In Midnight's Borders, Suchitra Vijayan meditates on belongingness, freedom and political implications of territorial demarcations

Though borders are conventionally recognised as real or artificial lines of spatial and political demarcation, there may also be an arbitrariness to them. In India, that arbitrariness can be seen in how differently we perceive land boundaries with multiple sovereign nations. While Border Pillar No 1 becomes a convenient stump for children playing cricket along the land that India shares with Bangladesh, roughly 2000 kilometers away in Punjab a woman farmer watches on as the army builds a bunker on the few acres of land she owns.

In Midnight's Borders, barrister, political analyst, and writer Suchitra Vijayan documents many such telling accounts of lives — both growing and barely getting by — along Indian borderlands. In her 15,000-kilometre journey, spread over seven years, Vijayan mulls over the meaning of freedom, belongingness in a land of imagined communities, created by territorial demarcations. In that process, her reportage unravels the cultural and political implications of our borders on our 'collective conscience', as capricious as that might be, and on the lives of those sandwiched between two warring nations.

In an interview with Firstpost, Vijayan talks about her book, the militarisation of borders, ethno-nationalism, and the politics of documentation. These are edited excerpts from the interview:

'Midnight' seems to be a metaphor for multiple things — both freeing and frightening. Why is this particular time of the day intrinsic to the book?

It’s a hard book to name, and I kept going back and forth. I was reading a lot of Pessoa when I was in Afghanistan, so another placeholder title was 'Maps/Lines/Cartographies of Disquiet', inspired by the Book of Disquiet. Another name that came to my mind was 'An Outline of the Republic', only to discover Siddhartha Deb’s excellent book by the same name. The credit goes to my agent Lucy Cleland who suggested this title.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s 'Tryst with Destiny' is a speech I have returned to over the past 20 years. It embodied young India’s grand ambitions and aspired to a nation made of men and women equally protected by the law. Three hundred million people who had been considered less than subjects under the British rule, divided for years by religion, language, class, and caste, would all be united under one book: the revolutionary Constitution given to India by Babasaheb Ambedkar. While Nehru was still declaring this victory, the slaughter began. Not everyone rejoiced in these new freedoms. Not everyone lived to see its promises.

We were ambushed halfway to freedom.

More importantly, as Babasaheb would argue, the political revolution was never accompanied by a social revolution. He writes about how when the Constitution was adopted, "We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality, and in social and economic life, we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man, one vote, and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?"

The ‘revolutionary’ Constitution not only created a social world made of contradictions, but it very soon became the tool of suppressing dissent, deployed laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), and Public Safety Act (PSA) in Kashmir.

So here, 'Midnight' functions as a moment of violent birth, but also perhaps the foundational violence that becomes codified in various ways, especially in the bodies of people farthest away from power.

We know that the purpose of borders has kept changing for nations. But your book lays bare how differently India's borders are guarded — from southern Bengal to the Line of Control. Could you comment on how much our present border security policies have changed in the last few years?

We need to think about border practices, policing, and national security policies within the larger historical and political contexts. From the epoch of Empire to the nation-state, border making is fundamentally a political project that creates, sustains, and reinforces inequality. It is meant to manufacture an underclass of rightless subjects. Professor Nandita Sharma’s work is an excellent way to engage with this history.

The nation-state and its ruling class view borders as very different from the people who inhabit these liminal spaces or communities that have been affected by border making and policing practices. Second, border policies are about "performance and articulations of citizenship".

This is the age of erosion of citizenship rights, a kind of ongoing attrition against human rights, civil liberties, and in the case of India, an accelerated dilution of fundamental rights. It’s a dangerous moment where the figure of the rights-bearing citizen is being reduced to a consuming subject. The constant making and remaking of who is a citizen, who is not, is accompanied by a profoundly dehumanising process.

Now, border security policies are linked to domestic politics.

Take a look at these events: The vast infrastructure of detention centers being built in Assam and outside; a politician from a ruling party incites violence by saying, “goli maaro saalon ko,” and remains free; a minister, a Harvard educated technocrat, garlands and celebrates men for the grave crime of lynching; Dr Teltumbde and other BK 16 [the 16 arrests made in the Bhima Koregaon case] political prisoners remain incarcerated with little, no or manufactured evidence for being dissenting subjects; and a standup comic is arrested for the crime of existing as a Muslim.

What do these events have in common? They create cleavages of fear, xenophobia, and insecurity. They are also essentially bureaucratic, judicial, and procedural acts of terror. These instances are also about border practices because modern states, especially liberal democracies, expend immense energy in creating and maintaining identity categories: who belongs, and where. Who is expendable, and the manufacturing of rightlessness to render people expendable. Also, we shouldn't forget that the border making project is central to capitalist and neoliberal logic. Bigotry is also big business.

This is the backdrop against which we map how border practices and policies have played out in India. The post-Cold War and 90’s rhetoric of a borderless world that accompanied globalisation also kick-started massive border fencing projects in India. Second, India’s transformation into a nuclear state and the Kargil War is another critical moment of change. The events of 9/11 had profound effects on how border security projects and politics played out. An unprecedented militarisation of these spaces accompanied this. Finally, India’s current transformation, the aggressive posturing of an aspiring ethno-nationalist state, will have dire consequences for the people and the region.

You've mentioned in the text that you've spent your entire adult life thinking about state violence and justice because of a troubling incident in 1994 when your father was attacked. Ten years later, you were in Kashmir, where you 'hoped to find answers' by talking to a family that had lost a son. When your investigations in Kashmir came to an end, what changes did you observe in your 'grammar of dissent'?

I want to clarify that what I witnessed or the violence inflicted on my father is not the same as what over eight million Kashmiris have endured. It’s not comparable and should not be compared. While that incident had a profound impact on me, my politics, how I think about violence, it’s relationship to justice, or the lack of it, this is not the same kind of violence Kashmiris have been subjugated to. I have never lived under military occupation, curfew, or a looming threat of violence. Check posts or bunkers were not part of the landscapes of my home.

As I say in the book, Kashmir changed me, it gave me political and moral clarity to always stand with those fighting for their people’s freedom and dignity. I am repeating what I have said before, "Kashmir is India’s greatest moral and political failure. It is here that even the most civilised amongst us begin to make excuses for repression, brutality, and violence. It is here that we subsume all that we otherwise celebrate under the demands of freedom, progress, liberalism, liberty, and secular ideals."

I don’t want to make this about me. It’s about what people like me should do. What moral and political stands we should take in the face of ongoing oppression.

In the same chapter of the book, Kamal says, "If I am an Indian, then why am I afraid?" Fear seems to be a constant motif in the book  we see versions and types of it. The people in the text fear statelessness, unknown violence, and being forgotten. But who carries the responsibility of that fear?

The Indian State and the people of this Republic. We are all complicit in upholding and maintaining this fear.

Were there times when you doubted your own ability to record and document these people's stories? We see that during the journey, in a number of places, people stood in lines to speak with you, to show their paperwork to you...how did you negotiate the weight of those expectations, which might not have been explicit, but were still very much present?

Always. I still do. I felt the same way when I would prepare legal petitions for my clients. The act of recording and documenting cannot be divorced from the inherent question of power.

Let’s take India’s English language media, cultural-artistic elite, and publishing. A relatively small group of people runs it. Many come from immense privileges of caste, class, wealth, access, and resources. For far too long, they and their progeny have held power to shape the political understanding of our social worlds. They continue to.

For instance, if you went to school with, say, India’s most powerful publisher, or your dad plays golf or socialised at the Gymkhana with the politically powerful and the culturally influential, then that system is built to get you the resources. And this is always at the expense of others. This also decides who gets access, awards and accolades. There are some notable exceptions, but they are an exception.

This affects who gets to document, and whom. It’s a vicious cycle.

As I travelled, I was very aware of these inherent power differences. I came with my privileges, also let’s not forget prejudices. So I try to learn and listen, and again, as I say in this book, "It is not my goal to 'bear witness' or 'give voice to the voiceless'. Such writings have long been implicated in the history of colonial ethnographic practices, where native informants are poised to become the voices of the empire. The people in this book are eloquent advocates of their history and their struggles. My role, then, and this book’s role, is to find in their articulations a critique of the nation-state, its violence and the arbitrariness of territorial sovereignty."

My friend Ritesh Uttamchandani said this once, the lens — that elusive distance between the photographer and the photographed — is often impossible to bridge. Where does that leave us? What are those ethical, moral, and political lines?

Part of this process is a need to turn the lens back at the powerful.

I have two tests. I test my practice of writing or being a photographer against this rule. First, does my work aid the powerful? If it does, I have failed. Second, there is a clear distinction between speaking against the powerful and claiming to speak on behalf of the "voiceless". ( I hate this word, voiceless, by the way). The former is an essential act of dissent, even resistance, especially in these dark times. The latter is an act of violence against people whose voice you are appropriating.

There are instances when you and some voices in the narrative question their documentation practice. We see that more clearly when you decide against photographing children at the India-Bangladesh border. What changes have you observed in the way you treat your subject after finishing your journey and book?

I want to flag two essays where I engage with this in an in-depth manner, Disaster Ruins Everything, on my work in Haiti, and what it means to photograph disaster, especially when it is Brown and Black bodies. In another essay from 2019, I write about “the banality of bearing witness as an excuse to produce extractive work.” These questions about documentation practices started long before I started this book project, and I learnt along the way.

I have no formal training as a writer or a photographer, I taught myself and learnt by doing, failing and creating my own grammar.

I'm dyslexic, but have visual and episodic memory, which means I dream and relive moments. I almost never forget, I remember entire episodes or events since I was six years old. The failure to forget affects how I use images, and texts; my photographic practice and also how I put everything together. What it means to photograph, write, report and document is an ongoing process. Part of this learning was also why photographer Asim Rafiqui and I created the free UN/DO Photography workshops to think about image-making in relationship to power.

There are two quotes I regularly use by Allan Sekula when I teach:

"The making of a human likeness on film is a political act."

"Documentary photography has amassed mountains of evidence…yet…the genre has simultaneously contributed much to spectacle, to retinal excitation, to voyeurism, to terror, envy, and nostalgia, and only a little to the critical understanding of the social world."

Early on, the idea of bearing witness as a rhetorical tool and as a literary device became deeply problematic. With the phone armed with a camera, everyone is a photographer; we are all witnesses. We live in a surveillance economy where we are constantly just bearing witness — we are record keepers, unwitting spies, and voyeurs. This means that the capacity to see does not automatically become the capacity for action.

Say, for instance, do we need a James Nachtwey to fly to war-torn Bosnia? Is photographing a woman, who was gang-raped by the Sudanese army and put on the cover of TIME practically naked, able to stop the war? Can any of the TIME subscribers who loved that cover tell us now what’s happening in South Sudan today? What is the function of seeing and documenting?

There is a lot to learn and unlearn, and a writer and a photographer should respond to a political moment, and the work should be a reflection of those practices.

At many points in Midnight's Borders, we see several men in positions of power view the women, who cross over from the 'other' side, as violable. It seems that they have a different eye for these women, who they describe as cunning, deceitful, and in some cases, ‘prostitutes'. How did you respond to that environment being in an extremely challenging position yourself?

Yes, men who act as ‘petty sovereigns’ are everywhere. Like most women, I learnt to navigate this toxic misogyny, the threat of sexual violence, and patriarchy by merely existing as a dark-skinned woman in this country. The events in Hathras did not happen at the border; neither did the murder and gang rape of two teenage girls in the Katra village of Budaun district, Uttar Pradesh. As Sari Begum's story [in the book] illustrates, 'A life where the violence of the border is not at the fence, or in the trenches, but at the center of 'their' and our 'universe'.

Midnight's Borders is an exceptional read, but one that may make some uncomfortable. Are you expecting any pushback at all? And were there any apprehensions since you began working on this book?

It’s an immense privilege to be able to write and be published. It has taken me over a decade to get here. It’s been a little over a week since the book came out, and every day this week, I have woken up to emails, messages, and DMs from readers. They are arriving from various cities and people I have never met. What connects these messages is deep empathy and a willingness to engage with the book’s stories, ideas, and arguments. Also, a book is an act of community; it has many midwives.

Now to the question of the pushback.

Pushback is such a benign word, isn’t it? Especially when you can be charged with sedition for a tweet or arrested for the crime of committing comedy while being Muslim.

I don’t have apprehensions. I wrote a book — along with it comes love, scorn, and sometimes even ridicule. What matters is that the book exists. I have no control over what comes next. Also, I am an unknown and insignificant entity. Perhaps that offers some protection?

What I was most concerned about and still am are the people in the book and their safety. Many of the stories didn’t make it to the book because it became dangerous to identify people. Some people later chose not to be included because they feared repercussions, especially as the NRC process started playing out. I left a few names out in the acknowledgment, worrying if it might direct more trouble towards them. I haven’t spoken or celebrated with my friends in Kashmir or Assam. I now think twice about calling friends, worried if this might put them at risk. We removed an image just before the printing to make sure the person was protected.

Perhaps that’s their victory. We have already chosen silence and obfuscation even before the pushback has arrived.



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