that could have been proper words if things had gone smoothly, were stroked through. I was angry now. Why wouldn’t they believe me? Were they scared? Was it my nationality? My caste? Did they have a prejudice against Hindi, with all of its hegemonic and political presence here? What made their suspicion cross into straight up rudeness?
I shut my notes diary, extended another namaste, and barged out. I needed a cigarette. I smoked one under the untimely scorching March sun. I was done for the day. And to an extent, done with this place that had again surprised me, albeit in a completely different way. First, it was flat enough to demotivate me to even begin my research, and second, it had people who were not even ready to talk. Frustrations aside, there were many people who did speak with me, became friends, extended their help, worried about where I was staying, and sat with me for hours. But still this one interaction made me question my choice of field site.
I am from Delhi, the capital of India, not nearly as far away or different as I had supposed. It made me too familiar to the residents of this borderland, and even put me under suspicion of being a spy, as another shopkeeper in the Birgunj market told me once I was able to pass their test of being a genuine student with genuine research. He said they get a lot of international spies in the Birgunj market because it is an important checkpoint between India and Nepal. But I knew it was more than that. Nepalis who kept their distance from me on learning that I was from Delhi were not just suspecting me of being a spy but of being somebody too familiar from the land across the border, somebody who shouldn’t be this familiar. Looking or speaking similar to me would make them appear different from their own fellow citizens. So, to maintain their national identity over their regional and historical one, they are forced to wear their Nepali loyalty over their sleeves. This stayed with me throughout my fieldwork and interactions.
During my work on the Indian side, I was introduced to Mr Veer, a social activist in Raxaul. Veer had been dissatisfied with his job in a multinational corporation in Noida, and returned to his home town to fix their never-ending problems. He was supported by many like-minded people in Raxaul who worked on informing people of their civil rights. Veer told me that due to their efforts locals have now realised that the rampant corruption in their town and the state of Bihar can only be fixed if they come together. Veer and others like him often find themselves in local newspapers amplifying concerns about Raxaul.
Veer very kindly helped me to understand Raxaul. He showed me around the neighbourhood, and introduced me to others. One such meeting was with the sanitation workers on the outskirts of Raxaul. We crossed the pukka built colonies toward the Sirsiya river that is now full of harmful chemical and other waste that comes mainly from Indian factories in Nepal. We crossed the dusty, garbage-filled banks towards the edge of the Indian border. There were many bikers moving to and from Nepal avoiding the main checkpoint and its never ending traffic. We crossed the unmarked border between the two countries once to enter Nepal and then to re-enter India to reach the mud sheds of the ‘out-casted borderlanders’. Children played in the sun with whatever they could find on the unbuilt dusty routes. There was no shortage of things for them to play with. Holding broken sticks, torn tyres, and animal bones, these children gazed at passers-by. As we reached the inside of this tiny settlement we were greeted by the locals. Veer introduced me and my project. One piece of information sufficed for them to see me as someone they should talk to rather than a threat: the name of the place I come from. I could see the interest in their eyes on hearing “Ye Dilli se aaye hai” (he has come from Delhi). They got us two chairs to sit on. For the next 15 minutes, they told me about how their wages had gone unpaid for two years. They told me about problems they faced with the bureaucracy and the politicians who signed them under government contracts. It was almost like their voices were being heard in the capital through me.
Veer realized that the interaction was moving away from my study so he gave me a sign asking if I was ready to leave. We stayed for a couple more minutes when different men and women started telling me about their life and children and how difficult it was to live there. We listened politely, greeted them, and left. Veer took me to meet other locals but my mind stayed with the interactions with the families of the sanitation workers.
Who am I if the most important part of my identity is that I come from Delhi? Borderland Nepalis did not want to be seen close to me because of the socio-political environment among the Nepalis regarding the Madhesi people; and borderland Indians saw me as someone they needed to share their problems with, not because I could help them but because I embodied the symbol that they rarely saw but regularly needed and desired. My clothes, work, and mask in the early days of Covid-19 all marked me as coming from the capital. Simply being from Delhi made me into an avatar of their desired land. Though I pass by the Rajpath, the Secretariats, and the Bhawans regularly, I am still just a common citizen. But for these ‘outcaste borderlanders’ on the literal edge of India, I was privileged because of where I live. Did I finally find my exquisite field?
On both sides of the border, Delhi marked my value and identity; it made some people treat me with suspicion and made others see through me what they needed the most. It defined why people wanted to talk to me, stayed away, or neglected my presence completely.
 An NOC stands for No Objection Certificate that a university issues to their research students to help them get into government offices and also by providing legitimacy to the research projects if anybody inquires. It usually contains the name of the student, topic of study, and the location of fieldwork, along with the signatures of supervisor and head of the school, on a university letterhead.
Martínez, Oscar J. Border People: Life and Society in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.
Snellinger, Amanda Thérèse. Making New Nepal: From Student Activism to Mainstream Politics. Global South Asia. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018.
Prince Tomar is an independent researcher from New Delhi, India. Trained in Global Studies, he is interested in the South Asian border regions and their changing meanings amid the infrastructural development projects in the region.