The Lead | Books

The anxiety of incompleteness: An extract from Sanjib Baruah’s ‘In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast’

An Assamese villager heads home for the day as BSF personnel keep watch on the Indo-Bangladesh border.

An Assamese villager heads home for the day as BSF personnel keep watch on the Indo-Bangladesh border.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

With anti-CAA protests taking on dramatically different dimensions in the Northeast, Sanjib Baruah’s new book, ‘In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast’, is a timely entry. This extract from the book looks at the fallout of Partition in the region and the ongoing solidification of porous borders

India’s Partition was not the inevitable culmination of struggles by generations of anticolonialists. Nor was it a conclusive one-time event. The decision to formally and constitutionally divide British-ruled India was made only ten weeks before the actual transfer of power on August 15, 1947. What it would mean for ordinary people, as historian Gyanendra Pandey notes, could only be worked out “step-by-step in 1947-48 and afterwards.” When violence between Hindus and Muslims forced people to move across the new international border, “it was not always obvious to them or to the new states that they would not go back.” A person displaced by Partition told an interviewer many years later that she, like many others, did not expect the division of territories to be forever.... Seen from this perspective, it was perhaps inevitable that despite the insertion of an international border and the introduction of an illegality regime, the flow of people crossing into India would continue well beyond the immediate years of Partition. That Partition generated a massive new flow of Hindus into India is well known. What is less well-known — and contrary to the expectations of the architects of Partition — is that it did not stop an old pattern of migration from densely populated deltaic eastern Bengal into relatively sparsely populated Northeast India: that of poor Muslim peasants in search of land and livelihoods.

The legal status of migrants from across the border remains a controversial issue in India... Hindu Partition refugees do not generally occupy a minoritized space in most parts of India. It is relatively easy for them to integrate into local society... But in Northeast India, the challenge has played out very differently for two reasons. First, both migration from eastern Bengal and opposition to it in this settlement frontier began well before 1947. Second, there is the “forgotten story of India’s Partition” — that of the district of Sylhet. This region — a part of Bangladesh today — was a district of the province of Assam before it became a part of East Pakistan in 1947. The status of this Bengali-speaking region was a controversial issue in the politics of colonial Assam. Assamese Hindu political leaders of the Indian National Congress advocated its separation from Assam well before Partition. In some Sylheti Hindu Partition refugee narratives, they bear more responsibility for Sylhet becoming a part of Pakistan than even Muslim League politicians that fought for a separate Pakistan. A significant segment of Northeast India’s population bears the burden of the intergenerational trauma and memories of the partitioned geography of Sylhet. Not surprisingly, there is among them a very different view of this history — and its implications for post-Partition India — from that in the rest of Northeast India.


Since India’s “identification revolution” — the greatly enhanced ability of the modern state “to individually designate its own nationals so as to legally differentiate between citizens and aliens present on its territory” — remains a work in progress; estimating the number of irregular migrants crossing the Partition border into Assam is a highly fraught exercise... All available estimates are extrapolations from census figures and electoral rolls, and they are intensely contested.


The steps to put India’s identification revolution on a fast track, to harden the Indo-Bangladesh border, and to securitise immigration and border control may or may not achieve their avowed goals. But their effects are likely to be significant and far-reaching... The efforts to toughen the illegality regime governing the Partition border along with the trends toward a majoritarian bias in Indian citizenship laws do not bode well for the future. One reason why their effects can be especially pernicious in this frontier region is that many settlers and their descendants... live in and cultivate “forest lands,” “grazing lands,” and various kinds of public lands. These land-use designations are no more than legal fictions in many parts of Assam. To assume that they are solid facts on the ground can further dispossess some of the world’s most disenfranchised people.


India’s Border Security Force has proposed “Wagah-like shows” to promote “border tourism” in Northeast India. Wagah is a town on the India-Pakistan border where Indian and Pakistani soldiers participate in a flag-lowering ceremony, where they ritually enact their hostility toward each other. The performance underscores — and exaggerates — the lines drawn by Partition. There are no Wagah-like performances on the Partition’s eastern border partly because the two borders are not alike. The more or less complete “exchange of population” that occurred in Punjab during Partition — and the extraordinary brutality that went with it — has no exact parallel in the East. Decisions on whether or not to move to the other side were not all made in 1947. The process has been open-ended. But the situation is now changing. The Border Security Force is not alone in seeking a rigorously policed Indo-Bangladesh border. Many in India would like to see the post-Partition Indian state become a “normal sovereign state” with normal borders and mandatory state-issued identity documents being required for entering the country and for exercising voting rights. After all, the “wish for well-defined, fixed boundaries” that comes out of the 19th idea of “exclusive and uncontested territorial state power” remains part of the dominant global political imaginary: the national order of things. Ernest Gellner had famously compared it with Amedeo Modigliani’s paintings, where “neat flat surfaces are clearly separated from each other” and “there is little if any ambiguity or overlap.” He contrasted it with the “riot of diverse points of colour” in the impressionist canvases of Oskar Kokoschka: his metaphor for the world before nations... If there is a desire to see a Kokoschka to Modigliani type of transformation of the Partition’s eastern border, the managers of the Indian state can hardly afford to ignore it. But whether they can gratify it is another matter.

The nation-state walls and fences being built today and the greater policing of international borders all across the world are symptoms of the crisis of the nation-state system. These “mundane arrangements, most of them unknown two hundred or even one hundred years ago,” as political theorist Timothy Mitchell reminds us, “help manufacture an almost transcendental entity, the nation state.” The Indo-Bangladesh border fence, after all, is not meant to stand as a fortification against an invading army — India and Bangladesh are friendly countries — but to protect against nonstate transnational actors: cross-border migrants and “Jihadi terrorists”. The capacity of states to control the flow of goods and people across borders is eroding worldwide. In many parts of the world, states had never fully developed that capacity. If at least in some parts of the world the nation-state had once monopolized loyalty, “transnational mobile practices” now point to the significant erosion of that capacity. And postcolonial states like India can only strive for that kind of monopoly; they have never actually enjoyed it — as reflected, among other things, in the lateness of the identification revolution fitfully taking place now. The impossible desire for walled sovereignty in the world today reflects the desire to become a “normal state” or to remain one. Dealing with this increasing “anxiety of incompleteness” will be a major challenge for India in coming years.

Extracted from the book published by Stanford University Press.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 3:49:50 PM |

Next Story