At a time when right-wing nationalism is crescendoing in India and across the world, Suchitra Vijayan’s Midnight’s Borders raises pertinent questions about the very foundations of India’s nationalism — the cartography of South Asian nation-states — defined by arbitrary lines drawn hastily by the British colonial administration. Vijayan undertakes a seven-year long, 9,000-mile journey along the borders of India, and interviews people living in these liminal spaces. Midnight’s Borders, a work of narrative reportage, is the fruit of this journey.
Vijayan is no stranger to stories of violence. As a lawyer, journalist, and human rights activist who has worked in conflict-ridden territories of Kosovo, Egypt, Rwanda, and elsewhere, she has often met people scrambling for bare existence, caught in a no-man’s land. In her book, she makes her intention clear at the very beginning, claiming that this endeavor is not to give “voice to the voiceless” but to critique “the nation-state, its violence, and the arbitrariness of territorial sovereignty.” She acknowledges that a book in its limited scope cannot really encapsulate the entirety of this journey, and it will remain more of a “scrapbook,” a collection of images, texts, poetry, and maps.
British India was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan on the eve of independence in August, 1947. A British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe set foot in India for the first time in July, 1947 to draw the borders and completed the task within seven weeks, engendering communal riots, a heavily militarized border, four wars and seven decades of violence and hatred between the two countries. In 1971, East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh. In recent years, the narrative of hate has escalated with the reelection of the right-wing Narendra Modi government in 2019. Legislations such as National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act threaten to render millions of people, especially Muslims, stateless. In these circumstances, the lives of people inhabiting the sketchy borderlands has become all the more vulnerable, and fragile.
Vijayan shows a keen eye for detail as she presents these diverse lives. Be it the teenager who is offered guns, money, and M&M candies to fight the Taliban in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or Ali, who seeks solace in darkness as the floodlights installed on his plot of land along the India-Bangladesh border leaves him traumatized, or the nonagenarian Johinder Singh Suj from Sindh (a province in present-day Pakistan), who still cherishes his school geography textbook that shows a map of undivided British India — the people are captured with deep empathy and come alive in her narration with the adept use of dialogue. Vijayan reserves her own impressions for later, and allows us to know these people intimately.
What makes these lives so vivid is how Vijayan contextualizes them by placing them in the bigger picture of history. She digs deep into colonial history to show how years of violence and consequential suffering has shaped these lives across generations. Sari Begum, born of rape during the Partition and married off to a violent, alcoholic man twenty years older than her, is forced to part with her land to make space for an army bunker, while Natasha Javed stumbles upon a piece of family history that reveals her ancestor being killed in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 and the subsequent trauma and loss of having to be “forcefully emptied” of history when they crossed over to Pakistan, and how talking about this would make them traitors in their homeland.
Vijayan researches meticulously into official documents and conducts a series of interviews in an effort to uncover the murky truths behind the death of Hilal Ahmed Mir, a supposed ‘militant’ killed by the military in an encounter in the disputed territory of Kashmir, or Felani Khatun, a 15-year-old girl who was shot when trying to cross the barbed wire at the porous India-Bangladesh border. She lucidly explains the complicated history of the McMahon Line, how the India-China border is the result of a fabrication perpetuated by the British colonial administration.
And yet, the research and the history never overpowers the flow of the narrative. It is the fragility of human lives that remains at the very center of the book.
One of the ways she upholds the humane in this book is through her interaction with the men in the security forces. Although Vijayan critiques the state and its complicity in violence and erasure of lives, she refrains from villainizing the men who serve the state. Instead, she shows the absurdity of the army apparatus that strives to comply with the narrative of patriotism. For instance, a border security personnel tells her how he failed to capture a photograph of a porcupine after spending half an hour trying to fit a helmet on its head, because he is bored and lonely. Again, in the India-China border, she finds a young army officer closely referring to a book that contradicts the official version of the Indo-China war of 1962, and concludes that perhaps, he recognizes that “most of soldiering involved cynical subordination to ideas that no longer made sense.”
The photographs add another dimension to the book, and could have been used more. Vijayan’s lens not only captures the people but also the past through objects, such as the picture of Kotwali Gate, the remains of a medieval fort that serves as a border checkpoint rife with weeds and trees growing on it, symbolic of a state bent on rewriting history rather than preserving it. The images, however, are not all bereft of hope, as children from both India and Bangladesh use a border pillar as a cricket stump, while men on opposing sides of the war on terror in Afghanistan gather around in a cold evening, smoking and sharing stories.
Vijayan’s book begins a much-needed conversation on thinking about freedom beyond the idea of nation and its illusory lines. “Our borders had become a spectacle, and we the cheering mob,” she says, as she calls for purging hatred for the sake of posterity.
By Suchitra Vijayan
Published May 25, 2021