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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 52, December 17, 2022

Borders Are Not Real | G Narasimha Raghavan

Friday 16 December 2022, by G Narasimha Raghavan

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Book Review

Border Nation

A Story of Migration

by Leah Cowan

Pluto Press, London

2021
ISBN 978 0 7453 4107 1 (Paperback)

The UK’s border regulations and migration conundrums take a heavy verbal beating from Leah Cowan. The book Border Nation, a very challenging read, rich with examples, useful references and contemporary allusions, is Cowan’s first book. In this book, Cowan, a British citizen and former Politics Editor at gal-dem (an online magazine and media platform run by women and non-binary people of colour), uses her force of language and power of expressions, to bring to light the silent unruliness and soundless inflexibility of Britain’s grasp of ideas relating to borders, migration and asylum. Cowan, writing in a matter-of-fact manner, shreds to pieces the historical inequality that Britain has always cheered with regard to it borders. Besides, the UK has continuously perpetrated crimes against migrants, close to 500-odd years. Britain continues this star-crossed legacy of treating ‘others’ as lesser humans, non-citizens and aliens, and that is why Cowan has written this book with a sense of urgency, earnestness and resolve. As the author states in the Introduction: “In this book, I draw connecting lines between Britain’s murky past and the precarious present of the UK border regime. Through interrogating Britain’s imperial history, we can better understand the current context of immigration laws, political agendas and structures of inequality which prop up the border.”

More often than not, when familiarizing primary school students with the subject of History, teachers often narrate stories of European adventurers, explorers and discoverers. What is actually being re-counted to these young children is the justification of a coterie of white people in conquering new lands, annexing topographies, massacring indigenous peoples, plundering the land’s resources, stealing livelihoods and preying on such people’s good natured behavior. It is time that we did away with these euphemisms, implores Cowan. A case in point would be the glorified version of Captain James Cook’s claim of landing in the continent of Australia for the first time. As an officially-recognized representative of Imperialists, Cook was instrumental in bringing in ‘culture’ to the otherwise uncouth inhabitants. Of course, to drive the sly agenda of the Imperialists, ‘explorers and discovers’ like Captain Cook had to use force willy-nilly to nurture the natives, as the dominant narrative goes. One would still find echoes of such unsound rhetoric even in long-standing institutions like parliament houses, official statements and documents, and in the minds of the descendants of the Imperialists.

Writing briefly about how the act of drawing geographical lines of boundary across continents gradually became the ready fuel for xenophobic behavior, Cowan highlights the role of media in creating and later sustaining the thought of migrants as non-citizens, who should be treated less desirably by the state and the society. Mainstream media has, time and again, seized opportunities to sensationalize border scuffles and migrant agitations to forward the agenda of jingoism. Right-wing political parties in the UK have leveraged the politicization of borders for their own benefit and mileage. A veritable display of acts that dehumanize migrants and those hapless people who are waiting to cross the borders, an out-and-out flaying of non-citizens and migrant communities as a drain on a country’s resources, and a callous pageantry of scapegoating migrants for internal and global unrests, are but a few of entrenched narratives that the state has skillfully weaved in the modern era, especially after the World Wars.

Towards that end of this manifesto, Cowan has included a few pivotal questions that readers themselves may have. For instance, why talk about all this historical wish-wash, when, in reality, there is no indication or consensus that borders are anywhere near evaporation. Or, look at this suspicious question that even well-groomed statesmen and stateswoman can blather: “Britain is full. If too many people come, won’t the UK sink into the sea?”. The thoughts in Border Nation are nowhere near an end. What the book does is to provoke further reasoning and cogitation. Many of us would be clueless about much of the viciousness of borders, its buttressing by the state machinery or even the travails of migrants. Many of us, who live in relatively peaceful lands, will find it quite a shock to read the documentations in this book. At the outset itself, Cowan has a message for the naïve readers: “If you have never felt the surveilling eye and iron fist of borders, it does not mean borders are not violent weapons; it means that your privilege enables you to circumnavigate the gleaming edge of their blade”. Though this book cannot be pigeon-holed with books like Midnight’s Borders (Suchitra Vijayan, Context, 2021), which is a contemporary documentation of the voices of people living in the borderlands of India, Cowan’s books serves the same purpose that books on colonial and modern-day cartography serve, which is to act as a myth-buster.

(Reviewer: G Narasimha Raghavan is Associate Professor – Economics, Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore – 641659)

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