The margins of a nation

Book cover of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India
This is a beautifully written book, haunting not just for the stories it tells but the way it tells them: In clear, spare prose that is both aching and brutal. Suchitra Vijayan has travelled to several parts of India’s land borders with China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, chronicled the stories of the victims of India’s quest to force the country into a nation, and has reported them in all their complexity.

She calls her accounts a “museum of forgotten facts” (presumably  a revisiting of novelist Anstey Harris’s A Museum of Forgotten Memories) about people living in Kashmir (not Jammu or Ladakh) and in Nellie, Assam, where over 3,000 Muslims were killed  in 1983, but the massacre failed to purge the hate. People told her they were cursed many times over as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) continues to hang over them like a suspended sword. She spoke to Bhawan Singh, one of India’s only photographers who captured the Nellie massacre through his camera. Fearful of the future, he asks her quietly: “Where did all this hate come from, where is it going to take us?” echoing what many residents had told her. The complexities of the Naga peace process — such as it is — takes her to the villages of Tuensang district where women told her they had never encountered an outsider, except Indian soldiers. We hear the story of Panitar in West Bengal’s Sundarbans where the shifting Ichamati river means the people living in the area are perpetual refugees. “Panitar’s division is as cruel as it is arbitrary: here, the houses on either side of one dusty lane occupy two neighbouring countries. Where India ends and Bangladesh begins is a question confused by history, family and the border pillars themselves,” she writes. She meets another victim of the border near north Bengal, a man named Ali. “The border runs through him,” his friend Jamshed, who introduced Ms Vijayan to him, tells her, “He is almost gone, but I don’t want his story to be gone too.” Ali lived on the India-Bangladesh border. When the border was fenced, he was trapped in no-man’s land. His marriage to a girl from Bangladesh ended with the couple divided and stranded on either side. Crushed by the cycle of debt and struggle, he tells Ms Vijayan: “They took my land, they stole my life, they stole my future, they took my nightmares and they stole my dreams too.” Ali went missing in 2018.

What Ms Vijayan invested in writing the book is impressive. She travelled 9,000 miles over seven years across India’s borders, finishing with “endless notebooks, over a thousand images and more than 300 hours of recorded conversation”. In between, she had a baby daughter whom she had to leave behind at 18 months to complete her journey, her father went through life-threatening surgery and she herself had to go through the endless palaver of petitions to government both Central and state, the armed and paramilitary forces and other agencies to let her talk to the people she sought out. In that sense, she is both brave and honest in telling the story.

Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India
Author: Suchitra Vijayan
Publisher: Context/ Westland Books
Pages: 261; Price: Rs 699
But there is some amount of methodological confusion. She chooses only some borders, not others, to seek out people crushed by India’s resolve to re-manufacture the country as a “new” nation. Gujarat and Tamil Nadu also have sea borders and the people living in these areas have their own torment to relate, as collateral victims. But Ms Vijayan — who has studied war crimes and the crisis of refugees andstatelessness — does not look at the problems of stateless Tamils in India who are victims twice over: In Sri Lanka as well as India.

Many stories are struggling to get out of this one book. She looks atthe “real” story of the 1962 war with China with yearning —referring to the work of the UK-based scholar, the late Karunakar Gupta (whosebook The Hidden History of the Sino-Indian Frontier came out in 1974, not the 1980s, as Vijayan claims). The unsettled Sino-Indian border is at least partly responsible for the travails of the people living in the border villages of Tawang, for instance, and India has been less than truthful about the war that led to the problem. But many layers of truth and untruth have been added over the years and MsVijayan needs to write another book, researching that slice of history.

And then there’s the problem of contests over truth. For every Hilal Ahmad Dar who died in an “encounter killing” in Kashmir, there’s a Tina Whig, whose story will never be told. Maj Mohit Whig (1960-1997) was an officer of 2/5 Gorkha Rifles, and all that remains of him is a piece of paper that says KIA (Killed in Action). He was blown up by a roadside IED tossed casually in Kupwara, maybe by a different Hilal Ahmad Dar. Tina’s second son, Fateh, was born around that time and diagnosed with spinal bifida. She struggles on a widow’s pension. Why is her story any less important? There are thousands like her, also bewildered victims and just flotsam in India’s quest to become a nation.

Ms Vijayan writes from a certain standpoint and some of her bald assertions are questionable, like “the army can kill, maim, rape and torture with absolute impunity” (pg 182) and “the BJP, the world’s richest political party, armed with a private militia, now controls a largely pliable news media. Kashmir remains violently silenced.  ‘The world’s largest democracy’ is now a Hindu Rashtra” (pg 226). Not yet. There’s still some way to go.

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