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What Would an ‘Open Borders’ World Actually Look Like?

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In the summer of 1947, British Lord and lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe found himself in charge of the fate of a subcontinent. As the freshly appointed head of the Boundary Commission, he was tasked with dividing up the British India territories of Bengal and Punjab—and he had just a few weeks to complete the task.

After three and a half centuries of brutal and exploitative involvement in the region, the last 90 years as official imperial overlord of the British Raj, the United Kingdom was officially abdicating colonial rule. Deeply in debt from two world wars, and facing pressure from increasingly militant anti-colonial movements, the UK was to cede control of the crown jewel of the British Empire to its actual inhabitants. It was left to Radcliffe to sort out the borderlines of the new territories.

What Radcliffe and his commission contrived was to divide the subcontinent according to religion: The so-called “Radcliffe line” separated a Hindu-majority India in the center from Muslim-majority East and West Pakistan on its wings, with a smattering of independent princely states throughout. But neat division wasn’t remotely possible, and what resulted was a labyrinthine confusion of over one hundred enclaves (a portion of a nation entirely inside another nation), counter-enclaves (an enclave within an enclave), and even a counter-counter-enclave, in which a little pocket of India sat in a little pocket of East Pakistan which sat in a bigger pocket of India which was entirely enisled in East Pakistan. His carving done, and the heat of the subcontinent not agreeing with him, Radcliffe returned to England.

The fear and reality of religious violence that immediately followed in partition’s wake displaced over 14 million people and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands—some estimates range as high as 2 million deaths. The decades since have been witness to a series of wars between India and Pakistan; a genocide and civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh out of what was once East Pakistan; and an ongoing, violent stalemate between the two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, over the status of Kashmir—a conflict which threatens, once again, to erupt into a cataclysmic war.

Radcliffe was remarkable for his lack of knowledge about the region’s history or present, not to mention lack of personal stake in its future. But as an arbiter of international boundaries, he was hardly an anomaly. As a rule to which there are few exceptions, our current borders are the result of imperial horse-trading, wars of expansion and conquest, and ragged lines cutting clumsily through ethnic divisions, as statesmen have deftly minced up the globe seeking to settle scores and extract maximum gain. Whether carved up willy-nilly by colonialist patricians trying to cram notions into nation states, or the outcome of aggressive land-grabbing, our current system of borders is neither rational nor historical. In a time of mass migration and displacement—with growing diasporas and asylum-seekers finding safety in caravans on their journey to the US-Mexico border, with refugees braving and often drowning the waters of the Mediterranean, and with the World Bank estimating that climate change will result in 143 million new internal climate migrants by 2050—might it be time to think beyond outdated notions of “territorial integrity”?

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Thanks !

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