Interview with Suchitra Vijayan

Suchitra Vijayan is a researcher and author of Midnight’s Borders; A People’s History of Modern India’. In this interview, she speaks on her book, Indian and international refugee policy, and the ethics of representation when documenting the stories of minority communities.

This interview was conducted over an audio call and edited for length and clarity.

Anna Kallivayalil: Starting with the book’s title, ‘Midnight’s Borders’. What was the thought behind the name of the book? Does it bear any similarity with the use of ‘midnight’ featured in Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘A Tryst with Destiny’?

Suchitra Vijayan: It was a challenging book for us to name. We chose the title from the ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech. We were also wary that there existed another book, ‘Midnight’s Children’. By giving the book the name ‘midnight’, we did not want to indicate that it was derivative or reflected the same politics as Nehru’s speech or the Rushdian novel.

At the same time, we decided to keep the name to genuinely understand what ‘midnight’ meant and, in some ways, change that meaning. So, yes, the title is undoubtedly derived from Nehru’s speech. But the book is positively critical of the Nehruvian nation-state that has played out into what we see today.

AK: Taking off from that, the Nehruvian (and essentially, the mainland) understanding of the nation-state is that the Partition was a one-day, open and shut case that happened on the midnight of 15th August 1947. But as you’ve pointed out in the book, people from the border contest this popular belief, proving that they are still reeling from the effects of Partition. Another misconception that you’ve pointed out in the book is the idea that India’s borders are solid, where you’ve written about how porous the borders can be, especially the Indo-Bangladesh border. Could you tell us a little bit more about this observation?

SV: The’ Partition’ was a process that started much before 1947 and continues today. There is a violent history behind the Partition. The date of Partition is decisive of when and how the story gets told. We consistently focus on the date of the Partition itself to think about a historical moment that played out differently for many people.

If you see the patterns of Partition and migration patterns, the patterns of migration start much before 1947 and continue to happen today. I don’t think we understand how those who lived during the Partition saw the sub-continent. When I spoke to people in their 80s and 90s, their idea of a border was not the idea of a border that we have today. They had a completely different view of the sub-continent. For them, the idea of a border was alien. They only understood that there would be two different homelands, a Muslim homeland with the name Pakistan and a more secular homeland named India. Thus, the idea of borders was very different from what they are today. People would not recognise the heavily militarised borders of today. The idea of citizenship and belonging have also changed dramatically.

People had also left during the Partition, hoping to come back after things had settled down. However, some people left their homes due to untenable living conditions. This also sheds light on how people thought about the Partition and its resultant borders.

Thus, Partition is very much ongoing. The protests against the CAA/NRC continued the conversation about India’s citizens. Therefore, we should be mindful of when and where we start writing the history of Partition and its stories.

AK: When the legislature continues to believe that borders are solid, and when laws are built around that assumption, what are the possible ramifications that could arise from such an assumption?

SV: The CAA/NRC undoes the secular idea of citizenship in the founding documents of the Indian Constitution. It is really interesting to think about citizenship and minority rights. For long, the language of minority rights within the legal framework has been framed as the tool to protect vulnerable, marginalised and often historically oppressed groups.

This language arrives through the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide intended to protect minorities from the threat of annihilation. This language used within the Indian Constitution similarly fails to address equality and liberty adequately. The framework designed to protect a group from persecution itself cannot achieve the ends of equal citizenship. 

Even when you start with ideas of citizenship, it is crucial to understand that the ‘founding fathers’, so to say, had differing ideas of citizenship. The Constituent Assembly Debates show a sense of richness in terms of the word ‘citizenship’. Invariably, all questions revolving around citizenship do not focus on the nation-state. Instead, they focus on what it means for India to be a secular republic. Thus, as it was initially conceptualised in India, citizenship is very closely linked to the idea of secularism. Extending secularism to citizenship makes the Indian Constitution a phenomenal and revolutionary Constitution.

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. Laws like UAPA and sedition laws are primarily used against the country’s minority and dissenting communities.

While the Constitutional ideas of secularism informed the initial ideas of citizenship, that was not what played out on the ground even back then. The Hindu majority always had an advantage over other communities. Things that the Hindu majority got to take for granted were not things that other communities got to take for granted. Seervai, in his book, ‘Partition of India: Legend and Reality, talks about how Jinnah wanted parity, not Pakistan, first. The idea of parity was not enshrined in the Constitution, even if it enshrined secularism. Implementation issues aside, the Constitution had a secular notion of citizenship in its original form. Citizenship cannot be ethno-nationalist citizenship. The Constitution did not envisage citizenship to be of an ethno-nationalist model. The ethno-nationalist model mandates citizenship to be linked to a shared ethnic identity, or in the case of India, religious identity. Hindu religion is seen as the basis of the republic, making it a Hindu nation and shared political, cultural, historical or even legal histories of belonging no longer matter. Here, Nationalism is inherited through the ancestry of being Hindu.

There is also a very interesting question posed to Nehru, where he was asked, ‘who becomes an Indian citizen?’ Nehru responded that whoever wants to be an Indian citizen can become an Indian citizen. Anybody who wants to belong to this land can become a citizen. This statement reflects a secular idea of citizenship and is very different from the modern idea of citizenship today. The secular model of citizenship never translated on the ground, but it was still theoretically an ideal approach to citizenship. The CAA/NRC and a series of other laws are ways in which the citizenship model has moved from the ideal secular model to the ethno-nationalist model.

It is now unabashedly clear who the state thinks are the real citizens of India. To be a citizen, you need to have specific ethno-nationalist characteristics. One of the ethno-nationalist characteristics is being a Hindu. This is a significant shift from the secularist idea of citizenship to the current ethno-nationalist model.

AK: I’d like to mention here that you had founded the Resettlement Aid Project, Cairo and worked with the project between 2008-2009. As someone who has worked with refugees previously, could you shed some light on Indian and international refugee and statelessness policy as it stands today?

SV: I worked as a legal director with the Resettlement Aid Project, and I worked there between 2008-2009. One of the fundamental things that became clear to me working there was that the refugee policies, the rules, the systems we have in place are deeply flawed. The current refugee laws and procedures were created in response to the Holocaust and World War II crises. Thus, they responded very specifically to a Europeanized Jewish population who had to be freed from near-extinction. So even back then, these laws were profoundly flawed and insufficient to respond to the crisis after the Holocaust. A lot of it felt like a band-aid remedy.

Over the years, we developed systems and institutions. But all these institutions were based on the fundamental belief that people fleeing violence or persecution have to provide footnotes and citations for their oppression. When we were preparing resettlement cases and refugee testimonies, the authorities only wanted to know about the refugee’s life and what forced them to leave. Even preparing that document where we had to tell their story, the footnotes and citations of their oppression that led them to leave, was a profoundly violent and inhuman process.

The violence that leads people to flee is often seen within a context that does not consider history’s deceit. In reality, many refugee crises happen ​because of the Cold War​ politics and posturing, imperial interventions, the ongoing geopolitics of the world. Yet, these crises are not recognised in refugee testimonies. Instead, we outsource these great acts of violence to the refugee’s responsibility. The person fleeing violence has to justify why they are fleeing violence.

Eventually, all this goes back to the question of citizenship and the erosion of citizenship rights within the idea of the nation-state. If you look at the UN Human Rights Charter, it says that every person has the right to a state. This is increasingly flawed because the state then becomes foundational or the source of your freedom. By this understanding, we derive our rights from a contract with the state, and not because ​freedom and dignity ​are inalienable. This is a fundamental flaw with how rights are constructed within the UN​ charter and various rights documents.

Another significant flaw in the Indian and international refugee policy is that it does not deal with the impending climate crisis. Climate change is going to fundamentally remake the borders of the world. We already have at least 20 million climate refugees. The laws as they stand today do not even begin to address those crises. Hence, it is a deeply flawed system. But these flaws come from structural and racial inequalities of the world, and we cannot divorce these structural flaws from the more significant crises.

AK: Coming back to the book, I found it very interesting that you had added pictures along with the writing. There’s a part in the introduction where you’ve explained why you decided to add pictures with the book, do you think the pictures enhance the particular stories in a way?

SV: When I started the book in 2012-2013, it began as a photography project. It was to be a predominantly visual project. That became impossible early on, and I realised that the visual medium would not be enough. I had to come up with a way to tell the stories as I saw them. The book in front of you results from someone trying to make sense of so many things. But the book is also lacking certain things that we could not add. For example, there are no maps in the book. Almost any community I spoke to had their version of the maps, but I could not include these maps in the book for legal reasons. Another critique I’ve heard from people is that we should have included the state maps. The maps that we have included are all pre-independence maps.

For many of these communities, the maps dictated by the state are inherently violent because they do not see themselves reflected in these maps. This is true of communities in Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, etc. In all these communities, the Indian nation-state depicts itself in its maps is not the way they see themselves.

We also had to remove​ some of the images from the book towards its end because they had the identifying features of the people photographed.

Further, the book was finalised before Ayodhya, the NRC, and the CAA. After these events, many of the people I interviewed no longer wanted to be a part of the book. There is no Gujarat chapter because people did not want to speak. Thus, the book in front of you is not complete. When you claim to write a book about people in the communities, and if they no longer want to be in the book, you should not put them in the book. It is not for us to decide whose stories are included in the book.

The book in front of you with some images, some maps, some poetry, is a reflection of the present. It is a reflection of the world we are in today. The book is not just a record of the stories told; it is also a testimony of untold stories that we couldn’t tell.

AK: Adding to that, in the introduction, you talk about the ethics of representation. You didn’t intend the book to “give voice to the voiceless”. The ethics of representation is a very sticky subject, and there’s a very fine line of difference between telling their stories and appropriating their stories, violating their privacy.

SV: It was not easy writing this book. We need to think about who gets to write about India and its people. I think it has always been the same people who tell the stories of India. It’s a particular kind of upper caste and upper-class men and women who continue to write books and tell the stories of people in India. This group of authors all belong to the same community, and their view of India is very similar. It is the same people who tell their idea of India, over and over again. Even with the growing Dalit representation, it is nowhere close to how the stories are told.

When I started writing the book, I had to be very clear about the privileges I had and where I was placed in the pool of people who get to tell these stories. For example, the fact that someone has a camera creates a certain unbridgeable distance between you and the person being photographed. So the very fact that I can do this puts me in a place of immense privilege.

A few years ago, there was not even this public acknowledgement of privilege. Now, admission of privilege is very performative. Acknowledging privilege does not improve the material realities of people on the ground. Privilege is something that all authors and persons who document others’ stories still need to be sensitive about, even if it is acknowledged.

There are specific improvements in the sense of who gets to tell people’s stories. A decade ago, I would not have been able to write this book. I did not come from a place of privilege, and I am, in some ways, an outsider. I very early on found out what cultural capital meant. If someone like me had to struggle to get the book published, imagine how hard it would be for someone who doesn’t have any of these privileges. The beginning is always acknowledging privilege. There is a considerable disparity between the actual realities on the ground and the social realities as we see written in books of India. Acknowledging privilege means acknowledging your complicity in everything you claim to fight through the book.

I was also very candid about the mistakes I made in the book. I am not infallible. It was essential to have a collaborative form of writing, which meant that I had to send back transcripts to the people I interviewed take out the interviews of people who no longer wished to be in the book. I was also particular about quoting the entire piece of what was said by the interviewee. Therefore, my contribution to the book was just analytical of these pieces of conversation. Another thing I was very particular about was being unabashedly critical of those in power, the structures that have led to such conditions. I would name the beast.

I wanted the book to ask some fundamental questions in a very public way. The ethics of representation is very murky. Power and privilege are always corrupt. How does that power then reflect when you write? A lot of that is introspection, the ability to say when you were wrong, admit to the mistakes made, and correct those mistakes.

AK: Reading your book had opened my eyes to so much that goes unreported in the mainstream media. Would you recommend young people to travel to the borders to learn more about their country or are there other ways in which we can be more aware?

SV: People need to start being more observant of their surroundings. I think that’s a crucial thing that we’ve lost over the years. We are not looking at the real world around us. To young people, I’d say speak to the people around you and make sense of what’s happening. That itself will take you a lot of time. I had spent a significant amount of time reading and trying to understand things around me before deciding that travelling to the border was necessary.

We also need to learn to hold the people in power accountable. It could be the government or any other source of injustice. Finally, be curious about the world in as many ways as possible. Engage with people even if they have a different viewpoint. After all this, we can even begin to start answering questions by travelling to the borders.

Travelling to the borders is a challenging and dangerous task; I find it hard to believe how I came back in one piece. However, travelling the way I did is not the only way to understand more. I think there are other ways, starting in our backyards.

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