Can the lines that divide two countries create a break between the people and their shared past? Suchitra Vijayan documents the lives of those living along India’s borders.
Commander Mahmud had previously fought against the Soviets, the Taliban and a few others he called traitors. His stories changed a little every time he narrated them to me. He was a creature of a ruptured society, which required certain murkiness of character and malleability of beliefs to negotiate alliances and friendships with an unlikely spectrum of characters. In his new role he would recruit, train and command the Afghan Local Police. Created at the behest of and funded by the Americans, the ALP was a policy designed to “secure local communities and prevent rural areas from infiltration of insurgent groups.”
It was the very young, the poor, the orphaned, the uneducated and the disenfranchised who were regularly conscripted and forced to fight under threat of violence. One of the cadets, who looked no older than 15, said he regularly crossed into Pakistan to see his family and moved there every winter in search of employment. “My maternal cousin joined the Taliban”, he said. “They pay well for doing nothing. He had the gun first.” Pointing to his gun he said, “These guns are not bad, either”.
Young boys were being prepared for slaughter; the accidental recruit was meant to fight the accidental guerrilla across the border. The US sergeant in Sar Howza, brushed it off saying “It is an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem”. I repeated this to Commander Mahmud and he responded with silence.
The day I left Sar Howza, the commander prepared a grand meal of goat and rice, and sent me away with words that betrayed his appearance. “Memory is a funny thing. It differs from the history you came here with.”
On the road back to Kabul and for the next two years I thought about the palpability of an arbitrary border and what it did to people. A border might create two distinct nationalities out of the same stock, but can it create a break with people and their past? The territory that divides the citizen and the alien is messy. Yet these lines are imperative for the politics of statehood and statelessness, who belongs and who is excluded. It separates us from them; it creates hierarchy and order; it consolidates and defines.
With the Partition, something unique, unprecedented and disorienting happened in the subcontinent. The clarifying violence at the moment of creation made the borders palpable, political and personal. Contested borders, territorial disputes, population transfers, communal strife, sectarian violence, self-determination movements have happened within the territory of the state. All these events remain traditionally described within the clinical framework of historical cause and consequence that discounts the haemorrhage; that bleed into each other. I instead stand with Thomas Carlyle when he says, “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” These biographies are the finer details that don’t fall into delineated categories of cause and consequence.
Sitting in his backyard, Gazi, an Indian, said, “The Partition did not just happen; the war did not just happen. It is unfinished and ongoing.” His backyard was also home to one of India’s border pillars with Bangladesh. The backyard opens into a river, through a narrow passage that acts as the riverine border between the two countries. As we walk by the river, I see people from both sides crossing regularly. “Yes, it happens” he says. “How do you cut a river into two”? Like thousands who live along this densely populated border, he has family just a few metres away in another country. Gazi’s grandmother was born when there was no border, just British India. A few years into her life, she became a citizen of Pakistan. One of her sons was in India. East Pakistan then became Bangladesh; then came the border pillars and more treaties. Gazi was born into a farming village with porous land and riverine border. Throughout his adolescence he witnessed ubiquitous BSF camps mushroom along the farmlands, barbed wire fences being erected, floodlights being installed, and a visible militarisation of the border. Fencing and floodlights, accompanied by aggressive and violent state intervention, are now rapidly transforming a once porous border. Fencing petitions a powerful logic through narratives around illegal migration, national security, counterinsurgency and illegal trade that is difficult to contest. Yet, this logic is regularly betrayed by the dailiness of it all. People like Gazi continue to transgress and subvert the border. It has not stopped migration, illicit trade, or secured the border. Instead, it has increased social and personal cost of the crossings.
Felani Khatun and her family, like millions before her, crossed over into India illegally a few years ago. Felani’s father Nurul Islam was taking her back to Bangladesh to have her married. They were crossing the border illegally at night by climbing over the barbed wire fence in Anantapur, Fulbari. It was widely reported that Felani’s clothes got caught in the barbed wire and she screamed in panic. BSF constable Ghosh fired at her, wounding her fatally. What followed were multiple repetitions and versions, with the most gruesome being that Felani struggled to stay alive for four hours, begging for water before dying.
A year later, I travelled through the region and asked various BSF guards and officers along the Bengal frontier about the killing of Felani. Most of them had never heard of this incident; almost all BSF personnel responded in abstractions or replied with questions. The afterthought was unhappiness about India’s new policy of restraints and how it was impossible to protect the borders without coercive force. “These women cross illegally and cry rape; they smuggle goods inside their purdah …Some are Indians only in name; all of them have relatives in Bangladesh. Family means more than the lines,” said another young officer in Amudiya, who went on to show a video in his phone, where his team had apprehended two women smuggling in Nike shoes. The more time I spent with the BSF guards, the more they reminded me of the young recruits I met in the remote borders of Afghanistan.
By the time I returned, Felani’s trial had had its day in the General Security Courts set up by the BSF. Constable Ghosh was charged and acquitted of culpable homicide. Evidence against him was deemed “inconclusive and insufficient”. Constable Ghosh and thousands like him are responsible for the preservation of the State’s rights in these exceptional places, where they are vested with the power to make unilateral decisions over life and death, without being accountable to the law. They are not evil, wicked, sadistic or vile; yet they are terrifying in that, with all this power, they are trained to act, not think. The BSF border guards are ingrained through training and constant reinforcement that the borderlands are “a different space, a contentious space” where order must be established through force. Here exceptional acts of coercion and violence are the new normal. The most clinical and pathological argument in defence of killing was: “Since Felani and many others like her were illegally transgressing into Indian territory — often at night, paying touts and traffickers — they were ‘not innocent’, but ‘legitimate targets’.” Felani’s death and other deaths over the border is a face to a much larger politics of State of Exception that transforms identity, migration and militarisation of territory into issues of national security.
“There is no end to the ideology of difference,” said Pakistani political scientist and writer Eqbal Ahmed. Yet along the borders people are regularly turned into religious and cultural categories. Bengali becomes differentiated into Hindu Bengali and Muslim Bengali. Within Muslims, the categories are locals and Bangladeshi. While turning people into categories is accomplished easily on paper and policy, in practice how do you differentiate local Muslims and the Muslims from Bangladesh who speak the same language, follow the same customs, and are part of the same cultural composite? When I asked a BSF guard in Taki, he acknowledged that it was hard. “They all look the same, speak the same.” Then “that it is why we need to keep a closer watch”. Here suspicion and surveillance go hand in hand.
A BSF document produced earlier this year describes the border population’s characteristics. Key attributes include, “Predominantly Muslim”, “Illiteracy, backwardness and poverty”, “Inclination of youth towards easy money”, “Hostile towards the forces”. An officer at Petrapole remarked, “They don’t drink, so they use cough syrup.” It is tacitly implied that people’s behaviour can be predicted based on their religion, and socially deviant behaviour is a residue of one’s religious and cultural beliefs. Stereotypical depiction of an entire group of people as shiftless and inclined to criminal behaviour sustains the idea that the populations they secure is fundamentally different and demand such treatment. Complex and nuanced accounts regularly become esoteric reductions and representation of whole groups of people, their history, memory and boundaries. Obligation towards ‘individual truth’ is regularly and systematically undermined in these edges. Truth is neither altered nor silenced, instead setting limits to it, has become the greatest weapon against resistance.
Nietzsche once noted that only that which has no history can be defined. And yet the discourse of nationalism is aimed at creating foundational myths about a Nation’s beginning, defining the people, its conflicts and its aggressors. While defining the “problematic other”, the state always casts them as actors in the discourse of conflict, stripped of history and agency. “A nation is bound not only by the real past, but the stories it tells itself, by what it remembers, and what it forgets,” said Colin Thubron. We are at a time when we have not earned the right to forget the past, yet around us is a vigorous effort to prematurely rewrite a singular history that is fraught with multiple, competing narratives of memory.
Borderlands Project is Suchitra Vijayan’s 9,000-mile journey through India's borders to understand the human dimension of political borders. The project is conceived as a travelogue chronicling stories along India’s border with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Burma. Partly visual anthropology and partly an attempt at understanding the Indian state, and the fringes it governs.