The Great Hedge of India

By Oliver Dixon. Ollie is a Durham graduate currently studying for an MSc in Geopolitics and Security. He studies issues of conflict analysis, terrorism, and defence policy. He reads widely on these and broader issues of security in both Sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. 

British colonial history tells many remarkable tales, none more so than the story of the Great Hedge of India. This relatively unknown story was rediscovered recently by author, Roy Moxham. He tells of a botanical and architectural structure, an impenetrable 8ft high hedge, 1500 miles long, that stretched across Central India. How is it that a wall, comparable to The Great Wall of China, has completely vanished from the story of the British Raj? And what relevance does it have to bordering today?

A map of the inland Customs Line including the Great Hedge

In 19th Century India, one resource was crucial: salt. In the heat of India an adult was thought to require an ounce of salt a day. Whilst the region of East India possessed large deposits of salt in salt-bearing soils, salt lakes and rock-salt, the expense of extracting from these sources and shipping them to Bengal and East India were very high. Therefore, Bengal became dependent on large salt deposits in the so-called ‘Salt Range of the Punjab’. A number of custom houses were established in Bengal in 1803 to prevent the smuggling of salt from the Punjab to British controlled India in the East. As trafficking and smuggling became rife, the East India Company, perceiving a security threat to their territory, linked many of these custom houses together. They made a barrier, mainly consisting of dead thorny material such as the Indian Plum. This eventually evolved, growing into a living hedge that became known at the ‘Great Hedge of India’.

The Great Hedge of India, was part of the Inland Customs Line, which at its peak in the 1870s, was 2500 miles long. It ran from the Punjab in the northwest all the way to the state of Orissa in the southeast. To put this to scale, it is the equivalent of a continuous barrier running from London to Constantinople. This hedge was nowhere less than 8 feet high and 4 feet thick. In fact, in some places it was 12 feet high and 14 feet thick. The Commissioner of Inland Customs at the time, Allan Octavian Hume, was so impressed by this piece of botanical architecture that he described it as “utterly impassable to man or beast”. This hedge was supported by a vast government department, the largest in the Raj, with 12,000 guards patrolling its edges. The brutal physicality of this hedge was combined with huge tax levies on salt within British occupied India. It would need two month’s income of an average farm worker to pay for a modest year’s supply. Whilst one can only speculate at the social impacts of such an extortionate tax, it has been estimated that millions of people died as a result of this levy through shortages of salt. It seems unfathomable that such a vast colonial project can appear to vanish from the collective consciousness of Indian and British history.

So what? What is the geopolitical significance of the Great Hedge of India today? To answer this question it is necessary to contextualise the story of the Great Hedge in current bordering practices in India. Head east from where the Great Hedge of India ran, and you come across the modern day Bangladesh-India border. India and Bangladesh are separated by 2545 miles of land border. For the last 8 years the Indian government has pursued a policy that has seen the construction of the ‘Indo-Bangladeshi barrier’, 2115 miles of fenced barbed wire and concrete just under 3 metres high.

Patrolling the border

Its purpose: to prevent the smuggling of narcotics across the border. The 2012 International Narcotic Control Strategy Report, by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs under the US Department of State, identified the importance of India in the global narcotics trade: “India is strategically located between Southwest Asia (the Golden Crescent) and Southeast Asia (the Golden Triangle), the two main sources of illicit opium”. India is the main source of illegal narcotic drugs like phensedyl, amphetamines and cannabis, for Bangladesh. Moreover,  vast amounts of synthetic drugs also cross over from Bangladesh to India, having originated in countries like Myanmar and China. This trade, viewed by the Indian Government as a security threat, is being combated in the same way as the British Raj attempted to control the movement of salt.

The Great Hedge reveals the challenges in Eastern India of controlling the movement of resources through physical walling techniques. It would be reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the relevance of the Great Hedge of India is to suggest a vulnerability and long term weakness of the current Indo-Bangladeshi barrier in countering the illegal narcotics trade. In fact, with advances in technology, travel and transportation methods, it would also be fair to suggest that such a walling strategy is outdated in this global society of complex multi-faceted trade networks. Whilst the same argument could be made of many other contemporary walling practices, it is the parallel resource networks and strategic positioning of the Indo-Bangladeshi barrier, and the Great Hedge of India, that makes the comparison particularly productive. In fact, the current Indo-Bangladeshi barrier already shows signs of vulnerability. As is argued by Wendy Brown, the theatricalized performance of walling undermines the sovereign power of the Indian state, by exposing its struggle to control its borders and territory. The controversial shoot-to-kill policy undertaken by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is a clear symptom of this vulnerability.

The story of the Great Hedge of India is therefore, a story that is geopolitically important: in particular in light of the bordering practices occurring in India today. Unfortunately for the civilian population of India and Bangladesh, it is them that must ultimately pay the price. Whether it is death through salt shortages in the 19th Century, or death by armed security guards in the 21st Century, the irony is that these walling practices do not counter security threats, rather, they create them.

Oliver Dixon

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