Osmotic Territories

By Sindhuja Mahadevan

Notions of exclusive ownership of land lie at the core of how 21st century nations navigate their physical and virtual environments. Despite current emphasis on globalization and international economic interdependence in defining national growth, territorial ambition still occupies a special place in our national agendas. In this context, borders are neither arbitrary nor neutral demarcations of physical terrain. The imaginary line of the border is a compounded and often contested assertion of territorial conquest, occupation and cession, often legitimized through architectural devices. As we become more technologically sophisticated and militaristically precise in the architectural language of contested territories, the impact of the territorial edge expands, reverberating on both sides of the border through a multiplicity of strategies ranging from radical and often-paralyzing constructions along the border to the systematic separation, seclusion and surveillance of border communities, thus thickening the no-man’s land of the zone of exclusion.

The consolidation and reorganization of territory by strategically redrawing borders underscores an economically efficient zero-sum game where power and authority are gained by direct and exclusive control of land. Osmotic Territories investigates the contested border of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) region, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, at the intersection of various civilizational impulses and historic trade routes. J&K is home to 17.5 million people who live in rural villages and hamlets with populations ranging from a few hundred to 5000, scattered over more than 200,000km2 (2)(3). The unified region of J&K emerged in 1846, when the British East India Company consolidated a polyglot princely state by stitching together the independent territories of Jammu, Ladakh, Gilgit, Baltistan, and the Kashmir Valley (4).

Figure 1. Line of Control dividing the greater Jammu and Kashmir region, in comparison to the historic Salt Hedge dividing the South Asian region.

Figure 2. Existing trade exchange sequence across the Indian and Pakistani border, in comparison to the proposed exchange that is collapsed into a single border territory.

During the colonial period, the notion of the border in the South Asian region took strange physical forms, including the Salt Hedge, a 1,300km long, 3.7m high hedge that divided British and non-British territories in the mid-1880s as part of a strategy to limit the smuggling of salt across the border (fig 1). Made of various species of cacti and other prickly plants and carefully patrolled, the Salt Hedge codified the invisible datum of the boundary and gave physical dimension to the obsessive authority of ownership. The Salt Hedge exemplifies the logical conclusion of the barrier typology. While the hedge is not along the same path as the Line of Control (LoC), the current de facto border between India and Pakistan in J&K, it serves as a precedent for understanding the absurd and paralyzing architectural aberrations created to divide territories and conquer resources during colonial rule. It provides a historic context for reading the LoC, thickened with sophisticated military infrastructure, as a physical manifestation of India and Pakistan’s territorial ambitions, which have eclipsed local and indigenous voices.

Figure 3. Proposed border typology mapping rural nodes that will build the new border network.

Figure 4. Three scales of exchange that inform the new border typology.

The J&K conflict traces back to the highly charged independence movements that emerged in South Asia in the mid-1800s. By the mid-1900s, narratives of statehood became conflated with narratives of culture and ideology, and when Indian independence in 1947 lead to the partition the former British colonies into what would eventually become the nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the newly minted nations of India and what was then West Pakistan scrambled to absorb more land. The ruling monarch of J&K, Maharaja Hari Singh – a Hindu monarch presiding over predominantly Muslim subjects – was drawn to the idea of an independent nation and signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan in 1947, allowing for uninterrupted trade, travel and communication within the region, with the hopes of engaging in a similar agreement with India. However, with internal strife, insurgency, lack of military prowess and an uncertain political and economic future looming, the monarch conditionally ceded to India in exchange for military intervention. Three large-scale wars in 1947-48, 1962-65, and 1971-72 failed to resolve the dispute and established the present Line of Control as the de facto border between India and Pakistan.

Figure 5. Integrated landscape strategies that inform the new border territory.

As the origins of the 80-year old conflict recede from living memory, state-sponsored, often fictional, versions of the region’s history have begun to replace factual narratives. These political re-writings fuel a very profitable war industry, allowing both India and Pakistan to justify a nuclear arms race at the expense of the residents of Jammu and Kashmir. Further complicating the present situation is the fact that J&K is also essential to fulfilling the national agendas of both sides: on the one hand, the Muslim-majority J&K is integral to demonstrating India’s secularism (5); on the other hand, for Pakistan J&K is the nation’s ‘jugular vein,’ the source of several rivers that flow through Pakistan and the home of a Muslim-majority community perceived as vulnerable to being assimilated or erased by India, resulting in attempts by political factions armed with defensive national narratives to free Kashmiris, often through hyper-religious and para-militant interventions (6).

Figure 6. Range of potential sites along the border that re-open historic trade routes through new border territories.

Figure 7. Plan of a proposed border territory that operates in a sparse network, in the mountainous regions of the Gurez valley.

The Line of Control is a physical manifestation of these conflicting agendas. The 740km long line runs through the mountains of Kashmir and into the low-lying plains of Jammu. About 550km of the LoC is enclosed with a 3.6m high and 3.6m wide high-tech AIOS (Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System) fence comprised of concertina wire held in place with metal pickets and wire and equipped with motion sensors, night-vision and thermal imaging devices (within the fence) and land mines (under the fence) (fig 7) (fig 8). The LoC and the AIOS fence bisect social networks, further isolating remote communities in a low-density region. Cell sites, base transmitter stations and radio transmitters are banned within 10km of the LoC and cheap wireless communication such as cell phones and laptops are not permitted within 500m of the LoC (fig 10). Communities that historically thrived on trade now exist in hyper-isolation, paralyzed by a lack of access to basic amenities and overwhelmed by high rates of depression and other mental health issues (fig 11). With over 250,000 troops nestled in the Kashmir Valley alone (fig 9), a pervasive military presence in the region spills into the public realm from day markets to prayer halls.

Efforts to counter the paralyzing effects of the LoC emerge sporadically in response to internal and international pressure. In 2008, tentative cross-border trade efforts tested the legal framework of the border’s permeability. Due to the circuitous and restrictive nature of the legal agreement, and the inability of traders to effectively communicate with their counterparts on the other side, these new trade systems quickly failed (fig 14). 

Figure 8. Section of a proposed border territory along the datum of the border, that operates in the mountains regions of the Gurez valley.

Figure 9. Plan of a proposed border territory that operates in a dense network, in the low-lying plains of Poonch.

Figure 10. Section of a proposed border territory along the datum of the border, that operates in the low-lying plains of Poonch.

Interestingly, both nations provide a legal framework in their respective constitutions for some autonomy and special status recognition for J&K (fig 12) (fig 13). While the special status is currently used to rationalize systems of surveillance and patrol, it could alternately be used to enable a unique and localized cross-border trade relationship outside of the complex international trade routes between the two larger nations. Using trade as a departure point, Osmotic Territories proposes a new border typology that essentially collapses the circuitous sequence of exchange into a single shared border territory that operates somewhere between complete autonomy and dependency on the larger nation-states. Much like the gradual and unconscious process of chemical osmosis, this project’s real transformative potential lies in its ability to act as a catalyst for localized conversation.

The new border territory focuses on economic and social exchange, specifically local trade and healthcare for rural communities, by operating at three different scales. At the first scale are digital nodes: a 3m x 3m self-sustaining warehouse located in each village near the border, equipped with an off-the-shelf computer kiosk and a long-range antenna that would allow for the exchange of information with other kiosks within range, thus creating a local ad hoc network. At the second scale are mobile nodes: trucks modified to transport goods and people between the kiosks and the new border exchange territories and equipped to temporarily bridge gaps in the ad hoc network, thus connecting disparate communities in a larger cross border network. Trucks are ubiquitous in the hilly terrain of Kashmir; their ability to traverse the mountainous landscape and access remote regions with minimal infrastructure gives them an advantage over conventional methods of mass transit. They thus offer the possibility for the efficient and utilitarian exchange of objects and bodies.

Figure 11. Entrance and truck path of the new border territory.

Figure 12. Market and trading area on the lower level of the shared border building.

At the third scale are new border exchange territories that build upon historic trading routes severed by the Line of Control. Operating as shared territory, with a border building running along the datum of the border, they provide a common platform for local trade and healthcare services and space for interactions at the scale of the body. The project imagines the new border territory as an elastic zone that expands where networks are dense and contracts where they are sparse to accommodate greater volumes of trade and social exchange. A building runs the length of the border, expanding symmetrically on both sides of the border. An extensive landscape based on the minimum building evacuation distance for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) establishes a safe zone for the proposed border-building, with security checkpoints placed just outside the safe area. The border-building includes sunken road access for incoming trucks and a goods sorting area (which also functions as a large market) on the lower level, with smaller administrative and counseling spaces on the upper level, which opens onto a terrace. The edges of the new border territory are conceived as living hedges of local plants and serve as a counterpoint to the metallic and militaristic edge of the existing LoC. The new living edges co-opt the historic language of the Salt Hedge of the 1800s and expand the physical manifestation of the border into a thickened and non-exclusive zone of occupation and exchange. Finally, each border territory includes direct access to water, which allows for gardens, trails and fields of crops. This landscape creates an idyllic and self-subsistent version of J&K devoid of sponsored narratives.

Figure 13. Porch and terrace on the upper level of the shared border building.

Figure 14. Gardens and fields adjacent to the shared border building.

The new scales of exchange along the border blur the boundaries of the practical and the political and ultimately reorient our understanding of the landscape and the larger region of J&K. As writer and activist Arundhati Roy observes,

The most important thing is now not to allow India or Pakistan to speak for [the] Kashmiri people... Kashmiri people need a space in which to think. They have just lived all their lives with a polythene bag over their heads and a gun pointed at their temples. (5)

Territorial edges have historically existed in various ‘thickened’ zones, ranging from the historic marchlands of Europe to the co-principality of Andorra (fig 15). Given that both the Indian and Pakistani constitutions offer special status provisions for J&K (fig 12) (fig 13), expanding these legal instruments to provide J&K a greater degree of local autonomy is within reach. This enlarged idea of the India-Pakistan border would give the people of J&K what Roy describes: a space to think.

Figure 15. Cross-section of a typical shared border building that is partially sunken into the ground and opens up to the landscape along the datum of the border.

The proposed architectural interventions are both utilitarian — warehouses and trucks, elements both subversive and ubiquitous, with the potential to be implemented at any time — and osmotic — gradually evolving elements of a fragile and vulnerable version of border architecture. Together, they open up historic trade routes and provide a physical and virtual platform to preserve and continue historical regional narratives. For India and Pakistan to embrace this new border infrastructure, it is necessary for the warring nations to realize that the concept of statehood has evolved and, conversely, that flexing military prowess to gain more frontier land feeds a very profitable war industry at the expense of real economic and social growth.

The proposed border condition provides an alternative to the existing binary driven by conflicting agendas and reinforced by complex systems of surveillance that decide who is in and who is out. The proposed intervention subverts our obsession with the physical border-as-barrier typology by undermining conventional notions of exclusivity with a pervasive virtual communication network and, in parallel, imagining a new border typology that can act as a zone of inclusion and exchange.

End Notes

(1) Roy Moxham. The Great Hedge of India (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001) 97 – 120.

(2) “Pak population increased by 46.9% between 1998 and 2011,” Times of India, last modified March 29 2012, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/Pak-population-increased-by-46-9-between-1998-and-2011/articleshow/12453387.cms

(3) “Jammu and Kashmir Population Census data 2011,” Census 2011, accessed February 18, 2016 http://www.census2011.co.in/census/state/jammu+and+kashmir.html

(4) Sumantra Bose. Contested Lands (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2.

(5) Arundhati Roy, interview by Amy Goodman. “Acclaimed Indian Author Arundhatiy Roy Faces Arrest for Questioning India’s Claim on Kashmir,” Democracy Now, October 27, 2010. http://www.democracynow.org/2010/10/27/acclaimed_indian_author_arundhati_roy_faces

(6) “Kashmir jugular vein of Pakistan,” Daily Times, last modified February 06, 2016 http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/sindh/06-Feb-2016/kashmir-jugular-vein-of-pakistan-says-ebad

(7) Vinay Kumar, “LoC fencing in Jammu nearing completion,” The Hindu. February 01, 2004 http://www.thehindu.com/2004/02/01/stories/2004020109130800.htm

(8) Bismah Malik. “After India, Pakistan talks, people in Gurez await seeing life on the other side” Kashmir Awareness. February 08 2011. http://www.kashmirawareness.org/Article/View/7314

(9) Kashmir Media Service, “Guinness says Kashmir world’s largest militarized zone,” April 03, 2013. http://www.kmsnews.org/news/2013/04/03/guinness-says-kash- mir-world%E2%80%99s-largest-militarized-zone.html

(10) Ministry of Communications India, “Amendment 842-495 to CMTS 2001,” 2007.

(11) Kaz de Jong et al. “Kashmir: Violence and Health,” November 2006. Medicins Sans Frontier. http://www.artsenzondergrenzen.nl

(12) The Constitution of India (New Delhi: Government of India Ministry of Law and Justice Legislative Department, 2015) 249-250, 363-402.

(13) The Constitution of Pakistan, c 4, art. 257.  http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/constitution/part12.ch4.html

(14) Altaf Hussain Kira. Cross-Loc trade in Kashmir: From Line of Control to Line of Commerce (Mumbai: Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, 2011) 27. http://www.igidr.ac.in

(15) “Andorra Country Profile”. BBC News, last modified February 25, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17028050

Sindhuja Mahadevan is a designer based in Vancouver, BC. Her early childhood and education were mainly in India, where she grew up surrounded by very specific narratives of Jammu and Kashmir. This project is the current iteration of her ongoing journey to unpackage a highly charged issue that has captured the public imagination in many ways.