Books | Suchitra Vijayan, author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India

The Question I Ask in the Book is “What Function Does a Nation Still Perform if it Has Consistently Failed to Offer the Most Basic of Human Dignity to its People?”

Suchitra Vijayan

Given that you have been working with international refugees, how did you think of writing on people dislocated by borders in the Indian sub-continent, South Asia, to be more accurate?

Forced migration and the refugee crisis are inexplicably liked to the nation-state, exercise of violence in the name of territorial sovereignty and its borders.

The thread that runs through my work is a mediation on citizenship, what it means to be free and resist. We cannot overlook the link between the often violent creation, occupation, and maintenance of borders and the production of refugee movements, statelessness, or manufacturing subjects stripped of citizenship rights.

When I decided to travel to India’s borders, I had just returned from Afghanistan—a place I had known and wanted to study for a long time. It took me another 10 years to get to Afghanistan, and in the intervening decade, I lived in occupied lands and war zones. 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 lived in Cairo the year leading up to the Arab Spring. There, I ran the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in 2008 to provide resources for the more than 5,000 Iraqi families who fled the invasion of Iraq. Amidst the fear of being shut down and regular visits from the Mukhabarat, the Egyptian intelligence services, we served close to 600 Iraqi families.

Whether it was the testimonies I have read from Rwanda and Bosnia or the stories Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese, and Eritrean clients told me as I prepared their legal petitions, what became clear was this—political borders were unravelling across the world. While I struggled with these questions for years, it was in Afghanistan, while researching counter-insurgency practices along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that the ideas, stories, arguments, and images I had gathered over the years came together as a plan to explore these questions back home in India.


When you started on this journey, how much of your experience was a foregone conclusion and how much was a revelation even to a person with your background?

For me, writing has always been a way to make sense of the world. I write because I am curious. I write to learn. In the book, I say that the book is ‘a return home. …after being away for more than a decade, I was coming back to a place I no longer recognised.’ I didn’t want this to be a fool’s errand. When I decided to start work on this book, I spent over six months reading everything I could. The bibliography I kept at that time has 113 books and another 150 essays. But even those six months of research, saving money, and plotting did not prepare me for the task ahead. I knew the nature of the endemic state violence, and I knew that discontent was pervasive. But what I saw was an India transforming before me into a Hindu Rashtra. I started traveling in India in 2013, and the book ends with the NRC protests. The years I travelled were also the years that India was remade in ways no one would have predicted.


Midnight’s BorderNational borders are integral to the modern nation-state. Is it at all possible that in a region like ours, they become flexible ideas accommodating human concerns instead of hard lines?

We need to think about this question another way. It is no longer whether borders are integral to nation-states. The question to ask is what function do these nation-states perform? Who does the state serve? But above all, can we find new political futures and imaginations that guarantee the dignity of all people.

Political borders were unravelling across the world. We live in an age of a great crisis of citizenship and belonging. The question I ask in the book is this — ‘What function does a nation still perform if it has consistently failed to offer the most basic of human dignity to its people?’ Democracies are crumbling within nation-states. This book’s stories are also a point of departure to ask if we can envision a new world radically remade by freedom and justice.


You have not dwelled much on the India-China border (LAC), the scene of the current crisis, which has the potential of plunging the region into a trilateral conflict involving India-China-Pakistan. What is the reason for that?

There is a chapter on LAC, and it focuses on historical myopia that accompanies any conversation about the region, especially in India. While Indian national history obsesses over the 1962 war with China, it rarely remembers the earlier events that ultimately set the stage for the crisis to come a decade later. It looks at local resistance to growing militarization, what it means to guard these contentious spaces, and failure to centre people’s lives when decisions are being made in Beijing or Delhi.


The India-Pakistan conversation on Kashmir (2005-2007) dwelled on converting the Line of Control into a soft border. Can this still be a way forward for peace?

There will be no way forward without centring the voices and aspirations of Kashmiris, without demilitarising the region, and more importantly, holding the Indian state accountable for its ongoing violence. What we see today is a full-blown settler-colonial project. By its very nature, such projects are not about peace; they are about using violence to subjugate a population. Let us not forget that over eight million Kashmiris remain violently silenced, with a legal and judicial architecture that upholds impunity. Peace can never happen in the absence of freedom, justice, and dignity.




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