Saturday, March 2, 2024

Reading ‘Midnight’s Borders’

‘The Dog of Tithwal’ is a short story by Sadat Hasan Manto. It stands out for its brutal yet subtle metaphors of partitioned lives in the post-colonial/post-partition Indian subcontinent. The story is about a dog that runs through the ‘no man’s land’ between the military barracks of India and Pakistan. It goes to the barracks of both sides and was named according to the wishes of military men on both camps. In the end, after an absurd fight between the army men of both sides over the dog, it gets shot by a soldier. Seeing the dog which lies in the no man’s land, martyred, Jamadar Harnam Singh says: ‘He died a dog’s death’. In her ‘Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India’, Suchitra Vijayan tells the political history of post-colonial India through the visions (and blindness) and memories (and amnesias) of thousands of people who were destined to live ‘dog’s lives’ and to die ‘dog’s deaths’ in the margins of borders and spaces of uncertainties. 

The book, which includes various personal narratives about partition and borders, is ‘partitioned’ into five parts. The first part includes the descriptions about the travel through the boundaries of Pakistan and Afghanistan while the second part consists of the past and present of the India- Bangladesh Border. The third part, which deals with the cultural-national dilemmas of India-China borderlands is followed by the accounts of India-Myanmar borderlines. After that, the fifth part includes the details and descriptions about the ‘controversial’ India-Pakistan border. The textual narratives are expanded by extensively using the popular imaginations and articulations of history which effectively transcends the official-national archival narrative models which come along with a set of limitations. 

Richard Thompson, a pioneer in the academic genre of oral history, remarks that ‘All history has a social purpose’ and it ‘depends ultimately upon its social purpose’. When we depend on popular historical narratives which transcends the official-national historical narratives most of the time, helps us to de-stabilize the epistemological framework of nationalism and its hegemonic presence and influence throughout the possible narratives. Rather than appearing as a mere ‘translation’ of popular memory, anxieties, desires and disappointments, The definitions and descriptions of the author help us to locate the popular memories by integrating them along with the violent territorial history of the nation-state.

At the same time, Suchitra Vijayan’s narrative succeeds in making possible an ‘ethical manifestation’ of linguistic and cultural mediation, an area that is very susceptible to the minute manifestations of power. She makes it clear that it is not her ‘goal to ‘bear witness’ or ‘give voice to the voiceless’. This ethics of mediation is manifested in the long silences which comes in the form of ruptures in the narrative continuities, discontinuous passages and descriptions without images. This approach is commendable especially in the contemporary socio-political context of India where the lives of ‘marginalized people’ are considered as a potential area for developing individual careers. 

In the introduction of the book, the author remarks that we are living through ‘an age of a great crisis of citizenship and belonging’. She asks ‘what function does a nation still perform if it has consistently failed to offer the most basic of human dignities to its people’ in continuation to this remark. It becomes necessary in this context to think about the killing of Moinul Haque, a 28-year-old farmer of Dholpur in Assam which clearly showed us the cruellest possibilities of the nation-state. We know that this is a time when the idea of citizenship, which is ethical in essence, is detached from its riotous history and its own contradictions and being made into an abstract and immediate document that satisfies and protects the desires and demands of ultranationalism. It is from the interiors of a state which fastens such procedures in various names, that Suchitra attempts to write a book by listening to the words and memories of people who have lost their lives and pasts on the basis of a mere line, a spelling mistake or a bureaucratic obstinacy. The fundamental question proposed by the book is this: Can we envision a new world radically remade by freedom and justice while various democracies are crumbling within different nation-states? 

At the same time, there are a few observations in the book which demands critical interrogation. For eg., the observation that ‘To govern India, the British introduced separate Hindu and Muslim electorates, which further stoked Hindu–Muslim violence’ is disputable. Gyanendra Pandey observes how the Britishers overlooked the social-economical and political dynamics of Hindu-Muslim clashes by looking at it only through the lens of ‘communal’, which gave them enough ground to locate and justify themselves as the ‘modern rulers’ who were ‘supposed’ to rationally rule over these ‘pre-modern communities’ filled with primordial hatred.

Communalism, according to Pandey, is a form of colonialist knowledge that stood for the ‘puerile and the primitive’, and all that colonialism was not. The history of the formation of separate electorates includes an entire history of the Dalit-minority politics and its growth and how it had irritated the hegemonic political players including the congress. Limiting this entirety into the logic of British power is reductive since it overlooks the riotous colonial history of Dalit-minority politics.

The book starts with the history of the Afghan-Pakistan boundary. The observations indicate that the current Afghan-Pak boundary actually came into being through the history of invasions of Anglo-Russian empires over Asian-South Asian nations. The boundary, which is known as the Durant line, was established in 1893. The book compels us to look into the colonial and pre-colonial history if we want to understand the present of this region, which even includes Kashmir. We can see that in history that the Anglo-Afghan wars and Anglo-Sikh wars have had drawn and re-drawn the boundaries of these regions in various ways. Even when we talk about Kashmir, the metanarrative logic often compel us to limit its history into a mere territorial dispute of two rival nations. But in reality, it is only when we go back into the colonial and pre-colonial history of the region that we’ll get a holistic picture of the social-political past and present of the region.

The writer, without resorting to mere abstracts, shows us the history of empires and the formation of the Taliban in afghan and shows how all these were informed and influenced by the geographical differences. The author, by quoting the British historian Bijan Omrani, remarks that the Durand line ‘was never meant to be an international boundary, and it was merely ‘a line that delimited areas of influence, not sovereignty’. The text shows how these mere demarcations were further transformed into rigid boundaries. The chapter ends with the personal accounts of people, who couldn’t locate themselves in the varying boundaries and changing invaders, and how they were compelled to take arms for various flags in order to survive every day. We can conclude the past and present of the region in commander Mahmud’s words: ‘It is the coloniser’s map, and they had no respect for our land. Why should we respect their borders?’

The next chapter discusses the India-Bangladesh border, which is fenced by 8-foot high electric wires for almost 70% of it. The book observes that the India-East Pakistan (Now, Bangladesh) boundary was ‘hurriedly drawn’ and more useful ‘for the purpose of transferring power’ than for dividing the two countries. Suchitra remarks that ‘then it was understood that two countries would at a later date ‘agree to a mutual frontier based on people’s wishes’. The boundary had no resemblance to the realities of the ground.

The map was even based ‘on rivers that changed their path, making and remaking the border every day’. After the partition, Nehru himself had expressed this crisis in the parliament. The Sundarbans, which transform their shape after each monsoon, was also a part of this border. The study exposes that both states, who even claim for the rights a minute temporary island on the sea, are completely blind to the serious impacts of climate change which is said to have already started showing its colours on almost one crore of the population who are living in these vulnerable border areas. 

Suchitra writes about the children who use the border pillars in Panitar as a cricket stump. The fact that the ‘border’ is something they can surpass daily, or can even ‘use’ as a stump gives us crucial indications.  We can see that all of these localities are under the high surveillance of the Border Security Force. The study also gives us an idea about how these security forces use their power as the carriers of state power in areas that lies on the peripheries of the actual power centres. A B.S.F jawan tells the author that ‘we have to treat everyone like a suspect’ since most of the women and children are ‘smugglers’ who smuggle ‘food, cough syrup and cigarettes’. Gazi, a local man the author meets remarks that ‘the Partition did not just happen, and the war did not just happen. It is unfinished, incomplete and ongoing.’ We can see that the nation-state realities and locations of these people are shaped and influenced by continuous migrations, forced and otherwise, evictions along with various natural calamities including floods. Gazi also mentions the socio-political structures and realities which compel the people to engage in illegal activities such as ‘smuggling’ essential items. 

An internal BSF training manual from 2013 describes the border population like this: ‘Predominantly Muslim’, ‘Illiteracy, backwardness and poverty’, ‘Inclination of youth towards easy money’ and ‘Hostile towards the forces’. This book resists the racial determinations and fixations of hegemonic official narratives and the textual-official accounts shaded by such prejudices by recording the counter-narratives of the normal people, the ‘accused’ here, by using the possibilities of oral narratives and history.  The story of Felani Khatun is one such story. Khatun, who had to cross the border for her marriage, had her dress caught on the barbed wire and was shot dead by B.S.F forces who heard her screaming. The book records that ‘Felani struggled to stay alive for four hours, begging for water before dying’. But in the eyes of border forces, these women are ‘Indians only in name’ who smuggle ‘goods inside their purdah’ and ‘cross illegally and cry rape’.

The court had later acquitted the army personnel in the absence of evidence. We can see that the story of Felani wouldn’t be recorded in any official historical records other than the memories of those people. No one else will remember Khatuns without ‘documents’, or are accused as ‘documentless’, or Ali s who are in their deathbed right under the large flood lights on the borders which causes psychic hallucinations. Thus, the history of borders is expanded through such popular memories and regional accounts which stands in the ruptures of the national narratives, as radical discontinuities.  

The next chapter talks about the India- China borderlands which exist in the shades of the rhetoric of ultranationalism. The chapter discusses the vernacular myths which protect the wounded nationalist narratives post-1962 war. The constructed myths, which includes signifiers of India and China, evoke the national imagination of India as an overarching element. Edward Said argues that the West has constructed a concept of an ‘eternal/timeless orient’, in contrast to the fast-developing West, which doesn’t develop, stays the same in a primordial stagnant manner, as an ‘ideal other’. It is in a similar way that the Indian mainland imagines the north-eastern states, with all its ‘exotic tribalism’ and ‘absurd imaginations’. This imagination is very violent since it doesn’t include the everyday realities of the people residing there and their own history.  The book observes that the regional protests, anxieties about developmental projects and the destruction of vernacular languages don’t appear in the mainland imaginations or news as grave concerns.

The narrative describes the colonial-post-colonial history of Tawang and it refers to the ‘Tagin’ tribe, which resisted the entering of Indian forces.  These histories of bloodshed, (India lost 47 soldiers in that attack) shows us how the immediate imagination of the new nation-state was a violent invasion on various already rooted sub-nationalities which were even older than the newly formed state. The chapter also hints at the counter-narratives which lies in the popular memories which mostly breaks down various official-national accounts of the war. 

India-Myanmar border is the major premise of the fourth chapter. Suchitra describes an interesting anecdote where the officers at the Nagaland House, remarked after seeing her documents for the permit: ‘It is a disputed territory. I don’t see why Indians want to go there. You act as [if] it is yours. This chapter observes that the very usage of the term ‘northeast’ itself is a colonial hangover. This term/name is a violent marker of historical reduction of 255 plus tribes and their histories, memories and territories under one singular demarkation for political convenience and administrative easiness. This region has witnessed violent militant struggles for self-determination for almost six decades. These self-determination movements are almost or even older than the Indian state. The book describes how the graves in Naga villages bear remarks like ‘India killed my son.’ and how they were killed and which Indian regiment killed them.

After this, the book moves to the Nellie village in Assam, which had witnessed one of the most gruesome genocides witnessed by post-colonial India. It was on a day in February 1983, within a time span of a few hours that more than three thousand Muslims including women and children were murdered. The study observes that the history of borders and boundaries in Assam lies in the rivers. The frequent floods and the change in flows influence even the fate of the people’s citizenship. We can see that it was in Assam which the first flames of doubt against the citizenship of migrants, especially minority migrants was raised. Nellie genocide was also an aftermath of this hatred towards ‘other’. The book, which travels through the present days of the inhabitants of Nellie village, shows us how these people were made silent by bearing the burden of the history of violent murders. This incident was not reported by any of the local newspapers. The only official inquiry report that was commissioned by the state remains unpublished and no one has been convicted of these murders to date. This complete erasure of the violent incident is somehow resisted by the photographs of Bhawan Singh, then photographer of India Today, which acts as one of the very few solid shreds of evidence other than the heartwrenching stories and memories of the inhabitants of the village.

The first thing that should come to our mind when we think about Nellie should be the ability of the state to completely render such an unparalleled genocide into a muted narrative. The book remarks that most of those who have survived the genocide are currently struggling with the N.R.C list which doesn’t include their names. Thus, the chapter evidently shows how the people who had survived a genocide that was orchestrated with the silent presence of the state is struggling in front of another violence of de-citizenship, where the state itself is in front.

India-Pakistan border is the major topic of discussion in the fifth chapter. It is described as ‘as one of the most complex, violent and dangerous boundaries in the world’.  Here, the book compels us to expand our enquiries towards the colonial-precolonial histories and the social-political actualities of Kashmir instead of sticking with the post-colonial narratives. It is only then, the study remarks, that we will be able to grasp the diverse imaginations of popular sovereignty. Suchitra painfully writes that the houses are known not by their numbers or the streets, but by the names of those who’ve been killed or disappeared. Here the individual experiences acquire a social and political position since most of the experiences are not unique or restricted to the individual but occur on a daily basis over a chunk of the population.  The book indicated to ‘thousands of unmarked and mass graves in Jammu and Kashmir’ which ‘are believed to contain victims of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, numerous fake encounters, torture, massacres and other abuses. When the history of Kunan Poshpora and Poonj Massacre becomes ‘baseless’ and ‘constructed’ in the official histories, we can see that it is through these popular archives that these historical memories are preserved and protected. 

Subsequently, the narration moves into the chapter which deals with the history of the borders of Rajasthan and Punjab. Here, we get to read about the life of Sari Begum, whose mother was a Pakistani and father, a Punjabi, and understand how the ‘personal history’ itself becomes the ‘political history’ of the partition. Gyanendra Pandey in his ‘Community and Violence: Recalling Partition’ remarks that ‘critical events like partition often lead to the radical reconstitution of the community’. The history of Joginder Singh Suj becomes the history of forgotten languages and sub-cultures. The last chapter of the book starts with the anxieties and despairs of Natasha, Suchitra’s friend, whose memories lies both in India and Pakistan. Here, the individual memories become futile attempts to seek the remnants of the collective histories which was lost in the madness of partition.  Natasha’s Ammi, who watch Bollywood movies from Lahore and secretly adore Amir Khan becomes a marker of such personal memories which carries the burden of separation and violence. Thus, Suchitra Vijayan’s ‘Midnight’s Borders’, reconstructs the history of India’s borders through the memories, experiences, pains and despairs of thousands of normal individuals from different walks of life.

In his ‘Necropolitics’, Achille Mbembe observes that ‘the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die’.  The crucial accounts like this book tell us that the very sovereign power which Mbembe talks about is exactly the one that pushes its own people into ‘naked/bare lives’, without even changing its manifest political and constitutional grammar. The books indicate the frightening reality that the states which conduct surveillance through panopticons on the lives of the people who are living in borders, which also keeps them always under suspicion and deprive them of their citizenship, which acts as a pre-requisite to have rights or the ‘right to have rights, as Hannah Arendt observes, is able to do so without shaking the moral conscience of the majority of its inhabitants. Here, as Mbembe himself observed elsewhere, the body itself becomes boundaries, in a place where caste-class relations determines proximity and distance. Thus, this becomes transforms itself into a popular manifesto that articulates the lives of margins through archiving popular memories and histories of struggles against the supposed sovereign powers which determine the lives of these people by hegemony over narratives and archival documents. 

Afeef Ahmed is pursuing MA in Society and Culture in I.I.T Gandhi Nagar.

References

1 . The voice of the Past- Oral History.

2 . Guha, Ranajit. Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society. , 1982. Print. 

3 . Pandey, Gyanendra. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print. 

4 .Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Print.

5 . Pandey, Gyanendra. “Community and Violence: Recalling Partition.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 32, no. 32, 1997, pp. 2037–2045.

6 .Agamben, Giorgio, 1942-. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1998.

Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed, a graduate from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar, is an independent author and researcher.
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