Winner Of CSC July 2019 Essay Competition:

Good Fences Make Good Neighbours

If we were to take a leap back to the early 20th century when Robert Frost penned this ubiquitous truth, we would find ourselves in a world where walls were both towering and crumbling. On the brink of the first World War, every major power was jealously guarding the last square inch of their existing territory even as it sought to outpace its contemporaries in acquiring newer domains. As the world map faced imminent rearrangement, the sentiment of neighbourly niceties embodied in the Bible was subsumed by shrewd alliances for strategic gain and national interest.

Cut to the present day, and despite mankind’s great leaps in every sphere, the ground realities remain much the same. Imperialism has given way to neoimperialism- wars are no longer fought on actual battlefields but in the arena of financial markets, energy resources, trade blockades and diplomatic partnerships. In what is a U-turn from the emphasis laid on globalization in the 1980s and 90s, the nation states of the world, especially those dominated by right-wing ruling governments, are increasingly propagating the notion of 'Us vs Them' even at the cost of shirking global responsibility and the principles of a liberal democracy.

In an ideal world, there would be no fences. It would be a society embodying equity, a space guided by personal morality and a collective ethic to the extent that there is no need to create rules of conduct and ownership. An ideal world would be devoid of inequalities in income and standards of living with respect for all humans alike, irrespective of colour, race, gender, sex or any other segregationist marker. But this is not Utopia. Indeed, we are growing closer to a dystopian existence as we speak.

In this scenario, at first glance, good fences make good neighbours. Even individually, it is considered healthy for one's character development to have a sense of personal space that one's closest acquaintances cannot encroach upon at random. Indeed, the entire basis of modern democracy is respect for individual liberty and rights, albeit with rational checks and balances. Analogously, the establishment and maintenance of boundaries and ownership at a national level is critical for preserving our integrity and independence. History bears testament to the fact that having an excessively soft stance on what is ours by right, be it territory, resources or political autonomy has led to our stakes being undermined, thereby compromising individual and collective freedoms. Strategically, it serves global interests better to have clear demarcations of who owns or controls what, and concomitantly, on the degree to which different States are responsible for mitigating international concerns such as terrorism and climate change.

However, in a post-globalization world that has witnessed several decades of labour migration and cross-border movement of resources and finances, no nation can close its eyes to the fact that it is far from the homogeneous entity it once was; instead it is a continuously evolving melting pot of different religions, ethnicities and cultures. As Indians, we have over a thousand years' of practice when it comes to flourishing with a multicultural identity. As such, when slogans like 'America First' become increasingly reminiscent of World War-like isolationism and walls, both real and metaphorical, are springing up, the time is ripe for India to showcase a shining example of the Panchsheel ideals of mutual cooperation and respect.

India has traditionally occupied a unique strategic position in geopolitics, treated as a respected neutral voice in major power tussles such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Our policy of de-hyphenation, or having independent strategic relations with independent States, has stood us in good stead, as has the recognition in international circles of being a voice of reason when it comes to avoiding war and nuclear proliferation, and settling our own territorial disputes by due and constitutional processes. Our role as a balancing democratic power in South and South East Asia to prevent China’s tacit hegemony rests on our diplomatic prowess in maintaining fences without building walls.

State-sponsored barriers like the US-Mexico and the Israeli West Bank walls, largely a product of the ruling ideology in US and Israel respectively, have adopted a brand of hyper-nationalism that seems to have missed the point of Frost’s poem entirely. Closer home is the issue of implementation of the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which hinges on prioritizing the socio-economic interest of Indian citizens whilst balancing out the interests of refugees from neighbouring States, significant segments of whom are victims of religious persecution. What is interesting to note here is that the so-called fences, be it in the West or the East, are often based on the foundation of the people in power skilfully manipulating citizens into attributing systemic policy failures (such as lack of health, education or employment) to the door of these supposed ‘others’, mostly on communal or cultural lines.

The current ruling government in India veers disturbingly close to its developed world counterparts, in its dual stance of expressing outrage at forces that try to encroach upon our national integrity whilst parallelly championing an ideology of “striking at the ‘enemy’ in their own home”. In doing so, it follows the Western world into taking quite a few steps backward in the one sphere where we have always been ahead of them- knowing the distinction between weakness and tolerance. The interpretation of the ‘enemy’ by using arguments of national identity and communal identity interchangeably at convenience should in itself lead one to treat the ideology with scepticism.

Fencing keeps the world out of our business, but it also boxes us in, much like the proverbial frog that lived in the well and believes it to be the ocean. It hinders an exchange of cultures, expressions and ideas, and obstructs collaborations and partnerships for the betterment of not just mankind but Nature as a whole. Moreover, it leads to an utmost neglect of what is classified in welfare theory as the commons. Despite a large number of international conventions and treaties, such as the Paris Conference and the concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) the ground reality is that the overarching emphasis on borders is slowly killing us all while we continue to fight over whose world it is to save. The resources and territories that do not lie within the boundaries of any State in particular, for example, the open oceans and the air we breathe, are subject to an appalling lack of accountability when it comes to their conservation and judicious use. Not only does erecting fences reinforce narrow mindsets in the present generation, but it also sets back future generations from remedying the errors of their ancestors.

Good fences make good neighbours, if by good, we mean indifferent, overtly polite and covertly suspicious. Contrary to the myth of external threat that is being perpetuated almost everywhere in the world, the real danger to the integrity of our nation states lies in the shackling of the cornerstone of democracy- dissent. What we need today are not taller and stronger walls but a dismantling of the barriers which make us view ‘the other’ with intolerance and apprehension. It is high time to work towards reconciliation of our differences to revive the ancient ideal that has been the very foundation of our subcontinent—Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family).