postcolonialism and borders

Written by Ramsha Qaiser 7:00 pm Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

Postcolonialism and Borders: Enduring Territorial Disputes

The author seeks to draw a connection between postcolonialism and territorial disputes. Disputes of borders are one of the most explosive global flashpoints, which is a matter as much of current events as of history
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Ramsha Qaiser is an IR graduate from Quaid-e-Azam University.  She loves to sit with a cup of coffee to pen down her thoughts. She is keen on finding potential solutions to problems that concern the world.

Postcolonialism and Borders

Territorial and boundary disputes are one of the most explosive global flashpoints, which more times than often can quickly escalate into militarized interstate disputes. The reason for this is because a country’s sovereignty is highly dependent on the territory. As Lord Curzon once pointed ”that boundaries are razor’s edge on which hangs suspended the modern issues of war and peace, of life and death to nations”.

There are many nation-states in the Muslim world today, which are fighting and spending a considerable amount of their arms on the boundary and territorial disputes. Many among these have been former colonies of the West, and so this research seeks to link and find the mutual connection of these territorial rivalries with post-colonialism.

Many states, found facing many domestic and international level disputes, were once victims of colonization either by Europeans or Soviets, and these conflicts have been deeply rooted in post-colonial policies. The major issues among these are territorial disputes, uneven distribution of wealth, wide gap between rich and poor, and poor governance structures and institutions.

During the colonial era, what is seen as most evident are the times of power and competition over resourceful areas. During the late 19th century, many countries were out of the shambles of western colonies; however, this freedom and sovereignty didn’t bring complete independence from imperialist ideas and their influences.

Colonial legacies were very prominent in the post-colonial governmental structures and decisions. Moreover, they lacked proper governance and skills which are requisite for ruling the newly established sovereign entities. Around the globe many states have to bear this burden of transition from colonial subjects to inexperienced sovereign states.

Postcolonialism is the aftermath of colonialism and the state of affairs that happened after the cloud of imperialism was lifted. These decolonization states struggled not only on the political front but also on cultural, social, economic, and political fronts. These states are torn between the importance of fixed territorial boundaries defining the very essence of nation-building and the vague statutes that stand hereby after postcolonial cartographies.

Sensitivity of Territorial Disputes

Territorial conflicts can quickly escalate and lead towards a war-prone zone when and if states engage in any form of disagreement. The governments thus evaluate these concerns rather differently which leads to smaller bargain space.1 Territorial disputes are many times labeled as a leading cause of war.

According to the ICOW project, there are around 800 territorial disputes existing since the past century. These types of conflicts lead to quick escalations and military exchanges quite often than any other type of conflict. Many states around the globe solve their territorial disputes by successful diplomacy as they are aware that the war payoff would be much less than exhausting economic and military means.2

“Over a hundred new nations were born during the process of decolonization. Most of these new nations, however, had not existed at all as nations before colonization, or they had not existed within the post-colonial borders”.3 Almost all the colonial states were not created under normal situations but rather through competition and conquest, empire negotiations, or simply by the wish of rulers. The subsections will explore notable territorial disputes around the Muslim world in order to find linkages from history to colonialism.

The Durand Line

Durand line the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has been a major source of contention between the two countries. For over a century now, Pakistan and Afghanistan have faced many issues such as domestic politics, economic, and terrorism. This line both creates and enhances the security challenges to the already aggressive states.

The 1600 miles Pakistan-Afghanistan border is home to ethnic Pushtoons who were divided due to the demarcation of line. These Pushtoons have never paid this constructed attention to this Durand line which means they have never paid any regard to what the British colonizers did. Many people describe that Durand line as a line drawn on the water between Pushtoons which indicates the common habit of the people from both sides to cross it illegally.

According to international law, “the primordial scene of the nomos opens with a drawing of a line in the soil… to mark the space of one’s own”, which suggests that the law makes sure that the demarcated lines, the ones that are separating one state from another, are followed legally. Durand line was demarcated by the colonial powers of the 19th century, and this happened to be a definitive movement as it recognized the modern regime system.

While the states were trying to decolonize, the demarcated border played a crucial role for the post-colonial states. The inherited border from the colonial masters were largely determinants of geopolitical, economic, and governing policies, which were the hallmarks of imperialist power in order to make their subjects loyal and submissive.

During the Durand line demarcation, the colonial powers paid no regard to the ethnic coherence, cultural integration, history, similarity of language, religion, and all the converging points that the people shared. The colonial demarcations which were reinforced by the post-colonial mindset of weak government structures took no regard for such connections. 

The post-colonial government structure who were already finding it hard to rule the newly independent states and to legitimize their Actions, for stronger hold they imposed the Durand line demarcation against the wishes of people.

The Durand line was the result of a great game by the British colonial expansion, which was headed towards India, against the Russian empire of Tsar and its expansionist ideas.4 This region became a strategic game-changer between the two rivalries. The 19th century can be marked as an important era aimed at solving all the issues related to boundaries and frontiers. Persian plateau which was a geographically important region had many contentious points.

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During those times, the natives had the idea of porous borders that means freedom of movement across the frontiers. This was because of centuries-old trade roots that used to pass through this region. The natives were used to the mobility of goods between India, Central Asia, and the Arab world. The game between the two hegemons, Czarist Empire and British Empire, resulted in the volatile territory of a zone that was of great influence.

Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, suggested a threefold frontier method so that Russia could not reach the heartland of Asia. Durand line thus was a strategic plan, a frontier of separation from Russian empire expansionist ideas and India. These three frontiers were: the directly controlled area, full control over the subjects; indirect rule through maharajahs and social contracts; and frontier of buffer states, autonomous land under British influence.

The Hala’ib Triangle

The Hala’ib Triangle is basically an area of land which approximately measures up to 20580 sq km. Its location is at the coast of the Red Sea which increases its significance. The name ”hala’ib” comes from the confrontation of the Egyptian and Sudanese border. This boundary was set up by the Egyptians and British, and so this region has not been granted sovereignty because both the Sudanese and Egyptians claim this area.

In 1899, the United Kingdom was the only power that had influence in this region. Later on, in 1902, the British changed the previous agreement by giving the north part of the triangle to the Sudanese government. The significance of the Hala’ib triangle is mostly for the Nomadic people. The issue of the sovereignty of the triangle was raised in 1957 and 1978.

The tensions escalated over the disputed territory when General Al Bashir became Sudanese leader after he attempted a coup in 1989. In 1956, Sudan gained independence, and after two years, they held elections of the Hala’ib Triangle. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt sent his army to the triangle so that a referendum could be held. However, Gamal Abdul Nasir later withdrew his troops from the area.5

Until 1992, the Hala’ib triangle was under both governments. The major dispute started when the Sudanese government granted oil exploration access to a foreign offshore company.6 This dispute made that Canadian oil company step back until sovereignty over the region was decided. The dispute has many times risen to the point where the Sudanese government wanted to send their troops in to start a war against the illegal annexation by the Egyptians.

However, they realized that it was a very small area of land which would significantly add nothing to both the states of Egypt or Sudan. It is only used as a matter of egoism for both the states, either not wanting to back off after investing much into it. In 1994, it was the first time that an international organization was involved; Sudan sent requests to the United Nations Security Council, the Organization of African Union, and the Arab league.

The major aim of sending these was to highlight the illegal annexation by Egypt and their military rise in the zone. Things got much worse when Hosseini Mubarak, former Egyptian president, was assassinated in Addis Ababa; this place was significant because Sudan wanted to have a council meeting there, and so Sudan was accused by the Egyptians of complicity and conspiring against them which resulted in more prominent control of Egypt over this triangle.

In 1999, the Sudanese government again tried to solve this conflict while aiming to improve the bilateral relations, and hence President Umar al Bashir issued a joint communiqué. Later on, in 2000, Sudan itself withdrew its forces from the area, but, in 2004, Bashir declared that despite Sudan’s troop’s withdrawal, the piece of land was still rightfully theirs.

Tragically, Sudan and Egypt have not had the option to solve their disparities identified with this issue on a strategic and legitimate premise. The circumstance surrounding Hala’ib is a mirror of the increasing tensions over the Blue Nile River where the progression of water all through the whole basin is raising the potential for a military clash between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

These post-colonial challenges ought to be settled inside the system of the African Union (AU), other regional associations, or the UN. Such a decrease in political relations makes way for a circumstance where a great many individuals in Egypt and Sudan can be terribly affected in a negative design.

Presently, both countries refuse to move back from their territorial claim over this region, and since both Sudan and Egypt include considerable militarizes inside an Africa setting, an episode of conflict escalation would have regional and worldwide ramifications.

Abu Musa Island and the Tunbs

Since the time when the British decided to leave its Persian gulf protectorate in the fall of 1971, there have been many problems between the UAE and Iran. It was after a century of British imperialism that seven small states decided to become independent as one state called the United Arab Emirates. At that time, many games were played to gain the maximum out of this power role reversal.

Iran also wanted to fill the gap which would be created after the British would leave the Persian Gulf. However, Sheikh Zaid of the UAE was not ready to let that happen; he took over three islands: Abu Musa, the Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb. This created a major power rivalry in the Strait of Hormuz after the withdrawal of Britain. The three small islands of the Persian Gulf are strategically important because they are present at the center of the Gulf.

The three islands differ greatly in size; Abu Musa being the largest one, with an area of approximately 120 sq. kilometers, while the Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb are is 91 and 12 sq. km respectively. This is also very scarcely populated with about 1500 inhabitants. The great significance of Abu Musa is that it is a mineral-rich area with greater reserves of red iron oxide, oil, and natural gas.

These oil and natural gas reserves are currently shared by both Sharjah and Iran; however, they have a conflict over this region as well. The country which gains control over these islands would ultimately have command and control of the traffic which passes from the Strait of Hormuz for the export of oil and other minerals.7

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Their geographical location is such that the peace and security of the whole region depend on that strategically important location. Thus Strait of Hormuz is for tremendous military value due to which Iran has also played an important part in militarising the islands, developing a naval base there. According to USA General Paul Van Riper, “the strait of Hormuz is always a key to war games in the gulf”.

The oldest document that we can find is the one in 1864 which was written by Sheikh Sultan, the ruler of Al Khaima, who stated that Abu Musa and the Greater Tunb would be under his family. Later, Al Khaima became a part of Sharjah. Britain accepted the Ras Al Khaima’s claim to the Tunbs and Sharjah’s claim of Abu Musa. In 1892, the British executed an exclusive agreement with each of the states, and so Britain’s support of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaima’s claim continued until 1921.

The Iranian claims on these three islands began in 1995, and during World War II became an ally of both Great Britain and the United States. Due to this mutual relationship between Iran and Britain, Britain allowed Iran to have access to these islands and did not denounce its claims. The problems soon resurfaced when Britain announced that it would be leaving its Persian Gulf protectorate in 1971.

According to an MOU, the Abu Musa Island was divided to be given as a division between the Emirate of Sharjah and Iran, and that both administrations would be jointly responsible for this island. The problem, however, was Iran’s extended control and capture of the other two islands, the Greater and Lesser Tunbs.

Iran justifies its legality for the possession of islands by saying that their control goes back centuries even before the imperialist British came to build their protectorate in the Persian Gulf. British approved of the Iranian takeover of these islands thus sowing the seeds of a dispute that has still engulfed these two Persian Gulf rivals.8

Under a threat of military assault, Sharjah signed the MOU shackling the very basis of this document and rendering it illegal thus not taking it as legally binding and denying any agreement with Iran. When Sharjah disagreed with a settlement and agreement, Iran took it by force using military muscle.

Regarding the Qasmi tribe which Iran claims to be their subjects, the United Arab Emirates challenges that this tribe has not had control over the island since the 1700s. Iran should initiate peaceful talks about the legal principles to move towards a peaceful possession rather than bringing arcade debates. The Qasmi tribe’s actions were of its own accord thus denouncing the Iranian claim over the islands.

Arab-Israel Conflict

Jean Galvan explains it as a conflict of competing nationalisms. In the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was the one ruling over the territorial land which is now known as Palestine and Israel. The population then consisted of 87% Muslims, 10% Christians, and 3% Jews. These people with different religions lived peacefully until the 19th century.

However, Theodor Herzl wanted to create a state solely for Jews and so started a movement called Zionism. According to Zionism, Judaism was not just a religion but also a nationality that required a separate homeland. After WWI, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the British and French divided this region to form their own protectorates.

The British-controlled region was called the British mandate for Palestine.9 By the 1930s, the British started to limit the influx of Jews. In response to that, many Jews militias were formed to fight both British and Arabs. British also played a very important role in fueling nationalism and thus creating greater conflicts between the Arabs and Jews.

The major event which occurred in 1917 was the Balfour Declaration, which can be considered as a turning point of the British-Jews relationship. This declaration showed sympathy with the Jews and declared that a home would be provided to them and the British would try their best in order to facilitate them for achieving their objective of a separate homeland.

On April 25, 1920, the great power representatives, which were the victors of World War I, met in an Italian town of Sanremo to divide all the Middle Eastern land which they conquered during the war. The decisions taken then reformed the history and proved to be the basis of many present conflicts.

In Sanremo’s mandate, the former Ottoman Empire was divided into three areas: Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. Lord Carson called the Balfour Declaration Israel’s Magna Carta. The Sanremo resolution was adopted by the League of Nations and signed by the 51 countries thus giving exclusive rights to Jews and the same set of rights were given to the Arabs for the rest of the Middle East.

The British brought Muslims and the Arabs to west Palestine which created confusion.10 During the first quarter of the 19th century, 250000 inhabitants were living, around one quarter were Jews and Christians, and the rest were Muslims. The second act of the British which created conflict was that they initially allowed the Jewish community to come to Israel but later stopped the immigration altogether, resulting in the formation of militias.

Shatt al-Arab conflict

There have been many contentions between Iran and Iraq, and both countries have been at war for 8 years from 1937 to 2006 when Saddam Hussain of Iraq decided to launch his armed forces.11 The major contention between the two is that of the border dispute which has deep roots from the time of the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia around the year 1514.

Many treaties were signed to solve the border crisis once and for all but no such attempt had been successful. Shatt Al Arab is the major disputed territory; a treaty was signed in 1847 called the Treaty of Erzurum, which granted several islands to Persia and the Shatt al Arab River to the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Erzurum only strengthened the dispute more and it confirmed that the Ottomans would be the ruler of Shatt al Arab.

This was done purely under the pressure of the two European powers: Britain and Russia. These two European powers had their own interests in the region, so they acted as mediators. This treaty is the core example of how the imperialist ideas of the British and other European countries are. They were themselves present at all the drafting processes because they had a deep economic interest not only economic but also to generate political and to somewhat have imperial power over these regions.

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Both countries agreed on the formation of a commission. The commission was formed on November 4th, 1913 which signed the Constantinople Protocol. According to this protocol, the boundary was defined in a great deal; however, there were disagreements concerning Shatt al Arab. In 1919, the British administration of Iraq established a port named Basra Port, which allowed Iraq to control Shatt Al Arab.

Iraq issued a formal complaint in the League of Nations in 1974 where they said that the council of Iran was challenging the very validity of the treaty of Erzurum of the Constantinople. According to the article 3 of the treaty, they formed a commission that would draw the demarcation of the boundary.

Great Britain and Russia were also part of this commission, but the surprising thing was even before the treaty was concluded, the commission gave its report, with the Ottoman governments receiving a note from Great Britain and Russia informing them that the Ottomans would be getting concessions on the left bank. This was given in exchange for the ratifications which were executed in Istanbul in 1848.

The Persian government was forced to accept it but they later rejected this idea. Another attempt that was made by the two European powers to mold the Shatt Al Arab into their vision was in 1911 when an additional protocol was added to the original treaty. When the kingdom of Iraq was founded, it rejected the treaty of 1847 along with its additional protocols. After the elections in Iraq in 1968, it also rejected the 1937 agreement. In 1975, a compromise of sorts was concluded.

Kashmir Dispute

On 2nd June 1947, a historic Indian conference was held in New Delhi in which Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Vice President of India’s interim government of that time, Lord Mountbatten, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were present in order to discuss the partition plan of the subcontinent. After the partition plan, it was decided that the Muslim majority areas would be given to Muslims while the Hindu majority areas would be given to India.

This partition was followed by many riots and bloodshed, with a huge amount of sacrifices from both sides. There were cases of the princely state which was left to be decided. The Maharaja of Kashmir in 1946 was Hari Singh and it was around this time that the Kashmir dispute also started. Hari Singh decided to remain neutral, but because of several riots and protests, he fled to India.

Lord Mountbatten was responsible to look after the division plan. He helped create an alleged fake accession letter which, according to him was given by the Maharaja of Kashmir, decided the fate of Kashmir. Moreover, Radcliffe, the Chairman of Boundary Commission, was bribed and pressured by both the Viceroy and Nehru to give India the Muslim majority district of Gurdaspur.

Gurdaspur was the only land that came between India and Kashmir. There have been many reasons as to the Viceroy’s actions, one being that he wanted to become the joint Governor-General for both newly created states to which Pakistan refused and that’s why he stepped towards the Indian side.

India later took the matter to the United Nations Security Council in 1948 where they passed a resolution that the matter of Kashmir joining either India or Pakistan would be done by a plebiscite under the UN supervision. India and Pakistan both agreed to this resolution; however, the last resolution was passed in 1998 and since then there has been no further progress.

At the time of the Independence of sub-continent, the fear was present in the heart of British14 because the threat of the Soviet Union was not only getting bigger by size but there was also a Sino Russian partnership happening, so for the sake of having future strategic importance and a post-colonial hold over the minds and lives of the people of sub-continent, the British wanted to act very cautiously, especially concerning the area of Gilgit Baltistan which would have been an open door for Soviet to enter India.


There have been many connections drawn between colonialism and the effect of it that the prior subjects have to bear with. The colonial masters have had a history of exploitation, not only of resources but also of manpower, for their own benefits of the industrial sector. This not only robbed the colonies of their resources and sovereignty but also of cultural integrity and the ability of self-sustainability.

[1] Wright, Thorin M. 2004. “Unpacking Territorial Disputes: Domestic Political Influences and War.” Journal of conflict resolution 649-665.

[2] Grossman, Herschel. 2004. “Peace and War in Territorial Disputes.” NBER Working Paper. July.

[3] Mark N. Katz. “Collapsed Empires.” In Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict, ed. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Olser Hampson and Pamela Aall, 25-37. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1996, p. 29

[4] Mahmud, Tayyab, Colonial Cartographies, Postcolonial Borders, and Enduring Failures of International Law: The Unending War along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier (October 15, 2010). Brooklyn Journal of International Law, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2010;

[5] Guo, Rogxing. N.d. Territorial Disputes and Resource Management: A Global Handbook. Nova Publishers, 2006.

[6] Dzurek, Daniel J. n.d. Parting the Red Sea: Boundaries, Offshore Resources and Transit. IBRU, 2001.

[7] Richard A. Mobley. “The Tunbs and Abu Musa Islands: Britain’s Perspective.” Middle East Journal 57, no. 4 (2003): 627-45.

[8] Mehr, Fahang. 1997. A Colonial Legacy: The Dispute over the Islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs. University Press of America.

[9] Hertz, Eli E. December 7, 119. ““Mandate for Palestine “The Legal Aspects of Jewish Rights.”

[10] Rosenberg, David. 2017. “CIA: UK armed, encouraged Arabs against Israel in 1948.” Arutz Shiva, January 23.

[11] Edmund Ghareeb, ‘the Roots of Crisis: Iraq and Iran’, in Christopher C. Joyner (ed.), the Persian Gulf War: Lessons for Strategy, Law, and Diplomacy (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990) 21–38.

[13] K. Iqbal. 2016. “Kashmir conflict and British culpability.” Defence Journal; Karachi 19, no. 8 (2016): 76-78.

[14] Singh, RSN. 2018. “Why British created the Kashmir dispute, how U.S. compounded it, why China wants its closure.” eSamskriti, July 10.

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