Book Title: Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India
Author: Suchitra Vijayan
Midnight is a strange hour: it is the darkest, and yet it gives the inkling of a new day. In 1947, Nehru saw this hour as the dawn of a new era for his country. Many years later, in 1981, novelist Salman Rushdie coined the phrase “midnight’s children”. In an allegorical way, these children were caught in the anxiety and near impossibility of being embodied as one protagonist.
Now, in 2021, we see yet another twist to the phrase. Lawyer, journalist and human rights activist Suchitra Vijayan has titled her new book ‘Midnight’s Borders’. There is a similarity between Rushdie and Vijayan. Both problematise the simplistic and overoptimistic picture of One India that Nehru had envisioned. Yet, there is a difference as well. Rushdie looked at the tensions from within the core of a tumultuous India; Vijayan chooses to cast long and critical glances at this core from the peripheries.
All borders eventually tend to appear eternal and sacrosanct, yet all borders have a history. Three lines were drawn on the face of the subcontinent at different points of time: Durand in 1893, McMahon in 1914 and Radcliffe in 1947. All were named after British colonial administrators. None of these administrators had any deep knowledge of the region, its peoples and cultures. And other than vested colonial interests, they did not much care either.
What is worse, the time given to Radcliffe to partition India was “so short”. As he admitted later, “If I had two to three years, I might have improved on what I did.” However, Vijayan refers to something even more crucial: “It was assumed by everyone that the resulting lines were a ‘makeshift border’… The prevailing wisdom was that the two countries would at a later date ‘agree to a mutual frontier based on people’s wishes’.”
This ‘prevailing wisdom’ did not prevail for long. People of different faiths were pushed into mass migrations across these lines. A million lost their lives, some three to four million lost home and hearth. Seventeen million people would live with the trauma forever.
Even though often disputed, the lines became permanent borders, or lines of control. Wars were fought over them in 1948, 1962, 1965 and 1971. The Kargil conflict occurred in 1999, war clouds hung heavily in 2001-02 at the time of Operation Parakram, and most recently, the Indian and Chinese armies came to confront each other in Ladakh.
Vijayan’s book focuses not so much on the lands that have been turned into borders and zones of constant conflict by scheming men and the quirks of history; it is rather centered on what happens as a result to the lives of ordinary people and communities inhabiting those areas from times immemorial. That is why she calls her book “a people’s history of modern India”.
Vijayan travelled 9,000 miles of these borderlands over seven years to find out. She writes on Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan in the West, to Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in the East. She interviewed ordinary people, kept clippings and diaries, made lists and took photographs. Based on these, hers is a multilayered, non-chronological work with shifting zoom and perspective. It tells stories of migrations, displacements, loss of identity and dignity, and unending suffering as people eke out their lives in heavily militarised zones, getting frequently used and abused in the name of security and treated with suspicion and hostility. These stories are likely to haunt a reader long after the reading is done.
Not many books manage to be evocative and provocative at the same time. This one does. It is written with passion, poignancy and anger. At times, the anger makes her descriptions and characterisations appear one-sided, exaggerated, overly judgmental and excessively condemnatory of the state. A part of the explanation could be autobiographical: “I have spent my entire adult life thinking about state violence and justice.” She tells the story of her father who was nearly killed in an attack and continued to suffer from multiple injuries for years later. The attack, she suspects, was planned by ruling state politicians. But 18 years later, all the accused were acquitted. Also, as an international human rights activist, she experienced more personal losses: “I had myself lost friends,” she says, “in Kabul, Fallujah and Aleppo.”
But the greater explanation, I would like to think, are her humanist-universalist concerns, her rationalism pitted against hatred born of prejudices: “What function does a nation still perform if it has consistently failed to offer the most basic dignities to its people?” and “How vast and expansive would their world be if they were not restricted by borders, ID cards, checkpoints, tear gas, violence and funerals?”
This may sound like an outcry of a romantic idealist, but in times when a majoritarian and unitarist version of India is closing in even while we live in the core of the nation, it might pay to take a peek at the peripheries, for as Vijayan says in the beginning of the book, “In my quest to understand India through her border, I found a nation in the middle of an extraordinary crisis.”