India-China Standoff And The Raw Animal Origins Of Border Disputes

Our tendency to defend borders is linked to phenomena like lions in the jungle angrily tearing into each other for territorial domination and stray dogs 'scent-marking' their jurisdiction


A predator watches out for intruders, in Masai Mara, Kenya (Credit: Empire Diaries)

Nadim Siraj

June 12, 2020: In India and China, there’s only one word that is echoing in the power corridors of Big Government these days. No, it’s not ‘coronavirus’. That’s only a new-born concern. The word that is raising temperatures is ‘border’, an old heartburn.

India and China – as two societies, two governments, two armies and two economies – are together as old as the disputes that define their cryptic relationship along the 3,488km-long border.

Even something like a once-in-a-century pandemic is not distraction enough for these two powerhouses in the event of an escalation of tensions along the border.


The sharpest brains from New Delhi and Beijing have lately been engaged in intense talks, one hectic round after another, as the two Asian giants look to climb down from their stubborn positions over a newfound border dispute in northern India’s Ladakh region.

After New Delhi turned Ladakh into a Union Territory last year, the writing was on the wall. It was only a matter of time before Beijing would set the complicated border region in Ladakh on fire. It did so in the form of an escalatory troop build-up near the Line of Actual Control or LAC. A miffed New Delhi responded in the only macho style any other country would respond – mirroring the Chinese move with its own military build-up along the disputed border.

It’s a new face-off, cast on a template from time immemorial.

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At around the same time, another section of the India-China border has caught both fire and attention. Nepal, which lies sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas and has lately been serving as a proxy of Beijing, is set to adopt a controversial, new national map that includes three borderline hot spots. New Delhi argues that all three hot spots are part of Indian territory, not Nepalese.

The point of this article is not to probe the claims and counterclaims of the border dispute in Ladakh. Nor is it to start a post-mortem of the newly redrawn map of Nepal and how China would have instigated its ally to do so.

The point of this write-up is to explore what a border really is in a more philosophical sense, and whether these perpetual border disputes tell us something about our animalistic origins.

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It is common knowledge that the super-civilised homo sapiens’ penchant for possessively manning national borders can be linked to basic animal behaviour. ‘Territorialism’ in the animal kingdom is a subject of enormous interest and debate in anthropology circles. Naturalist and anthropologist Desmond Morris deep-dives into the discourse in his various works that include an essay titled Territorial Behavior and groundbreaking books such as The Human Zoo and The Naked Ape.

We are all aware, in varying degrees, of how pets such as cats and dogs as well as elusive wild animals living in deep jungles are as possessive as human beings when it comes to defending territorial rights and boundaries.

Animals have always been known to go about the business of marking the limits of their territorial dominance by deploying ‘scent marks’ – they basically urinate in strategically chosen spots in order to establish smell-driven borders of their jurisdiction.

It’s their way of drawing a map. We humans are not the only ones that are into cartography!

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Take the case of street dogs in urban India, for instance; a very common sight in the street corners of our maze-like cities. Street dogs urinate around certain zones in the neighbourhoods that they live in with a certain intention – to ‘officially’ mark their territories or jurisdictions or zones. They make the markings with a specific purpose: to ensure that other streets dogs from adjacent neighbourhoods don’t trespass the marked-out territory and make unwelcome inroads.

If street dogs had the physicality and ingenuity of modern humans, they would put up tinfoil banners screaming ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ and would build walls as high as the ones in Donald Trump’s dreams (his dreams are our nightmares).

A section of the US-Mexico border as seen from Nogales, Arizona. The US side of the border is on the left, the Mexican side is on the right. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


A close study of wildlife shows how most animals have interesting forms of rituals or habits to mark their territories. The lions of Masai Mara in Kenya, for example, are well known for risking their lives and physically tearing into each other over blistering territorial wrangles. Bloodshed is hardly a sacrifice for them when it comes to defending their jurisdictions.

And just as the lions we speak of engage in gripping territorial wrangles, the human version of such stand-offs is the escalatory amassing of forces along disputed international borders. Just like street dogs go bonkers at the sight of intruders on their marked territory, humans (in the form of the State) doggedly patrol their national borders, ever so suspicious of trespassers and opportunistic neighbours.

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Desmond Morris, the author-anthropologist we mentioned earlier on, compares in his essay Territorial Behavior how we as humans do exactly what animals do when it comes to marking our territory. The way we do it obviously differs from the way other animals do it. But essentially, be it a boardroom of humans in three-piece suits or a pack of stray dogs loitering by the gutter, we are all possessive about the turf wars we fight.

Desmond Morris aptly explains the comparison in a simplified manner as he writes: “Each territory has to be plainly advertised.  Just as a dog cocks its leg to deposit its personal scent on the trees in its locality, so the human animal cocks its leg symbolically all over his home base.  But because we are predominantly visual animals, we employ mostly visual signals, and it is worth asking how we do this at three levels: tribal, family, and personal.”

This idea of humans replicating the raw territorial behaviour of the animal kingdom in a more sophisticated and complex manner shouldn’t only be seen from the standpoint of the India-China stand-off in Ladakh and Nepal. The timeline of the 12,000 years of human civilisation is peppered with such famed and dreaded border disputes.

Palestine, the Koreas, Jammu and Kashmir, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Western Sahara, the seas around China, the Sudans, Strait of Hormuz – the list of international territorial wrangles just goes on and on.

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Territorial disputes are not unusual things to happen to human beings and human societies; nor are our tendencies to put our foot down, grit our teeth and defend our disputed borders. Contrary to popular belief, no territory can be said to be safe or stable or permanent. Wherever there is a human being, there is a tendency towards hegemony, towards control, towards invasion, which in turn places all territories within our ambit at stake.

There’s an unannounced competition unfolding out there. A perpetual competition in which territories are constantly being targeted as well as defended. Borders are always uneasy separators, often made to look tranquil or ‘solved’ by the superficial papering up of the instability with social contracts such as international law, bilateral treaties, etc.

But as we firmly go about defending our territory when an enemy State comes rumbling at our borders, we need to realise that our geopolitical acts are only a manifestation of the raw animal instincts within us and around us.

Two enraged lions having a bloodthirsty go at each other under the swirling dust in an open Masai Mara grassland. And two States, such as India and China, lining up trained brains and uniformed men along a disputed border to secure a geopolitical deal. In the latter case, behind the sophistication and the protocols, it is the basic animal instinct that is essentially at work – raw territorial behaviour.

And that is how we shall always remain, centuries from now and beyond. Because that is how we were, in the first place. Pandemic or no pandemic, ‘borders’ will always keep us engaged and enraged.

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S A Siraj
S A Siraj
3 years ago

Beautifully described
Thoroughly informative
Looking forward to more Essays on societal relevance

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