“A Stroke of Ink Drawn by the Departing Empire”: On Suchitra Vijayan’s “Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India”

By MG VassanjiNovember 18, 2021

“A Stroke of Ink Drawn by the Departing Empire”: On Suchitra Vijayan’s “Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India”

Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India by Suchitra Vijayan

A STORY GOES that, during the “scramble for Africa” in the late 19th century, as the European powers raced to colonize the continent, the mighty snow-peaked Kilimanjaro lay initially in what had been designated British East Africa (now Kenya). But Queen Victoria agreed to gift the mountain to her nephew, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the border was pinched ever so slightly — as it appears now — to accommodate the mountain into German East Africa to the south (now the mainland of Tanzania). The border cuts neatly through the land of the Masai people, putting some of them in one country and the rest in the other. Fortunately, no serious violence has arisen there.

As we know, the borders between many modern non-European nations are a direct result of European interference and occupation. Those in the Middle East, the sites of so many still-unresolved conflicts, were a result of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which divided the region into British and French spheres of influence at the demise of the Ottoman Empire. These imposed borders have often led to never-ending conflicts and scenes of extreme violence and misery, exacerbated by further outside interference.

It is worth noting that borders are not always demarcations on the ground; they have also often been imposed on the minds of people. Identities have been defined or sharpened and people compelled to choose sides. The creation of modern India and Pakistan is an obvious example. Colonial censuses and religious purifiers forced Indian populations to define themselves exclusively as Hindus or Muslims, when traditionally and for centuries many communities had not regarded themselves as such. Independence exacerbated religious differences further, resulting in the brutal Partition of the country, in which millions were displaced and perhaps a million lost their lives. Now Muslims, a 15 percent minority in India, suffer pogroms and discrimination as the nation adopts a progressively Hindu identity, while Christians and Hindus suffer harassment in Pakistan, now an officially Islamic state.

Suchitra Vijayan, the author of the new book Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, is a courageous, intrepid traveler who has sought out many of the troubled border regions of the world. She has lived, she writes, “in occupied lands, war zones, and places often described as ‘contentious.’”

I lived in The Hague, working for the War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia, and later in Arusha, Tanzania, with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I traveled through Palestine and Sudan. I lived in Cairo the year leading up to the Arab Spring, all with an Indian passport. There, I ran the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in 2008 to provide resources for the more than five thousand Iraqi families who fled the invasion of Iraq.

Her liberal and humanitarian sympathies are obvious. In 2013, she began a series of visits to the historically contested, troubled borders in the northern reaches of the South Asian subcontinent where India and Pakistan face each other or their other neighbors. These are the Durand Line, dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan; the former India-Pakistan border, now in two segments, India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh; the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China; and the India-Myanmar border. The areas they cover are vast, their geographies varied and often difficult to traverse, and they are also dangerous because they are occupied by armies poised for war. India, China, and Pakistan all possess nuclear weapons. It took the author several journeys over seven years to cover these border areas; this book is a compilation of her observations, interviews, and feelings — sometimes of sheer horror — at what she observed.

Not everywhere did she meet obliging interview subjects, not anywhere was easy. What she came across was often shocking and outrageous, at times comic if not also tragic: lives hopeless and shattered, endless suffering among people who are, to speak in abstract terms, the victims of history but actually of the callous and ignorant decisions of politicians, bigots, bureaucrats, presidents, generals, and prime ministers in distant centers of power. We meet American military personnel, Indian border patrols, exiles, refugees, and simple folk upon whose lives an international border fell like an axe. (The absurdity of this border situation is beautifully captured in a 1955 story by the Indian Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto, “Toba Tek Singh,” in which a decision is made to exchange the inmates of the two countries’ mental asylums.)

The Indo-Bangladesh border is the eastern section of the line drawn by a commission chaired by the British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to India before. This is where, armed with a permit obtained in Calcutta, often accompanied by border guards, Vijayan meets, observes, and interviews the real victims of that pen, which draws her ire as she goes from place to place listening to their stories.

The border — partly fenced, mostly porous — cuts through rivers, seasonal chars, and hilly terrain. It crosses backyards, pastures, and ponds. For some, simply moving from one part of your home to another means crossing an international border.


People survive from day to day, at the very edge of existence and at the mercy of the border guards, most of whom are barely beyond their teens and from the south of India; they don’t speak the local language, have no knowledge of the history that brought about the division, discern local people only as Muslims or Hindus, and in their idle moments stare longingly at actress’s photos on their phones. They cannot understand the impropriety of shooting down a sixteen-year-old girl trying to climb a fence.


Villagers live among smugglers, pimps, and criminals, often provide safe havens for Bangladeshis crossing over, and sometimes turn a blind eye to women and children being trafficked.

Perhaps the most pathetic character she meets is a man called Ali. He lives in a village inside a stretch of no-man’s-land between the actual agreed-upon border and a fence constructed 150 yards away by the Indian government in 2007. Most of the village that once thrived there is empty and covered by floodlights in the evenings. Ali decided to stay (“The border runs through him,” says a friend), and because the lights distracted him to the point of madness — panic attacks, paranoia, nightmares — he has shut himself away in his house with boarded windows so that no lights can get through.

Ali had a wife whom he married through a series of networks a few years before the fence went up. His wife, “K,” was then 16 years old. Convinced by a tout that she could easily smuggle goods back and forth while visiting her family (cough syrups one way, fake Reebok shoes the other), she started doing just that. One morning she returned home with bruises. She had been caught. It was evident that she had been raped, and as a result, she became the scorn of the village. Worse than that, the police harassed her, and men came to ask for sexual favors. And so she smuggled herself back to Bangladesh. When the author meets Ali, he had not seen his wife for a number of years. When he last heard from her, she was working at a garment factory in Dhaka. “In 2018, Ali was reported missing and was not found. His story could have been composed by Manto.”

To the north stretches the India-China border, in its broad sense called the Line of Actual Control (LAC); it includes two disputed areas. From her tour of the Bangladesh border, Vijayan proceeded by hired car to Tawang (approximate altitude 10,000 feet), on the eastern edge of the LAC. A site of the 1962 war between the two countries and still disputed, this once pristine mountain terrain is now a heavily militarized zone, with a suspicious civil administration, where the people she meets are preselected for her and speak in rehearsed soundbites that conform to the official Indian story. There are many shrines here to fallen Indian soldiers performing heroic deeds, such as single-handedly fighting off Chinese troops. Most of these stories, says the author, have no basis in fact. As many of us know, they were the stuff of Bollywood, before Pakistani-inspired terrorism took over as favorite subject.

In the Indian-mainland imagination, Tawang remains an untamed frontier, with stunning landscapes emptied of people and their history. There is very little understanding or consideration about how many lives have been remade by the escalating military presence and territorial disputes. Local histories of protest, discontent over development projects, and concern over the destruction of sacred lands, loss of local languages, oral histories, and traditions seldom make it to the news.

The 1,020-mile unfenced India-Myanmar border, another inheritance from British rule, has been disputed by the indigenous people of the region. “It was here,” says the author, “that I first heard people tell me definitely that they are not part of India, and that they are waging an everyday war to protect what is left of their identity, dignity, and history.” This northeastern region consists of eight little states in the shadow of the Himalayas — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura — all huddled together against the giant neighbor. Like border regions elsewhere, it functions as a buffer against invasions, bearing the brunt of military occupation and flooded with official propaganda. During World War II, Japanese troops occupied Burma (Myanmar). From April 4 to June 22, 1944, a bloody battle took place in the area around Kohima, the present capital of Nagaland. It has been called “the Stalingrad of the East” and “Britain’s Greatest Battle”; therefore, one can imagine the carnage and the toll on the local population. The British army, of course, included Indian conscripts, and the Japanese brought with them a contingent of the Indian National Army, which had been set up in exile to fight the British Raj. Here, the surviving older folk of the region can still recall the aerial bombings, the shootings, the reprisals, the bodies in the streets. A pristine war cemetery exists here, with 1,420 graves of soldiers from many nationalities. The Nagas, however, were buried elsewhere, often anonymously.

Soon after the war, the Naga National Council was formed, calling for Naga sovereignty, and a little later its armed wing emerged. The Naga Insurgency against Indian rule has been bloody, with reports of mass murder and rapes by the Indian army. (Similar charges have been laid in Kashmir.) Gravestones across the land remember victims of the insurgency, when and how they were killed. One says, unequivocally, “ZASIBITUO NAGA / ZOTSHUMA VILLAGE / A NATIONAL LEADER / DIED IN THE FREEDOM STRUGGLE / OF THE NAGA INDEPENDENCE / MURDERED BY INDIAN / ON SATURDAY 18TH OCT. 1952 / AT 10:30 AM / 28.4.1953.” Another says simply, “India killed my son.”

Observes the author, “Indian counterinsurgency practices often meant that the bodies of Naga fighters were deliberately left to rot.” Often the army refused to hand over dead bodies to the family. Every family has lost someone, and a history of violence and death is normal. Communities and families have been devastated. “We think it is normal. […] What do we talk about after sundown with our neighbors? Exchange notes on our dead — my family lost three, yours lost four. In these cases, one is left to nothing but regret.” In 1963, the state of Nagaland within the Indian federation was inaugurated. Since then, however, violence has continued, and “Nagaland remains one of India’s most highly policed states, and the army maintains a permanent presence and surveillance to control all local factions.”

At the opposite, northwestern extremity of the subcontinent is another heavily militarized zone. The Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan was mapped in 1895–’96 to create a buffer state between Tsarist Russia’s expansionist ambitions and British India. The local Pashtun population was thereby split between the two territories. Today, Pakistan recognizes this inherited border, but the Pashtuns do not. The entire region behind this artificial line is a frontier where these and more recent competing interests have met: Russian and British, Soviet, American, and Pakistani, with the Afghans prompted to fight on one side or another, through bribes or because of sheer resentment or religious sentiments. We do not need to be told of the immense suffering in the region; we have seen it in the news. In the last decade, in addition to massive bombings in its “War on Terror,” the US has conducted thousands of drone strikes, killing many civilians.

Here the author’s sojourn is brief; this is not a territory friendly to curious young women with notebook and camera, however sympathetic. She visits the Sar Hawza district, the site of an American military base, meets the Afghan Local Police (ALP) commander Mahmud, and is taken to a celebration of ALP cadets. The ALP consists essentially of local men and boys recruited by force or enticements to fight the Taliban at the behest of the Americans. Says Mahmud, “We take orders from an emperor who is a stranger to us. […] We have been sending boys to die to defend a line that doesn’t exist. Sometimes they become cheaper than Kabulis [chickpeas], but orders are orders.” This outburst prompts the author to ask: “If Commander Mahmud were born on the other side of the Durand Line — a stroke of ink drawn by the departing empire but never truly marked on the ground — would the men he killed and the wars he fought be different?” Probably. One of the fighters under his command is “a boy of barely thirteen who was wearing body armor with ammunition and holding a bag of M&M’s.” That boy, whom she saw in the winter, did not survive the following spring, as she later finds out.

Suchitra Vijayan seeks out misery spots like a magnet, but with a sympathetic eye. In Assam, she visits a town called Nellie, the site of a 1983 massacre of Muslims, in which somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people were butchered. Muslims are considered foreigners even if they have lived in the area for generations. Memories of the massacre are still fresh: people recall what they saw, whom they lost, how they survived — sometimes under the weight of corpses.

Around eight in the morning, mobs of a few hundred men from outside the village gathered and started torching the houses. As the fire spread, people started running. When they poured into the streets, guns and machetes confronted them. The mob […] was made up of local Tiwa tribals, Hindu Bengalis, and local Assamese.

Nobody cared. All that remains is memory, and the ritual gathering on the day of the anniversary to remember the dead.

Elsewhere, closer to the Myanmar border, the victims and the displaced are the Rohingya Muslims, officially declared noncitizens by their government unless they can provide evidence of their residency from before 1823. Few people anywhere can do that. Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority country. The irony is that Buddhist immigrants into Canada can claim citizenship in five years and would protest if denied equal rights. The discrimination and atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar — given white cards to identify them, subject to pogroms and deportations, taken to work camps — easily compare with those of the Nazis. According to the Citizenship Amendment Act of India, passed in 2019, refugees from Myanmar and other places have a path to Indian citizenship — unless they are Muslims. Bangladesh meanwhile has recently shipped off some 10,000 Rohingya refugees to a little island.

Kashmir is a sore wound on the South Asian body, the site of contention between India, Pakistan, and China. An informal Line of Control (LOC) exists between the first two of these nations, across which skirmishes are a continuing phenomenon. Kashmir is an emotional issue; it is the psychological landscape upon which India and Pakistan vent their mutual hatred. (Soldiers killed at the LOC are referred to by both sides as “martyrs.”) Insurgency is ongoing, and various militant groups are aided by Pakistan, which explains the huge Indian military presence on its side — numbering up to 600,000 soldiers, according to some estimates. Arundhati Roy has written passionately about abuses there, but of course she is reviled in official Indian quarters. Information is controlled, and what one wants to believe is dependent on one’s political inclinations. Vijayan is an Indian whose inclinations are obvious. She tells of rape and abuse, killings, torture, and kidnapping, which have also been recorded by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders. According to a 2006 report on the latter’s website,

Sexual violence is a common strategy used to terrorise and intimidate people in conflict, but in Kashmir it is an issue that is not openly discussed. Nevertheless, 11.6% of interviewees said they had been victims of sexual violence since 1989. Almost two-thirds of the people interviewed (63.9%) had heard over a similar period about cases of rape, while one in seven had witnessed rape.

“In the villages,” says the author as she travels along the border, “these stories [of abuse] functioned as an address. […] Families identified less with their door numbers, or street names, than with the names of loved ones who had disappeared, or died brutally under the Indian military presence.”

Midnight’s Borders is an important book, a journey of self-discovery by an Indian who, like many, grew up unaware of the complexities and sufferings at the edges of a nation whose glory was celebrated every morning at school assembly. It is, furthermore, a record of our times and a reminder, to those of us spoiled by the comforts of our self-exiled lives in the West, about those of our fellow beings who have become the debris of callous geopolitical shifts, whose hopes for even a safe, painless tomorrow are so precarious.

Based on several journeys taken over seven years in disparate regions, this was admittedly a difficult book to put together. So, bravo. Still, some quibbles. It would have been a much better book with more scrupulous editing. At places it bears the signs of hasty organizing; sometimes we don’t know why one town was picked to visit and not another. And for a book about borders, surely maps are essential. But the two maps of India that are presented here are outdated, from Raj times; one of them is barely readable. A map of the northeast in particular is sorely needed. Is the reader expected to keep online sources open to follow this intrepid traveler as she hops about? (I used Wikipedia and Google Maps.) Some of the quotes in the epigraphs are gratuitous. And surely “My Ishmael,” at the head of the prologue, is doubly appropriative. What Afghan says his name that way?


MG Vassanji was born and raised in East Africa. He is twice winner of the Giller Prize for fiction in Canada, and winner of the Governor General’s prize for nonfiction for his travel memoir, A Place Within: Rediscovering India (2008). His most recent novel is A Delhi Obsession (2019). A collection of stories, What We Are, appeared in May 2021.

LARB Contributor

MG Vassanji was born and raised in East Africa. He is twice winner of the Giller Prize for fiction in Canada, and winner of the Governor General’s prize for nonfiction for his travel memoir A Place Within: Rediscovering India (2008). His most recent novel is A Delhi Obsession (2019). A collection of stories, What We Are, appeared in May 2021. (Photograph by Mark Reynes.)


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