A conversation with Suchitra Vijayan
Borders and border-making – and the redrawing of borders, often by force of arms – are the material of much of history, and international politics. It is also, unfortunately, increasingly a part of current affairs once again. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only the latest and most large-scale example of an attempted redrawing of borders by force. Even on India’s own borders, for example with China, there are continuing tensions and frequent jostling for contested territory.
No country in the world has had a redrawing of borders that affected more human lives than India. Its new borders, marked on paper by imperial and communal politics, and on the soil by blood, came into existence through Partition in 1947. The impact of that redrawing is still being felt in the politics of the country in the form of aggressive Hindu nationalism. Yet, few Indians ever visit the places that became borderlands. Suchitra Vijayan, political analyst and author of Midnight’s Borders (Context, 2021) is one of the rare ones who did, on an epic journey along the country’s land borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Myanmar.
PSQ Executive Editor Samrat Choudhury spoke with the author about her journey, her book, the realities of life for people living in those borderlands, and more. Excerpts from an interview:
Samrat Choudhury: This very epic journey…you mentioned that you were obsessed with completing it…where did this obsession come from and what prompted you to start on it in the first place?
Suchitra Vijayan: The early Afghanistan-Pakistan work was almost 10 years ago. I was still a graduate student; I had just come back from Afghanistan. What made me start was very different from what me finish it. I was in a place in my life where I felt intellectually curious, I felt deeply unhappy with the way scholarship was being written, I had concerns about how I thought the social world I was living in was this mixture of many things…I had been born in India but I had lived pretty much most of my life since 17 outside…and in some ways, all of these forces had affected who I was, the work that I was doing. Once I got to Afghanistan it became very clear that I was deeply disappointed with the way journalism was depicting our social reality but also equally disappointed with the way in which academia was refusing to think through the critical arguments one should be making. Like all young people who feel they know what is great and best about the world, I set about saying I am going to do this, and this is going to be so much better than everybody else because I know so much better, which is in some ways a Don Quixote kind of journey, because I was charging against a windmill…
SC: What was this windmill?
SV: The very act of traveling, seeing, writing, thinking that I could do it better than anyone else, not realising that the act of creating knowledge, the act of writing, is mediated by so many other things. The capacity to see and write does not mean you are going to have the capacity to publish, the desire to travel and investigate and research does not mean you are going to have the resources, the capacity to have a great idea does not mean you are going to translate into a sentence that can convey your meaning…so there are so many things that go into creating something that you think is important and valuable. That is good, I think, starting with so much belief that you can do something and you can do it better than anyone else…that was good, it started the journey. Very quickly I felt humbled, by many things. I felt humbled by my incapacity to do what I felt was a good job. One thing I did do along the way was write, keep notes, be objective to the truth that I would not make this an ideological project, that I would make this into a project to write about a social reality. When I came back from the first leg of travel, I knew that there was something that was churning within India, at least within the territorial limits of where my home where I was born is entrapped in. I felt that something was churning and I had to write about it in a meaningful way. I started with writing believing that I did not know anything, and I would start from a place of not knowing, and I would start by educating myself, traveling, finding ethical ways of writing about it.
SC: What was the premise of the book? Did you already have a book in mind?
SV: I had a visual project in mind. When I finished traveling the Pakistan-Afghanistan side of it, it became…I did not go with saying I am going to travel the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the border came much later as part of trying to answer another question…
SC: What was the question?
SV: The question was why was the world’s largest territorial army in the longest war, and what was happening in these places, so it is a very different question from the border question. That led me to embed with the US forces that took me to the Paktika province and I saw how so much of what was happening was not about just Kabul, it was about the creation of these communities, the creation of nation-states, the ways in which we think of this world…
SC: What do you mean by “creation of nation-states”?
SV: What happened in the aftermath of the departing colonial powers…often when I was in Afghanistan, the racial memory of a border was not with Pakistan. It was not even with the India that we see. People were constantly referring to histories and memories and ideas of good and bad and right and wrong in very different contexts than the one that I was taught…whether it was history books or reporting on Afghanistan. People were speaking in the language of history, the language of freedom and dignity, this long battle. Every Afghan I spoke to spoke never in terms of the present, they spoke in terms of fighting an imperial colonial army for a much longer time. They were speaking about the destruction of their homes, their dignity, what happened to their land, loss of poetry, about food they could no longer cook, about families that got decimated. People were not thinking in terms of the concept of nation-states, they were not fighting under a flag, they were fighting for protecting their sense of who they were. There is a line that did not make the book where someone says, ‘you know, sometimes we go to battle even to protect our graveyards, because if they destroy our graveyards, how do we know even our ancestors existed here?’
SC: Was there a territorial concept that went with all of this?
SV: I don’t think people thought in terms of territory. People thought in terms of frontier. People had memories of the ancestors traveling from Paktika all the way to Kashmir, or going to Hyderabad in current-day Pakistan, or making the long journey from Torkham to Calcutta…people talked about the sense of history and memory that expanded beyond territory. This was true not only in Afghanistan. The Gujarat chapter does not exist in the book, because the people I spoke to did not want to be a part of the book. There was this wonderful little story about this family that had little vials of sand that the family had collected for over 200 years. They would leave the Rann of Kutch and walk all the way to Sindh in current-day Pakistan. Along the way as the colours of the sand changed, the great-great-great grandfather had started collecting the different shades of sand, and the family still had some of these vials with them. So, for them marking territory was not so much marking off ‘hey this is where my story began and ended’ but this was far more nuanced and cosmopolitan in a way that we don’t understand, this cosmopolitanism of very small places…this memory of something more expansive, more free.
SC: A bit of nostalgia colouring this perhaps?
SV: We do know that these communities did travel so much. We know that people did travel all the way from Afghanistan to Calcutta. So yes, not so much territory, but an expansive frontier where so many things mingled…
SC: But that immediately raises more difficult and complicated questions, because it was only possible as it was all part of the British Empire, so we have to thank imperialism for the expansiveness!
SV: I don’t think we understand how capitalism and empire in the early parts of the 20th century and a good seventy years before that changed the way people travelled, but the sense of traversing the subcontinent was always there. Maybe the ways in which people and communities were transported, were moved, that speeded up, of course the railways and posts changed the momentum of it…
SC: So, they’re nostalgic for Akhand Bharat! Haha…
SV: They’re nostalgic for a sense of freedom and dignity. Nobody calls it Bharat. The word that was used was Hindustan, whether in Rajasthan or Afghanistan. So maybe it’s Akhand Hindustan! Haha…
SC: You looked at India’s borders with various countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar – and obviously each of these has its own characteristic flavour if you will. So now several years on, what are the striking characteristics of each that stayed with you?
SV: It is really hard to answer a question like that. Generalisation is a tool all writers need. So, I want to start by saying that the world changed every 100 feet. That said…the thing about the Bangla border is the porosity of it. It is just one of those unfence-able borders. There were borders I went to in 2013. By the time I went back in 2018, the new fence that was put up in 2013 was already rotted and rusted and destroyed in many places. There is a certain sense of nature itself militating against all of this…there’s the lushness of it. The Pakistan border cutting across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Kashmir, you see a certain kind of annihilation. You see no people. This kind of a militarised border is so much more clinical. Kashmir is a very different landscape of mass graves and graveyards. The one with China is for me the most interesting because you see aspects of all of it there. You can’t fence that part of the world but at the same time there is a push for a certain kind of militarisation that is happening. One thing that is similar across all these borders is that the presence of military installations is growing, the presence of Indian boots on the ground is growing. Militarisation accompanies with it a specific kind of devastation to the landscape. If the Afghanistan-Pakistan border had a certain kind of devastation, the India-Pakistan border is one of the largest land-mined places in the world…What I remember from all of these places is the acerbic humour of the people to deal with all of this.
SC: Was it humour about the absurdity of the situation?
Humour became a way to question people in power, to deal with the everyday absurdity of their lives, humour took many forms but the most utilized form was to critique power. In a place where regimes of impunity reign, people evolve ways to respond to this.
SC: Why does the State try to do such things?
SV: That answer will become a book! I think it goes back to the founding of the Indian republic. A founding that had to bring in and encompass so many people who were not willing to be part of the republic. Much of it is that foundational violence still playing itself out in multiple permutations and combinations. Second, one thing that I found across all nation-states…states are always very surprised when they encounter resistance. This is true of Bosnia, Srebrenica, Rwanda, Iran, Turkey…the state despite having at its disposal a long history, is always surprised when people resist, and people’s most natural response is resistance. The status quo of human life is I think always leaning towards a certain sense of dignity and freedom. Maybe we articulate it differently in different epochs and eras but states use violence to control people and people resist that violence.
That is very fundamental to how things work out and it is not new. In temples in Tamil Nadu, murals have descriptions of local peasants revolting against feudal landlords. You can think about even Tamil history as a great succession of kings or you can think about everyday common people fighting against feudal lords for over 800 years. Rebellion was just very much a part of the life of Tamil country. I think that is true of most communities. Rebellion and resistance are common. The Indian state has abdicated its responsibility to govern. It has used extra-judicial laws from the beginning, whether it is AFSPA, PSA, now UAPA…the very first amendment of the constitution goes against the values of the freedom struggle. So, I think there is this constant struggle. Some want more freedom, some want promises and guarantees of federalism, and some never wanted to be a part of this republic. In the book I talk about the remote Khiamniungan (Naga) region where there are gravestones that say, “The Indian Army killed my son.”
SC: So, is it a heartland and periphery thing? After all, the heartland thinks, what’s there to complain about, we are the best Vishwa-Guru in the world, why are those evil people fighting against the best country in the world?
SV: When I started the book, I did believe it was a heartland and periphery thing. I don’t think so any more. What happened in India was a transfer of power from white sahibs to brown sahibs. Today the fight is not between heartland and periphery, it is between India’s ruling elites, the classes and castes that benefit from the Indian state, and the vast majority of those who do not. I remember the massacre in Tuticorin where sharpshooters standing on top of police vehicles shot down peaceful protesters. We saw a lot of this coming out after the institutional murder of Rohit Vemula, where you saw those fault-lines not so much as centre and periphery but as a fault-line between those who have continued to benefit from the Indian state and its eccentricities and those who have not. We forget how India’s elites still act like they are feudal landlords. Starting from business to journalism to art, literature, culture…map the people who now tend to write and tell stories about India. It is still mainly the handful of people who happen to be beneficiaries of the state. Borderlands are everywhere. They are everywhere because the foundational document that birthed this republic was birthed with a question of liberty and equality but we never really tried to work on these promises.
SC: It can be argued, that after all America, which is the oldest large democracy in the world, has had much more time to work out these issues, but I don’t think they have made much progress towards making a more equal society. They are not doing a great job of removing inequalities of class or even of race. So then one would have to say that similar borders apply in American and other democratic countries of the world as well?
Look, America was founded as a nation to help grow a mercantile population. America was not built on the ideals of freedom and democracy; America was built on the idea that rich white men could do whatever they wanted. American values are built on slavery, capitalism and inequality. All these three are essential to American democracy which is not a democracy in any meaningful way. America needed slavery. Once slavery got done you had Jim Crow. Now that Jim Crow is gone you have the prison pipeline where you continue to incarcerate black and brown people belonging to the Muslim faith and you pay them 8 or 16 cents an hour for their physical labour. How is that not slavery? Consistently manufacturing a class of rights-less citizens is what drives capitalism. Inequality is what drives the American democracy. That is true of the Indian state in a very different context. As a post-colonial nation-state, what drove India in 1947 is very different from what drives India today. Of course, there is a continuum…but I don’t think we should be comparing ourselves to American democracy or any of the European democracies. Let us understand that whether it’s Europe or America, the foundation is racial inequality. Indian and post-colonial democracies were supposed to strive for something larger, not copy the European models born out of years of colonial projects. We talk about equality but equality always seems to be as Ambedkar says, a topsoil. If you talk about liberty, you would not have UAPA, AFPSA, PSA.
SC: Even communist countries don’t seem to be doing any better. Look at China. They have, I think, the second-largest number of billionaires in the world, and they are not doing too well with the people in Xinjiang or Tibet.
SV: I agree with you. Communist China also draws on some of the very same foundations. There is a new book that looks at the Uighur population in Xinjiang and it draws on the idea of “terror capitalism.” Terror is essential for capitalism. Communist China became an ideological monolith but many of the strategies that they use within the system are not very different from the systems that capitalism uses. It is the same thing. For example, wage slavery. How these states came to be – their initial ideological things could be different but eventually it doesn’t matter who puts you in a labour camp. You can’t say Guantanamo Bay is wrong but Uighur detention camps are not so bad. You have to make the connection between what’s happened in Guantanamo, what’s happening in India, what’s happening to Uighur communities. The project of fighting for people’s freedom and dignity is ongoing and it will remain ongoing. Once we are done, the generations after us will have to fight it in a different way.
SC: Coming back to your journey, it is mostly along borders, but there are places that are not near borders, for example, Nellie and Guwahati. What was the logic for including these non-border places?
SV: September 2019 was when my manuscript was due. 2019 was an important year in many ways. Modi comes back to power, RTI Act is amended, you have the Babri decision, Article 370 revocation, CAA-NRC…and many of the people I had spoken to years before no longer wanted to be part of this book. It was only fair to let it go. Secondly, initially the Nellie chapter was not supposed to be in the book, but even as I travelled among these communities, often seeing people’s anxieties about documents…everybody mentioned Nellie, everybody mentioned this violence that was happening to them. They no longer felt safe living in these places. It was very much a part of lived collective memory. People were constantly evoking this moment both as a way of remembering and as a way of saying you have to understand, this could happen to us again.
SC: What is the connection with borders?
SV: Many of the people I spoke to no longer wanted to be in these centres of violence. Two things happened…many of the people I spoke to in the border communities either had lived around it, were directly affected by it and moved away, or they knew families and it was still part of the collective memory, so they knew they were coming. Also, by the time I finished the book, I realised borders were not just borders, borders were everywhere. Nellie is the one we remember the most even though it is called the forgotten massacre. It is not as forgotten as many other massacres and violence that people went through. Not being able to tell the story of the other little massacres and violence that people went through…I had to find a way to tell the story. By this time my own idea of the border had changed. Sometimes for those who live in these communities the border is literally around their villages.
One of the other stories people regularly spoke about was the death of the young girl Felani Khatun when she was trying to cross the border. Certain events become milestones through which you understand your own community’s history and that is one of the reasons why this chapter became part of the book.
SC: You’ve mentioned that like Myanmar, India is manufacturing foreigners out of Indian citizens in the context of NRC. The curious thing is this is happening in India’s Northeast which is adjacent to Myanmar. The only place this has happened is Assam which has close historical links with Myanmar. We tend to think of it in terms of religious nationalism, but is it religious nationalism or ethnic nationalism?
SV: There are many things at play and yes, religion is an essential thing at play. This is my discomfort…I have found the word “ethnic” used in India to be very problematic given the history of the subcontinent. In a country like India, you have, say, the Bohri Muslims in Gujarat who are very different from the Deccan or Tamil Muslims…how does one think of this in ethnic terms?
What I think ‘they’ want is the annihilation of anyone who is not a perfect Hindu. For them there has to be one kind of Hindu, and that Hindu is probably modelled after the Gujarati Hindu. I am also born to Hindu parents of two different castes. They have very different religious practices. For my mother’s family eating meat on the morning of Diwali is very common. A couple of generations back, sacrificing a goat or lamb to the local deity was very common. So where does that then leave us? Given that India has always been a federation of the very different, I can’t say even the two people who came together to give birth to me have similar religious practices. How does one account for a billion people who come from such diverse ways of practice, worship, faith, food, articulations of love, marriage, desire, into one? I am not a political scientist but what for me is more important is the idea that they want to manufacture a certain kind of India where a very small section of people would fit the definition…they want to make all of us into cookie-cutter models of one person.
SC: Does it seem, when you travel along the borders, that Partition is still an ongoing process?
SV: Everybody that I spoke to said that those materially affected by it spoke of a continuous and never-ending Partition. It plays out in ways many of us don’t understand, I don’t think I understood. I grew up in the south of India where Partition has very different kind of echoes. You have to understand that 17.8 million people changed homes. Just imagine the number! And their descendants. And it is not even a hundred years. We are very much living through the trauma of what it meant to lose your nation, lose your home, lose your language, the sexual and other violence that was part of it. Manan Ahmed has a new book, The Loss of Hindustan…people lost something they felt was far more expansive. There is a beautiful line in the book where Mr. Sood says we have become narrow-minded people. The Partition has ghettoised us. Even our language is ghettoed. I don’t think we have still found the language to talk about it, but yes, the Partition is very much alive, ongoing, never-ending for at least a few more generations to come.
SC: You mentioned the echoes of Partition in the south of India. I wonder, what for you in Madras, did Partition mean? Did it ever enter the imagination at all?
SV: You know, growing up, it didn’t. Growing up, I felt the history of Partition was an alien history to me. I think it’s also because of the refusal to speak about it. You have to understand that the Madras Regiment was in Calcutta when the worst of the violence happened. Second, you can’t forget the Burmese Tamils who had to leave and come back. People fled. People have memories of the Partition. Of course, we were not at the receiving end of the kind of expansive violence families like yours went through. I think the reason it felt so alien growing up was also that the education around Partition was also so limited. Second…for example, there are stories I hear now about what happened during the Second World War. That is seen as a part of Second World War history but never a part of the larger history of the subcontinent. I think one part is ambivalence but a lot of the alienation comes from the local histories not being connected to the larger narrative of the grand history of the subcontinent. It is also about how Indian history is constructed and taught. Partition happens, and it’s the north that suffers, and the south is often seen as a static bystander. I don’t think that was the case. I think there’s a lot of history to be excavated and understood.
SC. After all the travels along all the borders, any generic thoughts about borders?
SV: We should abolish them! Covid has shown us, along with climate change, that it is impossible for humanity to exist as we exist now, and a big part of our survival is going to depend on how we plan for the future. What borders will you protect when the ocean swallows the earth? We already see this in the Bangladesh borderlands where, depending on who’s counting you already have somewhere between 18 million and 50 million climate change refugees. The ocean is already swallowing the land. What BSF or army will you put along the borders? Second, I think we have to challenge the notion that citizenship guarantees rights in the nation-state. The idea that the nation-state becomes the final arbiter who gets to legislate on your and my body…can I have the right to an abortion? From that to the right to dissent to whether Muslim girls can wear headscarves. The idea of a social contract has to be destroyed and we have to go back to the idea that we have certain fundamental, inalienable rights because we are human, and that right cannot be tied to the nation-state or any state authority. Whatever future we envision should be one where whoever becomes the community that governs us is actually responsible for making sure that those rights are guarded, not taken away. Not policy, not WTO, we have to imagine ourselves afresh.
We have to abolish the idea of citizenship rights connected to a state.
Suchitra Vijayan was born and raised in Madras, India. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, GQ, The Nation, The Boston Review, and Foreign Policy. A Barrister by training, she previously worked for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda before co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees. She is an award-winning photographer, the founder, and executive director of the Polis Project, a hybrid research and journalism organization. She lives in New York.
Samrat Choudhury is Co-founder and Executive Editor at Partition Studies Quarterly. A journalist and author from Shillong, his writings have appeared in Granta, The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, India Today, Outlook, The Indian Express, The New York Times, The Friday Times of Pakistan, and the Dhaka Tribune in Bangladesh, among others. He is the author of one novel and several short stories, many of which have been translated to other languages.