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HomeBetween The LinesExcerpt: Suchitra Vijayan’s Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India

Excerpt: Suchitra Vijayan’s Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India

Polis Project’s Suchitra Vijayan kindly granted us permission to run these selections from the Introduction to her book.

In 2013, I embarked on a nine-thousand-mile journey along India’s borders. I didn’t yet know that I was foolishly attempting to follow the outlines on a shifting map.

The journey was, for me, a return home. But after being away for more than a decade, I was coming back to a place I no longer recognized. I wanted to understand “my country,” and I wanted to make sense of the ongoing violence at its borders, the debates over nationalism, citizenship, and the unanswered questions about belonging. I traveled to the frayed edges of the republic to meet the people who inhabit the margins of the state and to study the human toll of decades of aggressive, territorial nationalism.

In my quest to understand India through her border, I found a nation in the middle of an extraordinary crisis. The once great promise of an emerging “global power” had waned. History was being swiftly rewritten.

*  *  *

When I made the decision to travel India’s borders, I had just returned from Afghanistan—a place I had known and wanted to study for a long time. Weeks after the 9/11 attack, I had left my home in Madras to pursue my undergraduate studies in law in England. On my layover in Dubai, everyone seemed nervous. CNN streamed on the walls of the departure lounge, and commentators called Kabul the “terror hotbed.” . . . Terms like “radicalization,” “Islamophobia,” and “the war on terror” entered our everyday language, and entire communities became the objects of state surveillance.

It took me another ten years to get to Afghanistan, and in the intervening decade I lived in . . . The Hague, working for the War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia, and later in Arusha, Tanzania, with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I traveled through Palestine and Sudan. I lived in Cairo the year leading up to the Arab Spring, all with an Indian passport. There, I ran the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in 2008 to provide resources for the more than five thousand Iraqi families who fled the invasion of Iraq. Amidst the fear of being shut down and regular visits from the Mukhabarat, the Egyptian intelligence services, we served close to six hundred Iraqi families. Even as I fought for my clients to be resettled to another country, my own stay in Cairo was precarious.

. . . [A]s an Indian, I had to appear every month to renew my visa at the Mogamma—a gray, imposing building in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that housed the Passports, Immigration, and Nationality Administration Offices.

Once, after a particularly long day at the Mogamma, all my documents were rejected, and I was made to wait. A functionary walked up to me and suggested that I meet the officer in charge at a hotel off Talaat Harb Street in downtown Cairo, to “sort things out.” When I started screaming in disbelief, I was told to leave by the guard and return the next day. When I returned, my visa was only extended for a week. I had to apply for the renewal again in another six days. Despite the humiliation, I told myself I was lucky: unlike my clients, I had a passport, I wasn’t stateless, and I still had a country I could return to. 

*  *  *

Where you are born, what passport you hold, can shrink your world, cripple you, and sometimes kill you.

Whether it was from the testimonies I have read from Rwanda and Bosnia, or the stories Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese, and Eritrean clients told me as I prepared their legal petitions, what became clear was this—political borders were unraveling across the world. We were living in the age of a great crisis of citizenship and belonging. Had we reached an impasse about how to think about citizenship, borders, and the nations enclosed by them?

What function does a nation still perform if it has consistently failed to offer the most basic dignities to its people?

Various democracies are crumbling within these nation-states. Could we, I wondered, envision a new world radically remade by freedom and justice? While I struggled with these questions for years, it was in Afghanistan, while researching counterinsurgency practices along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, that the ideas, stories, arguments, and images I had gathered over the years came together as a plan to explore these questions in my home country of India.

The idea of traveling along India’s border, all nine thousand miles of it, was audacious. No one had done it before. I spent the next six months reading everything I could. The bibliography I kept at that time lists 113 books and another 150 essays. But even those six months of research, saving money, and plotting did not prepare me for the task ahead.

The project I thought would take mere months took me over seven years.

*  *  *

Through my travels, I attempted to trace the outline of a country that is part modern, part feudal, and still struggling with democracy. By the end of my travels, I found myself not with one map of India, but many maps that looked far different from the one I thought I knew. I was taught to look at the fringes as from an imaginary center—always looking outward from the mainland to a faraway frontier. But when I found myself at that frontier, I realized I was standing in a wholly different world, a wholly different history, and a wholly different version of the country I called home. And yet, in this landscape of unmarked graves and buried land mines, and cries for freedom, I began to understand that we live in a world made of borderlands, that borders are being created everywhere.

While the stories in this book are from the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, and from India’s borders, they could take place anywhere. It is not just the South Asian borders that are unraveling: borders around the world are enclosing and suffocating their people rather than guaranteeing their freedom. What happened in Bosnia was repeated in Rwanda, and what happens in Palestine is happening in Kashmir.

And it is not just violence and war that people are fleeing. Climate change will radically remake the borders of our world—what lines will you enforce with a standing army when water and fire have swallowed them? What sovereignty will you impose on a city erased by rising seas?

Edward Said wrote, “The earth is in effect one world, in which empty, uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist. Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography.” The stories in this book are part of a greater, universal struggle over geography as individuals across the world navigate the imposition of arbitrary borders. In the words of the historian Romila Thapar, “Borders only become borders when cartographies come into existence.”

Today, we live in a world where commodities, capital, and drones have far greater freedom of movement than people fleeing dictators or genocide. The borders we have established in many places cannot continue to exist as they are. We shape nations out of imaginary, nonexistent lines—sometimes amputating communities or whole cultures to make way for a country—and we defend these lines with violence lest they cease to exist altogether. As the need to rethink the shape of the postwar and postcolonial world intensifies and the world contemplates the future of democracy and the nation-state in contested terrains, the stories from the borderlands need to be told. These real histories are intricate, contradictory, and full of inconvenient truths that cannot be neatly sorted into the textbook categories of cause and effect. They hold immense pain, but they also reveal glimpses of a new world.

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