September 19, 1965. I was riding on a US military bus through the mountains on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. My fellow passengers were women and children who were family members of US military men stationed in Peshawar. There was a doctor on board. Our destination was Kabul, where we would regroup and board refitted cargo planes headed to Turkey. The reason for our journey was not for any US military issue, but an escalating series of battles in the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. That conflict continues to this day. It is but one of several resulting from the creation of the nation state of India. Those borders were often arbitrary and based on lines scribbled down by a British viceroy with little or no investment in the future of a non-British India.
This is the story of modern India, a nation created when Britain finally gave up its colonial hold. Its birth was celebrated as a great victory for freedom and independence. Its creation was also a genocide. Muslims were forced to flee their homes and villages and were massacred along their way to the other newly formed nation of Pakistan. Retribution followed. As far as the Indian politicians were concerned, the definition and defense of their newly made borders would define their national independence. In Suchitra Vijayan’s new book Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, it becomes clear that those borders would provide an excuse to kill and steal at will in the name of Indian nationhood.
In what can best be described as a uniquely truthful take on the modern nation-state, Midnight’s Borders describes the ongoing skirmishes, police actions and wars that have defined the making of the Indian nation. In doing so, the author illuminates the nature of border policies around the globe and the fragility of the nation-state concept. In a text whose title reference’s Salman Rushdie’s fictional masterpiece Midnight’s Children and took seven years to complete, Vijayan describes the life and the lives of individuals, families and hamlets affected by the borders imposed on them from the outside. These descriptions are written in inviting prose while simultaneously describing the destruction of lives and cultures, families and relationships. It is these stories that make this a true people’s history.
National leaders—revolutionary and otherwise—tell us that borders are what makes a nation free. If one is a citizen of that nation, it is their inclusion as a citizen that makes them free and justifies the defense of those borders. In India, this particular concept was an unfortunate but essential fact of its birth in 1947. The forces who opposed a secular nation defined being Indian in terms of religion and culture. This meant that Muslims had to go somewhere else. In turn, those Muslims who did not wish to live in a secular nation accepted this definition of Indian nationhood and birthed the nation of Pakistan. As anyone with even a minimal knowledge of that historical moment knows, it was a bloody one. Vijayan notes in her history that the exclusion of Muslims from Indian democracy continues. Indeed, it has quickened under the right wing Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi. Muslims and others not considered Indian enough are being denied their Indian citizenship and left without a state. In the world where citizenship provides humans with basic rights, this action means these non-citizens have no legal power. In turn, some are being rounded up into camps and their property taken from them.
In order to write this book the way she felt it needed to be written, Vijayan traveled virtually the entire border of India. In those more than 7,000 miles, she talked with many people, from border guards in the heights of the Himalayas to villagers in the tropical forests of Bengal. She met poor residents of border towns who had seen their children killed for unknowingly stepping across a border and she interviewed military and police officers who saw their job as protecting the nation, no matter what the toll. She discusses the history the Indian citizen id taught about their nation and their enemies and she describes its toll on those who are considered unworthy or unnecessary to its existence. The fact that she finds hope in the despair she describes is both a credit to her journalistic craftsmanship and to the nature of humanity.
Despite the tenacity and hope that keeps the people in these regions alive, there is one reality that overrides and underlines every moment of this text. It is a reality that is true for every nation in the world, not just India. That is this: borders make nations, often through bloodshed and the misery. The maintenance of those borders by governments and their armies insure that that misery continues. Until and unless humanity resolves this basic fact and moves beyond the current understanding of borders and their meaning, it is doomed to maintain and exacerbate that misery, hopefully not to its deadly end.