The human consequences of colonial cartography explored in a recent book

Common to the stories the author collects from various borders are themes of loss, grief and perpetual uncertainty caused by territorial nationalism. SUCHITRA VIJAYAN
Elections 2024
29 June, 2021

The prologue to the author, activist and lawyer Suchitra Vijayan’s recent book Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India begins with field notes from the India–Bangladesh border and a quote that reads, “When someone asks me for my name, I say I am someone who has lost my home many times over.” These poignant lines, spoken by a person she met on the India-Bangladesh border, sets the tone for what the book probes: the impact of reckless colonial cartography on the lives of ordinary people and communities inhabiting the border areas.

Common to the stories the author collects from various borders are themes of loss, grief and perpetual uncertainty caused by territorial nationalism. “Entire communities became objects of state surveillance,” she writes, homes were often “unmade and erased,” while people were, and continue to be, “caught between history, time and territory.” The book is divided into five parts, each dealing with a separate region, ranging from stories of entrapment in colonial maps along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border to cartographic confusion in the India–China border and records of repression along the India–Pakistan border.

The second part of the book examines themes of belonging and othering through a look at the India–Bangladesh border and the narratives of national security, illegal migration and illicit trade tied to identities defined by this border. The India–Bangladesh border, which fluctuates in length depending on who is doing the record-keeping, is a “contested colonial inheritance,” Vijayan writes—“a makeshift border” that was “hurriedly drawn for the purpose of transferring power than for dividing the two countries.” It is well-known that British colonial administrators drew three lines that had far-reaching implications on the lives of the people living in the subcontinent: the Durand Line in 1893, the McMahon Line in 1914 and the Radcliffe Line in 1947. Vijayan fills the gaps in this history by superimposing the experiences of ordinary people onto these facts.

Through conversations, interviews and examination of diaries and memoirs, the book also focusses on the disruptions in family life and shifts in people’s living conditions in border regions—from smaller-scale disturbances, such as villages where “war-like” exercises take place, to the rending apart of entire families divided by the new borders. It also examines how, by the late 2000s, xenophobic nationalism led to a situation where the “figure of the ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ in India became polarising election rhetoric” and “the language of the ‘illegal’ and the ‘infiltrator’ dominated public discourse.”

Vijayan began her journey in India from Kolkata, from where she prepared to move southeast to the Sundarbans. While passing through Panitar—one of around two hundred and fifty hamlets situated along the India–Bangladesh border—alongside several Border Security Force guards, she crosses “Border Pillar No.1.” This is a one-foot-high concrete block on the side of the Ichamati River that, on most days, serves as a cricket stump for children on either side of the border. “Panitar’s division is as cruel as it is arbitrary,” Vijayan observes. People from both sides regularly cross the Ichamati, which begins in Bangladesh and crosses through India.

A man named Gazi, whom Vijayan met on her way to the town of Malda, asked rhetorically, “How do you cut a river into two?” The backyard of his home houses one of the neglected border pillars marking the divide between the India and Bangladesh. Gazi’s family lives a few feet away, but effectively lived in another country. His great-grandfather, who is 101 years old, lives in Assam, where he had migrated over eighty years ago as part of “a wave of Bengali Muslim peasants and labourers who were brought to Assam as a part of the colonial economy.” Gazi’s grandmother, who was born when there was no border separating India and Bangladesh, later became a citizen of East Pakistan. Two of her three sons remained in India and one stayed in East Pakistan.

Gazi was born in a farming village. The author writes that as he grew up, he watched BSF camps growing along the farmland and witnessed harsh state intervention transforming a porous border into a militarised divide. She notes the calmness with which Gazi makes devastating observations, such as, “Our homes are vanishing before our eyes,” and describes the treatment meted out to his people: “They treat us like cattle. They see us as a herd.” He adds later, “The Partition did not just happen, the war did not just happen. It is unfinished, incomplete and ongoing.”

His anecdotes speak to the palpable sense of indignity and humiliation that many others like him living in this part of the region face on a regular basis. Vijayan refers to an internal BSF training manual from 2013 that notes “key attributes” of the Bengal border population: “‘Predominantly Muslim’, ‘Illiteracy, backwardness and poverty’, ‘Inclination of youth towards easy money’ and ‘Hostile towards the forces.’” She argues that residents of the border areas “are not viewed as citizens to be protected” but as “reductive stereotypes,” as “subjects to be watched, disciplined and punished.”

The story that resonated and stayed with me the longest was that of the abandonment, transformation and healing of a woman named Sari Begum who lived in the bunkered territory of Fazilka, a border district on the India–Pakistan border, where the army was mobilised in 2016. Vijayan notes that over half a million people across the districts of Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Fazilka were asked to leave their homes, and the villages were evacuated to clear the ground of landmines. Some people found refuge in gurdwaras, while others had no place to go. Fighting had routinely emptied the villages over the years, and people had witnessed multiple wars and regular cross-border shelling. Having grown up in Kashmir, the most militarised zone of the world, the chapter on Fazilka was captivating. It evoked familiar images of the military in Kashmir and provoked in me a curiosity to learn more about the lives of people who inhabit this region.

Sari Begum, a tall, old woman with her white hair tied in a bun, owned a small plot of land. She had lived her entire life in this village, but she talked of brutality elsewhere too. “These borders [are] everywhere,” she told Vijayan. “Not just where our country ends. If you are a woman in this country, [they are] also inside you.” Sari’s story was the most disturbing one. Her father had formed a group of “hunting parties” that attacked Muslims in villages at the time of Partition. After kidnapping a 14-year-old Muslim girl, who was fleeing with her family, Sari’s father forced her into a marriage with him, which led to Sari’s birth in late 1948. Later, as the governments of two independent countries set up repatriation programmes for “abducted” women, Sari’s mother was taken back by her family to Pakistan, after her family paid a ransom amount. Sari, who was a year old at the time, was left behind and grew up without a mother. Her father was murdered when she was ten. As the author puts it, the story of Sari and many others like her speak of “a life where the violence of the border is not at the fence, or in the trenches, but at the centre of their universe.”

Vijayan asked Sari about her feelings for Pakistan, since she lived close to the border of a country that is often, in the larger Indian imagination, thought to be an “enemy” country. She replied that all the terrible things that happened to her in her village were done by her own people. Her story throws open larger questions that flummox conventional notions of identity and belonging within the nation. Vijayan asks where Sari, who does not know if her mother is dead or alive on the other side of the border, “belongs.”

In the final chapter of the book, Vijayan meets Natasha, a Pakistani friend living in New York, who recounts many family anecdotes. These include a story recently discovering that her great-great-grandfather Mir Abdul Rahim had been killed at the age of 23, during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. His family had moved from Amritsar to Lahore nearly three decades after the massacre, during the Partition. Her grandmother, who could never come back to her home, followed Indian cinema over the years as a way to stay connected to “the life that was abruptly taken away from her on the eve of the Partition.” Four of Natasha’s grandparents were from Kashmir. “Natasha’s family has never returned to Amritsar, or seen Kashmir,” the book observes.

At one juncture, Vijayan writes that Natasha “wonders how upsetting the recent turn of events in India would have been for her grandmother.” Her grandmother “knew that Pakistan did not turn out to be the Promised Land, but India’s descent into a similar abyss would have stolen from her the memory of a place she once knew as home.” At another point, while describing years of dictatorship in Pakistan, the friend says, “Unlike Indians, we did not have democracy. We are a nation who has just been fighting for democracy! … Indians didn’t have that struggle. You had it very easy. You had a Constitution. You had a civil society. You had institutions, systems and a Constitution that was upheld as supreme. We never had that.”

The chapter elaborates on how Pakistan saw its constitution (produced in 1956, nine years after independence) suspended twice—by the military dictators Zia-ul Haq and Musharraf—and speaks also of a period of Islamisation and the systematic rewriting of history in the 1970s and 1980s. “Almost forty years later, India is now on the same path, rewriting its history and remaking its citizens,” Vijayan writes. Through the friend’s anecdotes of repression in Pakistan, the chapter also makes a certain distinction between Modi’s India and what came before. “The India that Natasha once thought of as a fantasy land is gone,” Vijayan writes. What this collapsing of time does is to make India under Modi, at least in this chapter, come across as very apparently more authoritative and repressive than what came before. This may well be true, given the sheer scale and magnitude of violence under the current regime in India, but not so much in terms of the ideology and philosophy of the Indian state, which has been based, for long, on majoritarian prejudice—think of the colossal human cost of militarisation in Kashmir and northeast India for the project of their integration into a democratic nation, for instance. Systemic marginalisation and the history of communal and caste violence in India is, of course, not of Modi’s making; and, although the author does speak briefly of the Emergency and gives an overview of the “long history of oppression” and “cycles of violence” in Kashmir, perhaps the book could have looked deeper at India’s policies before the BJP alongside its scrutiny of the current regime.

Nonetheless, the empathetic and compassionate capacity of the book remains perhaps its most distinguishable feature, particularly as it explores political betrayals and repression in Kashmir, the persecution of the Rohingya, the raging history of conflict in the northeast and the forthcoming large-scale statelessness as a result of the National Register of Citizens. The author weaves together individual stories explored in each chapter, while the beginning of each part conveys a larger sense of historical events in the particular region to be explored. The book’s combination of characters, dialogues, narrative, and history, at times, feels scattered or uneven, as it does not give equal attention and space to the regions—such as, for instance, the chapters on India–China and Afghanistan–Pakistan border areas. The chapters pick up more rhythm and pace from the fourth part, whereas the briefness of the first three leaves one with abrupt endings and disconnected beginnings.

Taking a long view of the history of cartographic tyranny in the subcontinent allows Vijayan to drive home her question, “What memories of violence can a physical border fence hold?” This is a salient one, especially when many people she meets—such as Sharif, someone Vijayan met along the “ever more fortified” India–Bangladesh border—imply that the “Partition is still alive.” There is an aspect of the universal to what he says, which echoes Vijayan’s claim in the introduction to the book: “It is not just the South Asian borders that are unravelling: 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.”