The absurdity of borders is a recurrent theme in Amitav Ghosh’s 1988 novel The Shadow Lines. At three different points in the novel, three characters reflect on what borders mean to them. Before flying to Dhaka from Calcutta, the narrator’s grandmother, Mayadebi, realises with some consternation that her birthplace in Bangladesh is now at odds with her Indian nationality. But what is even more incomprehensible to her is that there are no physical demarcations at the border between the two countries. “If there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know?” she wonders. “It’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us.” The second reflection comes from Mayadebi’s uncle, Jethamoshai, who refuses to leave Dhaka and return to Calcutta with the extended family. “Suppose when you get here they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then?” he prophesies, nearly a decade before the birth of Bangladesh. The third observation comes from the narrator’s friend Robi. “Why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change?” he says about the self-determination and secession movements that emerged in the decades after Partition. The three perspectives capture divergent ways to think about borders, and yet, they converge to convey their shadowy or illusory nature.
Writing more than three decades later, lawyer, journalist and author Suchitra Vijayan contends with the same arbitrariness, constructedness, and meaninglessness of borders in her debut book Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India. In Vijayan’s retelling, however, borders and maps are not so much shadowy and illusory but rather concrete sites of state violence. They are instruments of power wielded by nation-states with ever-increasing force to inflict an enormous degree of material, psychic and epistemic violence on border societies and the people who inhabit these liminal spaces. Between 2013 and 2019, the author travelled across some of India’s most remote border towns, listening to and documenting these stories. Midnight’s Borders is the outcome of her fragmented, seven-year-long journey along the 9000-mile land border that India shares with Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Pakistan. It is a meticulously researched and incisive work of narrative journalism, a unique and expansive archive put together with empathy and care.
The act of chronicling someone else’s story, however, raises the inevitable concerns about the power and ethics of documentation. Born and raised in Chennai in Tamil Nadu and currently, part of the diaspora, the context that Vijayan is writing about is far removed from her own. This is something that the author remains conscious of throughout the book. To outline her subject position vis-a-vis the people she documents, Vijayan writes herself into the narrative – documenting her ethical dilemmas, learnings and missteps as she accumulates these stories – but without centring herself. But it is her choice of narrative technique – placing people’s stories at its core – which allows her to displace the dominant gaze and centre the ‘periphery’. Instead of the ‘mainland’ scrutinising life at the ‘periphery’, it is the periphery that casts a critical lens at the state’s violent border policies and the complicities of the mainland in sustaining them. Here, border residents are not spoken for but retain their agency to speak for themselves or respond with silence. Her role in this book, Vijayan notes, is to not “bear witness” or “give voice to the voiceless” but to “find in their articulations a critique of the nation-state”. For the most part, the book adheres to this. The rare distractions in this otherwise tightly woven narrative appear when the author interjects to leave a concluding thought for the reader rather than to leave the reader to make these inferences on their own.
Mapping “a people’s history”
Midnight’s Borders starts in 2013 in Kolkata en route to the Bangladesh border, but in some sense, it starts much before that. The idea for the book comes to Vijayan while researching counter-insurgency practices along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Accordingly, the first section of the book documents this inherited border. Negotiated between British India and Emir Abdur Rahman in 1893 and intended only as a buffer zone between the British and Russian empires, this border was inherited by Pakistan in 1947 at the time of Independence. The coloniser’s map thus created bore little resemblance to the map of belonging people drew from the history of their ancestors. However, its legacy leaves the Pashtuns, whose land, families and communities it divided, forever trapped between the region’s insurgency movements and protracted neocolonial wars. Recounting this and other stories, this section sets the tone for the rest of the book, which traces the author’s journey along India’s land borders, starting with the Bangladesh-India border, and continuing along the China-India, India-Myanmar, and finally the India-Pakistan border.
Instead of the ‘mainland’ scrutinising life at the ‘periphery’, it is the periphery that casts a critical lens at the state’s violent border policies.
Vijayan interrogates both the violence that has produced India’s arbitrary borders, and the precarity and suffering continually engendered as the nation state doubles down to legitimise and enforce them. She excavates precolonial and colonial histories and postcolonial legacies for insights on how the coloniser’s map became the basis for violent present-day border regimes, colouring contemporary debates over nationalism, citizenship, and belonging in the Subcontinent. But the bulwark of her narrative is the personal stories of loss, grief, and trauma that result from these arbitrary boundaries. Political maps, Vijayan argues, are “objects of power” and “keepers of a state’s knowledge”. They do not belong to the people, nor are they “keepers of people’s memories”.
On the contrary, when “maps become the arsenal of imperialism and colonial conquest, people, in turn, become surveys and statistics. For the maps to make sense, many fictions have been put in place – and we have been taught to treat these fictions as facts,” she writes. Vijayan’s quest, in this book, is to dissect and challenge these fictions and upend them by centring an alternate “people’s history”: the stories and memories of people who are obscured by surveys and statistics. If borders and border regimes are an exercise in flattening the narrative by erasing certain histories, this book is an antidote to forgetting and an act of memorialising. Along the way, it questions and problematises the meaning of belonging, citizenship, and the terms of inclusion within and exclusion from contemporary nation-states.
The coloniser’s map and the postcolonial state
Besides the Durand line that is the basis for the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Radcliffe line, which serves as the India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh border, and the McMahon Line, which is the basis for India’s borders with China and Myanmar, constitute the territorial boundaries scrutinised in this book. Named after British civil servants who knew little of the country they had divided, the absurdity of these borders starts with their very nomenclature. Vijayan recounts the familiar and lesser-known histories of these lines – drawn in haste (the Radcliffe line was infamously decided in just five to seven weeks), determined without consensus (China pulled out of negotiations with British and Tibetian representatives over the McMahon Line), and born out of “miscalculations, mistakes, and cartographic confusions”. In each chapter, she takes us to a different border town where her interlocutors hold up a mirror to how these lines cut through their homes and farmlands, damaged and scattered their families and communities, and remade their identities and histories. Nearly three-quarters of a century after Partition, the legacy of these arbitrary lines keeps them suspended between statehood and statelessness, freedoms and unfreedoms, belonging and unbelonging.
Suchitra Vijayan’s book is a necessary rejoinder in a field that has been dominated by works of former diplomats and ex-military officials preoccupied with questions of territorial sovereignty.
The violence and absurdity of border-making and enforcement mark each anecdote in this book. In Panitar along the Bangladesh-India border, neighbours who live on either side of a lane belong to two different countries. A 30-year-old territorial dispute between India and Bangladesh over an island in the Sundarban – India sent naval ships to hoist a flag and claim this tiny piece of land – ends only after rising sea levels submerges it. In the tiny border village of Nagi in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan, six plaques commemorate 21 soldiers who lost their lives defending a sand dune. Here, India and Pakistan fought over a border, at least 12 miles of which may have been “drawn based on the notes and markings of a 75-year-old, partially blind farmer”.
In weaving these stories together, Vijayan teases out the book’s two overarching themes. First, that the violence of borders stems from their arbitrary nature and their construction as an “exceptional space” where “order must be established through force” and “acts of coercion”. Second, that the violence of borders is both material and psychic, immediate and generational; it exists not only in the trenches and the fences but also in the “loss, fear, and insecurity” inherited and passed down across generations. Borders are not just instruments of surveillance, control, and oppressions but also deeply implicated in the erasure and reconfiguration of history, identity, and memory. As Vijayan puts it, “…the final layer of violence: [is] to be separated from one’s history, to be forcefully emptied of it.”
The erasure of history and memory
Stories of such erasure are scattered throughout the book. In 2018, when Vijayan travels to Nellie, the small village in Assam bears little evidence of having been the site of one of the worst massacres in India’s history. Here, the brutal killings of 3,000 Bengali Muslims in a single day in February 1983, the culmination of decades of ethnolinguistic tensions, lies buried in many layers of forgetting. Its mass graves are known by none except those that dug them to bury their dead, there are no memorials to mark the killings, the only official inquiry remains a closely-guarded secret, and there have been no convictions to date. Memories of this massacre will likely end after the last generation to have witnessed the killings has gone, but the ethnonationalistic state’s othering of Assam’s Bengali Muslims as ‘foreigners’, ‘illegal immigrants’, and ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’ has since taken concrete shape through the Foreigners Tribunals and the National Register of Citizens. In Vijayan’s analysis, this othering is contingent on the denial and deliberate erasure of the shifting demographics, forced peasant migrations, and multiple refugee crises that mark the region’s history.
If borders and border regimes are an exercise in flattening the narrative by erasing certain histories, this book is an antidote to forgetting and an act of memorialising.
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” George Orwell reminds us. Whether it is the Bengali Muslims of Assam, Rohingyas in Myanmar, or the people of Kashmir, the postcolonial state has worked to either violently expel the undesirable other outside its arbitrary borders or forcibly enfold them within its “open-air prisons”. The stories that Vijayan narrates reaffirm how belonging and unbelonging, citizenship and statelessness are constructed and enacted at the border not just through militarised violence but by rewriting laws that obliterate histories and remake identities.
The struggle against forgetting
Amid the relentless state violence, these liminal spaces produce what Sankaran Krishna calls “the unconsciously recalcitrant practices of people along the frontiers”. These practices are coping mechanisms built into the everyday life of border residents. Here, a game of cross-border cricket, a border pillar turned into a handy cricket stump or crossing over by ducking under fences that lie over soft marshes constitute their own language of dissent. When bodies lie broken, the dissent they embodied is inscribed as epitaphs on memorial plaques and gravestones that write what “historical record” ignores or will not write.
Vijayan interrogates both the violence that has produced India’s arbitrary borders, and the precarity and suffering continually engendered as the nation state doubles down to legitimise and enforce them.
In the narratives Vijayan has documented, even those who appear to remain static resist through their silence. One of the most poignant stories in Midnight’s Borders is of Ali, whose quiet recalcitrance – like the protagonist of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh – lies in his refusal to leave the no-man’s land between Bangladesh and India. Ali’s home once lay on one of the last remaining stretches of porous, unfenced Bangladesh-India border left over from an administrative error. After India erected 2000 miles of heavily guarded barbed wire between itself and Bangladesh in 2007, Ali’s small piece of land remained trapped in a no-man’s land. His village, once porous, was now subject to panopticon-style surveillance with enormous lights that flooded the borderline. Racked by nightmares and hallucinations caused by these lights, Ali blocks out the state’s intrusion by snuffing out all light from his home. When the author visits him, she finds, “Old newspapers were stuck together and plastered onto the windows; another thick layer of duct tape held these papers together and sealed any gaps around the edges.” By this time, Ali had lived in darkness for two years.
Recalcitrance can also be found in the refusal to forget. Denied information about disappeared family members, Kashmiris make albums out of press images that act as stand-ins for “memories that were systematically co-opted”. In the absence of government and media records, the survivors of the Nellie massacre carry with them the sole evidence of the violence – photographs taken by the lone photographer of the massacre, Bhawan Singh, cut out from magazines and saved on their phones.
These stories transform the book from a narrative of oppression to one of simultaneous resistance. In the words of historian Shahid Amin, the nationalist master narrative “induces a selective national amnesia in relation to specified events which would fit awkwardly, even seriously inconvenience, the neatly woven pattern”. The quiet, quotidian acts of refusal and dissent of border societies unsettle the linear narratives of nation-building that paper over the state’s everyday violence. By holding onto the very memories that the state wants to obscure, these recalcitrant subjects expose this selective national amnesia. Indeed, this is also the work that Vijayan undertakes in this book.
Centring the periphery
In the section on the India-China border, we hear only sparingly from the people who inhabit the region. Some of this omission is perhaps deliberate. In the introduction to this book, Vijayan writes, “Not all stories made their way to the book. When ambiguity could no longer protect people, I let their stories go. Not all stories need to be told.” This region, like Kashmir, is heavily militarised and the site of ongoing territorial disputes. Besides the 1962 war, which is the main focus of this book, it has been marked by many intermittent conflicts. Following the years the author travelled to this region, the India-China border has seen at least two military standoffs, the most recent one continuing well into 2021. Then, it is likely that in the intervening years between documenting, writing, and publishing this book, it may have become impossible to tell some stories without exposing the storytellers to varying degrees of danger.
The long history of military disputes, and the official suppression of information they entail, might also explain the pre-approved list that Vijayan is handed when she travels to the border district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Besides this list that yields only rehearsed sound bytes, her only other interlocutors include a young officer from the Naga Regiment and a few local Buddhist monks. The reflection of a 78-year-old Buddhist monk challenging the Indian republic’s alienation of the region’s people puts into context the silences in this part of the book, “You can raise Indian flags and call us Indian. But people do not forget that the Indian Army deserted us. [The] Chinese occupied parts of this land and [these] people. We lived under occupation,” he tells Vijayan about the 1962 war. It is little wonder that revelations can be both dangerous and traumatic in a region whose people hold such painful memories.
Such silences are not unexpected in a book that seeks to centre the people and communities that postcolonial India has systematically alienated, suppressed, and persecuted. If anything, these silences point to why this book is urgent, necessary, and timely. It comes at a critical juncture. While the Indian state’s violent repression of border communities is as old as the nation itself, the period when this book was researched and written has been marked by a rise of a xenophobic, authoritarian government breathlessly rewriting laws to fit its militant Hindu nationalist agenda. The once-colonised country has now turned coloniser, deploying the army against its own citizens, imprisoning dissenters and human-rights defenders under charges of sedition, and enabling the drain of wealth from the people to powerful corporations. In this backdrop comes the finishing touches to India’s settler-colonial project in Kashmir in the form of an unprecedented information blockade and the abrogation of the region’s special status, a court order to deport Rohingya refugees fleeing a genocidal regime, and the manufactured statelessness of nearly two million Bengali Muslims (and Hindus) in Assam under the National Register of Citizens exercise.
Nellie mass graves are known by none except those that dug them to bury their dead, there are no memorials to mark the killings.
Midnight’s Borders is a critical intervention because it commits to collective memory and consciousness of these contemporary realities and their historical underpinnings in the words of the people directly affected by them. The personal, social, and political archive Vijayan has put together here is a necessary rejoinder in a field that – barring a sizable body of academic work – has been dominated by works of former diplomats and ex-military officials preoccupied with questions of territorial sovereignty. The issues that she raises in this book have been raised before by authors like Sanjoy Hazarika, Ather Zia, and Nandita Haksar – to name only a few – whose work is situated in the specific contexts of the northeastern region of India, Kashmir, and Nagaland. By placing these regions within the same narrative and examining them through the lens of border-making processes, Vijayan is able to point to the shared experience of border societies everywhere: that despite their varying histories and struggles, their lives are determined by the same arbitrariness of borders that shape and reconfigure their identities, and subject them to the same alienation and material and psychic violence.
The book is at once a careful interrogation of India’s arbitrary borders, a scathing condemnation of the violence meted out at the nation-state’s enclosures, and a call for “freedom, dignity, and self-determination” for the people who inhabit these liminal spaces. In the introduction to Midnight’s Borders, Vijayan asks, “What function does a nation still perform if it has consistently failed to offer the most basic of human dignities to its people?” The “people’s history” she has put together is an astute rejoinder to this question. It provides a counter-narrative to the dominant nationalist discourse that can only see borderlands and their people through the lens of territorial sovereignty. It is a timely and necessary reminder that certain stories that do not fit nationalist imperatives are always at the risk of erasure. Like the people whose quiet dissent fills these pages, Vijayan’s book adamantly refuses to give in to this erasure.