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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 44 October 22, 2022

Review: Raghavan on Vijayan’s Midnight’s Borders

Friday 21 October 2022, by G Narasimha Raghavan



Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India

by Suchitra Vijayan

Context (an imprint of Westland Publication)

2021. Pages 320. Rs 699.

The Dawn, on Sep 14, 2022, carried a piece on the demise of Queen Elizabeth II, and the last line went this way: “The queen is dead; I hope the system of corruption and looting, of occupation and genocide that she represented perishes too”. Along with these cardinal debaucheries, one would add wanton recklessness and vicious thoroughness of the officers, the Queen headed once. One cannot put forward a face of conceited sympathy for a monarch’s death, given the way the British Colonisers trampled knowingly and bitterly, on what was then British India. Understandably, after reading Midnight’s Borders by Suchitra Vijayan, the reader would also feel awkward after knowing that India’s borders were arbitrarily, illogically and unsoundly drawn, unbeknownst to those people who inhabited the very borderlands.

Suchitra’s book is majorly documentation of oral history, and with parts that describe with poignancy, the historical blunders made by the powers that be, at the time of demarcating national boundaries. While there have been quite a few works on how brutally unscientific and ferociously inhuman the drawing of borders were, this book stands out for its commitment to bring out people’s voices – the citizens who get stranded out of the blue, because a new dotted line is drawn on the map, indicating restrictions, edges and limits. These lines are not just administrative separations; rather, they are lines that make people living in the borderlands, orphaned and feeble.

We are quite aware of what fate India and Pakistan faced during Partition. Stories, records, documents, materials and people have, time and again, made it clear that even recent historical calamities can be adequately subsumed and satisfactorily obliterated from mainstream discussions, if the state and global nations tinker with the narrative, often in their own favour. In every such borderland disagreements, what happens to people and their sentiments, will always be the last item on the list of things to be worried about. Take the case of the on-going Russia-Ukraine war – the fight for real estate takes predominance over culture, relationships, emotion, or antiquity. As has always been in historical records of turfs, people always come last when it is about collateral damage, but, they come first when it is about exhibiting their change in xenophobia towards ‘border nations’. Many citizens, who live in the mainland and in the peninsula, are just not conscious of the double lives of the people who live in the borderlands.

Midnight’s Borders, as the name suggests, is about the borders (colonial cartography) in India, which came to life on the midnight of Aug 14 / 15, 1947. There have been many intellectuals and statesmen involved in separating India from a host of other nations – Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar. Of course, after a few years, Bangladesh was carved out, and new border lines were once again drawn. Reading this book makes one look askance at the Indian cognoscente and their personal reasons for this misdemeanour. It is well known that British ‘experts’ like Radcliffe, Mountbatten and a host of their ‘learned’ officers created havoc with nations in South Asia. But, probably, what is not quite well recognised is that native citizens of former British India were in cahoots with the good intentioned foreigners, when they sought to divide nations like India and Pakistan.

Reading this book will make you appreciate a history that has been long forgotten and conveniently overlooked. It is true that oral histories have a life of their own, and that they can change their way we understand past happenings. In this way, Suchitra’s book comes close to what an eager reader would expect; viz., change one’s standpoint and delve a little deeper to discover the truth / untruth. Why is Midnight’s Borders such a close call? Well, for one, serious readers would find it difficult to accept the fact that much history about drawing of borders has been eschewed. For instance, Stanley Wolpert’s book, Shameful Flight, digs deeper into the nitty-gritties of the exercise of drawing borders. Suchitra’s book is not backed up by solid historical accounts. Rather, you would find a few anecdotes relating to this part of history.

Second issue for serious readers of this book would be the author’s stand on the Institutions of India. Reading between the lines, a reader would be able to decipher that the book is at once a scathing exposé of the mind-numbing inoperativeness and heartless showiness of the state, the judiciary, the military, the bureaucracy and the police. At times, the book reads like as if all these institutions have come together to ruin lives and destroy livelihoods in the borderlands. Many readers would take exception to this particular strand of writing.

As a lone researcher, Suchitra has traversed about 9000 miles of India’s borderlands, and it has taken her over seven years. She must have faced very daunting topographical situations, would have come face to face with the coldness of her subjects, been party to formidable security formalities, would have encountered language barriers, met with physical and mental discomforts, and would have bumped into existential issues like hunger and thirst. Not all these hurdles get mentioned in the book. Despite these problems and a host of others, Suchitra has well managed to add a worthy book to the existing repertoire. Given her background in the law, along with her global experiences in managing refugee quandaries, Suchitra has shown grit and gravel in compiling the voices of the unheard. Kudos to her for this! May be this is the beginning of a few more works of this nature, bringing to fore, voices that are spoken but lay unheeded. Readers belonging to the hinterland would definitely benefit from reading this book, as it will deliver a message from our own citizens who have been alienated. So will the global audience appreciate the effort. Just one more thought before ending: the monochrome photos in the book add to the weight of the unspoken words of the estranged masses in the borders, thereby conveying a sense of wistfulness, melancholy, brutality and violence on the one hand, and dignity, freedom, self-worth and free will on the other.

(Reviewer: G Narasimha Raghavan, Associate Professor – Economics, Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore)

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