Three years ago, I was in a crowded bus, barrelling down a highway towards Dublin. All of us, an assortment of Indian travel and lifestyle journalists, had been invited over for a weeklong romp around the Emerald Isle by Tourism Ireland (“Marketing the island of Ireland overseas”). We’d completed a whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and were now careening southwards, towards the Republic of Ireland.

Our bus driver and guide was a cheerful, rotund, rosy-cheeked Irishman from Belfast called Andrew Beggs. He had a story or a legend for every hill, hillock and castle we drove past. And when he ran out of Irish myths, he treated us to amusing personal anecdotes—none more amusing than the story of how, during the Falklands War, he and some other British seamen fought off a small Argentine Navy boat by subjecting it to fusillades of potatoes.

Beggs, therefore, always ensured that we were in high spirits, despite our proximity to several reminders of the bloody history that had followed the island’s sectarian divide between the British-administered, Protestant north and the Catholic republic that, over the first half of the 20th century, had wrestled free from centuries of British rule. The division caused endless enmity for almost a century: the Loyalists wanted the north to stay a part of the UK, the Republicans longed to unify the island into one free Irish nation. Both sides were brutalised. Hundreds of civilians, soldiers and policemen died in riots, pitched battles and terrorist attacks, especially during the three decades starting from the late 1960s known in Irish as na Trioblóidí (‘The Troubles’).

All these thoughts rolled through my mind as we approached the line dividing the British ultranationalist province of Northern Ireland and the sovereign Republic of Ireland (the latter occupies five-sixth of the island); and as we neared the border, everyone sat up straight in their seats. Many took out their passports. Everyone waited for something to happen—something strange, something exotic. A solemn hush descended over the bus.

There is, I suppose, a universal reason for this solemnity. Many people approach international borders with the very mix of fascination, gravity and awkwardness they experience when they visit a place of worship that belongs to an unfamiliar religion, as if they are afraid to break some strange, foreign rule without meaning to.

When you think about it, it’s not only in divided Ireland that geography and spirituality run parallel to each other. Of all the things in the world that you can kill or die for, the two most respectable ’causes’ are region and religion. Your nationality and creed are more often than not the outcomes of a genetic lottery, yet heroes charge into suicidal battles for god and country, and upon dying, are subsequently immortalised in poetry and on key-rings made in China.

Perhaps this is why, over the centuries, national borders have developed in the same bizarre ways religions and sects have.

A Belgian municipality is an amusing case in point, at least geographically, and makes divided Ireland seem pretty straightforward. Baarle-Hertog is comprised of 26 pieces of land, some measuring several acres, others the size of football fields, four of them abutting the Dutch border. Twenty-two of these Belgian pieces are located completely in the Netherlands, and eight Dutch pieces are inside the Belgian pieces. All of these are exclaves: parcels of land that are legally part of one country but located entirely inside another.

The concept may sound novel, but exclaves are not uncommon. Many of them are the result of historic territorial disputes, land treaties and migrant settlements. They are particularly seen—as in the case of Baarle-Hertog—where frequent land transfers occurred between local fiefs and noblemen long before the sovereign territories (as we know them today) existed.

But what makes Baarle-Hertog bizarre is that there are bits of the Netherlands within it—exclaves inside exclaves. In other words, there are small pieces of the Netherlands inside the pieces of Belgium located completely within the Netherlands. This means that aside from being able to sit at a café with one foot in Flanders and one in Holland, some residents of Baarle-Hertog have an international border passing through their homes. In fact, before the coming of the European Union levelled things out, some residents relocated the front doors of their houses to whichever side of the border that levied less property tax.

Still, the countries maintain independent public services. So if you post a letter from a house on the Belgian side of the border—marked by a line of grey tiles with a Swiss white cross on each tile—to a house on the Dutch side, the letter will first be flown to sorting centres in Belgium and then be re-routed to the recipient, which could be an address 15 or 20 feet from yours. Locals have learnt to capitalise on the situation. The Netherlands, for instance, has severe restrictions on the sale of fireworks; Belgium, not so much. So, during every festive season, scores of fireworks shops open on the Belgian side to cater to Dutch buyers. This is all very quaint and quirky, but only because the Belgium and the Netherlands share cordial relations, one currency and no passport or immigration controls—all because the European Union has made borders practically redundant in the Schengen Area.

Baarle-Hertog is 4.5 sq km of tourist magnet. In contrast, the largest cluster in the world of these border oddities has little by way of peace and prosperity. The border between northern Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal is one of the world’s great cartographical muddles. This region contains thechhitmohols—106 Indian exclaves inside Bangladesh measuring 69.6 sq km, and 92 Bangladeshi exclaves in Indian territory measuring 49.7 sq km, with 21 Bangladeshi exclaves inside Indian exclaves and three Indian exclaves inside Bangladeshi exclaves.

There is also the only third-order exclave in the world: the 1.73-acre Dahala Khagrabari #51, an Indian exclave inside a Bangladeshi exclave (Upan Chowki Bhajni, 110) inside an Indian exclave.(Dahala Khagrabari #47). Living in most of these Indo-Bangla exclaves is hell. In some of the larger ones, thousands survive without power or water connections. The educational facilities are poor and there is practically no healthcare. Two years ago, the two countries signed a border demarcation accord and decided to swap 162 exclaves and give their inhabitants the right to choose their citizenship. The proposals are yet to be implemented; in fact, the accord has not yet been passed by the Indian parliament.

Conversely, the residents of Baarle-Hertog have rebuffed proposals to simplify the borders. They say they love the eccentric state of affairs.

In more recent cases of land division, especially where colonial have divided lands that didn’t belong to them, borders tend to be simpler. Look at the circuit board of straight lines on a map of Africa. Or the general neatness of borders in North America.

Even here, in some cases, attempts to parcel out land peaceably and unambiguously have been found wanting. Look closely at where the borders of Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland merge, and you will see a not-so-small piece of land—it measures 1,708.8 sq km—that, technically, belongs to nobody. ‘The Delaware Wedge’, as it is now called, was the outcome of surveying techniques used to settle the boundaries of the three states in 1763. Due to the conventions used to draw these borders, the surveyors erroneously left out this knife-shaped piece of land. It was only in 1921, 158 years after the original surveying, that the US Congress officially declared the Wedge a part of Delaware.

There was never any substantial animosity in the case of the Wedge (although it was for decades lawless territory, home to bootleggers and gamblers), what with the three states being part of the US, and two of the states being owned by one family.

But animosity between nations is not resolved easily. Take the case of Bi’r Tawīl, a 2,060-sq-km quadrilateral between Egypt and Sudan that is probably the most unwanted piece of land in the world.

The current international border between Egypt and Sudan were drawn twice in quick succession: the first in 1899 and again three years later. The 1899 border was a straight line at the 22nd parallel. In 1902, the British—overlords of both countries at the time and an imperial power notorious for creating disputed territories—modified the line just a bit, giving it an S-shaped twist just before it ran into the Red Sea. It wasn’t a malevolent bit of mapping, but, the piece allotted to the Egyptians—Bi’r Tawīl—was tiny, landlocked and mostly worthless. On the other hand the Sudanese benefited from a much larger piece called the Hala’ib Triangle that sits right on the Red Sea coast, a lucrative trading channel that’s been in use for millennia.

The Egyptians affirm the validity of the 1899 border. The Sudanese insist on the 1902 border. Everybody wants the Hala’ib Triangle. Nobody wants only Bi’r Tawīl. Meanwhile, the dispute over the Hala’ib Triangle continues.

Another S-shaped—or maybe Z-shaped—boundary runs through a tiny, 8.2-acre shard of uninhabited rock in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. Although it is one of the smallest of sea islands shared by two nations, the sharing is not particularly unusual in itself. Plenty of islands are shared between nations, such as in New Guinea, Borneo and Cyprus.

The root of the problem in Märket (which translates as ‘The Mark’) goes back to 1809, when the Russians and the Swedes divvied up the island between themselves. In 1885, the Russians and Finns built a lighthouse on their half of the island (Finland was then an autonomous part of the Russian empire). Unwittingly, or not, the lighthouse was built on Swedish territory, which led to much acrimony.

Finland became independent of Russia in 1917. Then, in 1985, in order to maintain their fishing turf, the Swedes and the Finns decided to redraw the border. On the island, the line would take a broad detour, so that the Finns kept the lighthouse while the Swedes got a little wedge of Finnish soil. For border buffs, here’s an interesting aside: The Swedish half of Märket is divided between the counties of Uppsala and Stockholm. There’s altogether too much happening on an island with a population of zero.

Common to all these border conundrums, from Baarle-Hertog to the India-Bangladesh chhitmohols to Märket, is that they have a provenance that goes back centuries. The irony is that some of the world’s most progressive governments, equipped with sophisticated satellite-mapping technologies, persist with maintaining these disputed lands instead of using that technology to clean them up once and for all. Clearly, in matters of territoriality, it’s not simplicity or efficiency that count but the enduring romance and emotional appeal of ‘defending the border’.

Back on the bus, the Indian journalists grew silent. The Irish Republic was getting ever closer. And then, just like that, we were across. “Welcome to the Republic of Ireland!” proclaimed Andrew Beggs. But there was nothing there.

We were flabbergasted. No guard in a box. No spinning red lights. No clusters of closed-circuit TV cameras. No troops glaring into each other’s eyes across a meticulously-drawn line on the ground. No flagpoles, no intimidating notice boards. Not even a sandbag.

Beggs told us that the border between Northern Ireland and Éire was more or less open everywhere. Locals could drive back and forth freely. Passport checks were rare. It was all completely anticlimactic.

Then, again, isn’t this what we all hope for? Don’t we all imagine a world without borders and passports and visas and skirmishes and boundary disputes? A world where we are all free to come and go as we please? Perhaps, in time, we can all willy-nilly cram into buses and zoom across what are basically imaginary lines on maps.

Byline: Sidin Vadukut

Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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