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.